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Introduction: The Legacy of Freud
from Why Freud Was Wrong1

Richard Webster

'MURDER IS A CRIME. Describing murder is not. Sex is not a crime. Describing it is.'1 These words of Gershon Legman express well something of the confusion, fear and anxiety which have surrounded the subjects of sex and violence for very many centuries

This confusion clearly affects individuals at the most intimate and private level. But it is also significant in intellectual terms. For to think at all about subjects which are hedged round by such powerful taboos requires not simply lucidity of intellect, but emotional fluency of the kind we do not normally associate with the scientific mind. To think clearly requires even more unusual capacities. It also calls for a degree of intellectual rebelliousness which is rare among those trained in the natural sciences.

Sigmund Freud is frequently held to have possessed all of these qualities. The American writer Lucy Freeman begins her popular study of Freud and the psychoanalytic movement by observing that nearly twenty-one centuries have passed since Plato wrote, 'the life that is unexamined is not worth living', and advised man to 'Know thyself'. She goes on to describe the birth of psychoanalysis in the following terms:

For close to two millenniums Plato's celebrated dictum seemed to pose an impossible challenge to mankind. Then, at the dawn of the twentieth century, a lone doctor in Vienna, Sigmund Freud, conducted what Alexander Pope, in 1733, called 'the proper study of mankind'. Freud made startling discoveries that were to revolutionise the thinking of the world about the mind of man. Five centuries before Christ, Heraclitus had said, 'The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored.' But one man, Sigmund Freud, not only crossed the frontier of that far country, but penetrated its heartland, and through his writings and personal influence made the inner landscape available to all who dared follow.2

Lucy Freeman's journalistic fluency, and the seemingly naive assurance with which she disposes of more than two millennia of intellectual history, make it very tempting to dismiss her words as yet another example of the myth-making which has always surrounded the figure of Freud. Yet the most striking feature of Freeman's brief conspectus of Western thought is just how much truth it contains. For one of the simplest but most startling facts of intellectual history is that, until the beginning of the twentieth century, European thinkers made virtually no significant contribution to the scientific study of human nature and human behaviour. For at least half a century after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species we possessed no systematic theory which even attempted to explain the exceptionally violent nature of our own species, the extraordinary range and complexity of our non-reproductive sexual behaviour or the depth and power of some of the most ordinary human emotions. The fierce taboos and the atmosphere of religious unreason which surrounded nearly every form of intimate human relationship for centuries, had, it would seem, triumphed over science itself. Here, at least, the advance of human knowledge, which in almost all other areas had proved irresistible, had been held back.

That Freud eventually challenged many of these ancient taboos cannot be disputed. As the intrepid intellectual adventurer he was, he led an assault on the highest peak of human knowledge in a manner which has seemed to many observers not simply impressive, but in some respects magnificent. Yet the view that his expedition was triumphant -- that Freud actually succeeded in solving the enigma of human nature -- is one which, in the last twenty years or so, has been questioned or rejected by a series of increasingly hostile critics.

Indeed the sheer volume of such attacks has sometimes led to the mistaken impression that psychoanalysis is already a defeated force. Freud, however, has proved more difficult to vanquish than many of his opponents have calculated. As Walter Kendrick has written, 'How can you simply kill the Father who taught you that his death must be your desire?'3 Although some psychoanalysts themselves now profess a degree of defensive agnosticism about Freud's theories, the movement which he founded continues to show many signs of vigorous life. If the figure of Freud no longer bestrides the intellectual landscape in triumph, it seems at times that he still lies across it like Gulliver, diminishing his critics by the sheer scale and grandeur of his enterprise, and shrugging off as pin-pricks the lances which they hurl against him. 'Why,' asks Phyllis Grosskurth in a recent study of Freud's inner circle, 'has Sigmund Freud's life and work commanded such undiminished interest? Today -- as we approach the end of the century -- he appears to have been its leading intellectual force, a far more tenacious influence than Karl Marx.'4 More recently still, in a book which sets out to answer some of Freud's critics, the American historian Paul Robinson expressed optimism about the future of psychoanalysis:

