Freud and His Critics: Whose Freud?

My challenge in writing anything about Freud is that there is not one Freud and the writings by Freud and others about Freud and his ideas are voluminous with wildly various interpretations. I think of this as a vast Rorschach test, where biographers and interpreters of Freud, his life and ideas, somehow see what they want to see and report what they interpret through their own particular biases.

Some of what I will review and reflect on will be several biographies, which range from Freud “critics” or “bashers” at one end of a continuum, and Freud “defenders” or “apologists” at the other. There are a number of fairly well balanced biographies between these extremes. The most recent one in this “middle” category is “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016) by Elisabeth Roudinesco, which I will review later.

One of the best sources for an exchange between the critics and defenders is Paul Robinson’s “Freud and His Critics” (1993).Robinson goes after Jeffrey Masson, Frank Sulloway, and Adlof Grumbaum, three key critics of Freud. Robinson says Fredrick Crews, who has recently (2018) published his latest Freud bashing biography, is not worthy of his treatment. Robinson says, “there is also much to be said for the proposition that, whatever its shortcomings, psychoanalysis remains the best therapeutic game in town” (p. 11) This statement will be contested by all critics of Freud and psychoanalysis, but I will have something to say about it when I review the criticisms.

Robinson’s point about Masson, Sulloway, and Grunbaum is that, “all of them are unreconstructed, indeed unapologetic, positivists” (p.15). This raises my questions about categories of criticism and critics. How many of the critics are neo-positivists and how many of the supporters are linguistic, philosophic, post-modern interpretive thinkers ( e.g. Ricoeur, Habermas, Lit-Crit folks, Mythologists)? About this Robinson writes, “The anti-Freudian impulse of recent vintage stands at odds with the most visible intellectual current of the age. Stylistically, the opposition to Freud has a decidedly conservative feel to it, lending it a curious resonance with the politics of the 1980s.” (p.16) And: “like it or not, Freud virtually invented a new way of thinking about the self” (p 16).

Robinson’s suggestion that many of Freud’s critics “fail to take the measure of their man”, reinforces my point that many of Freud’s critics are capitalizing on Freud’s popularity and the recent (the last few decades) “anti-Freud” mood in the west. This is particularly true of Crews and Masson (more about them later), who have written endlessly about the same topic. Crews , in particular, has made a rather good living from his endless flogging a “dead horse” (at least the ideas he keeps attacking). Since Masson and Crews were once “believers”, their passionate and continuous attacks seem less than innocent and quite suspect in motive. Quite apart from whether one sees merit in their various arguments/interpretations, they have each lashed out against their former (Church, Father, Religion, God?) and become “converts” of a new “religion”. This new religion has brought them degrees of fame and fortune.