Review of Outline of Psychoanalysis by Freud

I won’t pretend that I had an unbiased view of Freud coming into this. I suspect that anyone who has any passing familiarity with the concept of penis envy has at least for a moment pondered the possibility that Freud was a raving idiot. I also spent a bit of time recently exploring the subject of repressed and recovered memories, which Freud seems to have invented whole cloth and which seems to have no scientific support whatsoever. So I was fully expecting a raving idiot. And as much as I wanted to have an open mind when reading his work, he eliminated that possibility with the inscription on page one:

The teachings of psychoanalysis are based upon an incalculable number of observations and experiences, and no one who has not repeated those observations upon himself or upon others is in a position to arrive at an independent judgement of it.

This is the assertion of an intellectual coward. What a comfortable little cocoon he creates for himself with this statement, insulating himself from criticism or scrutiny while he spins outlandish yarns and presents them as fact. I’m afraid things don’t really improve from there.

The book is mercifully short and outlines the key elements of Freud’s approach to conducting psychoanalysis and treating patients. He walks the reader through his view of the structure of the mind, the instincts that drive us, the development of sexual function, and the interpretation of dreams.

The core of Freud’s view of the human mind is a tripartite structure consisting of the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Id is with you from birth and consists of primal drives. The Ego is the rational mind that tries to navigate through the world, and incidentally tries to deal with all of the Id’s needs. And finally there’s the Superego, which is essentially the social conscience, morality, the common good, and so forth. According to Freud’s construction, the Id and the Superego are largely at odds, and the Ego acts as a mediator between the two, trying and generally failing to address the needs of both.

Freud identifies the two human instincts that our actions all spring from, which are essentially the primal drives of the Id. There’s the Destructive Instinct, which is just what it sounds like, and Eros, which is not just about sex but also love and caring. I think the gist of it is that the Destructive Instinct tears things apart and Eros brings them together in harmony. I guess that’s a tidy setup, but one isn’t reassured by Freud’s lead-in: “After long doubts and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts.” We have decided to assume is pretty much everything you need to know about the rigor that goes into Freud’s thinking. I’m unqualified for an independent judgment, of course, but it strikes me that Freud is in the business of just making shit up.

But the structure of the mind leads to the subject of repression, and the work that the Ego does to tamp down the traumatic, and how this leads to neuroses and other problems. Patients, according to Freud, may be unaware of their traumatic past, but only by uncovering it can they be relieved of the burden it places on them and move past its neurotic manifestations. Because of this, Freud spent countless hours with his patients trying to uncover and process repressed memories. And because of the weight of his theories, this remains a practice of clinical psychologists and psychotherapists: saving patients from the repercussions of their own repressed memories.

But here’s the catch: There’s no such thing as a repressed memory. Following a spate of recovered and recanted memories of abuse in the 1990s, the research community has been highly focused on the question of repressed memories. And all findings point to the brain having no mechanism whatsoever for repressing memories, barring physical injury1. But, guess what, the brain is more than capable of fabricating false memories, guided by a trusted authority figure such as a therapist. In other words, Freud perpetrated a fraud on the world and has caused untold suffering among patients grappling with their own so-called repressed memories, hugely complicating the challenge for the many women who were actually sexually assaulted as children and have actual memories of abuse. Great job, Freud!

He goes on to talk about the development of sexual function, which includes all the nonsense about the little kid becoming aware of penises and who has or doesn’t have one, which naturally leads to fears of castration and the desire to kill your father and have sex with your mother. Naturally. I mean, duh.

Finally he talks about the interpretation of dreams, but I honestly don’t have the energy to describe how stupid the whole thing is. Since there is no possible way someone could disprove his theories about what dreams mean, this gives him plenty of room to stretch out and really lay on the bullshit. Basically, if you have a stupid theory, you can interpret any dream to support your stupid theory, thereby validating it. Not very helpful to the patient, maybe, but them’s the breaks when you visit Dr. Freud.

I went into this book with a high degree of skepticism about Freud, what he did in his work, and what he contributed to humanity with his theories. And I’m afraid I found exactly what I expected: the confident and fact-free assertions of a man profoundly convinced of his own rightness. The fact that he is so convinced doesn’t relieve him of responsibility for the mistakes he made about how the mind works or the trauma this has caused over the years.