Unless I am seriously mistaken ... Freud's recent critics will do him no lasting damage. At most they have delayed the inevitable process by which he will settle into his rightful place in intellectual history as a thinker of the first magnitude. Indeed the very latest scholarly studies of Freud suggest that the anti-Freudian moment may already have begun to pass.5

Robinson goes on to quote the view of Harold Bloom that 'No twentieth-century writer -- not even Proust or Joyce or Kafka -- rivals Freud's position as the central imagination of our age.'6 The fact that such views as these can still be seriously advanced is a mark of the status psychoanalysis continues to enjoy in at least some quarters of intellectual culture.

One of the reasons that psychoanalysis has proved so resilient in the face of recent attacks is that Freud's theories were themselves formulated in an environment of hostility. Those who follow Freud are thus able to account for the continuing scepticism about his ideas by invoking the same arguments which he deployed against his original detractors. One of the arguments resorted to most frequently is that which explains all criticism of psychoanalysis as a product of 'resistance'. Like many of Freud's ideas this notion contains an element of truth. For there can be no doubt that some people do reject his theories because of a conscious or unconscious aversion to their sexual content. But what defenders of psychoanalysis rarely if ever acknowledge is that theories about sexual behaviour which are wrong are just as likely to be met with resistance as theories which are right. The argument about unconscious resistance is therefore a diversion from the main issue. What is far more important about some recent criticism of Freud is that a number of scholars who do not regard the subject-matter of psychoanalysis as offensive or indelicate remain genuinely doubtful about the validity of psychoanalytic theory. They are dissatisfied with it because it fails to do the only thing we ultimately have a right to demand of explanatory theories -- it fails to explain.

I share this dissatisfaction. Psychoanalysis is, I believe, one of the most subtle of our many attempts to use reason in a 'magical' rather than in a scientific manner -- to use reason, that is to say, not in order to provide a genuine solution to an intellectual problem, but in order to provide a defence against the forces which we fear, and against aspects of our own nature which arouse anxiety. Freud saw himself as the rational foe of religion. Significantly, however, far from setting out radically to subvert the values of Judaeo-Christian asceticism which were deeply internalised in his own culture, Freud made the Lamarckian assumption that such asceticism had become part of our biological inheritance, so that it now belonged to our very nature. It is for this reason that his notion of therapy contains an implicit endorsement of the oldest of all ascetic ideals -- the glorification of the spirit at the expense of the body:

We liberate sexuality through our treatment, but not in order that man may from now on be dominated by sexuality, but in order to make a suppression possible -- a rejection of the instincts under the guidance of a higher agency ... We try to replace the pathological process with rejection.7

Driven by what some have construed as fierce intellectual honesty, Freud declined to excise sexuality from human nature completely. To some extent at least we have benefited from his attitude. But throughout the twentieth century, from the time of D. H. Lawrence to the time of Gershon Legman, Nancy Friday and their successors, there have been many who have rebelled against Victorian primness with far more gusto and far more enthusiasm for the realm of the obscene than can ever be glimpsed in the writings of any psychoanalyst. In the climate of explicitness which these latter-day rebels have helped to create it is now possible to see that psychoanalysis is far less adventurous and far less open than we once thought. Significantly, the science of sexuality which Freud brought into being is couched in a language purged of obscenity. Not only this, but Freud's own attitude towards some of the commonest forms of sexual behaviour, including masturbation, homosexuality and many aspects of women's sexuality, was one of distaste bordering on disgust. This attitude is reflected in psychoanalytic theories which are, in many respects, a flight away from the very forms of sexual behaviour which Freud claimed fearlessly to confront.

