Brian Leiter on Freud Again

I foolishly managed to once again entangle myself in a debate with Brian Leiter. There is at least one good reason not to try to engage in a reasoned blog debate with Leiter, which is that he doesn’t believe in it:

I am sometimes presented with the following criticism: “Your rhetorical style won’t persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.” That is no doubt true, but, as we’ve just remarked, it is quite rare to persuade anyone by a careful, reasoned argument–indeed, so rare, that I don’t see it as worth the effort to try to do so on a blog….

Nevertheless, since I started it, I suppose I should respond. (And at least I got a laugh out of being called an ideologue by the to-the-left-of-Noam-Chomsky Brian Leiter.)

The issue at controversy is my original claim in a brief comment to this blog post on the pseudo-scientific nature of Marxism, that Freud’s “work (or at least the vast majority of it) can’t stand up to the scientific method,” to which Leiter responded that my claim is “wholly false.”

It’s rather well-established that Freud’s work generally didn’t follow the scientific method, e.g., Freud did not reach his conclusions via testing, replication, and other indicia of scientific inquiry. Moreover, Freud’s followers for decades argued that his work shouldn’t be subject to empirical testing. One could argue that Freud’s theories were still better than ones preceded it (though my understanding is that the triumph of Freudian theory extinguished some other promising lines of research), but the hostility of Freudians to scientific methodologies then retarded further progress in psychiatry for decades.

Leiter instead argues that some of Freud’s “theory of the mind” has recently been empirically validated by OTHERS who did use the scientific method. If all Leiter is arguing that not everything Freud wrote turned out to be false, he won’t get any argument from me [though that’s not the same as showing the most, or even much, of Freud’s work has been empirically validated. On reflection, any such debate would involve some difficult definitional boundaries: what level of generality are we talking about (e.g., who would dispute that the pursuit of sex is a important motivating factor in human affairs?); how much weight do you give to different aspects of Freud’s work to define “much”?; What if a particular conclusion was correct, but the rationale was wrong? The one article Leiter cites in support of the scientific validity of Freudian theory actually acknowledges, in the abstract no less, that while modern Freudians build on Freud’s genuine insights, Freud’s “version of psychodynamic theory” is “archaic,” and that most Freudian clinicians consider it “obsolete”.]

But if Leiter is arguing that Freud’s work was itself scientific that’s another story. There’s no contradiction between having great insights into human nature–great philosophers, authors, religious thinkers, etc., have had them–and not following, or purporting to follow, the scientific method.

For some bizarre and unexplained reason, Leiter seems to think that my beef with Freud is ideological, as if acknowledging what he calls the “scientific status” of Freud’s theories would somehow conflict with my belief in … what exactly? Perhaps he should instead note that I’ve been writing about junk science–left, right, and (mostly) otherwise–for over twenty years.

One might also give some thought to the many homosexuals, schizophrenics, victims of sexual abuse, and others who sought counsel from Freudian analysts, only to be fed nonsense about their mothers, accused of fantasizing, and so on. Leiter hasn’t acknowledged this, but perhaps he could withhold some of his vitriol from me, and spare some sympathy for these victims of pseudo-science–assuming, of course, that he agrees that they were such.