Re-examining Freud – leading psychologists comment on Sigmund Freud
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Freud’s death, a fitting time to take another look at the major architect of modern psychology, to reassess his contributions and find out what a few of today’s leading psychologists and psychoanalysts think we still can learn from his work.
Our contributors encompass a broad spectrum of analytic approaches and specialties–Jungian, cognitive, eclectic, feminist and, of course, Freudian. Most agree that we owe a great deal to Freud, but none seem to shy away from discussing what they see as the major problems with and limitations of his theory. As for what we’ve overlooked in his work, and what we still have to learn from it, the responses are varied and reveal the richness of psychological thinking today.
Jungian analyst and author of The
Myth of Analysis and A Blue Fire,
an anthology of his writings
Freud’s primary emphasis was on the sexual genital life as crucial to life, the human as animal, as an organic-driven creature. Nobody likes that anymore. Freud said that sexual genital life can never be satisfied instinctually. So you’re driven and at the same time you cannot be satisfied. That part of Freudian theory hasn’t been taken to its fullest consequences. It really locates the human being very deeply in the body and in animal nature. It ties us to the animal world.
Freud was also concerned with civilization. In his book Civilization and Its Discontents, he points out that one’s pathology is not merely a personal or family situation but is tied with the pathology of civilization. And the rectification of pathology involves us in politics. To give a simple example, some of your depression or my depression is due to the terrible rooms we live in and the terrible noise and traffic and so forth. We may also grieve for the destroyed trees and buildings that we grew up with and are fond of. We feel grief and mourning, and those emotions connect us outward to the world. This aspect of Freud has been overlooked, not altogether, but the tremendous focus on childhood has depotentiated the patient as a political being. By emphasizing the child archetypes, the past and the family–we’re all abused, abandoned and victims, not political beings–both analysts and patients have stepped outside of the political schema. You know, for the last 40 years the most sensitive people have been in analysis and we’ve become depoliticized. A lot of sensitive people have been studying their abandonment fantasies and have abandoned civilization in a certain way.
STEPHEN M. SONNENBERG
Psychoanalyst and chair
of the Committee on Public
Information of the American
What we can still learn from Freud is what we could always learn from Freud-that most mental activity goes on outside of conscious awareness, that much of the mental pain and anguish that people experience is the result of conflict that is not conscious, and that there is resistance to recognizing that there is unconscious process. Freud also showed us that the cornerstone of any deeply probing treatment, which really respects the autonomy of the individual and the individual’s options for growth, works with the resistance and the unconscious conflict.
The lessons of Freud have to be relearned everyday by people who are trying to work with the unconscious. The mistake we make is somehow thinking that those basic lessons are learned and ingrained. We need to constantly be reconsidering the nature of unconscious process in ourselves–thinking about it and trying to understand it.
Psychologist and author of For
Your Own Good and Thou Shalt
Not Be Aware
Do I owe anything to Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyst? Today, I would say: 20 years of blindness toward the reality of child abuse as well as toward the most important facts of my life. In 1896, Sigmund Freud discovered the truth about the repression of childhood traumas and its effects on the adult. Unable to bear this truth, he finally decided to deny his own discovery. One year later, in 1897, he developed the psychoanalytical theory which actually conceals the reality of child abuse and supports the tradition of blaming the child and protecting the parents.
Psychiatrist and author of The
Myth of Mental Illness
We can learn from what he talked about but did not practice-in fact, he systematically lied about it–which is the concept of the absolutely confidential, totally voluntary, uncoerced conversation with another person, who comes to see you and pays for the service. The conversation should always be paid for; this ensures that the person isn’t coming to you for any other reason. But Freud betrayed this concept through his training analysis, through child analysis and through his so-called analysis of his daughter, which was pure existential incest. Freud was like a pope who preached celibacy but didn’t practice it.
JEROME L. SINGER
Professor of Psychology and Child
Study, Yale University
We all have much to learn about scientific integrity and commitment from Freud’s willingness to study his own dreams, reexamine his theories and persist in a lifelong exploration that has stirred the imagination of thousands of thinkers in this century.
Professor of Applied Psychology at
the Ontario Institute for Studies
in Education and author of Don’t
Blame Mother: Mending the
At his best, before he recanted his correct observation that many women have been sexually abused as children, Freud taught the important lesson that a therapist should listen with care and respect for a long time to what a patient says before presuming to make interpretations. In addition, although his theories about etiology were misguided, he cared enough about female-female relationships to think hard about those relationships, and to make some astute observations about women’s tendencies (learned, not biologically based, as we now know) to devalue themselves and other women. This constituted a message that these are important relationships, an attitude all too rarely seen today.
