Psychoanalysis has three facets: as a theory of mind, inquiring on the origin of psychopathologies and the inner workings of the human psyché; as a tool of analysis of cultural and behavioral phenomena, which is clear by looking at Slavoj Žižek’s 2006 movie where he analyses cinema through Lacanian lens; and as a form of psychotherapy.
Lacanian psychoanalysis is not something I understand the ins and outs of, but I also do not feel any impulse to read it or any intellectuals that build their work in top of this school of thought. This is because what I know about Freudian psychoanalysis makes me very skeptical that anything with the adjective ‘psychoanalytic’ might describe can be worth studying in depth. The same thing goes for what I know about Lacan and his work.
It seems to me that no psychotherapeutic method is much better than any other, with the relevant factors being the charisma of the psychotherapist and the dispositions of the clinical patient. I intend on reading Bruce Wampold’s 2001 book, The Great Psychotherapy Debate, on the matter, but that is his conclusion, and it seems sensible given the data. But besides that, psychoanalysis qua psychotherapy has always been dubious.
Freud was very dishonest in his clinical reports, claiming to have cured numerous patient when he cured almost none. Once scholars found out about the real identity of Freud’s patients – such as Wolf Man (Sergei Pankejeff), who scorned Freud and remained mentally ill for decades -, we saw how many patients got worse after being analyzed by Freud.
This is evidenced by Freud’s pessimism in his last technical work, Analysis Terminable and Interminable (1937), where he expresses his feeling that psychoanalysis produces unsatisfactory clinical results. The thing is: one of the big justifications for belief in psychoanalysis was its wonderful clinical results that Freud claimed throughout his life. If it is no better – or actually worse, as Hans Eysenck suggests in his 1985 seminal work Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire -, than other psychotherapies, then what reason do we have to trust it?
Falsifiable predictions, which is something Freudian psychoanalysis has, despite the mostly correct charges put forward by Mr. Popper. (More on that later.) The cornerstone prediction and theoretical basis for Mr. Freud’s work is his fantasy theory. It used to be something called the seduction theory, but he abandoned it for lack of satisfactory clinical results. (As he confided Wilhelm Fliess in 1897 through personal letters, where he also says he hadn’t had a single successful analysis.) This is weird, because both theories do not produce satisfactory clinical results!
What the former theory states is that psychopathologies (which he calls ‘neuroses’ or ‘hysteria’, though I did not grasp the distinction between the two) are originated in erotic fantasies that occur during the development of human sexuality, during childhood. These fantasies are traumatic in a way, and end up crystallizing in unconscious, repressed memories by the defense mechanisms of the ego – who try to guarantee more emotionally comfortable states of mind for the ego -, which then manifest as neuroses in adulthood.
Finally, Freud claims to be able to extract, as it were, those memories purely by analysis of his clinical subjects, ending the source of the neurosis. The curious thing about it is that Freud reports that his clinical subjects always deny ever having such fantasies, so he always has to force them to believe what he says! This actually makes complete sense given Freud’s theory: the memories of having those fantasies are unconscious – if they were brought to consciousness, the subject wouldn’t have neuroses at all! -, and of course ego mechanisms of resistance would play a role in keeping the repressed memory as it is: repressed and unconscious.
Now, how can one be sure one’s interpretation is correct? Mr. Freud’s method boils down to interpreting what the subject says during free association, and to interpreting the contents of the subject’s dream. This is all extremely arbitrary and unreliable, as evidenced by the fact that if you have two different analysts, you’ll get two different interpretations for the very same thing. It’s what you could expect from a field of study without any rigor, very small sample sizes, no controlled experiments, subjective reports, and arbitrary evaluations.
A great example is the set of mutually exclusive interpretations of smoking: is it symbolic masturbation, oral fixation, or conquering of death? Maybe it is as Sándor Ferenczi hypothesized, by applying Haeckel’s bogus evolutionary theories into psychology, and every psychopathology is a consequence of a desire to go back to aquatic life (which life in the womb represents)? (Otto Rank proposed a similar hypothesis, the trauma of birth.) Interpretations are completely arbitrary and require no empirical validation, and this is what gives psychoanalysis its chameleonic character. No wonder most of Freud’s notable disciples had very different theories of the human psyché.
Freud’s ambitious project of explaining the whole of human nature has failed miserably, not only because he has no psychotherapeutic validation, but also because the hypotheses inside his system are either unfalsifiable or have been falsified. Psychoanalytic practice also does not have a scientific posture, and often falls prey to simple fallacies spotted aeons ago by epistemologists such as the Forer effect, confirmation bias, or extremely vague predictions that accommodate any observation as confirmations of itself. This kind of unscientific posture (and sometimes bad faith, as evidenced by the frauds Freud committed) is the kernel of pseudoscientific-hood to the philosopher Frank Cioffi, and I think this is a sensible position.
There is no use in claiming that psychoanalysis has no pretension to being scientific (or going as far as claiming, like Lacan did, that the scientific posture is neurotic), because it makes assertions about how the world actually works. Freud himself was as positivist as any other man of his time, and thought psychoanalysis was an airtight scientific field of study based on impartial [sic] observation of clinical data. It clearly isn’t, and both Lacan and the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) agree on that. Good to see we agree on something. Psychoanalysts are very partial interpreters of dreams and thoughts, using arbitrary and unvalidated methods, which shatter their chances of being scientists or hermeneuts.
For example, it is simply not true that mental illnesses or phenomena such as bipolarity, OCD, anxiety, depression, aggressiveness, paranoia, or low self-esteem, have any correlation with traumatic events on early childhood. And we’ve known about this for a long time. No wonder psychoanalysis is not even a good psychotherapy. (Remember: Freud always said that his theories and interpretations were reliable because they worked. Except they didn’t, and Freud noticed that in the end of his career. See Freud (1937).)
These kinds of mental illnesses have neurological or hormonal causes (low-level phenomena) that cannot be explained or comprehended using psychological concepts (high-level interpretation). (Much like one cannot explain the political causes of WWII (high-level phenomenon) using the movement of quarks (low-level interpretation).) More often than not, I gather, they also have a considerable genetic basis.
There is also no basis to the statement that kids have erotic desires towards the opposite sex-parent and hostility and jealousness towards the same-sex parent; the key, according to Mr. Freud, to human nature. Anyone acquainted with the Westermack effect will be specially dubious of this proposition. The same thing goes for his theory of psychosexual development, in which kids go through distinct phases of development, such as the anal or the oral phase. Repressed memories are not even proven to exist. The castration complex is preposterous.
I suspect that, if psychoanalysts weren’t politically motivated, they would be furiously against same-sex parenting, single mothers, or anything of sorts. It turns out that, as J. R. Harris wonderfully exposed using actual research, that these kinds of things make absolutely no difference in how children turn out.