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Freud & His Defenders

In response to:

The Revenge of the Repressed: Part II from the December 1, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

I hadn’t been moved to protest Frederick Crews’s handling of psychoanalysis until his piece on the “recovery” movement [NYR, December 1, 1994], which mid-way turns into yet another occasion for him to criticize Freud’s theories about repression. This is not the basis of my quarrel, since I think Freud built a theory around a relatively homely notion of repression that has little to recommend it. I have in mind his views about “primary process,” a “system Unconscious” that works according to its own special laws, and “primary” (versus “secondary”) repression.

What moves me are, first, Crews’s extremely misleading picture of psychoanalysis (he never troubles to distinguish between Freud and psychoanalysis now, but it is the latter of which he presumably speaks); and then, related to that, his inaccurate account of Richard Wollheim’s and Thomas Nagel’s defense of Freud in these pages.

Crews lists what he calls “an important core of shared assumptions between psychoanalysis and its hyperactive young successor” (the “recovery” therapists). Of the ten assumptions he comes up with I’ll mention only the first two, since what is wrong with them suggests the sort of thing that is wrong with all the rest.

1. To become mentally healthy, we must vent our negative feelings and relive our most painful psychic experiences. The deeper we delve, and the harsher and more bitter the truths that we drag to the surface, the better off we will be.

2. Through the aid of an objective therapist in whom we invest authority, trust, and love, we can not only arrive at an accurate diagnosis of our mental problems but also retrieve the key elements of our mental history in substantially accurate form, uncontaminated by the therapist’s theoretical bias.”

Probably there are some psychoanalysts who believe these things, but I don’t know any. Even Freud thought some bitter truths best left in the dark. One of the marks distinguishing well-trained psychoanalysts (for Crews this must be an oxymoron) from “psychic healers” who are less well-trained and less responsible is the care the former take not to attack defenses that are perhaps better left in place. And a great many psychoanalysts have been so impressed by the currently fashionable denigration of objectivity that they have traded in the ideas of diagnosis and truth-telling for the idea of coherent narrative. I think this is unfortunate. But one might as well get one’s misfortunes straight.

So while I agree with Crews that these along with the other eight “shared assumptions” are “erroneous or extremely open to doubt,” so, I believe, would most of the psychoanalytic establishment.

Crews goes on to say: “Yet the [these ten erroneous principles] are so widely believed as to constitute what Richard Wollheim and Thomas Nagel, among others, regard as the psychological common sense of our era.” I would bet my bottom dollar that neither philosopher accepts any one of these principles, nor regards them as any part of “psychological common sense.” It would be fun to try to articulate what that is.

Marcia Cavell
Berkeley, California

Frederick Crews replies:

Marcia Cavell starts to go wrong as soon as she complains that I never “distinguish between Freud and psychoanalysis now.” I have done so frequently—for example, in these pages on February 3, 1994, when I pointed out that “merely by refraining from reliance on such backward ideas as inevitable female masochism and the fateful consequences of masturbation, any contemporary therapist would have a head start over Freud” (p. 41). The question I went on to raise, though, is how we are expected to choose on scientific grounds between Freud’s notions and those of his improvers. Since all parties accept his question-begging principle that “unconscious ideas, unconscious trains of thought, and unconscious impulses [are] no less valid and unimpeachable psychological data than conscious ones” (SE, 7:113), all are playing the knowledge game with the same loaded dice.1 In their own writings about psychoanalysis, Richard Wollheim, Thomas Nagel, and Cavell herself have traced elegant philosophical orbits around this point without ever meeting it squarely. Cavell now maintains that, on the whole, today’s “psychoanalytic establishment” would not subscribe to any of the ten principles which, I claimed, the recovered memory movement derived from Freudian precedent. If so, the retreat of psychoanalysis from its original therapeutic and theoretical pretensions has gone father toward unconditional surrender than I had thought. In any event, my ten points were drawn not from the dwindling and demoralized “establishment” but from the Freudian revelation as it colonized the West, bequeathing to psychotherapy at large its main agenda of symptom decoding, memory retrieval, and purgation of the repressed.

