on 18 September 1999
This is a brilliant demolition job on the theories of Freud and the psychoanalytic movement. Webster writes superbly and though closely argued and subtle as well as being long, I found the book as unputdownable as any gripping novel. Fiction, however it is not; nor is this book written in the sensationalist and over-weeningly triumphalist way that many "exposes" are. From an immensely detailed and masterly knowledge of the literature, including the correspondence and notes of Freud, it argues that Freud's theoretical constructs are based on misdiagnosis and fundamental mistakes about neurology. Freud is shown to have rendered his theories beyond the reach of falsifiability and set about creating a quasi-religious movement in which the only ultimate authority was himself. The book identifies Freud's motivation as a powerful messianic drive for intellectual greatness implanted in him by his parents' expectations. Psychoanalysis is described as a substitute religion firmly yet invisibly rooted in the Judaeo-Christian theology of human nature which permeates virtually the whole Western intellectual culture even today. Perhaps Freud's biggest error according to this book is that he promulgated psychoanalysis as if it were a science when it is a religion or a faith. He was successful in this because of the modern Western need for secular substitutes for orthodox Christian faith dressed up as science. The book also shows how psychoanalysis creates and meets psychological needs similar to the church penitential practices of confession and absolution. There is a fascinating chapter on the relationship between Christian doctrines of original sin and Freud's theories. The appendix on "recovered memory" is a useful summary of this hot topic for the uninitiated. The book is provocative not only for psychoanalysts. It is in fact an essay of cultural analysis. The invention and history of psychoanalysis illustrates the book's thesis that the Western cultural tradition is in thrall to a rationalism based on the mind-body or angel-beast dualism in theories of human nature which ultimately derive from the Judaeo-Christian religious teachings. The book implies this intense rationalism is intrinsic to Christianity and all faith in a Creator God or an ineluctable outgrowth from it; though students of non-Western forms of Christianity would find scope for debate here. The book appeals for a wider, more imaginative, understanding and explanation of the human condition rooted in Darwininian evolutionary theories which will breach the mind-body and flesh-soul split and pay more attention to the empirically-observeable character of the whole range of human life; including religion. This book will provoke Christians in its apparent atheism and occasional flashes of scorn for Christianity. The book appears to reject all belief in God as self-evidently irrational. It stands for that stream of empirical philosophy which has always critiqued rational thought for its willingness to postulate concepts as real and its tendency to value ideas over materials. But this book is rarely dogmatic in tone and the implied atheism is nuanced enough to stimulate those of faith to examine their own theories of human nature and enter debate - which is what this book wants people to do. I loved it - even though I disagree with it on the God-question - because it is the treatise which finally convinces me that I can ignore all arcane and obscure attempts to persuade me of the value of Freudian analysis.
on 27 February 2014
There's no shortage of critiques of Freud in both technical and more popular formats, but this is the one that convinces.
Webster has a fine command of the literature and a careful, forensic technique. In other hands, this might make for hard work, but Webster also writes well, so much so that at times it reads like a thriller. The most telling material for me lies in the first half of the book, where the author establishes that Freud's approach was far from the scientific method he claimed. By applying this understanding to some of the best known of Freud's work, and especially by critically analysing his claims to be working from clinical evidence, Webster comprehensively undermines the foundations of Freudian psychoanalysis.
He is by no means a crude polemicist, as can be seen from his treatment of the "Seduction Theory", for example. Jeffrey Masson has sometimes been seen as Freud's harshest critic in arguing that one of Freud's greatest failures was his abandonment of his "Seduction Theory" - in which hysteria was seen as being the result of sexual trauma in early childhood - replacing it with a view that hysteria resulted instead from suppressed wish fulfilment. For Masson, this represented a turn away from listening to the reality of his patients' trauma and towards a denial of the reality of abuse and its effects.
But Webster goes further. Firstly, he argues that the diagnosis of "hysteria" is hopelessly vague and incapable of sustaining serious examination. Secondly, whilst not denying the reality of sexual abuse in childhood, he shows that Freud's "discovery" of this was far from the result of his listening to his patients free testimony. Instead, it resulted from his deciding that sexual abuse must be the cause of hysteria and then using coercive techniques to browbeat his patients into "confessing" that this indeed lay at the root of their symptoms.
Webster argues that this is typical of Freud's general approach, and makes a strong case.
My main criticism of "Why Freud Was Wrong" lies in the lenghty later part of the book in which Webster argues that Freud's theories form part of a long Judeo-Christian tradition. It's well argued, but for me, this was less interesting than the material relating to psychoanalysis per se.
on 5 September 2015
In this book, Richard Webster (no relation) does a great job of totally destroying Freud’s ideas. Some people claim that although Freud got a lot wrong we should not “throw out the baby with the bathwater” by rejecting Freud’s ideas entirely. But Webster shows that once we have thrown out the Freudian dirty bathwater, we can see that there was actually no baby in there at all.
Most of Freud’s ideas are so ridiculous that you can’t help laughing at them. For example, Webster points out that Freud claimed that in dreams staircases were “unquestionably symbols of copulation”, and that women’s hats “can very often be interpreted with certainty as a genital organ (usually a man’s)...”
But it is not funny that Freud’s ideas have led so many people astray, often with tragic consequences. For example, Stephen Jay Gould (in his essay on “Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples”) showed that millions of women suffered frustration and misery because they were persuaded to accept Freud’s claim that their sexuality was dysfunctional if they did not achieve a “vaginal orgasm” as opposed to a supposedly “infantile” clitoral orgasm.
Underlying all the specific things wrong with Freudianism is the fundamental problem that it is totally unscientific. Darwinism is a scientific theory because it can be tested against the real world. There is evidence to support it. This does not apply to Freud’s ideas, which are basically untestable assertions – sometimes plausible but more often bizarre.
Freud was an expert at imposing his own preconceived ideas onto vulnerable, suggestible and gullible patients, and thousands of psychotherapists (whether well-intentioned or downright fraudulent) have followed in his footsteps.
Where I disagree with Richard Webster is when he says that Marxism is as unscientific as Freudianism. In fact, Marxist theories can be tested against the real world, and there is enough evidence around us to show that Marx gave us the foundations for understanding society, just as Darwin gave us the foundations for understanding nature. (I am talking here about genuine Marxism, not the Stalinism of the bureaucratic state capitalist tyrannies which have tainted the words “communism” and “Marxism”.)
We live in a capitalist society which screws up people’s minds as well as their lives. But Freudian (or post-Freudian) pseudoscience does not help us to understand this process.