Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is arguably the most influential figure of the twentieth century. Psychoanalytic approaches have been applied to such widely diverse fields as history, political science, literature, music, and the arts. Nonetheless, the basis of psychoanalysis is pseudoscientific. This observation came about very slowly and, unfortunately, very ineffectively.
The entire discipline of psychoanalysis is based on the dogma of the
division of consciousness into three levels. First, there is the conscious level; “below”1 this lies the preconscious. “Below” the preconscious lies the unconscious. According to Freud unconscious contains memories, desires, and feelings that have been repressed by the individual because they would be too traumatic or painful to face directly due mostly to sexual inhibition.
Freud’s theory also deals in great detail with the development of personality and specifically with the development of sexual behavior and sexual identity. He divided personality into three structures:
- The id is thought of as the “seed” of personality. The newborn has only an id and the other structures of the personality develop from it. The id is also the most animalistic part of the personality, seeking only to obtain pleasure and avoid pain.
- The ego develops as the child grows. It is reality-oriented and modifies or controls the desires of the id by taking into account the possible consequences of an action.
- The superego is the conscience of the individual. It judges whether an action is right or wrong, according to whatever set of moral standards the child has been taught.
These three structures of personality interact in complicated ways. For example, the ego may postpone the gratification of the id, and the superego may “battle” with both the id and the ego because behavior often falls short of the moral code it represents. But more often in the normal person, the three work as a team, producing integrated behavior.
- It is not clear whether the word “below” has any real spatial connotation! ↩
No evidence is mentioned that dictates this kind of division and the interaction among them. Why not add another structure between id and ego, or between ego and superego? Why not allow for more possibilities of interactions and let personality have a multilevel structure? Divide the personality, in order of decreasing “animalisticity,” into id, idd, iidd, subego, ego, superego! Or some equally absurd structure!
Two major characteristics of science are emphasis on observation and the material nature of its objects of study. These two characteristics of science are conspicuously absent in psychoanalysis. Freud never made any observation of any material object from which to deduce psychoanalysis. His only object of “study” was personality and mind. A true scientific investigation of the mind would concentrate on its material origin, the brain. And a study of the brain would lead immediately to neurobiology.
When a discipline starts with a dogma that is remote from and insensitive to observation and experimental data, interpretation and reinterpretation becomes an essential part of the discipline. By constantly reinterpreting its content, psychoanalysis can accommodate every truth (or falsehood). Every new case, regardless of its nature, is a new confirmation of the psychoanalytic theory. While a good theory, such as the general theory of relativity, makes the risky prediction of the bending of light as it grazes the sun, psychoanalysis is risk free, because it makes either no prediction or every possible outcome can be interpreted as a prediction after the fact!
Let us put psychoanalysis to the test of another characteristic of
science: its detachment from the scientists. Neither the “charisma” of Einstein nor the “cult of personality” of Newton has had any effect on the validity and acceptance of relativity or the laws of motion.
What happened to psychoanalysis after (even at the time of) Freud?
In The History of Psychoanalysis,1 written by a proud psychoanalyst, we read “From the very beginning of psychoanalysis, schisms and dissensions within its ranks have been notorious.” Should any reader with even a slight familiarity with the workings of science not wonder “Why the schisms and dissensions?” Can the opposing parties not bring their disagreements to the court of observation and let this supreme judge of all sciences rule out all claims except one to which all must adhere? We don’t hear anything about the “schisms and dissensions” in the ranks of relativity theory! The history of relativity has no chapter on the split among its rank due to disagreements on the power of c in E=mc2! Or on what Einstein meant by the letter c in that formula! Disagreement, schisms, and dissensions occur only in disciplines in which observation, the most fundamental ingredient of science, is absent. This frequently occurs in politics and religion where dogma replaces theories and interpretation of dogma replaces observation. The similarity between religion and psychoanalysis is very well described in the following statement on page 78 of the same book: “The historian must offer some rational explanation of these innumerable splits and divisions, which are paralleled perhaps only in the history of religion. The analogy is by no means inappropriate, forpsychoanalysis has also been dominated by a long series of charismatic figures, like the religious sects. When the works of these charismatic figures are carefully pursued, they often make little or no sense ….”