Whether she realizes it or not, Cavell herself has bought shares of that agenda; on no other grounds could she be so certain about what she calls, in her recent book The Psychoanalytic Mind, the “momentous discoveries of psychoanalysis” (PM, p. 77). Thus when Cavell counter-intuitively asserts that a man typically retains his repressed childhood wish to be “buggered by his father” (PM, p. 191) and that Little Hans’s famous horse phobia was brought on by castration fear rather than by the actual horse that had fallen down in his presence (PM, pp. 182–185), she is willy-nilly ratifying Freud’s key premises and the alleged catharses, cures, and recovered memories that underwrote them.

But Cavell wants to lay her bottom dollar on a different proposition: that neither Thomas Nagel nor Richard Wollheim accepts a single one of my ten Freudian points about the meaning of symptoms and dreams, the operation of the unconscious, its predominantly sexual content, the tyranny of the repressed, and so forth. This is a dumbfounding claim, since both Nagel and especially Wollheim have argued vigorously for the general correctness of the classic Freudian outlook. Although Nagel, for example, keeps his detailed affirmations to a minimum, he must have had some standard tenets in mind when he recently declared that “there is now, in advance of all [definitively probative] experiments, substantial reason to believe in the unconscious and psychoanalytic explanations which refer to it” (L, p. 56).

Cavell’s appeal to Richard Wollheim is odder still. Wollheim is a Freud idolator of the old school who has characterized his hero as having done “as much for [humanity] as any other human being who has lived” (SF, p. 252). His trust in Freud admits no impediment. Unsurprisingly, then, his texts not only show explicit support for most of the items I named but cast the net of faith far beyond them. Not content with defending the entirety of Freud’s “discoveries” and “clinical findings,” Wollheim also looks favorably on the whole assortment of constructs, including even the death instinct (MD, p. 58), that Freud supposedly derived from them.

Thus, whereas Cavell doubts that Wollheim or any other modern Freudian holds that a psychoanalyst can accurately retrieve a patient’s infantile past, that is exactly what Wollheim proclaims. “A line can…be traced,” he writes, “from certain adult or or adolescent activities to certain infantile experiences” (SF, p. 172). He is disposed to accept at face value, for example, Freud’s reconstruction of the Wolf Man’s having defecated on the floor, at age one and a half, when he supposedly saw his parents copulating from the rear—all this and much more having been deduced from a dream allegedly experienced at age four but reported to Freud only in adulthood (MD, p. 99; WM, passim). No practitioner of recovered memory therapy could lay claim to sharper gnostic vision than that.

Moreover, Wollheim still affirms the unique “processes and modes of operation” of the unconscious (SF, 183), the preeminent role in sexuality in causing neurosis (SF, pp. 86, 88, 203), the interpretability of dreams and symptoms as symbolic expressions of the repressed (SF, pp. 146, 149–150, 172, 231; WM, p. 11), and the practical efficacy of such interpretations in removing symptoms (SF, pp. 166–167). All of these points appeared in my list of root psychoanalytic assumptions, along with still another that Wollheim appears to approve—that the fixed meanings of universal sexual symbols can come to the aid of clinical interpretation.2

According to Cavell, my passing references to Nagel and Wollheim constitute an “inaccurate account of [their] defense of Freud.” Incomplete, yes; inaccurate, no. Nagel and Wollheim seek to prop up Freud in more ways than I indicated, but none of them could impress a reader who hadn’t already decided that psychoanalytic truths are unassailable.

Thus Nagel and Wollheim bow to the pretension of analysts to be uniquely situated, in Nagel’s words, to “probe far more deeply and uncover far more material for interpretation” than others, garnering “extensive and systematic insights” (FPR, p. 36) that we ought to believe. “It is impossible,” declares Wollheim, “to have access to the mass of clinical evidence that a given hypothesis [of Freud’s] subsumes,” and hence we cannot know “how the match of one case to a hypothesis is enhanced by a consideration of all parallel cases” (SF, p. 237). Consequently, Wollheim hands a blank check to the master without pausing to worry that “parallel cases” might reflect a parallel methodological extravagance. And as I mentioned in my article, Nagel displays the same laxity, averring that each Freudian hypothesis or interpretation will “find its empirical support in countless other applications to other patients in other settings” (FPR, p. 35).

