The Psychoanalytic Movement: Freudianism as Historical Accident
How did Freudianism achieve such a solid foothold in the intellectual life of the West with so little scientific basis?
Review of Ernest Gellner’s The Psychoanalytic Movement
The Psychoanalytic Movement tries to answer the question: how did Freudianism come to achieve such a solid foothold in the intellectual life of the West, especially in light of the fact that Freudianism has such little scientific basis?
Gellner is sarcastically dismissive of the claims of psychoanalysis, but backs up his claims with a wealth of insight and argument. His premise is that no movement should be studied strictly on its own terms, that a movement’s claims should be verifiable against external societal criteria. Given this premise, it is not surprising that psychoanalysis appears an untenable theory; any religious system would also fail testability tests — but this is precisely Gellner’s point about psychoanalysis. Its conceptual system betrays many of the same strategies as religions for gaining and retaining adherents.
Gellner argues that religions present their claims in such a way that individual must wager one way or another on their claims. Freudianism does something of the same: because it implicitly claims such a mammoth importance of the power of the unconscious, and because it implicitly claims to have a unique method of divining the unconscious, the individual ignores the claims of psychoanalysis at his own peril. The unconscious itself is the most powerful “joker” in the deck, because is it held to be protean, supremely cunning, and fully knowledgeable about the workings of its enemy — the conscious mind. And even though Gellner feels that it is a weakness of the Freudian theory of the unconscious that it bears so many similarities to the conscious, the unconscious can contradict itself endlessly, making it all the more murky to discern (and thus making the psychoanalysts all the more important).
My favorite part of the book was the early chapters wherein Gellner treats the intellectual backdrop that made Freudianism possible, and so appealing. The late nineteenth century was a time when man began to see himself again as a part of nature, instead of as the “angel/beast” he was during the Christian centuries. Unfortunately the picture of man created by Western Philosophers was so colorless and unappealing that it could not gain any mass acceptance as an accurate picture of man. The reliance…