- Fine, R. The History of Psychoanalysis, Continuum, 1990, page 77. ↩
Charisma playing a dominant role in science? Are relativists to be mesmerized by the charm of a “charismatic figure” into believing that E=mc3? or E=mc4? Or perhaps E=mc2.5? And why are these charismatic figures allowed to make statements that “make little or no sense”? Why aren’t their works “carefully pursued” to begin with? Is there no yardstick in psychoanalysis with which to measure the validity of psychoanalytic statements? Psychoanalysis is so arbitrary that “neither Jung nor Adler grasped the bases of the first psychoanalytic system.” [page 78]
Here is a historian of psychoanalysis, himself a psychoanalyst, who proclaims that even Jung and Adler, the two most prominent psychoanalysts after Freud, did not grasp “the bases of the first psychoanalytic system.” In other words, only Freud could grasp psychoanalysis, i.e., psychoanalysis cannot be detached from Freud.
The history of psychoanalysis after Freud is a history of sectarianism. We hear about the hatred that Freud developed toward Adler after the latter showed a mild independence in the discipline. We hear about the love-hate, father-son, and “unanalyzed homosexual transference” relation between Freud and Jung.[pages 79-87]
But the best story is that of Wilhelm Reich, who “up to 1933 was one of the leading figures” in psychoanalysis, and whose book Character Analysis “made a significant contribution to the understanding of character.” In his attempts to combine Freud and Marxism, Reich developed a theory which he called “orgonomy,” and for which he found some followers. In later years he saw “orgone energy” as the antidote of nuclear energy and envisioned himself as the savior of mankind whom the FBI was protecting because of his knowledge of secrets. He was convicted of fraud regarding the “orgone box,” leading to his incarceration in a federal prison in which he died in 1957.[pages 108-109]
I am not attacking Reich’s personality here. Even a true scientist may be attracted to the realm of pseudoscience as Newton was to alchemy. However, Newton’s attraction to alchemy was completely detached from his scientific discoveries, and no other physicist followed him into alchemy. On the other hand, the very fact that Reich attracted some followers means that his “weird” ideas were the natural evolutionary products of his earlier (more widely accepted) theories.
The discipline of psychoanalysis allows so much religion-like interpretation that “whenever anything out of the way is presented in analysis, the originator avoids criticism by saying that he represents a different school”[page 87] Adler, Jung, and Reich were no exceptions; they were the rule. And if this is the “rule” of science, have the physicists missed the opportunity of creating “schools of light power,” each school “believing” in a different power than 2 in E=mc2? We see this kind of flourishing of schools over and over again, not only in psychoanalysis, but in any “scientific” field founded by a single person and based on a “dogma.”
As long as the “science” is attached to the personality of its founder, as long as one has to go back to the founder to verify the correctness of “scientific statements,” as long as students of the discipline – even a hundred years after its founding – are constantly referred to the work of the founder, and as long as there is no solid observational yardstick to check the claims of the leaders, the word “science” is only a decorative emblem attached to the discipline to attract new “disciples.”
The dogmatic nature of psychoanalysis, as in all other dogma-driven disciplines, leaves its door open to every possible unchecked whim. Since the “master”‘ has founded the entire discipline on fancy, why should the loyal disciples refrain from proposing genuine fanciful “theories.” When Freud himself arbitrarily divides human psycho into id, ego, and superego, it is only natural for Jacques Lacan, one of his most prominent French followers, to claim that the diversity in the geometrical and topological structures of sphere, Möbius strip, and the Klein bottle “is very important as it explains many things about the structure of mental disease.”1
- Sokal, A. and Brichmont, J. Fashionable Nonsense, Picador, 1998, page 19. ↩
So, why is Lacan using the language of topology, geometry, and
mathematics in his psychoanalytic study of the mind? Is there some
rational necessity for its usage? Is psychoanalysis forcing these
mathematical concepts on him? Does he gain simplicity and clarity by their usage? Obviously not! Lacan’s use of mathematics as his medium of caprice may be his futile ambition of bestowing exactness to the pseudoscience of psychoanalysis. After all, physics uses
mathematics, and it is considered an exact science. So, why not impose mathematics on psychoanalysis and make it an exact
science as well!