Freud & Freudianism
To the Editor:
When Hans Meyerhoff replied to the frontal attack on Freud and psychoanalysis by Lillian Blumberg McCall (“Freud and Scientific Truth,” April 1958), he took unjustified refuge in modern physics. . . . Mr. Meyerhoff first tried to justify the admitted logical and semantic difficulties of psychoanalysis by stating that the scientific theory of quantum mechanics presents “a great many philosophical puzzles which are by no means resolved—and which interest people beyond the making of new discoveries or new bombs.” It should be pointed out that quantum mechanics presents puzzles only to those who think in terms of outmoded concepts. . . . Paradoxes arise only when one tries to apply the ideological formulations of classical physics to quantum physics . . . [which] says at the outset that those old concepts are wrong. . . .
Elsewhere, Mr. Meyerhoff, in defending Freud’s stubborn adherence to his Totem and Taboo in the face of more recent ethnological data, reminds us of Einstein’s belief in the causal deterministic view of the world in face of the theories of modern physics which “rendered this belief rather silly in the eyes of his scientific peers.” Aside from the matter of convictions, the analogy here is not at all apt. . . . Einstein was prepared to have his theory of relativity completely invalidated by [any] experimental data. . . . Freud is quoted by Mr. Meyerhoff himself as having stated: “Contradiction is not always refutation. . . . It is my good right to select from ethnological data what would serve me for my analytical work. . . .” But no professed scientist has the right as a scientist to select those data which fit into his theory and reject those which contradict it. . . .
The fewer comparisons made between psychoanalysis and science the better. Science has claim to a rather solid foundation of careful, controlled, reproducible experiments; psychoanalysis has no such claim. . . . Psychoanalysis can make no claim whatsoever to be listed among the scientific theories of today.
David I. Caplan
New York City
To the Editor:
I find myself in complete agreement with Lillian Blumberg McCall’s views on Freud. When Freud entered the fields of historical or ethnological speculation, he could be as wrong as any other man. Like many lesser men, he often distorted facts to prove a preconceived theory.
Some years ago, when I reviewed Moses and Monotheism for a San Francisco paper, I was amazed to learn that Freud not only twisted Weigall’s Life and Times of Akhnaton into a completely different meaning, but wherever Weigall did not bear out Freud, he would deliberately distort what he said. . . . [For example] he cites Weigall to prove that Akhnaton’s religion of Aton did not believe in the immortality of the soul. The only thing wrong with this is that Weigall devoted pages to saying exactly the opposite.
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
Mrs. McCall in her exchange with Mr. Meyerhoff unfortunately threw out the baby along with the bath water. By denigrating both Freud’s and Mr. Meyerhoff’s scholarly integrity, she not only alienates the reader, but of more serious import, she inadvertently uses a Freudian philosophic concept which is highly unscientific: that the critique of the content of a theory is to be evaluated in terms of the personality of the theoretician.
Specifically, Freud—a man of great integrity—made two very basic errors of a philosophic and procedural nature. First, while initially under great attack for his ideas, he accused his detractors of exhibiting a similar type of resistance to them as was evident in his neurotic patients. Hence, the burden of proof was unscientifically placed on the critics; we are still feeling the effects. . . . Even in our daily life, we glibly state about an opponent: “He’s sick.”
Second, he approached ideas in history, art, literature, and ethnology in a novel but unscientific and irrational manner—he analyzed history and ethnology in terms of an individual psychology. Does it basically matter whether Nietzsche was psychotic? I think not. We need to know the socio-historical roots or matrix of his writings—Bismarck’s Germany with its imperialistic scope and consequent national grandiosity. . . . It doesn’t help us one bit in the understanding of the Kantian categorical imperative [to concede] that Kant was extremely punctual and perhaps compulsive in ordering his personal existence.
Mrs. McCall made some excellent points, but would have performed a vital service if she had applied “less heat” and “more light.” . . .
Brooklyn, New York
Mrs. McCall writes:
In my exchange with Hans Meyerhoff, I quoted a passage from Professor A. L. Kroeber’s paper on Totem and Taboo which criticized Freud’s methodological procedure in that it pyramided a series of hypotheses of low degrees of probability. Mr. Meyerhoff, like Freud and Ernest Jones, ignored the objection and chose to read my remarks as an appeal to authority. In reply, he quoted from a private communication of Clyde Kluckhohn to Ernest Jones: “I am convinced that the essential universality of the Oedipus complex . . . is now established by the anthropological record.”
Mr. Meyerhoff did not refer to the record itself, but he did create the impression that Professor Kroeber rejects the Oedipus complex. This happens not to be the case, nor did I say so. In the second of his two papers on Totem and Taboo, Professor Kroeber lectures Ernest Jones for not realizing that Malinowski’s data on the Trobriand Island culture is evidence in support of the theory.
