The 12 (or 24) Things that Freud Got Right

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Austrian psychologist. Freud theorized that mental illness could have psychological as well as physiological causes. He believed that the mind contains conscious and unconscious levels. bad memories are repressed and stored uncoBut who’s counting?

On Facebook, David Livingstone Smith offers a list of 12 things that Freud got right:

1. The mind can fruitfully be modeled as a connectionist system.
2. The back-propagation of error (Paul Werbos explicitly derived this algorithm from Freud’s 1895 “Project for a scientific psychology”).
3. Mental processes are physical processes.
4. Introspection does not provide access to the causal structure of mind.
5. Causal-role functionalism is a good way to understand how the brain instantiates mental states.
6. All human beings are “polymorphously perverse”
7. All mental processes are unconscious in themselves.
8. Religion is a response to human helplessness.
9. Speculative metaphysics is a “disease of thought”.
10. Illusions can be either true or false.
11. We are not acquainted with our own cognitive processes.
12. Free association is the best way to learn about oneself.

David is mirroring a Huffpost Science article from last year, which ran its own list of dozen plusses for Freud. They should give us pause before dismissing Freud too lightly. I always say that if Freud had been alive in the ’90s, he would have been an impressive figure. He was scientifically driven in his day, but didn’t have the right interdisciplinary tools (genetics, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, etc., and the result was a lot of pseudo-science. But there are still nuggets to salvage. We may not like to hear that we’re strongly motivated by sex and other “dark impulses” — especially given the outlandish way Freud explained the matter — but the proof of the general truth isn’t hard to see. And how many of us are open to the idea that free association (David’s last point) is the best way we can learn about ourselves, or even that introspection (his fourth) is so overrated? Food for thought.


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