Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was born on May 6, 1856, 150 years ago. In New York, it was Sigmund Freud Day; in Austria, it was Sigmund Freud Year. For his supporters, the 20th century was the Sigmund Freud Century. As the poet W.H. Auden wrote upon his death in 1939, “to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion”. But was his impact positive or negative? In this exclusive interview Dutch psychologist Gerard J.M van den Aardweg expresses his doubts.
MercatorNet: When you were a student, you felt the attraction of Freud’s genius. What was that genius? Why have so many people regarded him as a profound thinker?
van den Aardweg: One reason was that Freud was so highly praised by friends and critics alike as a giant in the history of psychology who had made much psychology before him obsolete. Young students believe what their teachers tell them; they are naive and open to all that has the glamour of novelty. Apart from this, Freud seduced readers with his brilliant style. His analyses of neurotics and other cases were detective stories in which he succeeded in tracking down the “guilty” one — the unconscious emotional motive — with an original way of interpreting the patient’s associations, dreams, and symptoms. And it seemed all pretty exact, scientific.
His concepts also had the appeal of the romantic: libido (the sexual drive), thanatos or death-drive (self-destructive drive), and of course the mysterious realm which seemed to harbour the “real” forces driving the psyche: the unconscious.
Furthermore, he presented his “discoveries” as a doctrine of salvation promising to free the mind — and even mankind as a whole — from its troubles, and posed as a great prophet, on the same level as Copernicus and Darwin. So he had the charisma of a guru. A profound thinker, however, he was not, neither as a psychologist nor as a philosopher. What he proclaimed sounded thrilling, especially of course the sexual stuff, but it was not at all “deep”, even though it is known as “depth psychology”. Mostly it consists of far-fetched fantasies, several of which are positively bizarre.
MercatorNet: Don’t you think that Freud made any positive contributions to modern psychology?
van den Aardweg: Freud’s positive contribution, I think, lies in his emphasis on the importance of childhood for the understanding of personality, and of the study of human motives. In his time, academic psychology more or less overlooked these areas. On the other hand, “dynamic psychology” and child psychology and its importance for the understanding of adult personality or “character” was in the air. But since Freud was so domineering, the erroneous impression may be conveyed that he alone created these approaches. Actually, he did not invent the idea that childhood was relevant; proverbs like “the child is father of the man” have always existed. But it is true that, as he became so widely published and discussed, he stimulated academic interest in the younger years.
The negative side is that he also led us in the wrong direction. His strange ideas blocked a more healthy and fruitful development of personality psychology and made many blind to realities in the mind and soul (or psyche) without which no sound psychology can be built. Generations of psychologists and psychiatrists have been taught to look at the human person through the more or less distorted lens of Freudian doctrines and their many derivatives. He made us see a caricature of man. And even today academic psychology and psychotherapy need to distance themselves from many ingrained Freudian prejudices.
MercatorNet: How are Freud’s theories used by psychiatrists and psychotherapists nowadays? What has replaced them?
van den Aardweg: There are only a few diehards who still follow his theories to the letter. Yet many Freudian notions are widely used, albeit rather loosely. Not many professionals actually believe any more in his “Oedipus complex”: the bizarre idea that a boy unconsciously erotically desires his mother and is afraid because his father, his rival, might castrate him.
But many have been brainwashed at universities and other institutes to believe that repressed emotions in childhood cause mental disturbances, that repressed or suppressed (disciplined) sexual urges generate emotional blocks, that in the mind or soul there exists an area, the Unconscious, where autonomous forces rule, that most — if not all — feelings of shame and guilt and many moral rules are merely the products of education, and that talking over and “analysing” past traumas and experiences lead to mental improvement and cures. In the wake of Freud’s theories have come a host of so-called “neo-analytical” approaches. Most of these still use Freudian notions like repression and are often presented as doctrines of salvation as well.
Many psychologists and psychiatrists today have no fixed theories; they try to help their patients by using their common sense and human experience (and they are often not the worst professionals), by encouraging them, and by giving practical advice. Some have turned away from psychoanalytical speculation and use biological theories and pharmacological approaches, or the theories and training methods of behaviourism. The whole field of personality psychology and psychotherapy is chaotic and still highly experimental.
