Freud as Literature; Freud as Science

In a response to my defense of Freud, Jonah Lehrer states that, with Harold Bloom (ewww!), he sees Freud as "one of the great artists of the 20th century." In my view, how we read Freud today -- as literature, philosophy, or science -- is largely a matter of choice, as is the case for most early psychologists. We don't even need to pick just one. I myself tend to see his work as both philosophy and science, though not as literature. In this post, I'm going to briefly make the case for my own perception of him, as a way of extending my defense of his work as relevant to psychology today.

Two of the most important works of psychology in the 19th century are never read by psychologists today. They are Franz Brentano's Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, which gave us the concept of "intentionality" that is still used, in one form or another, in both psychology and philosophy of mind, and his Descriptive Psychology. I mention these, and especially the second, because of their influence on Freud. Freud attended lectures by Brentano (as did pretty much everyone else -- the man's students, from Freud to Husserl to Meinong, and by extension people like Heidegger, Russell, and Moore , pretty much defined 20th century philosophy), and was heavily influenced by Brentano's approach to psychology, particularly that contained in Descriptive Psychology. According to Brentano, psychology in its descriptive form

seeks to display all the ultimate psychic components from whose combination one with another the totality of psychic phenomena would result, just as the totality of words is yielded by the letters of the alphabet1

Breantano's belief was that this descriptive approach would lead to the discovery of universal psychological laws, and thus that it was the only genuinely scientific approach to psychology. This view led Brentano to propose an experimental approach to psychology that was not unlike that being carried out at the time by psychophysicists like Ernst Mach, and not entirely unlike what experimental psychologists do today. Freud himself undertook such a descriptive approach, and saw his own work as forming the foundations ofa scientific psychology. Of course, Freud didn't conduct experiments (neither did Brentano), but that's beside the point. Freud's project was to discover the "ultimate psychic components" that would, in combination, define "the totality of psychic phenomena," and he undertook this project in a systematic fashion that went as far, if not beyond anything else in scientific psychology at the time. As a result, Freud left us with many insights that are still relevant, scientifically, today.

Take, for example, the unconscious. While, as Jonah notes, Freud was not a prophet of the unconscious, in many ways he "scientized" (as I typed that, I was convinced that I'd made the word up, but apparently not) it. It is true that, as Jonah points out, discussions of the unconscious had existed prior to Freud's work. In fact, in Germany, post-Kantian philosophy was infused with discussions of the unconscious, and in Nietzsche in particular, the unconscious looked a lot like the early 20th century versions in psychology (compare, for example, the passages on dreams in Human, All Too Human with the first couple chapters of Jung's Psychology of the Unconscious). Freud often claimed that he had never read Nietzsche, though I read a quote from him somewhere (I don't remember where, but I promise I'm not making this up) in which he said that he read Nietzsche, but didn't understand him, and Brentano himself sought to rebel against the Kantian tradition in which the unconscious was so important. So how influential these philosophical discussions were on Freud's work is difficult to say, but it is certain that until Freud, no one had undertaken a systematic, empirical investigation of the role of the unconscious in behavior and conscious thought. And while one could perhaps find elements of Nietzsche's unconscious in contemporary discussions of, say, goals and motivations (which are largely unconscious phenomena), ideas of Freud's are unmistakeably present in current research.

Take, for example, the "valuation" and "devaluation" effects observed in contemporary research on goals2. When a goal is activated, objects related to that goal tend to increase in their perceived value, while objects not related to it tend to be devalued. One explanation for this is that goals are competing for motivational resources, and the goal that wins out at the moment unconsciously affects our preferences and behavior. This doesn't just sound like Freud, it is Freud, albeit without any mention of sex.

Then there are the related phenomena generally included under the label "hot cognition." A particularly Freudian example is our tendency to use defense mechanisms (e.g., in the avoidance of cognitive dissonance) to protect our beliefs, particularly those that are our most cherished, against counterevidence and counterarguments. But the very influence of affect in reasoning, which cognitive scientists are only now beginning to recognize (e.g., in the work of Antonio Damasio), is Freudian to its core. Granted, as Jonah notes, this view was not new to Freud, and often psychologists cite Hume instead of Freud, especially in "hot cognition" approaches to moral psychology, but Freud scientized (I can write that without scare quotes now that I know it's in the dictionary) the study of the role of affect in reasoning. Furthermore, he focused, as researchers do today, on the unconscious and automatic way in which affect influenced reasoning.

