Putting Freud to the Test

The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique

by Adolf Grünbaum
University of California Press, 310 pp., $16.95

Freud thought that he was the founder of a science. In one of his later papers, he wrote that psychoanalysis is “a part of the mental science of psychology.” But his detractors, a number of whom have lately mounted several sensational efforts to discredit his character, have contended that he did nothing of the kind. For some of them, he is at best a gifted writer whose eloquence concealed the defective reasoning behind his theories and who properly received the Goethe Prize for literature instead of the Nobel Prize for medicine.

But the question of whether psychoanalysis is a science is hardly clear. What is “science”? There seem to be so many kinds of science that it is difficult to extract a common characteristic that would qualify all of them as science. And what is “psychoanalysis”? A theory of mind? A therapy? A method of investigating mental disorder? In his new book, Adolf Grünbaum, a philosopher whose most important previous work concerned philosophical questions raised by the physics of space and time, tries to clarify this question and also to articulate what he calls the “logical foundations” of psychoanalysis. By this he means the logical relations between the hypotheses of the theory and the kinds of evidence that Freud and his followers thought could support the theory. Those familiar with Grünbaum’s work will expect a far more fastidious and exhaustive treatment of this subject than is to be found in previous philosophical studies.

Few philosophers have concentrated systematically on psychoanalysis, although there have been some distinguished exceptions, such as Sartre and, lately, Richard Wollheim. Karl Popper sought, some thirty years ago, to illustrate his model of science by showing psychoanalysis to be what he called a “nonscientific” theory. According to Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is “falsifiable.” By this he meant that the theory yields some predictions that are observable and could refute the theory if they failed to occur. Popper complained that Freudian theory is not falsifiable in this sense because anything a human being says or does is compatible with it; it can explain everything, and thus explains nothing. He also claimed that psychoanalysts were not especially concerned to test their theory critically, by which he meant that they did not try to falsify it. In 1962, in a forceful paper read at a symposium organized by Sidney Hook, the distinguished philosopher Ernest Nagel put forth a more complex view that also emphasized the unfalsifiability of many psychoanalytic hypotheses.

Grünbaum stands apart from this critical tradition. He wishes both to acknowledge Freud’s accomplishments as a scientific methodologist and to rebut Popper’s charges. But he also claims that Freud never succeeded in firmly grounding his theory in empirical findings. His book is a strangely organized, difficult work, unmistakably a string of scholarly articles to which vast accretions of evidence and afterthoughts have been added. It is written so much in reaction to the views of other philosophers and interpreters of Freud that …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Letters

Freud High and Low April 25, 1985

Freud’s Fate March 14, 1985