Given this cryptic conservatism it is perhaps not surprising that some writers have regarded Freud's doctrines as being compatible with traditional religious beliefs. One of Freud's earliest and most enthusiastic followers, the Protestant pastor Oskar Pfister, saw psychoanalysis as a gospel of love comparable with that preached by Jesus. More recently both Erik Erikson in his portrait of Luther, and Norman O. Brown in his Life Against Death have pointed to the numerous similarities between Luther's view of the human condition and that found in psychoanalysis.8 The resemblances which Brown and Erikson found between Lutheran Protestantism and classical psychoanalysis can scarcely be disputed. Some of those who are members of a Protestant church, or who hold any form of religious belief, may take comfort in discovering that the revealed truths perceived by Luther are in harmony with the analytic hypotheses produced by Freud. Those who possess greater intellectual caution, however, or those who hold no religious beliefs, may well feel some scepticism in the face of such an easy congruence of ancient faith and modern reason. They will be prompted to ask to what extent we should regard psychoanalysis not as a scientific approach to human nature but as a disguised continuation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

For if psychoanalysis seems in some quarters to have attained the weight and seriousness of orthodoxy it is perhaps for no other reason than that it is a form of orthodoxy itself -- a subtle reconstruction in a challenging and modern form of some of the most ancient religious doctrines and sexual ideologies.

This view of psychoanalysis has sometimes been taken by other writers. But it has not been taken very far. One of the reasons for this is that today, in our sceptical materialism, we tend to be profoundly unfamiliar with the doctrines and eschatology which once lay at the heart of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. So powerful has the ethos of secular rationalism become that we rarely recognise the fundamental role which has been played in history by irrational fantasies -- by religious dreams of redemption and world-purification, by miracles, rituals and magic, by the belief in angels, demons and witches, by visions of cosmic struggles between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, by the fear of Satan and the belief in the eternal punishment of the wicked.

Such fantasies were once the very essence of religious orthodoxy, and it was in the white-hot religious zeal which was associated with them up to and beyond the time of the Reformation that our modern rational conscience was originally forged. But one of the effects of our internalisation of the rational Protestant conscience has been actually to obscure the conditions in which that conscience was created. Out of its very severity the Protestant mind has tended progressively to repudiate the very supernaturalism which originally licensed its strictness, together with all those aspects of Christianity which no longer seem compatible with its modern rational form. As a result, although the doctrines of Heaven and Hell, of Original Sin and of the Last Judgement may have some nominal significance for us, they are no longer part either of our imaginative or of our intellectual reality. The fantasies which were once expressed in Christian demonology and in Christian visions of hell have been progressively relegated to the thriving sub-cultures of Satanism and science fiction, of horror comics and pornography. In the dissociated post-religious culture which has in this way been brought into being, Christians and rational humanists alike are often unable to bring themselves to believe that the very forms of fantasy they have been conditioned to revile once lay at the orthodox heart of the religious tradition which our culture tends still to revere. Our modern cultural predicament has been most succinctly and poignantly expressed by the novelist John Updike: 'Alas we have become, in our Protestantism, more virtuous than the myths which taught us virtue; we judge them barbaric.'9

Our culturally orthodox lack of familiarity with our own culture has not only brought about the virtual destruction of our historical consciousness, but it has also profoundly affected every area of contemporary intellectual life. Above all it has determined our reaction to modern theories of human nature. In considering such theories what must always be borne in mind is that it is only in the last century or so that secular theories of human nature have become at all common. Before that time intellectuals generally felt little need of such theories. They felt no need of them for the simple reason that they subscribed, almost without exception, to the creationist theory of human nature which is contained in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam. It was only in the early part of the nineteenth century, as the 'truths' of revealed religion were increasingly discredited, that an acute need for secular theories of human nature began to emerge.

