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John Gray

Dangerous Minds

The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis
By Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen & Sonu Shamdasani (Cambridge University Press 404pp 16.99)

The Freud wars are a bit like the current clamour that surrounds religion. Rancorous and obsessive in their pursuit of one another, the protagonists have no interest in securing agreement on the issues by which they claim to be divided. Though each side incessantly repeats that it is dedicated to rational inquiry, there is no argument that could conceivably settle what is humorously described as the debate. The nasty and occasionally sordid exchanges - which in the case of the Freud wars have at times involved legal action - serve interests other than those that are avowed by the participants, though what these interests may be is often unclear.

A feature of both disputations is that the same issues are tirelessly replayed, generation after generation. The battle lines of the Freud wars were drawn early in the twentieth century, with Karl Popper formulating his argument, sometime around 1919, that psychoanalytical interpretations cannot be scientific because they cannot be falsified; he later attacked psychoanalysis in these same terms in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and Conjectures and Refutations (1963). The pattern of accusation against Freud has not changed much over the years: he claimed to be founding a science but presided over an authoritarian cult; he exaggerated the originality of his ideas; he suppressed or distorted evidence in order to insulate his theories from criticism, or else revised his theories without properly explaining why he did so. Written by two academics - Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington and Sonu Shamdasani is Philemon Professor of Jung History at the UCL Centre for the History of Medicine - The Freud Files is, in large part, a compilation of these charges. Reading at times like a doctoral thesis and at others like a police report, the book collects together all the main claims that have been levelled over the years against psychoanalysis and, more particularly, its founder.

Some useful points are made along the way. It is true that Freud did not acknowledge all his intellectual debts. His pivotal claim that much of the life of the mind goes on unconsciously can be found in Schopenhauer and in the writings of the evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel, among others. In this regard Freud was not unlike his contemporary Wittgenstein, who also deployed ideas from Schopenhauer and other writers widely read in fin-de-siècle Vienna. It is less clear that using ideas in this way amounts to any kind of intellectual sin. Many of the ideas in question were in the air at the time, entering into the thinking of every educated person. The authors dismiss Freud's claims to originality, describing them as a legend of the 'immaculate conception' of psychoanalysis. Yet what matters is not whether Freud's ideas were original, but whether he made something new and worthwhile from notions that were common intellectual property at the time.

It is also true that psychoanalysis never became the science Freud wanted it to be. As Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani note, Freud's thinking was partly shaped by the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, one of the principal minds behind what would later be called logical positivism, which held that the rigorous application of empirically grounded scientific method is the only means of acquiring knowledge. Here again Freud was not unusual. In the intellectual milieu of central Europe at the turn of the twentieth century Mach's ideas had a pervasive influence, which extended to the economist F A Hayek (later an unsparing critic of positivist philosophies of social science). Partly as a side-effect of Mach's formative influence, the authority of science was as great then as it is now, if not greater. It was only to be expected that Freud would want the seal of scientific respectability for psychoanalysis.

Where Freud is distinctive is in the way that his thinking departed from the scientific model he thought psychoanalysis should emulate. Partly because human interactions are not repeatable in the way experiments in the natural sciences can be repeated, the practice of psychoanalysis is hard to square with standard versions of scientific method. Rather than being a disability peculiar to psychoanalysis this difficulty is a feature of the social studies in general, and invites the question of whether all branches of knowledge are to be judged by the standards that apply in natural science. The question is all the more pertinent when it is recognised that there is no agreement as to what these standards may be. Popper's sublimely simple criterion of falsification is rejected by many philosophers, including many who insist on repeatability. It is also at odds with much that is known of the history of science. If Freud's thinking deviates from narrow standards of scientific rectitude, it has this failing in common with much of the science that has been done over the centuries.

Clearly there are unresolved issues about the nature of knowledge at work in Freud's thought, but Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani show little interest in pursuing them. How did Freud try to reconcile the scientific claims of psychoanalysis with the special difficulties of biographical knowledge, for example? Rather than exploring questions of this kind, the authors adopt a version of the technique of cross-examination that is used in law courts, which involves confronting witnesses with inconsistencies both within their statements and between their statements and those that others have made on their behalf. So, discussing the suggestion of some of Freud's defenders that psychoanalytic interpretation may have more in common with the hermeneutic practices of literary theory than with science, the authors note severely that 'on the occasion of his seventieth birthday', Freud wrote that 'the poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious. What I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.' They go on to say that Freud's 'rejection of literariness' is 'in no way anecdotal', since it is 'directly related to the "will to science" ... which has historically defined psychoanalysis'.

Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani are right that Freud never ceased hoping that the discipline he founded would be accepted as a science. They omit to explore the ways in which Freud's own thinking undermined this hope. The hard and fast distinction between science and other modes of thinking he insisted on became blurred and ambiguous when, in some of his later writings, he considered how aspects of Jewish religion, such as the insistence on the invisibility of God (which Freud believed promoted the insight that parts of the mind are inaccessible to conscious awareness), may have made psychoanalysis possible. This readiness to break out of the box of his own aspirations and assumptions is one reason why Freud remains such an interesting thinker. It is also a reason for not being too quick to hold the founder of psychoanalysis responsible for the discipline's later development. Referring to the attempts Freud made to control how the history of psychoanalysis would be written, the authors write: 'The aim of Freud's history [of psychoanalysis] was to establish this autocratic political authority.' But whether or not Freud harboured these autocratic tendencies, he was not all of one piece. Some of the dogmatism of Freudian orthodoxies may be a genuine intellectual inheritance. Equally, so are the many divergent lines of inquiry that Freud's thought has inspired.

There are numerous accounts of how Freud's work became the focus of a cult. To my mind the most vividly illuminating are Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1981) and In the Freud Archives (1984), both by Janet Malcolm. Of course Malcolm deals mainly with contemporary practice, while Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani are concerned mostly with psychoanalysis's early years. But the difference in style is telling. Malcolm's is terse and graceful, while the tone of the present volume is illustrated in a comment the authors make on some gaps they detect in an edition of Freud's letters: 'The result of this omission', they tell us, 'obscured the connections between these scatological hypotheses on the ontogenic recapitulation by the individual of the erotogenic zones abandoned in the course of phylogenesis and the theory of infantile sexuality put forward in the Three Essays in 1905.' Ugly, coagulated sentences of this kind - of which there are many - may be no more than instances of the professional inability to write, which has become a requirement of academic life. But I think the objection to this kind of language is not simply aesthetic. Such clogged, periphrastic discourse testifies to an obscurity of thinking and purpose that runs right through the book, and through the Freud wars that the authors laboriously rehearse. In contrast, Freud is the most lucid and direct of writers - not least when what he is saying departs from what he has said in the past. Could this persistent clarity help explain why Freud's writings continue to be so troubling, and why his detractors cannot let him go?

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John Gray's most recent book is The Immortalization Commission (Penguin).


John Murray