How did Freud become a respected humanist?!

Freud Is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the Psychology Department:

PSYCHOANALYSIS and its ideas about the unconscious mind have spread to every nook and cranny of the culture from Salinger to “South Park,” from Fellini to foreign policy. Yet if you want to learn about psychoanalysis at the nation’s top universities, one of the last places to look may be the psychology department.

A new report by the American Psychoanalytic Association has found that while psychoanalysis — or what purports to be psychoanalysis — is alive and well in literature, film, history and just about every other subject in the humanities, psychology departments and textbooks treat it as “desiccated and dead,” a historical artifact instead of “an ongoing movement and a living, evolving process.”

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, ever since I heard someone describe Freud as “one of the greatest humanists who ever lived.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t think of himself that way. If you’re a crappy scientist but a decent writer, does that mean you get to be reincarnated as a humanist next? To my mind this doesn’t bode well for the humanists, or for new potential Freuds in this regard.

The article duly notes that psychoanalysis as it lives in humanities academia is completely different than clinical psychoanalysis. Clinical psychoanalysis is now discredited because of its lack of empirical grounding. I guess outside of psych departments that’s not an obstacle, thus psychoanalysis for gender studies and the like.

Some of the sentiments expressed in the article really irritate me though, like:

“Some of the most important things in human life are just not measurable,” he said, like happiness or genuine religious feeling.

Give me a break. There are great measurements of subjective happiness. It’s even gone far enough to start studying its relation to welfare economics and policy implications. Sure, some of the brain work is at a pretty early stage, but measuring these things — and pragmatically using this knowledge in the real world! — can be done.

Freud, though, is particularly useful for gaining insights into questions of human existence. “There will be the discovery of problems that the standard ways don’t address,” he said, and then “there will be a swing back to Freud.”

I’ll be waiting.

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7 Responses to How did Freud become a respected humanist?!

  1. Eric Fish says:

    Thank you mister Popper. You seriously think that untestable hypotheses can never provide insight into human nature? Weren’t you the one giving me a lecture on the follies of reductionism?

    People working in literature, philosophy and sociology departments still teach the theories of Freud, Lacan, and others because they fit intuitively with many aspects of our lived experience, and help us make sense of things that other discourses are inadequate to. Standards of evidence are different in disciplines where hypotheses aren’t neatly testable by controlled experiments. And it gets extremely annoying when scientists like Pinker attempt to comment on deeper moral and philosophical questions that they have only a very shallow understanding of.

    Also, I think you’re right that Freud wasn’t a humanist – if anything I’d call him an anti-humanist taking the Enlightenment down from within. His biggest achievement was to turn reason on itself and show that it is only a small, often weak rudder steering our deeply irrational psyches.

  2. Shawn says:

    I don’t want to offer a defense of Freud or people that are into Freud. I’m with you in thinking that the sooner Freud leaves mainstream thought the bettter. However, I did want to point out that there are a few senses of humanist apart from just someone in the humanities. There is someone who places the focus on human activity and concerns, as opposed to the divine. I had initially understood your title in that sense. There is also someone who exhonerates human reason. Freud wasn’t really in this camp. I hope the source of your quote didn’t mean Freud was a great humanist in the sense of great scholar of the humanities. That seems incorrect from what little I know of Freud.

    In any case, why do you think people don’t like contemporary psychology as much as Freud?

  3. Brendan says:

    Untestable hypotheses are alright. What’s interesting here is the history/rhetoric of science that’s going on. Freud definitely claimed he was inventing a science of mind. That claim was rejected, but now many people think he has an insightful non-scientific theory of mind. That’s fine, but I find it funny. Maybe if I liked his theories on their own merits I wouldn’t find it funny.

    I think we’re focusing on different aspects of Pinker-like folks. (Though I was hardly clear!) You seem to be objecting to a general ignorance of philosophical problems. I can’t stand the I-am-a-scientist arrogance either. But in any case I find Pinker’s “scientific” arguments to be pretty poor; some bits, like hand-waving evolutionary psychology, are the worst sorts of hocus-pocus and stereotype-reinforcing mythology that it would be nice to eliminate in favor of testable scientific explanations. (Popper’s too strict about this but that’s another discussion.)

    Like Pinker today, Freud made claims to be scientific, and there failed. I wonder if just-so-stories out of sociobiology might someday be dismissed as psuedoscience, but then twistedly live on in another field. That would make me sad. On the other hand, maybe no one outside of arrogant-scientist-world likes them; then we are safe!

    Sorry for confusion about “humanist” — I’m using it to mean “someone who studies things that are taught/researched in humanities departments”, not in the pro-Enlightenment sense. This was the sense that I heard in the claim “Freud was one of the greatest humanists” (from an English professor).

    Is there a better term for this category of scholars than “humanist”? Feel free to suggest my regard of this as a category at all is bunk…

  4. Eric Fish says:

    Yeah, that’s probably an abuse of the word humanist. If that’s what you mean, you’d have to include people who describe themselves as “anti-humanists,” like Louis Althusser.

    And I highly doubt that Pinker’s evolutionary reductionism, if debunked, will have the same cultural staying power as Freud’s psychoanalysis. Freud provided a number of powerful metaphors that fit well with our intuitions about subjective experience and are still at least somewhat useful to students of philosophy, social theory, and intellectual history. Pinker has not.

  5. Emil Perhinschi says:

    Brendan, you are comparing apples with oranges, since Humanities and Economics deal with different types of data in different settings.

    Humanities are concerned with _interpreting_ data (most of the time discourse as text or as spoken words, more rarely as images or music etc.) generated by one individual or by one group and with recovering the meaning hidden within that data, and recently with defining what “meaning” is and what, and if, can be “recovered”.

    Psychoanalysis offers a good set of questions that can be asked in relation with that data. Of course, the answers are most of the time as dumb, meaningless and useless as those got by Kahneman and Krueger, and tricks such as the “Easterlin paradox” are employed in the Humanities, too, and quite as often as in Economics.

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  7. Ang says:

    Wrong! I took a psych class at a (supposedly) well-respected “research university,” and they had a complete Freudian nutjob using psychoanalytic theory IN a psych department class. Yes, this discredited nonsense is rampant in lit and media studies classes (maybe because they continue to grant PhD’s to anyone who agrees to perpetuate nonsense, not necessarily based on critical intellect, alone), but at Top 25 national universities, even the psych departments put a Freudian or two out there to teach.

    Of course, this was also in a non-trad program, so perhaps it’s more that they put some of the decent, as well as some of the crappy, professors into those non-trad programs (it tends to be very extreme, from great to horrible, probably because it is harder to find good faculty to teach part-time). But all the same, there were students taking the idiot Freudian seriously, some of them! Amazing.

    And scary.

    What needs to happen is to legislate that only “empirically supported” stuff should occur in clinical practice. Do that, and it’ll put the final nail in the coffin of Freud (well, except for the English lit departments, that is…some just seem utterly hopelessly radical and extreme…and you’d expect that they’d just actually read decent literature, psychoanalytic babble not part of the discussion!).