Psychological Science: Sigmund Freud – A Personal and Scientific Coward? Part 2

by Norman Costa

Part 1 of “Psychological Science: Sigmund Freud – A Personal and Scientific Coward?” can be found HERE.

Note: Sources for this article, Part 1 and Part 2, can be found at the end of this article.


Questions, Questions, Questions!

In Part 1 of this article, I posed three questions:

1. How did Freud, with his collaborator and mentor, Joseph Breuer, and independent rival, Pierre Janet, discover the traumatic basis of hysteria, as well as its treatment?

2. Why did Freud repudiate his findings on the traumatic basis for hysteria?

3. In the face of his prior scientific investigations, how did Freud come to develop psychoanalysis? And to develop a psycho-sexual theory of development based upon the inferiority, mendacity, and erotic fantasies and desires of women?

I provided answers to the first two questions in Part 1. Here, in Part 2, I deal with the third. Freud repudiated his theory of the traumatic aetiology of hysteria, but as a scientist he still had to account for his data. The problem one confronts in finding an answer to the third question is this: How does one go from Freud's observations and recorded data to the theory of the Oedipal Complex – the cornerstone of his psycho-sexual stages of personality development, and psychoanalysis?

Sigmund Freud was a life long student and reader of the great works of his time, and of history. He knew the ancient mythologies of Greece and Rome, the Greek playwrights like Sophocles and Aeschylus, and the works of the Greek philosophers like Plato. He studied the Torah and Talmud, and read and quoted the plays of William Shakespeare from the age of eight. He was also an exceptionally gifted writer. Critics and scientists, with both great admiration and a justified “cutting-him-down-to-size,” have commented on his tremendous gifts as a writer. Central to Harold Bloom's views of Freud is the following: “For many years I have taught that Freud is essentially prosified Shakespeare: Freud”s vision of human psychology is derived, not altogether unconsciously, from his reading of the plays.” Bloom notes, also, that

Sigmund Freud persists today, but not as a scientist or even as a healer. The late Francis Crick observed that Freud was a Viennese physician who wrote a very good prose style, but while funny enough that is hardly adequate. Freud matters because he shares in the qualities of Proust and Joyce: cognitive insight, stylistic splendor, wisdom. That remains all on earth we can hope to study and to know.

Throughout his lifetime, Freud considered himself a scientist doing proper science. Supporters and critics alike cede to each other that Freud understood the philosophy of science, the experimental method, the concept of falsifiability, and science's foundation in empiricism. Yet, he believed psychoanalytic psychotherapy was properly the purview of lay psychoanalysts. Freud never forgave the American medical community for embracing psychoanalysis, as he felt the practitioner should be outside the sciences of medicine and biology.


Getting from Point A to Point B

This brings us back, however, to how Freud got from his research data on hysterics (point A) to the Oedipal Complex (point B.) Since it takes a gifted literary mind and writer to span this chasm – one that science could never traverse – then where did the literary metaphors originate? Freud's tripartite, and reified, division of personality, Id, Ego, and Superego, analogizes directly to Plato’s dialog, “Phaedrus.” The dialog features a charioteer and his team of horses, one white and the other black. The white horse was well behaved, well bred, and needed little coaxing by the driver. The black horse was ill tempered, badly behaved, and poorly bred, requiring great control and exertion by the charioteer. This was Socrates' model of the human soul, or psyche. In the vernacular of Freud's structure of personality, the black horse was the Id, the white horse the Ego, and the Charioteer the Superego.

The most important, and by far the most powerful, metaphor for Freud was the Oedipal Complex. Without the Oedipal Complex there is no psycho-sexual theory of development, no tripartite division of personality, no psychoanalysis, and no Freud. Where did the Oedipus Complex originate? It originated with Shakespeare's ambivalent character, Hamlet. More accurately, it originated with Hamlet, as interpreted by Freud. Sophocles' play, “Oedipus the King,” was not the inspiration for Freud. Rather, “Oedipus the King” was the closest fitting literary metaphor he could attach to his understanding of the Dane, with whom Freud identified, strongly.


First came Hamlet, followed by the Oedipus metaphor – the fit is strained, if not illogical. It's a match that demands assumption, followed by assumption, followed by interpretation, followed by assumption, etc. This is a near perfect example of an argument that doesn't even come close to Occam's description of an acceptable simple explanation. At the very least, Oedipus has no knowledge that the man he killed is his father, nor that the king's wife is his own mother. For Hamlet, his own father is dead, killed not by Hamlet, but by Hamlet's uncle, Claudius. The only event that was near incestuous – but not really – is Claudius marrying his brother's wife, Gertrude. The Dane had two charges from the ghost of his bellicose father: Avenge his father's murder, and bring no harm to his mother. The only one he manages to murder, at the end, is his uncle; but only after his mother is dispatched, accidentally, with a poisoned drink. Bloom wonders why Freud adopted the name “Oedipal Complex” when, more rightly, he should have labeled it the “Hamlet Complex.”

