Is Freud Dead?: The first in a series of articles examining Freudian thought

Sigmund Freud is indeed dead. In fact, he died 75 years ago last week. Whether you love his work and find him captivating or think of him as a hindrance to the scientific progress of psychology, he is undeniably among the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century. His examination of unconscious mental life—notably his concepts of defense and repression— irrevocably altered the ways we think about ourselves. And the controversies over the scientific status of psychoanalysis are as heated today as they were in Freud’s time. In this series of articles, a host of esteemed academics and Hippo contributors will be examining critical questions about how to understand Freud’s legacy.

(1) There’s a widely-held view among contemporary psychologists that Freud’s theories, whatever their merits, were unscientific. His case studies and conjectures about the nature of the mind aren’t based on real empirical data—i.e., controlled experiments with quantitative results. But is it so simple? Is there only one empirical method?

(2) New studies—for instance, those from the field of neuro-psychoanalysis—have come to some intriguing conclusions. Scholars are finding that the physiological structures of the brain actually exhibit an amazing number of parallels with the Freudian theory of the mind. These results are being reached by methods that are more straightforwardly scientific—based on controlled experiments conducted in a lab, etc. Perhaps Freud was just a neuroscientist ahead of his time?

(3) How does the public perceive Freud? Do people take him—and the field of psychoanalysis —seriously? Why or why not? What cultural and political forces are at work in how the public at large understands his legacy?

Hippo - Chris Morse

Dr. Chris Morse

For our inaugural article in this series, I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Chris Morse, a practicing psychoanalyst. His Ph.D. in clinical psychology is from Adelphi University and his training in psychoanalysis was at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. He is now on the faculty there. He maintains his own clinical practice, and is on the staff of the clinical psychology training program at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston. Further, he is a Clinical Instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Morse and I had occasion to talk over lunch about the scientific status of Freud’s work, the intellectual history of psychoanalysis, and the consequences of deciding too early whether or not an idea can be approached scientifically. Heady stuff for a chat over crab-cake sandwiches.

What do you, Hippo reader, think about the legacy of Sigmund Freud? Should we understand his work as science? Did behaviorism abandon the idea of studying mental life using scientific processes prematurely? Stay tuned for an exciting set of contributions from academics with a variety of perspectives on these questions in our ongoing series on Freud’s legacy.

BW: It seems that one of the enduring objections to Freud’s work is that his methodology is unscientific. People in the academy and in popular culture say that, I think. What’s your understanding? Do people say that?

Chris Morse: Yes, of course. But that’s not surprising. If I were surprised, I wouldn’t be a psychoanalyst. [Laughs.] There’s always some variation on that motif, from the 1920s onward it’s been that way. Sometimes it’s not even a variation. “The methodology is unscientific,” that’s the refrain. Which often translates as “that’s not how my friends and I do science, that’s not how we operate.”

BW: In other words, it seems there’s a political dimension to the critique. Do you think the professional culture—the professional consequences of being understood as a psychoanalyst—has changed much since Freud’s day?

Chris Morse: In the big picture, not very much. The specific versions of the critique changed, but the basic statement “psychoanalysis is not scientific” doesn’t change. Obviously there are two parts of that sentence. One is “psychoanalysis,” and the other is “science,” and therein lies a tale. It’s true that the method of free association by itself, alone, is not itself a scientific method, I suppose.

BW: Does it aspire to be?

Chris Morse: Well, I should say “yes and no.” Certainly Freud thought it was scientific, in that it’s a method that turned up new and interesting data, and so it was a first step in gathering observations. I was about to say that he also thought that free association was a novel method, but then again “yes and no.” He actually wrote a very interesting paper, though it’s unsigned. It’s sort of a joke paper. As you know, he loved jokes. Did you know he even started collecting jokes around the time he was writing The Interpretation of Dreams, with a view toward making sense of what was funny about them?

But so anyway, what he wrote (half seriously) in the paper was that he discovered, in a book he knew he’d read when he was an adolescent, an essay called “The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in 10 Days” or something like that. And the person recommends that you just allow yourself to think of anything that comes to mind and, over a period of time, writing will begin to germinate. And Freud says in this unsigned paper that he thinks now that that was an early version of the method.

It’s not like he sat down on a slow Saturday afternoon and thought “I know how I’m going to find out about people! I’m going to ask them to lie down on a couch and ask them to talk about whatever comes to mind.” It came about in much more comprehensible way. It evolved over many years of trial and error, first using hypnosis, then using more directed free association.

BW: What is the empirical status of the method? It looks so different from empirical science in a lab.

Chris Morse: Well, you could say “there’s no way to create a controlled situation with this, there’s no way to create repeatable results.” You could say that, but let’s just stop right there.