Jonah does attribute to Freud one area of influence: his psychology of dreams (which was wrapped up in his psychology of the unconscious). Mark Solms has been arguing this as well for the last few years3, but since I'm not really up on dream research, I'll have to defer to Jonah on this one. He writes:

Our dreams really are structured narratives that recapitulate the day's events. REM is probably an essential part of the learning-reconsolidation process. One of the leading theories of sleep argues that dreams are just imaginary scenarios that help us test out our new knowledge and form new mental connections. While we are sleeping, our brain is figuring out what knowledge we might need, and what knowledge is just a waste of neuronal space. So, at least in theory, dreams can be vehicles for interpretation. Rather than just being a montage of cortical detritus - as Francis Crick argued - dreams really are useful narratives, which can be analyzed and deciphered. Of course, not every dream is really about your mother.

The point of all this is twofold. First, under one conception of psychological science that existed in Freud's time (the other being that of the behaviorists), Freud's work was as scientific as they came. And since the death of behaviorism, that conception of psychological science has been dominant, even if it no longer saw the need to lay down the fundamental components of a theory of psychic phenomena prior to undertaking experimental investigations of those phenomena, as Brentano and Freud did. The second is that Freud is still relevant, scientifically, in many areas of cognitive science. Given how new our focus on affective and unconscious, automatic influences on behavior is, I think it would behoove us, as scientists, to probe historical works on those topics for insights. Since Freud's is the most scientific of those historical works, his is the first we should be looking to. We'll inevitably find much there that we can't use, but the point is that we may very well find much that we can. Freud was no prophet, but he was a genius with the potential to positively influence research for years to come.

UPDATE: Over at Siris, Brandon provides some Brentano links (including a link to a translation of the first two chapters of Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint), for those who are interested in learning more about the truly amazing philosopher and psychologist.

1Brentano, F. 1982. Deskriptive Psychologie. Ed. by R. M. Chisholm and W. Baumgartner. Hamburg: Meiner. As quoted in Mulligan, K., & Smith, B. (1985). Franz Brentano on the ontology of mind. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 45, 627-644.
2See e.g., Brendl, M.C., & Markman, A.B. (2003). The devaluation effect: Activating a need devalues unrelated objects. Journal of Consumer Research, 29, 463-473.
3See e.g., Solms, M. (1997). The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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That's a great post, thanks. Without being an expert, I've had the vague impression that Freud had produced important insights, especially about the unconscious, but I didn't know anything about what had come before. The anti-Freudians are so emotional in their condemnations that I could never really take their word for whatever malfeasance they were attributing to him.

Now if we can only get physicists to understand that Aristotle was not a complete idiot.

but I didn't know anything about what had come before.

Well, his mentor Jean-Martin Charcot and one of Charcot's other students, Pierre Janet, also had insights about the unconscious. (at least according to the history class I took)

from a text book I still have from the class (can provide bibliography if you like)

[Pierre Janet] agreed with [Charcot] that for some individuals aspects of the personality could become dissociated, or "split off," and these dissociated aspects of the personality could manifest themselves in hysteric symptoms or in hypnotic phenomena. Janet, like Charcot, speculated that both might result from the "subconscious" influence of dissociated aspects of personality.


The ideas of Janet and Freud were so similar that there was a dispute between the two over priority. Freud argued that Janet's treatment of those ideas was superficial. Janet insisted that what Freud called psychoanalysis originated in his work and in that of Charcot (R. I. Watson, 1978)

What about Freud's focus on sex? It seems that in the public mind (and by extension the scientific mind) the main reason people ridicule Freud is because of a perception that he sexualized everything. I've not read enough Freud to know if that were so. But what I've read certainly does seem uncritically sexualizing.

Clark, there is a lot of sex in Freud, often where there doesn't need to be, but you're right, it wasn't all about sex.

You know, I've always thought that a lot of what Freud had to say was very important, at least embryonally. Of course, a lot of what he had to say is out of date. But the same two statements could be made of Thomas Edison.