Commentary Magazine

A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis, by Peter Gay

Hymn to Freud

A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis.
by Peter Gay.
Yale University Press, in association with Hebrew Union College Press. 182 pp. $17.95.

As anyone acquainted with his work knows, Peter Gay is an enthusiastic partisan of the Enlightenment. From earliest writings, he has consistently championed the rational disenchantment of the world, and looked to the likes of Voltaire and Diderot, Feuerbach and Marx, and above all, Sigmund Freud, as his ancestral heroes. And there is something to be said for this stance, when it is taken in moderation and modesty, for it can foster a healthy resistance to the fashionable irrationalisms that periodically afflict even advanced minds. As a refugee (albeit a very young one) from the Nazis, Gay has been understandably preoccupied with the dangers that can result from the wanton abandonment of reason. Skepticism, as Santayana once remarked, is the chastity of the intellect; and chastity, as we are now rediscovering, is not always a bad thing. If the skeptic must forgo, for a time, the sweet pleasures of surrender, he can at least protect himself from a host of unforeseen and untoward consequences.

Yet the heart too has its reasons, and a wise skepticism must also be skeptical of itself. Otherwise it is liable to be unaware of dogmas creeping up the back stairway, and may end up yielding its virtue to some imposing conquistador, out in the embarrassing publicity of the fire escape. This latest of Peter Gay’s books, based upon a series of lectures he delivered in 1986 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is a case in point. It is nothing less than a true believer’s full-throated hymn to Sigmund Freud, paying tribute to the singular courage, as Gay would have it, with which Freud unflinchingly pressed the implications of the scientific Weltanschauung to their logical conclusion, and brushed aside the pathetic collective delusion called “religion” along the way. Only an atheist, Gay argues, could have liberated his consciousness sufficiently to conceive the ultimate science of psychoanalysis; and because psychoanalysis is science, its truths are absolute, universal, and superhistorical, all the way down to the most arcane cathartic detail. As for Freud’s personal background, it was valuable to him only insofar as his sense of social marginality as a Viennese Jew placed him “in opposition” to the status quo; otherwise, it played an insignificant role in the origins of psychoanalysis.

Readers of Gay’s previous hymns to Freud will find all this pretty familiar. But one wonders what the young theological students in his audience felt as they listened, very politely no doubt, to these thoughts. Perhaps they were thinking about going into another line of work. “The historical tension between science and religion,” Gay remarks promisingly in his preface, is “far more intricate” than most observers have realized; but in the pages that follow, under the title “Science Against Religion,” his argument could not be simpler. The relationship between science and religion is that between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, health and neurosis. To make sure we get the point, Gay crowns Freud “the last philosophe,” thus explicitly linking him, and psychoanalysis, to the debunking, anticlerical, scientistic, and wholly secular tradition he champions. In the hands of another writer, one might think that the choice of the adjective “last” reflected a historian’s sense of the Enlightenment’s historicity; but in Gay’s case, it reflects a belief that we are now living in the age of ultimate truths. No new philosophes need apply.



There is much wrong with this unsubtle argument, which reads in places like a gloss on the Scopes trial. To begin with, it must hold out of account the many distinguished scientists who have openly professed their belief in God; apparently these poor souls do not really understand their business. And it relies upon a distinctly 19th-century view of science, a view that has become more and more problematic with each passing year; one thinks, for example, of the revolutionary implications of developments in post-Newtonian subatomic physics, implications we have barely begun to absorb. And it is, in the end, unhelpful to talk about a scientific Weltanschauung, since there is no way instrumental reason can speak to us about the ends by which we ought to live, only the means we use to achieve them. Yet even if we set aside these initial misgivings, and agree for the time being to step aboard the leaking and listing vessel of 19th-century scientism, we immediately run into other serious difficulties.