The confident assumption which is generally made by modern rationalist thinkers is that the propositions about human nature which are contained in such theories as Marxism, psychoanalysis, existentialism, functionalism, and structural anthropology, are of a quite different order to the propositions about human nature which are contained within the Judaeo-Christian theory which they effectively replace. Whatever judgement may be passed on particular theories, it is at least generally assumed that modern thinkers have succeeded in freeing themselves from the superstitious and theological modes of thought which dominated those intellectuals who belonged to an era of faith. It is, however, just this assumption which needs to be questioned. For although such secular theories as psychoanalysis and structural anthropology have evidently shed the theism of Christianity, it is not at all clear that they have repudiated the view of human nature which was once associated with creationist theology, and with Judaeo-Christian doctrines of sin and redemption. Modern theorists of human nature, indeed, trapped as they are within a culture which has systematically mystified its own strongest traditions, are rather in the position of the mariner who sets out to sea without a chart. When he lands at a different point on the same continent from which he originally set sail, there is always the danger that he may fail to recognise this, and announce instead that he has discovered a new world.

In the last hundred years such thinkers as Marx, Freud, Sartre and Lévi-Strauss have, I believe, repeatedly made just such a voyage. Setting out from a culture alienated from its traditional beliefs, disconsolately counting the small change of its new spiritual poverty, they have returned richly laden with belief and certainty in order to announce the discovery of the Brave New Worlds of dialectical materialism, of psychoanalysis, of existentialism and of structuralism. Many thinkers have greeted these discoveries with relief and enthusiasm. But because of their profound lack of familiarity with the orthodoxies of their own culture, they have often failed to recognise that the New Worlds in question are in reality but part of the old religious continent which was once their own, and that what they have embraced are not fresh theories of human nature but Judaeo-Christian orthodoxies which have been reconstructed in a secular form, safe from the attacks of science precisely because they are presented as science.

Any culture which is founded upon the internalisation of a body of sacred doctrine, but which allows that body of doctrine to fall into obscurity, is always in danger of recreating old errors in new secular forms, and of allowing unexamined forms of irrationalism to determine its very definition of rationality. It is to this danger that our own culture has succumbed over and over again during the past century.

What I have set out to do in this book is to show in detail how the creation of psychoanalysis in the closing years of the nineteenth century and its development and reception during the twentieth century has followed just this pattern. At the same time I have tried to use what amounts to an essay in cultural analysis in order to untie some of the complex intellectual knots which have been tied in our understanding of and of human nature by Freud and his followers.

I have devoted a whole book to a theory I believe to be mistaken partly because I think it is mistaken in a particularly interesting way, and partly in order to establish the need for an alternative theory of human sexuality and human nature. It is because my ultimate aim is constructive, rather than destructive, that I have not yielded to the temptation to dismiss the psychoanalytic movement out of hand as being without intellectual value or significance. In the past twenty or thirty years there have been a number of attacks on psychoanalysis which have taken such a view. But I believe that one of the great dangers in any critique of Freud is that of underestimating the real achievements of those who have written within the psychoanalytic tradition. For this tradition has every claim to be regarded as richer and more original than any other single intellectual tradition in the twentieth century. Many of Freud's earliest followers were themselves highly creative and the writings of Otto Rank, Ernest Jones, Victor Tausk and Hans Sachs still reward careful reading. In its subsequent development the psychoanalytic tradition has included the original and sometimes heterodox contributions of Wilhelm Reich, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, Bruno Bettelheim, Anthony Storr and Nancy Chodorow. Valuable contributions have also been made by many other psychoanalytic writers -- I think in particular of the American analysts Lawrence Kubie and Joel Kovel.10

