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Who’s Afraid of Sigmund Freud?

Posted by acdtest on December 16, 2002

Who’s Afraid of Sigmund Freud?

[Column originally published (print) April 1999. Time references updated.]

ince its beginnings medicine has never been an exact science, concerned as it is with the slippery complexities of nature’s most complex creation. And the human mind, the most complex property of that most complex creation, is today still medicine’s most slippery and daunting mystery. Slippery and daunting as it may be, however, it’s a medical mystery that needs grappling with just like any other medical mystery.

But man’s hubris, never in short supply, has never been on so shamelessly flagrant display as it has been for the post-Sputnik generation, and hubris (never to be confused with courage) has always been something of a stumbling block for the solving of mysteries slippery and daunting. Our present level of hubris has been stoked to a temperature exceeding that of almost any prior era by the seductive promise of an ever more sophisticated technology; a promise that assures us that technology will ultimately furnish answers for everything, and enable man at last to control in toto his own destiny.

Technology the savior. Technology the omnipotent. Who says God is dead.

Several years ago, at the near height of the rising millennium fever which seemingly held the entire world in thrall, PBS’s Charlie Rose assembled a distinguished panel of seven academics and professionals to weigh the relative merits of candidates in the fields of science and medicine for “Time 100,” a series inaugurated in 1998 by Time magazine that proposed to name and profile the 100 most influential individuals of the 20th century. Included on the panel were two cultural historians, a medical doctor, a neuroscientist, a science foundation director, a science fiction writer (only God and Charlie Rose know what he was doing there), and Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time.

Rose began the show by proposing several candidates for inclusion in “Time 100,” and various members of the panel took turns putting forward reasons why the proposed candidates ought to be included, their comments generally given affirmative nods of the head and noises of agreement by the other panelists.

A delightfully lively and congenial affair, that panel discussion.

About halfway through the show, Rose tossed out the name of Sigmund Freud, and something very strange happened. Everyone froze. The freeze lasted but a mere half-second or so, but it was palpable. Then the eye-shifting began. It, too, lasted but a mere half-second, but was enough to telegraph the frantic message, “Who’s going to field this one?”

As it became clear he was destined to be alone in this matter, Dr. Peter J. Gay — Emeritus Professor of History at Yale University, cultural historian, Freud biographer, and, although not identified as such, a graduate of Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis, and the author of the introductory commentary for W. W. Norton & Co.’s paperback edition of The Standard Edition of Freud’s complete works — snagged the ball.

Knowing, I suspect, he was treading on treacherous ground, Dr. Gay carefully reminded the panel — and the television audience — that Freud’s theories are so much a part of our everyday lives and language that, almost without being aware of it, we think and speak of ourselves as functioning humans in Freudian terms. He acknowledged that psychoanalytic theory is today largely out of favor with the scientific community, but then pointed out the immensely enriching mega-changes in almost all domains of human endeavor since the turn of the 20th century for which that theory has been responsible.

At his saying this, another something very strange happened.

One of the panelists, Dr. Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at 43 the youngest member of the panel — a strikingly handsome, immaculately coifed and attired yuppie who looked as if he were created for television — became decidedly uncongenial.

Well, he huffed, Freudian ways of thinking may be an inescapable part of our everyday lives and language, but everyone knows that Freud’s fundamental claims about the structure of the human mind and the causes of human behavior are simply “preposterous.” And they know as well, he huffed on, that Freud’s ideas about Oedipal strivings, libido, repression, psychic determinism and the unconscious were just not worthy of investigation or even consideration anymore.

My turn to freeze. Could I believe my ears? Did that man, I asked myself in disbelief, a man of science, and a man associated with one of the premier technology centers in the world, just make those imbecile remarks? Uh-huh. He sure did, and Dr. Gay didn’t want to believe his ears either.

Clearly annoyed, Gay retorted that although Freud and psychoanalysis had already had many obituaries written for them, he was confident that by the time the next century (i.e., the 21st) rolled to its close it will have been decisively shown that those obituaries had been somewhat premature, and that, ultimately, no obituaries would need to be written at all.

As it had become apparent that the rest of the panel was being made noticeably uneasy by this exchange, Rose abruptly shifted the discussion to another candidate, whereupon the panel’s congenial mode was quickly reengaged.

I confess I didn’t pay too much attention to the rest of that discussion. I was far too involved in trying to unravel what was behind Dr. Pinker’s openly antagonistic demeanor and astonishingly wooden-headed remarks. Surely, I thought, there must be some reasonable explanation.