MercatorNet: Can you put Freud on the coach for us? What factors in his background help to explain his ideas?
van den Aardweg: The couch: that means discussing his character weaknesses and immaturity. Like anyone else, Freud was more than the sum of his neuroses. He was courteous; he could be nice, attentive and considerate. He was a good father to his children. Some have suspected him of immoral behaviour, but I doubt it. He was much more conventionally moral in his personal life than in his writing.
But he was a bit strange. Freud had been the “golden boy” of his mother, a strong woman who seemed to expect from him the success in life his older father could not attain. His father was kind but weak and it seems Freud did not have a satisfactory father figure in him. Throughout his life he remained immaturely attached to his mother in an ambivalent way. As a boy, he could not make friends and felt disliked by them. There has been some talk about tragedies in his family but there is insufficient inside information on his family to conclude this.
Freud was a neurotic and cynical man, probably somewhat feminine, a chronic complainer who felt all his life that he was an unrecognised genius and a victim of a hostile world. He was an outsider who was angry with society. He was very self-centred; in his relations with friends he had to dominate; he could not tolerate dissent from his views — which is actually the reaction of a person who feels that he has not been accepted.
In attempting to free himself from his neurosis by analysing himself, he “discovered” that it was rooted in an erotic childhood longing for his mother. That is not very credible. Why he explained his mother-attachment in this way is a question in itself. But it is indicative of his obsession with the sexual. Was he a homosexual or bisexual? Some sexual anomaly seems likely, but we know little with certainty about his inner life. No doubt it is a sign of alienation from human reality that he was convinced that “Oedipal” drives, or incestuous wishes, existed in all men.
MercatorNet: Can you give an illustration of Freud’s attitudes toward sexuality?
van den Aardweg: Psychiatrist Joseph Breuer was the first collaborator of Freud. Breuer was actually the one who supplied most of the ideas for the first psychoanalytic article Freud wrote — together with him — the famous description of how they treated Anna O, a woman who suffered from hysterical paralysis. Later on, Breuer distanced himself from Freud, because, he wrote, “Freud is given to absolute and exclusive formulations: this is a psychical need which leads to excessive generalisation. There may in addition be a desire d’épater le bourgeois [to shock the bourgeois]. … I confess that the plunging into sexuality in theory and practice is not to my taste”. Incidentally, you cannot understand Freud if you do not see that he was exceptionally self-willed, proud and arrogant.
MercatorNet: Freud regarded his theories as grounded on scientific evidence. But were his analyses of his patients and historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci accurate?
van den Aardweg: Here is a curious thing. Freud pretended to be very accurate in his observations and descriptions, but in fact it was often a mix of observation and fantasy. That has been solidly proven by now. The Dutch historian of psychology Han Israels demonstrated it for several famous case descriptions of patients by Freud. Other historians did the same for Freud’s reconstruction of the childhood of Leonardo da Vinci and of his analysis of Christoph Haitzmann, a 17th century case of demoniacal possession. Freud projected his own preoccupations onto the figures he analysed, and distorted relevant historical data to have them fit in his theory. In the Haitzmann case, for instance, an artist made two written pacts with the devil, but the first one did not fit into Freud’s theory and so he denied its historically documented existence by accusing the possessed man of fabricating it.
MercatorNet: Despite criticisms of Freud’s insights by other psychiatrists, some of them — sexual repression, the importance of libido in primary attachments, the Unconscious as the source of all kinds of emotional misery — seem to have taken root in the contemporary mindset. Why have they been accepted so uncritically, even by intellectuals?
van den Aardweg: Many Western intellectuals since the Enlightenment are open to ideologies and myths which sound scientific. G.K. Chesterton is supposed to have said, “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” It is only logical: intellectuals, like other people, seek inner conviction. As the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung stated, the religious drive is very central in the human psyche, so man will always seek some intellectual or emotional theory or belief to cling to. Marxism attracted people with its quasi-religious fervour, the veneration of the Germanic race in pre-war Germany attracted a lot of intellectuals, and in its own way Freudianism was something mystical, too. George Orwell said that there are “things so foolish that only intellectuals could believe them”.
