We live in an age when some scholars seriously question the value of truth. Inquire of a theory, it is said, not whether it is true or false, but whether it is Insightful,’ “useful,’ “profound,’ “brilliant,’ or “penetrating.’ This way of thinking about theories was not congenial to Sigmund Freud. On a number of occasions. Einstein expressed admiration for Freud’s “brilliant achievement’ but refused to say that any of his theories were true. In response to one such congratulatory letter from Einstein, written to honor Freud’s eightieth birthday. Freud replied: “But I have often asked myself what indeed there is to admire about them [his theories] if they are not true—i.e. if they do not contain a high degree of truth’ (Grubrich-Simitis, 1995).
If the correctness of his ideas is what ultimately matters, however, then there is a problem in explaining why Freud is still worth taking seriously. Critics will point out that in the last thirty years. Freud’s theories have been shown to be pseudo-scientific, or basically mistaken, or at the very least largely unproven. If these critics are right, why invite hundreds of expert scholars from around the world to devote so much time and effort to writing articles on Freud’s work and influence? And why should a reader care? These questions deserve an answer.
As someone who has published a book skeptical about Freud’s ideas (Erwin. 1996) but who has also spent much of the last nine years, together with his co-editors, putting together this encyclopedia. I would answer that despite the critiques, there are still very good reasons to care about Freud and what he created. One reason concerns the degree of truth in Freudian theory.
To What Extent Was Freud Right?
Many contemporary supporters of Freud argue not that he was mostly right, but that some of his theories contain deep insights and have received a reasonable amount of empirical support. Assuming that this is a credible viewpoint, there is still an important question to be answered: Exactly which parts of Freudian theory are at least approximately true and which are not? On this issue, scholars are still deeply divided.
If there have been impressive critiques of Freud’s arguments and theories, there have also been impressive defenses. Some scholars argue that Freud’s critics presuppose such high evidential standards that almost all psychological theories, including those we take for granted in our commonsense theorizing about human behavior, would fail to meet their requirements. Some argue that central parts of Freudian theory have been empirically confirmed by Freudian experimental studies: others appeal to recent work in biology, neuroscience, and linguistics; still others argue that newer versions of psychoanalytic theory, based partly on Freud’s ideas and findings, have been empirically confirmed by recent scientific research.
On this question of exactly how much truth there is in Freud’s work, some of the best arguments pro and con can be found in this volume (see Biology, and Psychoanalysis; Brain Science, and Psychoanalysis; Critique of Psychoanalysis; Dreaming, Theory of; Experimental Evidence, Freudian; Research on Psychoanalysis; Scientific Tests of Freud’s Theories and Therapy; Sleep: and Slips, Theory of).
Suppose that Freud’s theories fail to contain, as he put it, ‘a high degree of truth.” If that were so, would that be a good reason not to read him? That depends partly on what happened after his theories entered the public domain. Some of his contemporaries, such as his friend Wilhelm Fliess and his onetime follower Wilhelm Reich, introduced speculative theories, such as the theory of orgon energy, that were briefly taken seriously and then ignored; the effects of their theorizing quickly decayed and vanished. That clearly has not been the fate of Freudian theorizing.
Consider that even as late as approximately ten years ago. a survey of citation indexes concluded that of all the works that had ever been published, not counting the Bible, Freud’s books and articles were still being cited more than those of any other author except for four people: Plato. Aristotle, Lenin, and Shakespeare (Friman et al.. 1993). Pointing this out does not by itself explain why Freud’s works are still worth contemplating, but if a high degree of truth is the only criterion, then why read Plato or Aristotle, or their philosophic successors such as Aquinas, Hume. Kant. Hegel, or Nietzsche?
How many of their theories have been shown to be true? Very few. Yet if one wants to understand recent philosophic work, and the spillover effects into other disciplines, one cannot reasonably ignore all that has gone before on the grounds that the earlier philosophic theories are either untrue or unproven.
The same argument applies to Freud. A careful survey of twentieth-century intellectual developments will reveal the obvious marks of Freudian theorizing in art. literature, biography, history, cinema, psychiatry, clinical psychology, religion, anthropology, sociology, and, to a lesser degree, philosophy. Is there, in fact, any thinker of the last century whose intellectual influence was greater?
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