I would add, however, that Malinowski’s data undercuts the biological basis of Freud’s theory. To say that children react to particular patterns of family relationships that differ from culture to culture (among the Trobrianders the maternal uncle is the figure of authority) and that within a culture individuals react differently, is simply to say that people react one way or another to their situation in life. This is not a theory but a truism. An adjective like “essential” before “universal” is an enormous qualification, especially since we do not know what preceded or followed Clyde Kluckhohn’s statement. The anthropologists’ Oedipus complex is not the same as Freud’s. And a theory should not be accepted or rejected on authority, but according to the evidence. I agree with Professor Kroeber’s observation that psychoanalysis is a closed system that does not readily absorb data from other fields—especially when such data cast doubt on its doctrines. In the passage Mr. Meyerhoff quoted from Moses and Monotheism (one of Freud’s most dubious speculations), Freud says in effect that he is not an ethnologist; that he doesn’t care what the ethnologists say about their own field because he wants to use an obsolete theory they have unanimously rejected; that he will not consider evidence that doesn’t suit him; and that if the evidence that does suit him is wrong—so what. Is this science?
The issue isn’t Freud’s character but the status of psychoanalysis as a scientific theory. . . . I said that psychoanalysis fails as often as any other psychiatric treatment. Mr. Meyerhoff translates this into “Everybody knows that psychoanalytic treatment is not the only cure for emotional disturbance”—which rather shifts the emphasis. In the first place, even if psychoanalysis had a high rate of cure it would not indicate the validity of the theory. The record of Lourdes and Christian Science is far more impressive than that of psychoanalysis. Second, the performance of psychoanalysis as a therapy is, in fact, dismal (as Mr. Meyerhoff would discover if he read the professional journals). The few spectacular cures of which we know occurred before Freud had developed the theory and some of these while he was still using hypnosis. It doesn’t matter how many people think “psychoanalytic theory is hogwash from beginning to end,” but it does matter how much of it is hogwash. Mr. Meyerhoff says that “psychoanalytic propositions are often such that it is very difficult to specify objective tests which could verify (or falsify) them.” His italics imply that there are other, subjective tests. If so, I should very much like to know what they are. I should also like to know which of Freud’s “basic theories” Mr. Meyerhoff thinks are true and on what grounds. He has said he is not competent to judge the evidence in regard to the death instinct. What about the other theories? . . . The fact that an idea survives adverse criticism is not a test of its worth. If false ideas died out when shown up, the history of the world would be quite different. . . .
What kind of “philosophy” is it which holds that to raise a question of truth is “scurrilous,” that waves aside empirical evidence, plays down logical difficulties, and attacks on a personal level? My own belief is that the first concern of philosophy is truth and its discussion is never out of place. . . . Since Mr. Meyerhoff thinks truth is “a serious, technical” matter not suitable for the pages of COMMENTARY, I would be happy to continue the debate with him in any pages he thinks are appropriate. But I don’t think he will find it easier going anywhere else.
Mr. Meyerhoff writes:
Why bother with Freud if his theory is what Mrs. McCall and Mr. Caplan think it is? If he was an impostor as a scientist, and if psychoanalysis as a theory is a big hoax, why argue and prolong a discussion which leads nowhere?
Ashley Montagu (“Letters from Readers,” May) raises a point of considerable interest. He urges upon us again that “the Oedipus complex is neither (1) innate, nor (2) universal, but that wherever it occurs (3) it is culturally determined.” This is a view shared by many students of anthropology and sociology; yet I have often wondered whether the appeal to “cultural determinism,” so frequently invoked in these disciplines, does not raise logical difficulties of its own.
“Determined” is a relational word. It makes sense only by contrast with something which is not determined. Thus to use it as an explanatory principle in an analysis of culture always presupposes that there are some factors in this analysis which are not determined, but “free.” The blanket endorsement of “cultural determinism” often conceals this dialectical relationship between those aspects of culture which are believed to be “determined” and those which are believed to be “free.”
There is another ambiguity; for “culture” is a relational word, too. It makes sense only by contrast with something which is not cultural. Culture does not operate in a vacuum, but it must act on and interact with something other than culture. Now, Freud’s bio-psychological approach was a way of showing this dialectical relationship between culture and something other than culture, i.e., certain constant, invariant conditions both in human nature and in the physical environment. This does not mean that, say, the Oedipus situation is “biologically” determined. To ask whether it is biologically or culturally determined is to raise a spurious issue; for it is both. To discover what culture contributes to anything in human life, it must always be possible to state certain conditions which are not “culturally” determined and which set limits to the process of acculturation.
Of course, Freud may have been mistaken in the choice of his non-cultural (biological) concepts; but it is a common and gross misunderstanding of his thought to assume that he did not recognize the role that culture played in the vicissitudes of the libido. What else was he writing about all his life? The differences dividing the psychoanalytic movement were not, as it is often said even in textbooks, differences over the issue of “cultural determinism.” They arose over the issue of choosing a different set of constant and invariant conditions in human nature—e.g., Adler’s “power drive,” Jung’s “collective archetypes,” or Fromm’s system of “basic human needs”—which interact with and set limits to the patterns of culture.