No Respect

Posted: July 10, 2017 in Uncategorized

Sigmund Freud is the Rodney Dangerfield of Western intellectuals. He doesn’t get any respect. Frequently, for example, you will hear students echoing their psychology professors or high school teachers asserting that Freud is obsolete, that his theories have been discredited and are only of historical interest.[1] Psychology professors, theorists, and high school teachers should know better. Perhaps they even do know better, but there is something about Freud that bothers them, that disturbs them, so they defensively dismiss him as un-empirical and sex obsessed.

But the thing is, modern psychology, at least the clinical sort, would be a vastly different enterprise if it weren’t for Freud, and, moreover, Freudian psychoanalytic language has become so much a part of our common parlance that we are barely aware of it. For example, the use of the word “defensively” in the last sentence of the previous paragraph is a Freudian term, used to describe the way we unconsciously reject or avoid truths that make us uncomfortable. This concept remains today a basic premise in virtually any form of clinical therapy and is a concept that even lay people are likely to use in conversation, as in “don’t get defensive.”

The notion of the unconscious too, though not invented by Freud was theorized and popularized by him, and both culture and practical psychology are indebted to him for the notion that our behaviors are often driven by thoughts and desires of which we are not consciously aware.

For example, though orthodox behaviorism rejected such an idea, today’s cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is often considered the most effective form of “talk therapy,” relies on the notion that we have stored negative thoughts that, unknown to us, drive unwanted behaviors. Cognitive-behaviorists may not use the term “the unconscious” in precisely the way the Freud did, but, they are indebted to him.

And speaking of “talk therapy,” who do suppose is responsible for that? It was Freud who popularized the idea of the “talking cure,”—though he himself adopted it from a neurologist named Josef Breuer. Prior to Freud, treatment for mental illness was comparatively barbaric and consisted mostly of isolating “mad” people rather than treating them. The whole notion endemic to our culture that we must talk about our feelings, that much of our personal pain derives from childhood experience, is a direct legacy of Freud.

And, yes, the importance of sex in defining human character is a Freudian concept as is the notion that we should view sex in a less moralistic way. Freud was not a hedonist, but he did want us to overcome our shame surrounding sexuality, and much of the modern liberal attitude (for better or for worse) towards sexuality is indebted to him.

Freud’s concepts of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego, though no longer recognized as genuine structures of the mind, nonetheless, remain powerful metaphors that still help make sense of human behavior. Likewise, Freud’s concept of the pleasure-principle remains a compelling way of understanding human motivation.

The death-drive, which was never widely accepted, is a notion that still cannot, at least in its metaphorical form, be utterly dismissed. There does appear to be something self-defeating both in individuals and in the species generally and Freud’s concept helps us to recognize the power of this commonly shared impulse to self-destruct.

And, moreover, you should know that psychoanalysis as a method has not died, though it has evolved and, in some cases at least, become more evidenced-based. There are psychoanalytic institutes in nearly every major city of the Western world, and there is nearly a century’s worth of psychoanalytic research that followed in the wake of Freud.[2]

And yet, all we remember him for is the Oedipus complex, the notion that boys want to sleep with their mothers and kill their fathers (which, BTW, is a vast oversimplification of the concept). All we remember are phallic symbols and a Viennese accent. Some of you may remember a scene from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in which the famous analyst is portrayed as a laughable geek clumsily intruding on Billy the Kid and Socrates as they flirt with a couple of mall girls.


Freud with Socrates and Billy the Kid

But let’s give Freud his due. He belongs right up there with Darwin and Marx as one of the great intellects of modernity.

Freud, by the way, who was no more modest than either Marx or Darwin, recognized and his own importance. In Introduction to Psychoanalysis, he compares to the Heliocentric Theory and the Theory of Evolution the psychoanalytic discovery that man was not in the driver seat of his own behavioral car, that he was driven by unconscious notions of which, by definition, he was not even aware:

Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. But man’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psycho-analysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind hat they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently and to support it by empirical evidence which touches every man closely.

(Quoted from Goodreads,retrieved 11/5/13 from

Freud’s assertion here is that the notion of the unconscious was—like the notion that we are not the center of the universe, and like the notion that we are not fundamentally any different from apes—was a great wound to human pride.

In fact, he says, it is a deeper insult to our dignity, and maybe that’s why we have never forgiven him, maybe that’s why we’d rather dismiss him as outdated, obsolete, as a geek? Maybe that’s why he gets no respect.

[1] It’s funny, by contrast biology students may point out that Darwin has been updated and that there was much he didn’t know, but they still credit him as a major figure in their field.

[2] There are also many off-shoots of psychoanalysis, such as Jungian psychoanalysis, still in practice today.



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