January 31, 2009

Science Taken For Wonders

Reading George Makari's "Revolution In Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis" (Harper, 2008), the question that keeps leaping up at every turn is: how did anyone take Freud seriously for so long? Put another way, what deep psychological need did Freudian psychoanalysis — a sort of astrology of the mind, short of real evidence, a mishmash of wishful thinking and received prejudices masquerading as the key to unmasking wishful thoughts and prejudices — what deep needs did it tap to be able to seduce several whole generations of philosophers, analysts, and patients? Now that's a problem best studied by psychology (or social psychiatry, perhaps). In this history, Freud himself comes across as mercurial, manipulative, spiteful; the group of Freudians around him as a typical cult, concerned mostly with a desperate struggle not to alienate the Leader and find themselves on the outside. Not a pretty picture, but not that untypical of any insurgent movement, in the field of science or elsewhere.

Freud's monumental reputation loomed large in the Easter Island of philosophy I inhabited in Sydney all those years ago (where he seemed to have been regarded as a founder of the science and philosophy of mind), but he and Freudianism were basically invisible in the science and history of science courses I took at the same time. And it's easy to see why: at every step of the history as told by Makari I want to leap up and ask "but where's the evidence?" or "how could you conceivably test that?" after some new assertion or complex model has been unveiled. Entire theories seem to have been spawned by (or grounded on) anecdotal evidence often gained from a single unverified clinical case (and then just as easily abandoned). The whole history comes across as a whirl of epicycle upon epicycle, self-validating, unfalsifiable, almost medieval, a sort of ungrounded Aristotelian hermeneutics of the mind, and as fundamentally changeable as Freud himself.

But Freudianism isn't necessarily Freudian any more, and while it's a lot of fun, it's unfair to visit the sins of the father on his children (especially since he abandoned so many of them). In the ferment of ideas about the mind during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I have to admit that Freud seems to have had a good productive line of suggestive metaphors, established some useful vocabulary, and done a lot of good in deliberately letting quite a few essential cats out of the bag. But science? What Freud does seem to have bequeathed science isn't so much a science of the mind (we're still a long way from that), but a series of suggestive and largely-untested models for such a science; whether they'll be successful in the longer term isn't clear. But it makes for a very readable history….

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