Perhaps the foremost of these is Gay’s contention, reiterated again and again, without qualifications and without irony, that psychoanalysis is a science. One would never suspect from reading Gay’s book that Freud and his creation have in recent years come under a withering assault emanating from such scholars as Henri Ellenberger, Adolf Grünbaum, Frank Sulloway, and Frederick Crews, the last of whom has argued that “psychoanalysis is not appreciably different in epistemic rigor from the reading of tea leaves.” Amazingly enough, the names of these authors and their books do not even appear in Gay’s bibliography, let alone his text. Instead, Gay rehearses in loving detail the very same filiopietistic image of Freud that these formidable critics have discredited almost beyond repair. Perhaps he shows a certain short-term tactical savvy in ignoring challenges rather than confronting them, but one is hard put to reconcile such tactics with the candid spirit of science.

Indeed, the strategy of claiming psychoanalysis as pure and indubitable science—and doing so by loud and confident assertion—is a counterproductive one, for it raises the stakes to a point where nothing useful can survive the inevitable unmasking. It would be far better, and more honest, to put psychoanalysis forward as a valuable model, one among many that have sometimes proved useful in the hands of skilled and sensitive practitioners, but one without privileged ontological access to the tangled reality of the human soul. Otherwise, psychoanalysis should be submitted to the sort of controlled, public, and replicable testing of falsifiable hypotheses that real scientists engage in, and its therapeutic efficacy (and cost-effectiveness) judged by its record. But it will not do to perpetuate the high-handed combination of bullying and mystification by which the claim of “science” continues to be advanced—as, for example, in the self-fulfilling idea that the world’s “resistance” to psychoanalysis only serves to demonstrate the doctrine’s veracity.



Another troubling aspect of Gay’s book involves the sort of evidence he uses as an intellectual historian. Quite simply, the ultimate authority offered for any question involving the historical origins of psychoanalysis is always Freud himself. No one else matters. Somehow questions of biography, of historical context, and of unintended consequences, questions which affect the thought of lesser mortals—questions which Gay has put to his evidence in previous writings, often with distinguished results—are irrelevant to the consideration of Freud. It is as if Freud were immaculately conceived, and stood outside of intellectual history and all its petty conditioning forces.

Again, it seems an unfortunate error to attempt a rescue of what is valuable in Freud by claiming an implausible heroism for him; in science as in politics, full disclosure is the order of the day. One need not be very psychologically inclined to recognize that there is more to a man’s thought than what he himself is aware of, no matter how intelligent he is. And one need not roll in the heavy artillery of reader-response criticism to recognize that Freud’s historical significance hinges on the way other people have reacted to him and used him, and not exclusively on his assorted pronouncements about himself.

None of these considerations slows down Gay. On the question of the possible “common ground” between psychological science and religion, for example, the efforts of William James, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, and others matter for naught, because Freud asserted that there could be no common ground. Case closed. On the difficult question of what Freud’s Jewishness may have contributed to his thought, only Freud’s testimony truly matters; the rest is idle speculation. As for the claims that psychoanalysis is pseudoscience, this is definitively resolved by Freud’s assertion that he is a scientist. As for the unconscious determinants that might have helped make Freud into the figure he became, we are treated to the functional equivalent of an eighteen-and-a-half-minute tape-gap. Freud’s love of science stemmed from his professed view of nature as a beneficent mother, and his inability to stop feuding with an ever-growing list of enemies reflected (as he himself observed, of course) the fact that he worked best in an atmosphere of tension. God save us from such shocking revelations.



Perhaps Gay will deal more fully and forthrightly with these questions in his forthcoming biography of Freud. Perhaps he will answer, in a point-by-point way, the damaging criticisms made by Crews, Sulloway, et al. Perhaps he will complicate this Parson Weems-like portrait of the Master who cannot abide an untruth, and explain Freud’s apparently unscrupulous behavior in, for example, the Emma Eckstein case, or his cocaine-evangelism stage, to name but two complications. Perhaps he will explain why, if we are to believe everything Freud said, we should not believe his famous admission that he was “not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker,” but rather “nothing but a conquistador, an adventurer.” Perhaps. But in the meantime, good skeptics—those who believe, with Diderot, that in matters of science “everything must be examined”—would be well advised to lock their windows and keep an eye on the back stairs. Sometimes it is better to be chaste than sorry.



About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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