Both thinkers minimize the besetting epistemic problem of suggestion, maintaining that we needn’t concern ourselves with that well-authenticated phenomenon until its dynamics are better understood (MD, pp. 100–111; FPR, p. 35). Moreover, both of them urge that because Freudian notions are hard to test experimentally, they are therefore exempt from the necessity of such testing (MD, pp. 102–111; FPR, p. 35). (As an example, Nagel cites the supposedly illuminating idea that melancholia features “abuse by the ego of the internalized object.”) Thus psychoanalysis, in the charitable view of Wollheim and Nagel, deserves special indulgence for what other observers consider to be its worst vice, the proliferation of concepts and entities that stand at several removes from experience.

Again, one might expect two keen philosophers to be troubled by the fact that the “insights” produced by all schools of analysis amount to tangle of contradictory propositions. Doesn’t that fact suggest an epistemic flaw in the fundamental method of knowledge acquisition—the study of free associations—that those schools share? But Wollheim and Nagel allow the point to escape them. And this lapse is doubly remarkable in view of the fact that they themselves favour different versions of the Freudian gospel. Thus, Nagel dissents from what Wollheim calls Melanie Klein’s “proper continuation” of Freud’s thought (MD, p. 52), whereby, for example, every nursling reportedly “seeks to destroy the inside of the mother’s body, and uses its urine and faeces for this purpose” (Klein, quoted in MD, p. 58; cf. L, p. 35). In this instance, Nagel’s doubts appear to rest on legitimate empirical considerations. One waits in vain, however, for him to acknowledge that similar considerations vitiate mainstream Freudian dogma.

Finally, Wollheim and Nagel alike attempt to shield psychoanalysis from criticism by assimilating it to a bland-looking intuitive “form of understanding” (L, p. 56) that is said to characterize psychological explanation in general. This tactic serves a joint strategy of claiming that Freud, rather than having derived eccentric dogmas from overzealous guesswork, merely “added to the commonsense conception” of the mind so as “to accommodate new mental phenomena that he had discovered” (MD, p. 92; see FPR, p. 34). Unfortunately, Wollheim and Nagel offer no reason for us to agree that Freud did discover new mental phenomena, much less that his explanations of them deserve to be believed.3 Their oversubtle arguments, like Cavell’s own, boil down to special pleading for a tradition whose waywardness has by now become generally apparent.

  1. 1

    Works parenthetically cited by initials are, in order of first mention, “SE”: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols., translated by James Strachey (Hogarth Press, 1953–1974); “PM”: Marcia Cavell, The Psychoanalytic Mind: From Freud to Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1993); “L”: Thomas Nagel, letter to The New York Review, August 11, 1994, pp. 55–56; “SF”: Richard Wollheim, Sigmund Freud (1971; reprinted by Cambridge University Press, 1981); “MD”: Richard Wollheim, The Mind and Its Depths (Harvard University Press, 1993); “WM”: Sigmund Freud, The Case of the Wolf-Man: From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, with an introduction by Richard Wollheim, and with etchings and woodcuts by Jim Dine (Arion Press, 1993); “FPR”: Thomas Nagel, “Freud’s Permanent Revolution,” The New York Review, May 12, 1994, pp. 34–38. It will be important, below, to bear in mind that Wollheim’s Sigmund Freud, in outward form a mere exposition of Freud’s ideas, is in fact a sustained act of advocacy for them.

  2. 2

    Thus, according to Wollheim, Freud “interpreted without difficulty” a schizophrenic’s habit of squeezing blackheads “as representing in the first instance masturbation, and secondly castration where this is consequential upon masturbation. Accordingly, the blackhead represents the penis, and the squeezed-out cavity represents the vagina in the sense of that which is left when the penis has been lopped off” (SF, p. 190). The effortlessness of detection cited here is surely ascribable to the standard meanings of protuberances and concavities as expounded in The Interpretation of Dreams.

  3. 3

    Nagel adds that in any given act of interpretation, “what is unintelligible to naive common sense may be seen as ‘justified,’ after all, from a concealed aspect of the subject’s point of view” (L, p. 56). But once again the argument is circular, since the question at issue is precisely whether or not people “conceal” motives of a Freudian kind. The fact that patients can be maneuvered into acquiescence to an analyst’s surmises about such motives hardly warrants the assumption that the motives inhabited the patients’ preexisting “point of view.”

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