I believe that Freud’s reputation has suffered over the years, but I’m here to tell you: not enough.

Excerpt from An Outline of Psychoanalysis, by Sigmund Freud

The investigation of normal, stable states, in which the frontiers of the ego are safeguarded against the id by resistances (or anti-cathexes) and have held firm and in which the super-ego is not distinguished from the ego because they work together harmoniously—an investigation of this kind would teach us little. The only thing that can help us are states of conflict and rebellion, in which the material in the unconscious id has a prospect of forcing its way into the ego and into consciousness and in which the ego arms itself afresh against the invasion. Only under such conditions can we make observations which will confirm or correct our views upon the two partners. But our nightly sleep is precisely a state of this sort, and consequently our activity during sleep, which we perceive as dreams, is the most favourable object of our study. In this way, too, we avoid the familiar reproach that we base our constructions of the normal life of the mind upon pathological findings, since dreams are regular events in the life of normal men, however much their characteristics may differ from the productions of our waking existence. Dreams, as everyone knows, can be confused, unintelligible or positively senseless, their  contents may contradict all that we know of reality, and we behave in them like insane people, since, so long as we are dreaming, we attribute objective reality to the material of our dreams.

We can find our way towards understanding (or ‘interpreting’) dreams, if we assume that what we recollect as the dream after we have woken up is not the true dream-process but only a façade behind which that process lies concealed. Here we see our distinction between manifest dream material and latent dream-thoughts. The process which produces the former out of the latter is described as dream-work. The study of dream-work affords us an excellent example of the way in which unconscious material from the id—originally unconconscious and repressed unconscious alike—forces itself upon the ego, becomes preconscious and, owing to the efforts of the ego, undergoes the modifications which we call dream-distortion. There are no features of the dream which cannot be explained in this fashion.

It is best to begin by pointing out that the formation of dreams can be provoked in two different ways. Either, on the one hand, an instinctual impulse which is as a rule suppressed (that is, an unconscious wish) finds enough strength during sleep to make an impression upon the ego, or, on the other hand, a desire left over from waking life, a preconscious thought process with all the conflicting impulses belonging to it, obtains reinforcement during sleep from an unconscious element. In short, dreams may arise either from the id or from the ego. The mechanism of dream-formation is the same in both cases and so is the necessary dynamic precondition. The ego shows its origin from the id by occasionally ceasing its functions and permitting a return to an earlier state of things. It duly brings this about by breaking off its relations with the external world and withdrawing its cathexes from the sensory organs. We may justly assert that at birth an instinct arises to return to the abandoned intra-uterine life, an instinct to sleep. Sleep is a return of this kind to the womb. Since the waking ego controls motility, that function is paralyzed in sleep and accordingly a great part of the inhibitions imposed upon the unconscious id becomes superfluous. The withdrawal or diminution of these ‘anti-cathexes’ thus allows the id what is now a harmless degree of liberty. The evidence of the share taken by the unconscious id in the formation of dreams is abundant and convincing. (a) Memory is far more comprehensive in dreams than in waking life. Dreams bring up recollections which the dreamer has forgotten, which are inaccessible to him when he is awake. (b) Dreams make an unlimited use of speech symbols, the meaning of which is for the most part unknown to the dreamer. Our experience, however, enables us to establish their sense. They probably originate from earlier phases in the development of speech. (c) Memory very often reproduces in dreams impressions from the dreamer’s early childhood of which we can definitely assert not only that they had been forgotten but that they had become unconscious owing to repression. This is the explanation of the help—usually indispensable—afforded to us by dreams when, in the course of the analytic treatment of the neuroses, we attempt to reconstruct the early life of the dreamer. (d) Beyond this, dreams bring to light material which could not originate either from the dreamer’s adult life or from his forgotten childhood. We are obliged to regard it as part of the archaic heritage which a child brings with him into the world, before any experience of his own, as a result of the experiences of his ancestors. We find elements corresponding to this phylogenetic material in the earliest human legends and in surviving customs. Thus dreams offer a source of human pre- history which is not to be despised.

Public Domain

  1. Alpert, Judith L. Final Report of the American Psychological Association Working Group on Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996. Print.

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