Some people have, and will continue to have, great difficulty in reevaluating the Oedipus Complex in light of its origin in Hamlet, and the very imperfect correspondence of the two. This is because the genius of Freud, the writer, has forever insinuated the Oedipal Complex into the DNA of western, if not all of, modern civilization. Everyone knows Freud, and understands the Oedipal Complex – even the great masses who have never read Shakespeare or Freud or Sophocles. It is my personal view that the non-readers, especially, credit themselves with great insight and understanding on all subjects Freudian. It is the predicted outcome of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. As illogical as it sounds, it's a daunting task to reassess the purported Oedipal nature of Hamlet's conflicts and internal struggles, and reassess the manifest clarity of the metaphor of Sophocles' character. How can one discard an explanation that is so obvious on its face. Can it be any more clear that a rereading and reinterpretation are hardly worth the effort? The idea is imparted in milk for the infant, and particulate matter in the air we breathe.

I repeat myself, with cause: How does one go from Freud's observations and recorded data to the Oedipal Complex, the cornerstone of his psycho-sexual stages of personality development, and psychoanalysis? The answer is very simple. You don't, and you can't, unless you are as creative, imaginative, broadly educated, and skilled in writing with the genius of Sigmund Freud. His genius and intelligence did produce worthy ideas that survive to present day practice. For the most part, Freud's theories have not survived the rigors of research studies over the past six or seven decades. However, some of the vocabulary associated with his theories survives in the contemporary lexicon, but with different interpretations.


Oh Why, Oh Why, Oh Why?

Oh, and let's not forget that along with means and opportunity, Freud had the motivation to fly his metaphors over the gap, and a very significant motivation at that. Why Hamlet? Why Oedipus? Why abandon the trauma theory of hysteria? Why did Freud discredit his own patients? Why interpret every objection of his patients as proof of the validity of his own interpretations?

1. In Part 1, I discussed the possibility that Freud and his siblings were abused by his father (see Kupfersmid, below) and that he could not deal with matters that were obviously repressed.

2. There is the possibility that the objective realization of the frequency of horrible sexual abuse in the population was beyond comprehension.

3. Freud was met with hostility and shunning within his professional community, and from his colleagues.

4. Freud's professional career and livelihood were tangibly and seriously in jeopardy.

Freud's own motivations are the stuff of a century of literary and psychological analysis and debate. It is not possible to arrive at a final word on the matter. The best one can do is put forward as reasonable an explanation as possible, accept that others will proffer their own interpretations, and possibly ridicule one's own.

One might allow that Freud's own abuse, and not unreasonable incredulity give him a free pass from our harshest criticism. Freud's doubts, and ambivalences toward his own traumatic theory of hysteria was emerging late in the game, at the same time as he was formalizing and publishing his great contribution to the scientific literature. In my view, it was as if his self doubt and denial were a direct result of being so close to the truth of the traumatic aetiology of hysteria. Possibly, he was getting too close to the repressed memories of his own abuse. The closer he got, the more difficult it was to sustain adherence to his trauma theory and to the awful truth. Joel Kupfersmid (1992) argues that

…Freud abandoned his seduction theory, not…owing to his colleagues' hostility, but because he could not accept the strong possibility that he and his siblings had been seduced as children, possibly by their father. Freud developed the Oedipus complex as an acceptable defense against such a realization; however, the defense was not completely effective, and he persisted in many of his neurotic symptoms. Freud's belief that he suffered from hysteria was most pronounced during self-analysis, which corresponded to the period during which he abandoned the seduction thesis. Eventually Freud…[in]…1931…was able to state that seduction causes neurosis, and that sexual abuse of children is not uncommon, but the seduction theory never regained the status of primary causal agent for many of the neurotic disorders.

All Freud needed to sustain his work on the trauma theory, in my opinion, was a gesture of validation from his professional colleagues. Breuer and Freud's colleagues not only let him down, they dismissed him, and were hostile toward him. Breuer, his collaborator and mentor, was especially cruel on this with his remark to Freud, “All the same, I don't believe it.”

Explaining Freud's buckling under the recriminations from his colleagues is a different matter. Freud's career, livelihood, and professional standing were in serious jeopardy. Understanding Freud's reaction to the threat, however, requires the acceptance of a simple, but important, fact. Freud was a snob and elitist (see Bloom, below.)


Why Hamlet? If you are a snob and elitist, why not Hamlet? Hamlet is the most intelligent of all of Shakespeare's characters. In Hamlet, Shakespeare creates the self-reflective man who can become interior and evaluate his own motives and actions, as no one did before. It is unreasonable not to expect Freud to identify with the Prince of ambivalence. In “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” Bloom says, “No single character in the plays, not even Falstaff or Cleopatra, matches Hamlet's infinite reverberations.” P. 384. Again he says,

There is no “real” Hamlet as there is no “real” Shakespeare: the character, like the writer, is a reflecting pool, a spacious mirror in which we needs must see ourselves. Permit this dramatist a concourse of contraries, and he will show us everybody and nobody, all at once. We have no choice but to permit Shakespeare, and his Hamlet, everything, because neither has a rival. P. 401.

