In praise of the falsity of Freud

June 16, 2009

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To the scientifically trained my experience is that Freud, along with Marx, is the byword for all that was wrong with attempts by those in domains which were manifestly non-scientific to accrue to themselves the prestige of natural science. Richard rightly alludes to the fact that this goes back, at least in the case of working natural scientists, to the criticisms of Karl Popper. The fruits of Freudianism in an immediate scientific sense were minimal I would judge.

But in hindsight I would admit that most working scientists presume Freud to be a false idol without having read the man’s work, or even the criticisms of Popper himself. Some would argue that the dominant framework within modern cognitive psychology owes as much, or more, to Freud as it does to the Behaviorist paradigm which it overturned. Additionally, most working natural scientists know little about Popper aside from the idea of falsifiability, and are unaware that his ideas are considered old-fashioned within philosophy of science itself. Nor would working scientists care much, as philosophy of science has little to do operationally with the day to day of science as a practice (I would judge that most scientists have a world-view in line with a naive logical positivism, without having ever heard of logical positivism or knowing that the movement has little influence in philosophy of science today).

For myself, I generally repeated the platitudes about the falsity of Freud and the importance of Popper’s insight for years without examining the ideas in their original form (as opposed to third hand allusions to the principle of falsifiability in barely read introductions to phylogenetic papers where results and discussion were of more interest and philosophical issues were ignored). Reading some of the original material gives one a more nuanced perception, as opposed to the black and white cut-outs which populate the historical mythology of science.

In any case, these two posts from a friend who is a practicing cognitive psychologist made me go back and read some Freud, In Defense of Freud and Freud as Literature; Freud as Science.

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