About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Rationally Speaking podcast: Freudianism as Pseudoscience, With Assorted Comments on Masturbation and Castration...

Can everyone's problems always be traced back to sex, love, and masturbation? In this episode, Massimo and Julia talk about the pseudoscientific aspects of Freud's theories of human psychology.

Along the way they explore what philosophy of science has to say about testing theories -- and some of the similarities that Freudianism has with religion, new age mysticism, and psychic reading.

Julia's pick: "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal"
Massimo's pick: "10 Totally Different TV Shows that Doctor Who Has Been Over the Years"


* Interview with Frank Cioffi, critic of Freud
* Book: Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience
* NYT obituary of Cioffi


  1. Very interesting podcast. Freud and Darwin can often get lumped together as great disillusioners in History of Ideas courses, so it can be a little problematic to debunk one but not the other. Julia's question about whether or not the genesis of a theory is germane to its plausibility would be an interesting one directed towards Darwin. Both Darwin and Freud did research, both had flashes of insight. The difference (one hopes) is that Darwin was right where Freud was more wrong than right. One hopes that finches reveal more than Viennese socialites.

    While I appreciate Julia's Beyesian framing of the question of genesis of theory, I think psychology is an important tool as well. Many in the Community of Reason are content to list biases without delving further into the psychology of bias. I would argue that biases are the ready at hand tools of self-deception, but an understanding of why one might want to succumb to self deception is more important than the how of it. This is why science progresses "one funeral at a time" because most of us go to the grave clutching some form of self delusion or other, even people of science. Of course, we don't have a good theory of mind, so we might need to lean more on the biases than the psychology for now, but I do think it's worthwhile. Just let's use CBT and not Psychoanalysis to figure it out.

  2. Two things puzzle me. On the one hand, Arthur G. Tansley (the coiner of the ecosystem concept and a founder among others of plant ecology as a science) was an acolyte of Freud. He could be like Newton, a good scientist in one respect and quack in another. But I read his "New psychology and its Relation to Life" and found that Tansley had a lot to say in favour of this new psychology in comparison with what he called the old psychology. The old was mere introspection and rationalisation of philosophers. The new psychology in comparison was revolutionary in that it dealt with patients who had a psychological condition comparable to the study of mutants in genetics or sick people in medicine. Likewise, listening to patients seemed to Tansley like basing these studies on external evidence in comparison with the introspection of earlier times. Moreover, the fundamental working hypothesis that humans are just another kind of animal and that the mind is just a complex adaptation for survival and reproduction seemed highly scientific at the time.

    In this context, I have a hunch as though psychonanlysis was as scientific during the lifetime of Freud as alchemy was during the lifetime of Newton or Phlogiston during the lifetime of Becher or Priestley. Apart from that, Freud may of course have been a quack.

    1. Joachim,

      Regarding your last paragraph. Psychoanalysis was not properly scientific in the early 20th century because it was not testable. In other words, psychoanalysis possessed no empirical content. Unlike psychoanalysis, phlogiston theory and even alchemy were scientific insofar as they were testable, and they were testable.

    2. I'm pretty sure that psychoanalysts thought of their therapies as tests and of their 'successes' as positive results.

      You have to take into consideration, here, that the scientific alternative was electro shocks and lobotomies and the philosophical alternative was armchair introspection and edifying rationalisations. You also have to take into consideration that there were more psychoanalysts than Freud. I never heard of any others apart from CG Jung, but Tansley's textbook is full of references to others of whom I never heard of. There was also more than sex drives even in Freud's oeuvre (e.g. herd instinct).

      So this is all third hand knowledge on my part, but I guess there existed a group of peers that tried to test this stuff sometime in the 1920s. The failure to do so does not mean it was pseudo in thei time.

      Psychoanalysts would probably have claimed to be more successful than the medical alternative (electro-shocks) and more scientific than the philosophical alternative (introspection).

      As I said, Freud may nevertheless have been a man who would never let any result impinge on his personal and idiosyncratic theory (so were Becher, Priestley, Newton, and even Einstein sometimes). Freud may even have been untruthful in some of his publications and reports about therapy successes (I'm not an expert on that), but so was Louis Pasteur and a host of good scientists ('Saints').

      The testability criterion of pseudo-science turns on the demarcation problem of Popper. Massimo and Julia correctly point out that it is a criterion to which researchers like to give lip-service in the context of justification but which they never heed in the context of discovery. Why then should Freud have heeded it?