Hamlet resonates with everyone. It is universal, and so it was with Freud. As with the rest of us, Freud played out his own motivations in the never equaled, one-size-fits-all Hamlet. Analyzing Freud, vis a vis his identification with Hamlet, is to engage in the same projections and internally consistent tautologies that Freud was wont to do. We may or may not be any better at it than Freud, but we do it anyway, as I am about to do. In my view, it is not an accident that Freud identifies with literature's most intelligent character, one who is of royal blood, written by the greatest writer in western civilization, and who is face to face with fecundity and evil in the greatest conflict of his life – a matter of life, death, honor, and duty for a non-confrontational, non-warrior-like, but clever, reflective bookworm. Is this Hamlet or is it Freud?

Harold Bloom adds to the characterization of Freud as snob and elitist by pointing to Freud taking many ideas from Shakespeare, yet not wanting to share the credit with Shakespeare. This led Freud, in Bloom's view, to an exaggerated sense of his own importance as a solo inventor, and dismissing Shakespeare's contribution to the development of the psychoanalytic view of man. Bloom said in “The Western Canon”:

For Freud, as for Goethe, the works of Shakespeare were the secular center of culture, the hope for a rational glory in mankind still to come. There was more even than that for Freud. On some level, Freud understood that Shakespeare had invented psychoanalysis by inventing the psyche, insofar as Freud could recognize and describe it. This could not have been a pleasant understanding, since it subverted Freud's declaration that “I invented psychoanalysis because it had no literature.” P. 60.

Strangely, Freud signed on to the theory that the Earl of Oxford, and not the son of a glove maker, was the actual author of Shakespeare's plays. If Freud was going to get his ideas from Shakespeare, then it's preferable to have the 'real' Shakespeare be of noble birth. Bloom's thesis is clever, and I like it, but it's not without its critics. Suffice it to say that there was plenty of evidence that Freud was very ambitious, and he saw himself as not exactly like the rest of us.

The most telling evidence of Freud's snobbery and elitism, as well as an indicator of the intellectual posturing and hocus-pocus surrounding early psychoanalysis, was that Freud and his theories became a cult of discipleship. Membership and good standing were contingent upon acceptance of dogma. Disagree and out you go. It's interesting that those early adopters of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, who later developed different ideas, or proposed elaborations upon psychoanalysis, or simply disagreed, were considered to have “broken off” or “broken away”' from Freud.


Personal and Scientific Coward?

I am very much tempted to label Freud a personal coward for his retreat from the traumatic origins of hysteria. What argues against Freud is the fact that Janet, unlike Freud, did not put his ambition ahead of his integrity and the well being of his patients. If it were clearly and solely the ambition, prestige, money, and power that associate to success in a respected profession, there would be no discussion. But, if the hypothesis is true that Freud, himself, was a victim of sexual abuse (along with his siblings), then his profound denial is not a character flaw as much as it is an expected outcome that is necessary to his psychic survival. As a result, I can't make the case for his being a personal coward.

In my opinion, Freud cannot escape being seen as a scientific coward. He had no excuse, since he positioned himself, his entire career, as a scientist doing science. There is no question he understood what science was and how it was conducted. As a scientist he had an obligation to explain his data, if he wanted to continue research in the same line of inquiry. He slandered his clients with charges that had no supporting evidence, whatsoever. His only claim to authority was his own sexism and that of his larger male culture. He proposed theory and explanations based purely on literary metaphors and the analogizing of observed behavior (more like personal interpretations) to the metaphors. This is perhaps literature, or speculative theory, but it is not science.

What especially works against Freud is that there were numerous situations in which he did behave like a scientist. He modified his thinking, or discarded a view on the basis of new data or the lack of expected findings. But, he was selective about what was deserving of objective analysis and what was not. Judith Herman was kind to Freud in saying that he, as a lone scientist, cannot shoulder the entire blame in the absence of political or cultural support for changing old ways of thinking. I am not as kind because Freud did influence the entire world, over the course of a few generations, in so many areas of work, art, literature, medicine, social behavior, mental health, education, religious thought, and personal morals

The result of abandoning the traumatic origins of hysteria meant that women (and men) were to suffer, needlessly, for another 100 years, after the cause (traumatic sexual experience) and treatment (a safe place, recovering repressed memories, talking out the detail of both events and affect), had already been discovered. Science, politics, and medicine did not bring an end to 2,500 years of blaming women for the pain that is delivered upon them everyday in every country in the world. It was women, themselves, in the feminist movement that called him out.

Note: Below are the principal sources for this article.

Judith Herman MD. “Trauma and Recovery”
Sigmund Freud. “Studies on Hysteria”
Sigmund Freud. “The Aetiology of Hysteria”
Harold Bloom. “The Western Canon”
Harold Bloom. “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human”
Paul Robinson. “Freud and His Critics”
Irme Salusinzky. “An Interview with Harold Bloom”

Thank you very much for reading. Please offer your comments, below, and join us for a discussion. I'll see you again on Monday, March 29, 2010.