Letter: Freud's debunkers: a narrow vision of science and their own secret fears

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The Independent Online
Sir: The furore that has broken out over Frederick Crews' splenetic attack in the New York Review of Books on all things Freudian is, undoubtedly, a sign of yet another episode of trying to get to grips with the most influential - for good or ill - thinker of the 20th century. Your article 'Freudian slip?' (25 January) captures Crews' tone well; it also transmits some of the distortions of fact of which Crews is guilty. It seems worthwhile, none the less, to point out some of the peculiarities of Crews' vision of the world.

Crews has an ahistorical and narrow vision of what science is, let alone has been. But there have been many ways of being scientific, as the slightest acquaintance with the history of science demonstrates. The attempt to test the theories of psychoanalysis according to the relatively recent fashions of outcome research and double- blind placebo trials is more to do with the patterns of medical funding in the US and the scientific hegemony of the medico-industrial complex than with the explanatory power of these methods.

But let us admit the hypothesis that Freud is a unique case in the history of science: that psychoanalytic theory has a crucial relationship to its founding moment and the thoughts and fantasies of its founder. We have two diametrically opposed claims as to what Freud was doing wrong in the 1890s. In the first account, all Freud's patients' stories of sexual assault were not fanatasies at all, but true stories, indictable in the courts. In the second account, the one favoured by Crews himself, the origin of all these stories of seduction and sexual assault is Freud's own fantasies and his compulsion to foist these on to others.

Even if this second theory were true, we would still be forced to ask what were the sources for Freud's unique and bizarre fantasies, and how did he manage to convince so many others - patients, doctors, intellectuals, artists, judges, politicians, not to mention Woody Allen - that they, too, had fantasies like this.

Crews and the anti-Freud brigade appear to believe that the 'fairy-tales' that they see as the evidential basis of psychoanalysis will cease to exist if we no longer pay any attention to the work of Freud. If only we can do away with the credentials of Freud, we can restore the status quo ante, when children did not have sexual desires and adults did not react with horror to their own secret thoughts and fears.

Crews, who is a literary critic of some distinction (the author of a much-respected psychoanalytic study of Hawthorne, The Sins of the Fathers), clearly believes that analysing science and analysing fiction are mutually exclusive activities. He may believe that the world would have been a much better place if Freud had given up his pretentions to be a scientist and allowed his work to make its way in the world as fiction. In fact, the success of Freudiana in the humanities departments of the Western world may be making this proposal come true, whatever Crews or the Freudians think of such an intellectual development.

Freud's writings do, I suggest, have much in common with both science and fiction - and this is unsettling. Crews is engaged in a policing operation, affirming these boundaries, so we may know once more with certainty what is science and what is fiction. If he succeeds, maybe we will sleep easier, no longer pursued by Freud's dreams of science. Unlike Crews, I have my doubts.

Yours faithfully,


Department of History and

Philosophy of Science


31 January

(Photograph omitted)