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1 Gershon Legman, quoted in Gay Talese, Thy Neighbour's Wife, Pan, 1980, p. 389
2 Lucy Freeman, Freud Rediscovered, 1980, New York: Arbor House, pp. 1-2.
3 Walter Kendrick, review of Jeffrey Masson's "Freud: The Assault on Truth", Voice Literary Supplement, June 1984.
4 Phyllis Grosskurth, The Secret Ring: Freud's Inner Circle and the Politics of Psychoanalysis, Jonathan Cape, 1991, p. 14.
5Paul Robinson, Freud and His Critics, University of California Press, 1993, p. 269
6Harold Bloom, 'Freud, the Greatest Modern Writer', New York Times Book Review, 23 March 1986, quoted in Robinson, p. 270.
7Freud, Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, ed. Herman Nunberg and Ernst Federn, vol. II, New York: International Universities Press, 1967.
8Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther, New York: W. W. Norton, 1958; Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959.
9John Updike, in his introduction to F. J. Sheed (ed.), Soundings in Satanism, Mowbrays, 1972, p. vii. The best-known modern example of this attitude will be found in Bishop John Robinson's Honest to God (SCM Press Ltd, 1963), in which the traditional doctrines and beliefs of Christianity are systematically repudiated. John Robinson's position is very close to that outlined by the Anglican lay-theologian John Wren-Lewis, whose words he quotes:

I cannot emphasise too strongly that acceptance of the Christian faith became possible for me only because I did not have to go back on my wholesale rejection of the superstitious beliefs which surrounded me ... There is a misplaced sense of loyalty which makes many Christians feel reluctant to come out in open opposition to anything that calls itself by the same name, or uses words like 'God' and 'Christ'; even Christians who in practice dislike superstition as much as I do still often treat it as a minor aberration to be hushed up rather than a radical perversion to be denounced ... In fact a very large part of what passes for religion in our society is exactly the sort of neurotic illness which Freud describes, and the first essential step in convincing people that Christianity can be true in spite of Freud is to assert outright that belief based on the projection mechanisms he describes is false, however much it may say 'Lord, Lord.' It is not enough to describe such beliefs as childish or primitive, for this implies that the truth is something like them, even though more 'refined' and 'enlightened', whereas in reality nothing like the 'God' and 'Christ' I was brought up to believe in can be true. It is not merely that the Old Man in the Sky is only a mythological symbol for the Infinite Mind behind the scenes, nor yet that this Being is benevolent rather than fearful; the truth is that this whole way of thinking is wrong, and if such a Being did exist he would be the very devil (quoted in Honest to God, p. 43).

The theology of John Robinson and John Wren-Lewis is by no means as novel as might be supposed. Historically speaking this kind of theology has its origins in extreme Puritanism. In 1650 the Leveller Gerrard Winstanley wrote that the traditional Christian, who 'thinks God is in the heavens above the skies, and so prays to that God which he imagines to be there and everywhere ... worships his own imagination which is the devil' (quoted in Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, Penguin, 1975, p. 140). It is both interesting and significant that while Wren-Lewis and Winstanley both decry 'superstitions' neither of them can dispense with the concept of 'devil' and both end by eschewing reasoned criticism of the beliefs they oppose in favour of a kind of exasperated demonology.
10Although I have included in this list psychoanalytic writers who have, in my view, made interesting contributions to psychology, the inclusion of any particular writer should not be construed as an unqualified endorsement of their work. In the case of John Bowlby, for example, it remains my impression that, for all the immense value of his work in changing hospital practice, his theoretical contribution tends to be accepted uncritically by too many writers (particularly those who are out of sympathy with Freud), simply because it appears to have empirical foundations and a sounder relation to Darwinian theory than can be claimed by classical psychoanalysis. For an interesting view of Bowlby, see Jeremy Holmes, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, Routledge, 1993. See also Michael Rutter's Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, 2nd edition, Penguin, 1981. Rutter's criticisms of Bowlby, though mildly put, add up to a significant repudiation of the lofty estimate which Bowlby formed of his own theories.
I yoke together Lawrence Kubie and Joel Kovel because of Kovel's White Racism: A Psychohistory, Allen Lane, 1972, in which Kovel acknowledges his debt to Kubie's 'The Fantasy of Dirt', Psychoanalytic Quarterly, vol. VI, 1937. Kovel is one of the few psychoanalysts to have appreciated something of the value and profundity of Kubie's paper

Why Freud Was Wrong
HarperCollins (UK) / Basic Books (US) 1995

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