President, Institute for Rational-Emotive
Therapy in New York
City, and author of A New Guide
to Rational Living
We can constructively learn from Freud what he first said in 1895 and later, alas, forgot: that “emotional” disturbances are “ideogenic”–that is, importantly related to ideas. We can learn that most of us naturally and easily tend to severely defame our self (and not merely our behavior) when we act imperfectly, and thereby bring about needless “horror,” and then unconsciously create–yes, create–defenses (especially denial, rationalization and avoidance) by which we actually perpetuate and aggravate our problems. Freudianism, for all its failings, implies that we innately tie our view of our self, our totality, to our view of our achievements and performances; and that unless we scientifically stop such self-poisonous thinking–which psychoanalysts do not show us how to do–we will inevitably continue to make ourselves suffer. So we can still learn a great deal about human disturbance from Freud–and then, I hope, efficiently use non-Freudian, rational-emotive and cognitive-behavioral therapy to stop disturbing ourselves.
Psychoanalyst at the
My own sense is to always see our relationship to Freud as paradoxical. We are all speaking Freud–he has influenced our language, perceptions and institutions more than anyone else in the 20th century.
People reject specific ideas of Freud’s like castration anxiety and penis envy, thinking of them as fundamental Freud: They are not. The most fundamental aspect of Freud was the concept that all behavior is dynamic. That means that there’s not just one cause for a particular behavior but many. It’s like a giant beach ball that 50 people are pushing in every direction: The fact that it moves slightly in one direction is a result of the forces of 20 or 30 pushing one way and slightly fewer pushing the other way. This principle is called the psychodynamic principle, the idea that what you do is a result of certain pressure–conscious or unconscious–to do it and certain pressures not to do it.
Freud also showed that behavior is always developmental. Everything we do today must be seen as a result of influences that occurred during our lifetime. Freud truly believed that we don’t live in a real world but in a world of our own perception. By that he simply means that it doesn’t matter whether you’re beautiful or successful or whatever; if you don’t feel beautiful, you’re not beautiful to yourself.
I have no doubt that Freud’s reputation will rest primarily on his contributions to our understanding of normal behavior as distinguished from pathological behavior. He used sick patients to help in understanding the processes of development. Psychoanalysis gave a frame of reference for dynamic psychiatry in general, and it’s helping many psychiatrists to become better therapists by helping them understand human motivation.
ROBERT JAY LIFTON
Distinguished Professor of
Psychology at the State University of
New York, New York City
We’re beyond the point where anyone is either pro-Freud or anti-Freud. I don’t see it as a question of holding on to some ideas and getting rid of others but rather of seeing Freud as a great figure who was responsible for one of the great intellectual breakthroughs in our history. We need to read him directly and make use of his insights and the quality of his mind for carrying these ideas further. Then we need to develop new ideas that depend upon Freud but at the same time stray from him, to deal with contemporary issues and, in my view, especially social and historical dimensions.
HANS J. EYSENCK
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
at the University of London’s
Institute of Psychiatry
I think Freud has been a wholesale disaster for psychology and what we can learn from him is how not to do things.
In psychology as in other sciences one must provide proof for any assertion. Freud intentionally and deliberately refused to look at his cases in comparison with control cases. He never followed them up to see whether in actual fact what he claimed to have been successes were successful. We now know that in fact many of them were not. For instance, the Wolfman Freud claimed to have cured was recently interviewed in Vienna. He explained that he had been treated throughout his life for the very things Freud said he had cured. Even at the age of 90 he was still suffering from the same symptoms. The claims that Freud made are simply incorrect, and one really cannot pay that much attention to them.
Psychologist and author of Women
and Madness and About Men;
cofounder of the Association for
Women in Psychology
Freud taught us-and this has not been accepted of him here because we’re Americans-that life is tragic, that there are real limitations, that everything is a trade-off, that nobody can have a free lunch, that we’re not getting out of this alive. He said that there is a life instinct, Eros, but that there is also Thanatos, a death instinct. And there is real death. Freud was a mournful meditator. He was not Dale Carnegie. He didn’t say “Read this book and you’re going to be happy and get everything you want.” He wasn’t saying that, and I don’t think that we’ve picked up his humbling, tragic message.
Author of Love and Will and one of
the founders of the humanistic
movement in psychotherapy
Freud knew that the 19th century was finished, gone to pieces. The meaning of psychoanalysis gave men and women a new view of life. Freud brought us understanding of depth, death, also our moods, negation of ideas, our fatigue, our sickness. We can still learn from Freud–not mainly from the rules of psychoanalysis, but rather from how he pictured a whole new culture, a culture in which people would be more broadly understood and more broadly human because the unconscious was part of the experience of the 20th century. James Hillman Jungian analyst and author of The Myth of Analysis and A Blue Fire, an anthology of his writings Stephen M. Sonnenberg Psychoanalyst and chair of the Committee on Public Information of the American Psychoanalytic Association Alice Miller Psychologist and author of For Your Own Good and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware Thomas Szasz Psychiatrist and author of The Myth of Mental Illness Jerome L. Singer Professor of Psychology and Child Study, Yale University Paula Caplan Professor of Applied Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and author of Don’t Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship Albert Ellis President, Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy in New York City, and author of A New Guide to Rational Living Will Gaylin Psychoanalyst at the Hastings Institute Robert Jay Lifton Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York, New York City Hans J. Eysenck Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry Phyllis Chesler Psychologist and author of Women and Madness and About Men; cofounder of the Association for Women in Psychology Rollo May Author of Love and Will and one of the founders of the humanistic movement in psychotherapy
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