I remember a psych professor in my undergrad years who said that Freud and Jung have no enduring value. Unlike other branches of psychology (behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, etc.), psychoanalysis isn’t science and shouldn’t be taken seriously. I agreed with her at the time, but I wasn’t a psych major, and my distrust of the psychoanalytic field owed mostly to caricature, and because (let’s face it) you don’t need expertise to see that so much of it is laughable pseudo-science.
Freudian methods are still in play, however. Freud and Jung got a lot wrong, but some of their ideas hold up surprisingly well. Psychoanalysis can be scientific with the proper steering. When informed by genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, it actually holds great promise. That will be the subject of a later post. This post will be a looking back: an overview of Freud and Jung themselves, to call out their failures but also give them due credit.
I’ll start with a clip from the David Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method, which shows the two men in heated debate. Though the word isn’t mentioned, religion is the subtext, and it’s the issue that really divided them. (It’s a 2-minute clip.)
The dialogue is fictional but accurately depicts the dispute: Freud was hostile to religion and called it a collective neurosis; Jung was open to it and thought society could benefit from it. There was nothing wrong with Jung’s open-mindedness. (Personally, I find a lot of anti-religious invective off-putting, whether it comes from a Sigmund Freud or a Richard Dawkins.) The problem is that Jung wanted to mix religion and mysticism with scientific inquiry, and that’s why Freud (appropriately) scolds him in the above clip:
“Don’t you see, we have to stay within the most rigorously scientific confines. The moment [our critics] see us abandon the firm ground of sexual theory, to wallow in the black mud of superstition, they will pounce. Telepathy! Singing bookcases! Fairies at the bottom of the garden! It won’t do.”
From a scientific point of view, this is the right idea. But Freud’s science was wrong. His arguments about sex and gender are so absurd today that they sound like spoof. To wit: that boys lust after their mothers and hate their fathers; that girls experience experience “penis envy” (resentment that they don’t have one); that human development proceeds through sexual stages (oral, anal, phallic, and genital); that homosexuality is a failure to reconcile an anal phase, or Oedipal phase; that only “mature” women can orgasm from vaginal sex; that women who climax via clitoral stimulation are somehow stunted at a latent phase.
To be fair, Freud’s theories lacked evidence because he didn’t have the tools to realize his ambitions. He wanted psychoanalysis to be interdisciplinary, but neuroscience was in its formative years, and the techniques of cognitive science were decades in the future. Genetics and evolutionary biology hadn’t come together yet. Had those fields been in place, Freud may have gotten a lot more right.
Jung, for his part, unlike Freud, never claimed to be engaging in a scientific method; yet he tried to have his cake by insisting his claims were empirically based. One reason I think Jung remains popular in some quarters is that speculative myths are often more comforting than cold facts.
Jung’s approach to understanding dreams, archetypes, and the collective unconscious is ultimately unscientific for reasons explained by Andrew Neher. First, the collective unconscious is based on the discredited notion of the inheritance of repeated experiences of human beings and their ancestors. Second, it doesn’t allow for the variation in specific archetypes that is a basic aspect of genetics. Third, it assumes that archetypes are transmitted genetically instead of transferred culturally, and thus ignores cultural differences; and Jung’s treatment of Indo-European cultures was inconsistent and selective in this regard.
It’s also worth noting that Jung could be astonishingly racist. He used the word “parasite” in connection with the Jewish people, in his claim that they lacked culture and so rode the backs of other “host” cultures. (Aside: that would actually be an accurate description of 2nd-century gnostic Christians. But certainly not early Jews.)
This anti-Semitism would find its way into later Jungian readings of the Bible. John Sanford’s popular book, The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings, actually has a chapter called “The Pharisee in Each of Us”. This would be laughed out of the halls of The Society of Biblical Literature. Pharisees were the precursors to Rabbinic Judaism, and the gospel caricatures of them as legalistic hypocrites are exactly that: reflections of post-70 hostility between Judaism and Christianity, which had split and were going their separate ways. Jesus may have had Torah-disputes with the Pharisees, but they were the kind of debates Pharisees had with each other all the time. There was nothing inherently inferior about Pharisaism/Rabbinic Judaism as a religion. Jungian supersessionism is just as bad as evangelical supersessionism; the traditional Christian scorn for a supposed “Jewish legalism” has simply been translated into psychoanalytic terms.
What They Got Right
Freud was correct — profoundly so, in my view — in claiming that we are not masters of our own mind. He said that human experience, our thoughts and deeds, are determined not by our conscious rationality, but by irrational forces beyond our awareness and control. In my opinion, this claim has stood the test of time, and is an insight that deserves to be ranked in the top-10 discoveries of the 20th century.
Freud was also insightful about the way human beings betray themselves with unintended signals and unconscious mannerisms; and that on the other side of this equation, everyone has in their unconscious mental activity an apparatus which enables them to “read” people — specifically, to “undo the distortions which people impose on the expression of their feelings”. This wisdom was expanded on by one of Freud’s disciples, Sandor Ferenczi, who found that patients undergoing therapy displayed a strange, almost clairvoyant knowledge of the thoughts and emotions of the analyst. This made it virtually impossible for the therapist to manipulate and deceive the patient.
Finally, a word about Freud’s sexual-based theories. Even if he explained sex in wildly ridiculous terms, his obsession with sex wasn’t groundless. According to a recent study, men think about sex on average 34 times per day (once every 28 minutes), and women on average 18 times per day (once every 51 minutes). The study also finds that 59 per cent of men think about sex several times a day, compared to 45 per cent of women.
So when people dismiss Freud, listen to what they say. If they say his sexual theories were crazy, then they’re obviously right. If they complain that he was “too obsessed with sex”, then that’s a meaningless objection. Human beings as a species are obsessed with sex. That obsession presumably has significant bearing on our psychological make-up.
What about Jung? His work on personality is what redeems him. His categories of extraversion and introversion, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling, judging and perceiving have been fine-tuned in the famous Myers-Briggs indicator, and have been used by specialists and workplace managers for decades now. The sixteen personality types paint a broad brush to be sure, but generalizations can be helpful when respecting their limitations. (I’m an INTP, for instance, and the portrait describes me accurately.)
The Myers-Briggs personality theory also has the advantage (unlike Jung’s archetypes) of being universal across cultures, which goes to show that Jung could sometimes get away with paying short shrift to culture, if he was lucky.
This post is by no means a comprehensive look at Freud and Jung, only the highlights to remind ourselves of babies and bathwater. These men get a lot of flak, and a lot of it is deserved. Ultimately they were too ambitious for their periods. They reached for the most elusive part of the mind, the wild untamable unconscious. Their reach exceeded their grasp, but the grasping is now up for others. That will be the subject of a later post.