Is psychoanalysis dead? Drugs and "cognitive therapies" are the new fashion, but advances in our understanding of the mind may have proved Freud right.by Lewis Wolpert / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
Dear Peter Fonagy
27th September 1999
The grandiose claims of psychoanalysis, and its subsidiary therapies, have never looked shakier. This is partly the result of the drip-effect of decades of criticism by real scientists, but also, more recently, the beneficial effect of pills such as Prozac and “cognitive” therapies, which focus on conscious as opposed to unconscious events. I am told that even in its American heartland analysis is in retreat in the face of these more effective alternatives.
But first, let me explain why I, like so many others, cannot take seriously psychoanalysis’s claim to scientific status. The problem is that its ideas are so vague and all-inclusive that it is not possible to test them and thus show whether they are right or wrong. How, for example, do psychoanalysts know that repression of traumatic events occurs, or that children, as Melanie Klein claims, experience a depressive state at the time of weaning, or that depression is aggression turned against the self? The concept of repression of unwanted thoughts which are too painful or disgusting is one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis, and repression is claimed to be responsible for some neuroses. But under what conditions does repression occur? And what is to be regarded as a trauma in childhood that is repressed? Freud famously considered seeing a dog drink from a glass as traumatic. Each of the key concepts of ego, id and superego has a character almost as complex as the phenomena for which they are employed to account. And the concept of psychic energy seems very like the idea of evil spirits, which some cultures use to explain why things have gone wrong.
A characteristic feature of all fields of science is that they relate to other fields to which they contribute and from which they take ideas. For example, cell and molecular biology relate to chemistry and to the biology of multicellular organisms. There can be no contradiction where these fields meet. By contrast, psychoanalysis is sealed off from outside influences. It is not possible to relate its ideas to any other body of scientific knowledge.