Chris Morse: I mean, you could say that with various attitudes. One attitude would be “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. This is dumb. This is outrageous.” Another attitude would be, “This is interesting, but as it stands, it’s not itself science, and I’ll be damned if I can think of way to study it scientifically.” The third attitude would be, “I wonder if there’s a way to study this scientifically.” Early on—up until the 50s and 60s—there were people trying out that third project. But for a long time the materials and the technologies were rather crude, such that someone who wanted to criticize psychoanalysis could easily say, “This really is not adequate.”

Let me give you a brief example: Suppose you were trying to study something about unconscious mentation using subliminal stimulation. For a long time, for anybody who was skeptical of the results from such a study, the methodology was sufficiently crude that, if you wanted to maintain an attitude of skepticism and incredulity, you could easily do that.

But what happens when people’s methodology gets better? I mean, the technology and the research design and the cleverness and imaginativeness and detail of the research, what happens when they get better? In the process of trial and error, you inevitably learn things. And that’s exactly what’s happened. The better our technology and research design gets, the more it seems that the notion of unconscious mental life—and the capacity to study it in a controlled way with measurable components—is hard to deny.

BW: How should we understand the skeptical attitude of behaviorism toward psychoanalysis, then?

Chris Morse: In some ways, we’re still living in the shadow of behaviorism. Behaviorism, as an epistemological theory, is the assumption that direct research on mental life is impossible. To be fair, at the time behaviorism came about, that was a plausible assumption. It really might have looked impossible. It’s a very plausible and compelling way to think. But it wasn’t compulsory to think that way. In effect, it was a bet. It was a bet against the future. A way of saying “we will never have a way of studying mental life, so we’re going to have to make an end run around it. And the bet turns out to have been a bad one. In an ironic sort of way, they were betting against scientific progress under the aegis of doing science.

BW: What about Freud’s interest in neurology? He was very interested in the connection between the functioning of the mind and the physical structures of the brain. Was that part just lost to history?

Chris Morse: Some people have argued that that part was lost by everyone for a long period of time, including by Freud himself, since he talked about it less and less as time went on. The argument has been made by various people, some in a friendly way and some in a less-than-friendly way, from the 20s through 50s, that Freud had abandoned altogether the link between brain and mind. But in sense, this is just like what we were talking about earlier: He couldn’t see a way of doing it. That doesn’t mean he stopped thinking that way. He was unable to bring that line of thought to a conclusion, so he shifted his focus away from it. But he kept it as a high-level conceptual structure in his mind.

BW: It seems that you see the questions as being about the forward progress of time, the advances in tech and research methodology. Will there ever be an ultimate verdict on the psychoanalytic program?

Chris Morse: Well, the question is: Which part of it? About what? There will not be an ultimate verdict because there are multiple ideas involved. The field of psychoanalysis is so wide, and there are so many significant variations in the way people see what’s central, that it’s hard to see how one final decision could be made. As I’m sure you know, there are a lot of people who would see what I’m saying here today about science as irrelevant or possibly even baneful to the field. So, for them, a verdict… what would that mean?

One way we might think about it in a really broad way is: How do we understand scientifically what is called ‘folk psychology’—our ordinary mode of experiencing and thinking about ourselves and others? This is also the stuff of clinical psychoanalysis and “experience-near” psychoanalytic ideas. Some people view folk psychology as a theory that’s obviously mistaken, because it supposedly refers to things that aren’t real entities, like thoughts or intentions, and so on. But I think there’s another way of looking at that. Folk psychology isn’t a theory or explanation that’s right or wrong. It’s just a fact about the world. It’s how our minds work. It’s that about which science would, could, and should talk. In other words what we need is a scientific account of the way people’s minds ordinarily work everywhere.

If I’m an anthropologist in New Guinea, and I’m sitting in the village square, and I see some guy go about half a dozen times back and forth from his hut to some tree and put something on the tree, and I ask an informant, “What’s he trying to do?” And the informant says to me, “Well, his daughter is getting married, and he’s making offerings to his ancestors that live in that tree, so that the marriage will go well, so that she’ll have lots of children, and especially lots of boys.” That’s the kind of thing that we all, everywhere in the world, think. We worry about our children, for example. And so we craft stories about in which those worries are expressed.

I mean, what is Morse trying to do in talking with Winterhalter? This crafting of stories is just the way our minds work. It’s not a mistake, it’s just the way things are.

BW: Do you think there’s an analogy here with how science understands religious practice generally?

Chris Morse: I would be cautious. Of course the guy’s family isn’t in that tree. And whether the marriage goes well has nothing to do with how many offerings he makes to that tree. But we can still study the practice scientifically.

One place where the rubber meets the road in how to study psychoanalysis is: How do we study imagination? A lot of psychoanalysis is about imagining. And the implications of imagination, what happens as people imagine things? Real things happen as a result of people imagining things. Real things happen as a result of people dreaming things. And even more fundamentally, dreams and imaginings and fantasies and inner experiences are a real part of the world.

Just because minds have this feature of being subjective does not mean they are not objective features of the world. Our job is to make sense of them. And to figure out ways to study them scientifically.

Further Reading:

Image credit: John Lodder via flickr