      I'm only wondering whether the folks living in the early 20th century could have had any means to demarcate psychoanalysis as pseudo-scientific in their context?

    3. I don't think your assessment is fair. During Freud's lifetime the behavioural psychologists were having great successes understanding basic kerning processes and applying the scientific method to psychology.

    4. Daneel,

      except that Freudianism has nothing to do with behavioral psychology.

    5. I know. But my point is that at the time there were scientific alternatives to freudianism.

    6. Joachim,

      re: "The testability criterion of pseudo-science turns on the demarcation problem of Popper."

      Testability is not coextensive with Popperian falsificationism, and Popperian falsificationism is not the demarcating principle. Testability has a much more robust meaning; one Popper never fully achieved in capturing.

      Also, yes, early 20th century philosophers and scientists had the means to identify psychoanalysis as pseudo-scientific, and many did so identify it as pseudo-scientific (the logical positivists and Quine, e.g.).

    7. I doubt Popper was aiming at fully capturing the bounds of testing, which can be in many ways across the range of different sciences (but I would be happy to read a reference to him having said so if you can find one). He showed that we can hypothesize without being tied to a rubric, which is the essential point. That is not to say that the new hypothesis is without its own logic; in fact it will just be a new rubric tested in any appropriate way. I think you miss the point about Popper.

      As for Freud, I have read lots of little analyses that are non-specific about his error (which I explain in my post below). It is easy to state his error if one searches for the right words, rather than declaring at every turn 'he was unscientific' or 'he was untestable'. In fact when it is laid out in context, history, development, and possibilities for the future, he fits within it as frustrated genius too bold for his britches, and a valuable contributor nothwithstanding our desire for strict method.

  3. Good understanding of Popper, although Julia might benefit by drawing a line with probability at one end, and possibility at another. It's a zero sum game between them - you rob Peter to pay Paul. The more probability, the more its tied to an existing deductive structure from which it is probable. Any measure of probability at all must be with reference to an existing regime. However, if the hypothsis merely deals with what is possible it can outstrip a regime to provide another one that has as many or more points of rationally satisfying contact with reality. You don't know what you don't know, so keep an open mind.

    On Freud, the issue here is with the founding fathers. I respect Hume even though I find him obtuse and obfuscating, because he opened up issues that have proven their worth because they are still followed. Freud gets somewhat disintegrated on closer analysis because we are becoming more familiar with ageing & gender, but our familiarity is in many ways thanks to him as a dart board (which you recognize). I value Freud more highly than Hume because we still have a lot to learn about ageing & gender (as evolutionary drivers refined in usage by modern man as we increasingly find and manipulate concepts about them and seek their manifestations or debunk them), whereas Hume is a dead-end black & white realization that requires a reworking of his assumptions to progress with rational satisfaction.

    Gender & ageing are fundamental, as shown in the most common standard issue in ev psych (the drivers of growth & gender in stoneage man compared to modern man's refining of them for reasonable societies). I think he was right to retain them as fundamental drivers, and that our social 'manifestations' may be refinements of something basic working with our capacity to reason about them (which may be universal across gender & ageing, but benefiting from education etc). It is the dynamic between resaoning & gender / ageing that remains interesting. I have a complete view of the context of ageing & gender in my free book at http://home.iprimus.com.au/marcus60/1.pfd.

    1. Freud seems to interpret to a fixed regime of assumptions, rather than hypothetically. Psychoanalysis might have had little status if it were seen as experimentation on subjects to confirm the personal hunches of the analyst. Subjective interpretation of a subjective account is a rough way to work, but he is working with a supposed shadow world in both ways rather than step by step in an accountable world like CBH for example.

      By definition, a shadow world of motivations, if it exists, is going to be less easy to analyze than an accountable world of logically connected experiences, but the two subjectivities mean he was throwing darts in the dark. The connections between our capacities for ratonality and our fundamental biological drives still need to be uncovered, and although Freud only banged a drum, I would keep open the possibility that a shadow world exists and can one day be analyzed with some objectivity.

      We can only penetrate subjects' accounts reasonably from the outside currently - but often doped up on the inside by drugs that may be as experimental as Freud's hunches. Tracking Psychology from Biology is a massively detailed task, and we make slow progress. Tracking Biology from Psychology in patients' accounts should be one of the ways to confirm the reliability of that massively detailed task (which was too much of a task for Freud, who took the only available shortcut, boosted by a professional air).

    2. A good title for a book about Freud, borrowing from "Double Indemnity", is "Double Subjectivity". I'm not going to write one, so you can pass that on if you like it.