An attractive element in Freud’s view for the agnostic intellectual in an age of relativity was no doubt that he provided them with a biologic, materialist view of man which squared with the secular humanist views much in vogue then. And he suggested a liberated practice of sexuality, even though he personally behaved in a conventional way. Artists, liberal intellectuals, social emancipators and social malcontents felt in tune with his critical approach toward social norms, his emphasis on the naturalness of instinct, and his criticism of religion as wishful thinking.
MercatorNet: Psychiatrist Fuller Torrey has described Freud’s impact on American culture as “malignant”? That’s pretty strong stuff — would you agree? How would you define his influence on modern culture?
van den Aardweg: It is strong, yes, but not too strong. On balance, Freud’s negative influence has outweighed his positive influence. I said that he blocked and imprisoned psychology and psychotherapy. But he was tremendously influential in instilling a false view of man in the human sciences in America and in American culture, and was partly responsible for the devastating sexual revolution of the 60s.
To begin with, he reduced the human psyche to a bundle of biological instincts and processes and thereby obscured the reality of human essence, that is, man’s immaterial soul with its inherent immaterial “instincts”, aspirations, and powers. Mature love was “actually” no more than an outgrowth of the erotic instinct. Conscience was no longer the perception of eternal, supra-human values but a learned set of rules — like traffic rules — and so it was abolished, against all the evidence. Look in the index of psychology or personality handbooks, and you will hardly find the word “conscience”. But, as the famous French Jewish psychiatrist Henri Baruk has made it clear, conscience is not something external which is imposed on us by learning, but on the contrary, “the cornerstone of the psyche”.
Added to that is Freud’s exclusion of the whole moral-spiritual dimension of the soul. Happiness becomes identified with harmony of the instincts, but no deeper or ultimate sense in life is recognised. In short, his view of man cut man off from his deepest roots, from the sacred and eternal, from moral truth. It was a profoundly disheartening and demoralising doctrine, and it has unsettled many young students and intellectuals, and it often served as a justification for regrettable choices in their lives. Freud’s ideas have been over-simplified, of course, but even so the spirit they radiated was his. By undermining the real values of a culture, which ultimately are of moral and religious absolutes, one undermines the culture itself. And intellectuals were Freud’s disciples and collaborators: writers, novelists, artists, social scientists…
MercatorNet: And the second malignant influence?
van den Aardweg: Alfred Kinsey was the father of the sexual revolution, but Freud was its grandfather. Freud opened the discussion of sexual matters in public and treated the subject as a mere question of mental health. He let the genie out of the bottle. If morality was merely a matter of traffic rules and sexuality was dissociated from a higher order of values within the person, sexual naturalness was soon equated with freedom from so-called repression. So Freud prepared Kinsey, another man with dangerous psychological theories.
Witnessing the havoc wrought by the sexual revolution of the 60s, which represented a decline in American culture and society, Freud’s eldest daughter Anna, herself a psychoanalyst, sadly avowed that psychoanalytic sexual pedagogy, which aimed at the reduction of guilt feelings, had in fact led to a “deficit in the moral development” of young people. Psychoanalysis underpins contemporary sex education programs, which in practice boil to down to promoting dehumanised sexual behaviour. Decadence in sexual morals and behaviour has always led to marriage and family disorders and then to social and cultural disintegration. Freud’s doctrines have had a lot to do with this. He fathered our present sexualised culture.
MercatorNet: What about the effectiveness of Freud’s analytical cures?
van den Aardweg: Patients he described as cured turned out on later examination not to have been cured at all. Studies of the effects of analytic methods, which are often hardly really Freudian any more, do not support them. Talking and analysing does not change people. One of the first disciples of Feud, sexologist Wilhelm Stekel, long ago remarked that “if psychoanalysis does not find something new, it is doomed”. And Freud never managed to change himself despite all his self-analysis.
MercatorNet: How did he become so popular, if, as you argue, his evidence was doctored, his patients never got well, and his theories were far-fetched?
van den Aardweg: By propaganda and media attention. Simplified and popularised Freudianism is, after all, about the titillating subject of sex. As well, his mental health approach to sex has been adopted by organised sexual reform movements. In general, few people are really interested in proving or disproving a theory if they like it for one reason or another. Most trendy ideologies are not based on scientific fact.
Gerard Van den Aardweg has had a private psychotherapeutic practice since 1963 in Holland, specialising in the treatment of homosexuality and marriage problems. He has written for many publications in these fields, and is the author of several books on homosexuality.