Well, there’s an explanation all right, and a good one at that, but something short of reasonable.

Since the late ’60s psychoanalytic theory, not to speak of psychoanalysis as treatment, has been under heavy attack from several quarters. This modern onslaught came first from the cultural, not the medical realm, with the feminists in the vanguard, followed closely thereafter by the Gay Rights crowd. It was clearly not in their ideologies’ best interests to so much as even acknowledge, much less accept, psychoanalysis and its principles.

Then came the newly energized “hard-science” brain researchers who looked on “soft-science” psychoanalysis with little affection and not a little contempt, but were helpless to refute the theory as by its very nature it’s essentially incapable of disproof (a theory that can be successfully disproved is irrefutably false). That, however, didn’t stop the brain research community from badmouthing psychoanalysis. It in fact encouraged it. “Whatever is incapable of the possibility of disproof is peremptorily dismissible,” was (is) its credo.

Next, the psychiatric profession weighed in. Psychiatrists didn’t much like psychoanalysis either, at least as practiced by psychoanalysts. Drugs were psychiatry’s thing, not talk; a tunnel-vision holdover from the time they treated psychotics exclusively, neurotics then being psychoanalysis’ exclusive province.

But the final, and most decisive, stroke came from the ’80s zeitgeist. The dark and threatening indwelling forces revealed by psychoanalytic theory simply didn’t want to be acknowledged, much less confronted, by the technology-besotted, action-over-reflection, feel-good-obsessed ’80s. By the time that decade was in full swing, psychoanalysis was in steep decline. The combined onslaught from all quarters was just too overwhelming and ferocious to be resisted.

By the early ’90s, with the zeitgeist of the ’80s even more firmly entrenched, psychoanalysis’ decline was so steep that that great scholar of science Gloria Steinem was able to launch popularly in print a stridently vicious attack on both Freud and psychoanalysis that was so prodigiously ignorant and misinformed it was breathtaking, and not only got away with it, but actually had it taken seriously by many in the press and the medical profession, as well as by the general public.

And that’s where Dr. Pinker was coming from. It was his generation that had done the deed. And the deed having been done, he was now not a psychoanalyst, but the top man in a top university’s department of cognitive neuroscience.

And just what is cognitive neuroscience?, you may ask. With apologies in advance to cognitive neuroscientists everywhere, I’ll be one-sentence brief with this, but, I trust, not misleading. Cognitive neuroscience is a relatively new hard-science discipline that’s attempting to determine, by quantifiable and repeatable laboratory experiment, using every device and method afforded by modern technology, just how it is that brain becomes mind.

No wonder Dr. Pinker was so huffy. Perhaps I’d be a bit huffy too were I a cognitive neuroscientist, and bet the whole farm, my new BMW and solid-gold Rolex on the hard science of this new discipline, and then heard someone academically credentialed, and therefore to be paid attention to, give credence to the strange theories of some soft-science guy who 100 years ago worked on some of the very same problems I was now working on.

As I said, a good explanation, but somewhat short of reasonable.

But then, Dr. Pinker was himself being somewhat short of reasonable. More reasonable, it seems to me, would have been for him to have remembered the lesson of history that teaches that world-transforming discoveries about the nature of man and the cosmos were, by intuition, first adumbrated by poets, philosophers and other men of genius using the same sort of metaphorical language Freud was compelled to use in order to make his revolutionary theories comprehensible.

More reasonable, also, would it have been for him to have held it no more than prudent to acknowledge that it’s never wise to give short shrift to the intuitions and insights of genius, and to have taken Freud’s theories as a working guide in his new research, and centered one small portion of that research on seeking out the possible neurobiological analogues of such things as the unconscious, repression, Oedipal strivings, psychic determinism, libido, id, ego, superego — the whole psychoanalytic menagerie.

And, finally, perhaps it would have been more reasonable for Dr. Pinker to have stood straight and tall, feet planted squarely on the massive shoulders of this 20th-century giant, in order to see farther and more clearly, rather than stoop defensively to engage in the Lilliputian business of trying to nip petulantly at his ankles. And maybe, just maybe, while he was poised on that broad and lofty perch, Dr. Pinker might have considered the verity that though the heights are rarefied, lonely, and often fraught with danger, they have, since the dawn of man, forever been the birthplace of all enduring human truth.

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