In this book, Ernest Gellner uses the psychoanalytic movement as a "case study" to explore the general human tendency to create delusional ideological systems which serve various political, social, and psychological needs. He also focuses in on the specific structural features of modern life that made psychoanalysis an especially successful ideology.
As Gellner sums up in his final chapter, "In a sense, the present book is more interested in our Zeitgeist than in psychoanalysis. The crucial strategic position occupied by Freudianism in the social and intellectual history of mankind, makes it possible for us to learn a vast amount from it about, on the one hand, the general anatomy of belief systems and, on the other, the special conditions prevalent in our age."
In his first two chapters, Gellner focuses in on what might be called the modern predicament. Before the rise of natural science and philosophical empiricism, it was easy to explain the mixture of good and evil, the sheer perversity, embodied in human beings. Humans were, quite literally, halfway between beasts and angels.
The rise of science and modern philosophy invalidated that belief. Taking David Hume as a prime example, Gellner shows that the scientific, empiricist thought of the Enlightenment abandoned the angel/beast dichotomy. The Enlightenment theorists naturalized man: the model of man they ended up with, which Gellner dubs the "Bundleman," was a random mixture of self-interested desires and needs which were easily satisfied by a conservatively cautious policy of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.
Real human beings, of course, act much more like a mixture of angel and beast than the cautiously and rationally selfish "Bundleman" of the Enlightenment.
Nietzsche was, Gellner claims, the first serious post-Enlightenment thinker to fully realize this fact, and the realization finally drove poor Nietzsche insane.
Freud's genius was to take the Nietzschean insight and domesticate it, thereby turning it into the basis of a very successful, very lucrative pseudo-scientific cult - psychoanalysis.
Freud's task was made easier by certain features of the modern world. The modern world exhibits deep reverence for applied science, especially medicine. In modern industrial societies, technology has eradicated most traditional physical threats (starvation, plague, wild animals, etc.). In our society, the pressing threats perceived by most people lie rather in the increasing complexity of, and importance placed upon, human relationships. It is just in this area of interpersonal relationships where psychoanalysis offered help.
Most of the book explores the tricks and turns by which psychoanalysis maintained its authority. Nowadays, now that there is hardly an intelligent person left who is a hard-core believer in the Freudian faith, is this of any more than historical interest?
While Freud may finally be buried, his residue endures -- as "therapy," "couselling," "adjustment," etc. -- and continues to muddle our thinking process and our ability to make moral evaluations. As Gellner rhetorically asks, concerning the Holy Grail of "adjustment," "[I]s adaptation, adjustment to any regime, including a tyrannical one, a sign of mental health?" The Soviets, hardly orthodox Freudians, famously answered "Yes!"
But even more important, as Gellner emphasizes, the fraud of Freudianism is a typical example of the functioning of human society in general:
"Societies possess techniques for rendering ideas socially constitutive, and these techniques tend to share certain formal features. It is important to remember that this is the normal condition of mankind: most ideas of most men at most times are beyond the reach of questioning... An idea does not have simply a cognitive role...it is at the same time linked to a set of personal relations, to loyalties, hierarchies, sentiments, hopes and fears. To shake the idea would be to disturb all that. Most men are neither willing nor able to do that."
To put it more bluntly, the structure of all hitherto existing human societies is grounded in socially-imposed, emotionally-compelling lies.
Did Freud and his colleagues engage in bizarre intellectual contortions to prevent their ideas from being questioned or subjected to criticism?
Yes... but have you ever asked a liberal why we must slavishly accede to the results of a democratic election? The answer is that if you choose to vote, you are obliged to accept the results, and, if you don't vote, you have no right to complain. Is Freudian reasoning any more circular than that?
Did Freud and his colleagues frantically avoid confronting their theories with empirical reality? (Freud once declared that "I cannot advise too strongly against" seeking out empirical evidence to check the conclusions of a psychoanalytic diagnosis because the result would be that "confidence in the analysis is shattered and a court of appeal is set up over it.")
Yes... but have you ever talked with a conservative about the actual historical process by which the US Constitution was "ratified"?
Do Freudians apply different standards to themselves than to all other human beings, accusing critics and skeptics of being mentally and morally deranged?
Yes... but have you ever tried asking a Christian why, since they preach that Jesus taught the pacifist doctrines of "Resist not evil!" and "Turn the other cheek!", many Christians are among the most violent and militaristic people on the planet?
What then would happen if everyone learned the central lesson of Gellner's book -- that deception, dishonesty, and manipulation are at the heart not only of the psychoanalytic movement but of nearly all forms of social authority?
If people simply cease believing in authority, them, like Tinkerbell, authority simply dies.
If the world were free of lies, deception, and manipulation, then the authority of clergymen and governments, of judges, schoolteachers, psychotherapists, professors, and policemen, would all simply disappear.
Garbagemen can still collect garbage, farmers can still farm, and deliverymen can still deliver even if no one "believes' in them. But if no one believes in clergymen, or psychoanalysts, or Presidents, then there would no longer be clergymen, psychoanalysts, or Presidents. Like Tinkerbell, they would simply fade away.
And, perhaps, that would be a very good thing indeed.