  4. Loved the review of Cioffi. His speculation that Freud persists because we don't want to fully admit our sexual "polymorphous perversity", however, was a little troubling. As you said, Massimo, if Freud has done anything worthwhile, it is to lesson the taboo of sexuality. Is Cioffi wanting to reup on the taboo?

    Nonetheless, Cioffi's thought experiment: "What if Freud never existed?" Is devastating. I would add to it the bonus that screenwriters and novelists would be less restricted by Freudian cliches. Would that we could banish Joseph Campbell in the same way. To that end, and in opposition to the literary tastes of most of the people on this site, we should ban the narrative crutches of amnesia, time travel, many worlds and wormholes.

    It's no mistake that I've veered into a discussion of narrative, because that is part of the appeal of Freud and psychotherapy in general. We want to have a reason for our feelings. Hell the left hemisphere will make up bogus explanations for stimulus it doesn't understand, so clearly we are story dependent creatures. We want our current feelings to be part of a history, to be in a context. But we are asking for too much, and willing to give away too much for the sake of the story. While I don't think being "in the moment" is a coherent goal, I do think not being stuck in a story is a worthwhile pursuit.

  5. Oh, my. If you two would suffer a visit to our faculty of psychology in Buenos Aires, you would have a field day. It's almost entirely focused on psychoanalysis of the worst kind, the lacanian kind. A lot of professors are dualists (they believe in a mind separated from the brain) and regard the scientific approach to psychology as reductionist (as if it were necessarily a bad thing).
    They barely read the scientific literature and learn using case studies which validity is, of course, untestable. There are study groups where, instead of reading the latest results or discussing experiments, they read Lacan's works. It's like his writing is some kind of Bible from where everything you need to know about human behaviour is there if you interpret it right.
    It would be like if physicists were to read and reread the Principia hoping to understand the world around them by doing so.
    One thing you didn't mention is that Freud's cases used to support his theory have huge... errors, lets say. He claimed to cure Anna O., for example, but records show that she didn't get better at all and continue with problems. Also, their examples to support his theory about dreams (that they express suppressed desires from childhood) actually can be used to falsify it, since most of his interpretations are about conscious and current desires.

    Complete and pure pseudoscience at it's best.

    1. "One thing you didn't mention is that Freud's cases used to support his theory have huge... errors, lets say. He claimed to cure Anna O., for example, but records show that she didn't get better at all and continue with problems."

      Okay, but that only makes him a Fraud rather than a Freud. The judgement of pseudo-science is a genarlisation that seems to implicate that fellows like Tansley should have known better. Okay, Wittgenstein did know better, but can you somehow demand that of all of Freud's contemporaroies?

      I did not find that Tansley was in the business of explaining problems away. On the contrary, he was a heurist as ever. In ecology, he's remembered for having heuristically supported an organism metaphor for ecosystems for more than a decade only to stomp his foot down decisively and extinguish that whole idea (thoughsome say it was Gleasons ond others say he didn't extinguish it). It just serves to show that not everybody who fell for Freud's tricks was necessarily a bad scientist.

      PS: In the interview ith Cioffi linked to above, Cioffi himself regrets having drawn the term pseudo-science into the debate, because it yieled apologetics of some Nagel. Hope I don't come over like some apologetic of Freud. If at all, I'd like to be seen as an apologetic of Tansley, who somehow did fall for Freud and yet did not loose his scientific frame of mind.

  6. Freud's contribution is often underestimated, because we take so much of it for granted. Yes, much of Freudian psychoanalysis is nonsense. But, from where I sit, he had three great contributions. First, he recognized that talk can be healing. That is as true of cognitive behavior therapy as it is for psychoanalysis. No form of psychotherapy--even behavior therapy--is completely divorced from that idea.

    Second, Freud recognized that the quality of the therapeutic relationship impacts therapy. He referred to it as "transference," the idea that we respond to our analyst as if he or she was a parent. Today we look at it in terms of therapeutic process and the quality of the relationship. From client centered therapy to cognitive therapy to motivational interviewing, it is recognized that you can't do effective therapy without having a good relationship with the client.

    Finally, the idea that past events influence current behavior is still an important part of therapy. Again, it's changed a lot. We no longer spend years romping through a client's past. Instead we use past experience as a vehicle for understanding how maladaptive ideas and behaviors came about, and then help the client develop better alternatives to them.

    So, don't write off Freud completely. Remember, even a midget can see farther than a giant if he sits on the giant's shoulders.


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