The exiled Sigmund Freud photographed in a car as he arrives in London in 1938. Photo: AFPBild
The theories of Sigmund Freud have almost vanished from German universities. But psychoanalysis is in no way obsolete.
No science in the modern world has encountered so much hostile resistance from contemporaries as psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud himself described his theory as causing offence, informing the ego of the unpleasant news that it wasn’t the captain of its own ship. Seen from this perspective, psychoanalysis is the next in a series of blows dealt by modern science. Copernicus discovered the earth was not the center of the universe; Kant cast into doubt the reliability of our senses; Darwin denied the human being a special status in creation. Freud’s theories swept away the last abiding illusion in the modern world, the belief in the purity of the inner life and the preeminence of our consciousness.
What it unearths are views from the depths of the psyche. And the insights into the unconscious disclosed unsettling revelations. Psychological investigations in a range of areas—dreams and neurosis, the power of repression to cause illness, the origin of moral control, the anatomy of angst and delusion, the tension between reason and sexuality as well as the will to live and the death drive—lead to the conclusion that the rational human being was an invention of seminal impact but possessed little psychological coherence.
In hindsight Freud liked to employ romantic metaphors in describing his difficult journeys from hypnosis treatment in 1890 to developing new forms of therapy. He regarded his excursions into the psyche as a descent into the dark underworld of the unconscious, as a journey into the inner recesses of a mountain where he struck gold but came across just as much in the way of mud and filth. Even though these images are romanticized, they contain a kernel of truth. They reflect in particular the feeling of loneliness that accompanied the father of psychoanalysis for many years, the harsh condemnation by the entire medical community and his fear that his hypotheses were in error.
The burden was increased by the fact that Freud made many of his discoveries through self-analysis. This was necessary because the fabric of the new theories was woven from the most intimate personal experiences of the movement’s founder. The resulting ideas were based on an odd fusion whereby doctor and patient, scholar and individual under treatment were one and the same. This moved psychoanalysis into the realm of painting, music and literature, in which the subjective experiences of the artist inspire what he or she creates. In this sense, Freud’s science led to a work of art molded by the fluctuations in his mental state.
It is incontestable that many aspects of Freud’s theories are now obsolete. The world of the late 19th century shaped his perception of gender, understanding of deviant sexual practices, neglect of physical symptoms as well as his theory of culture. Freud’s tendency toward strict dogmatism can be grasped today only if we consider what it was pitted against—the Puritanism of Victorian society. George Steiner spoke of an “unverified belief” that became embedded “in the heart of the psychoanalytic method.” This belief is in the omnipotence of the Trieb, the instinct or drive, which turns up everywhere—in language and everyday life, art and religion.
Freud’s acute perception of contradictions arising in the psyche stood in opposition to an odd tendency of his to use a narrow basis on which to substantiate symptom complexes and treatment methods. Critics such as Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Michel Onfray, in line with early defector C.G. Jung, continue to voice the complaint that Freud’s hypotheses lack a broad enough empirical basis and his theories are too fixated on the ubiquity of the drive. Nevertheless, one cannot deny his cultural and historical impact. Psychoanalysis became part of the modern world as well as an instrument interpreting and powering it. This dual role was typical of the 20th century, an age of commentary and realization through self-interpretation.
As a science of researching identity, psychoanalysis formed the types of thinking in which the denizens of the modern world could see themselves through their intellectual tendencies, finding confirmation and interpretation of the urge to explore hidden traces and signs, of the fact that the mysterious and concealed were so near to oneself. The archeology of the soul offered by Freud was simultaneously one of the epoch. Whoever speaks about the modern must talk about psychoanalysis. He or she may not always do that overtly but will do so inevitably. To reflect on the modern means to be comprehended by psychoanalysis, to be determined by it. Even Freud’s enemies do not evade it, because the moment they begin voicing criticism they are gripped by the spell of psychoanalytic interpretation. Psychoanalytical diagnosis focuses on the drives and unconscious and thus encompasses the great stories of human culture. No one can approach these tales without paying tribute to Freud.
Freud’s ideal analyst moves within strictly delineated practices and rituals. He or she listens to the patient speaking from the couch and remains for the most part silent, only sporadically asking a question or following up a remark. By instituting talk therapy, psychoanalysis has created a new form of solidifying knowledge that represents a mixture of confession and embarrassing questions. The material Freud molded into the most consequential theory of modern man is not based on substances found in the lab, experiments or writings. It’s made up of the tales of woe related to him over the years. In Studies on Hysteria (1895) he writes that the therapist is a “hearer of confessions who offers absolution through a long-term commitment to the patient and attention to the confessions divested”. The doctor’s unconscious, Freud wrote in 1912, should be “tuned to the patient like the receiver of a telephone to the caller. Just as the receiver receives electrical fluctuations caused by sound waves and transforms them back into sound waves, the unconscious of the doctor is capable of reconstructing the unconscious of his or her patient from the unconscious derivatives of this unconscious that has determined the free associations of the patient.” The analytical work was first concerned with delving into the vacillations of the other’s psyche and then reconstructing the contexts in which the repressed is located. The principle of listening simultaneously comprises the therapeutic act, beginning and ethos of understanding.
And today? Freud’s theories have survived both their fiercest critics and their most dogmatic defenders. As a therapeutic tool, the therapy derived and later developed does not lack controversy but is nevertheless still recognized. Nevertheless Freud’s theories have practically disappeared from university academic life in Germany. Reasons for this can be found in 20th century history. Jewish analysts were expelled from Germany after 1933 and taken in by Great Britain, France and the United States. Freud himself fled to London in 1938 and his theories are still more at home in the Anglo-American academy than in Germany.
There are also methodological conflicts dividing psychoanalysis and neuroscience. Freud’s system seems too speculative to brain researchers because it is scientifically founded on empirical data and theory, but not experimentation. Nevertheless, an accommodation should be possible. It is a fact that psychoanalysis has exerted more influence on film, the arts and literature than it has on medicine and psychology. But this doesn’t have to be the case in the future.
Freud’s theories are in no way obsolete. In fact, there is a lot of potential for more work to be done precisely because an undogmatic interpretation of his ideas has begun with potential applications in different areas of neuroscience and cultural theory. And eighty years after Freud’s death, universities should also see to it that they do not restrict the presentation of his theories as part of a historical survey.
This article appeared in German in the Tagespiegel (October 8, 2013). By Peter-André Alt