Influence and relevance of Sigmund Freud today, 80 years after his death

Updated: Feb 22

Interview with Martin Wieser, Assistant Professor of Theory & History of Psychology at Sigmund Freud University in Berlin, Germany.

Sigmund Freud's impact on popular culture, art, literature, cinema and the way we interpret other people's behavior and articulate our feelings has been and still is tremendous, but in what ways concretely is he influencing us today, after 80 years since he died? I spoke with Martin Wieser (Assisant Professor of theory & History of Psychology at Sigmund Freud University in Berlin, Germany) about the influence and relevance of Sigmund Freud today.

Question: Thank you very much for finding the time. Could you please talk about the meaning and importance of psychoanalysis in our modern world and about why you became interested in researching it?

Martin Wieser: First question is quite easily answered in the sense that essentially, psychoanalysis is everywhere, meaning that it has grown into our everyday language, e.g. concepts like the subconscious or “repressed” memories that control our behavior and influence our ways of thinking. Freud did not invent these concepts, he used and combined them in a new, unique framework. This framework became part of how we understand and describe others and ourselves. Even if you look into movie history, for example, Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” or Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, you can clearly see that psychoanalysis has been widely accepted in everyday culture, media and literature and more so, has become such a basic theoretical framework that very often we don’t even recognize the heritage that we grew within the Western hemisphere.

I am a psychologist and philosopher by training, but mostly I’m interested in the historical problems of psychology. In my research, I mainly focus on the roots of psychoanalysis and the political, cultural and social context that shaped psychoanalytic thinking through the 19th and especially 20th century.

Q: Why do you think Sigmund Freud and generally psychoanalysis are mostly being discredited in clinical and academic circles?

MW: The first point is that I don’t think this is a new phenomenon: Freud was some kind of an academic outsider from a very early stage of his career. He had a first career in neurology and physiology — more traditional areas of research and medicine until the 1890s, but even then, he experienced criticism and exclusion, especially because he was (or rather was identified as) a Jew. He definitely would have had more options and opportunities if Anti-Semitism was not so prevalent in Austria and Germany at that time.

Secondly, later on in his career, Freud was also excluded, but for different reasons — especially by psychologists. Just to give you an example: in Vienna, where Sigmund Freud lived for almost all his life, he organized the so-called “Wednesday gathering” at his place, where he invited other practitioners and exchanged ideas, gave talks and so on. Just five minutes away from there, the Psychological Institute of the University of Vienna was established in 1922. The chairperson of this institute was Karl Bühler. He put his colloquium on Wednesday evening on purpose, so that his students and colleagues would not be able to attend Freud’s meeting. Karl Bühler was a very strong enemy of psychoanalytic thinking for a whole lot of different reasons but he was not a racist, he didn’t exclude Freud because of his Jewish ancestry, but rather because of methodological and theoretical reasons.

Q: So Freud’s ideas and methods were perceived as not scientific enough?

MW: Well, I would say the problem was mostly based on differing methodologies. Even

up until the present day, it’s the biggest issue that academic psychology has with psychoanalysis. I think it is much easier to understand why such a huge gap between these fields of knowledge and research appeared over time if you take a look at the historical development — how these two areas actually came about.

Freud, as a student in Vienna, underwent medical training, he was extremely concerned with his patients.When he founded his own medical practice (where he had a lot of patients suffering from neurosis), psychology had absolutely no methods to offer to treat mental disorders at that time. Psychology was no use or help, as Freud argued. That’s why he was looking for a “new psychology” which would be practically useful in a medical and clinical context. What he was looking for was not just methods for medical treatment, but also a theory that would explain how these methods work. Academic psychology at that time almost completely focused on laboratory research, on the laws of consciousness and on how to measure reactions, behavior and how stimulus and sensations can be connected and mathematically correlated.

Academic psychology did not consider its mission to provide practices that are used for treatment — but methods for treatment were exactly what Freud was in dire need of.

Q: if I understood correctly, the roots of discreditation of psychoanalysis lies in its own history, meaning that it has been discredited from the beginning for different reasons at different times. However, it seems to me that even today, maybe because of “historical inertia”, psychoanalysis is not taken seriously in clinical and academic cycles, even though it has proved itself extremely useful.

MW: As a teacher of psychology working at the university for many years now, I can definitely say that interest in psychoanalysis has not decreased at all. Especially young students are very eager to hear about the life of Sigmund Freud, but also about others like Carl Gustav Jung, Alfred Adler, Anna Freud and many others that worked with Freud or followed his paths. Public interest definitely has not faded away. On the other hand, critique of psychoanalysis is still prevalent. I think that in a scientific context it has to be possible to express criticism and that’s a good thing.

I do think that in a few circles within the psychoanalytic community, there is a big problem or a challenge to develop psychoanalysis further beyond Freud. He was and still is such a dominant figure in this whole movement, that it seems to be almost impossible or at least extremely hard to make a new beginning or at least to scratch on the foundations. I think that is a problem in scientific contexts: if a father figure is still so dominant that it is not allowed to step beyond him, then development is not possible anymore, and science becomes dogmatic. That is the death of science. I think that is a problem, but it doesn’t mean that the whole approach should be considered as unscientific.

I think we should accept that science has a lot of different methods, concepts and theories. The biggest problem for many psychologists is to acknowledge that it is justified, and in many cases necessary, to gather data that is not collected by measurement and experimentation. Let’s take the example of the theory of evolution: in scientific communities, you don’t really hear people criticizing Darwin’s theory of evolution as unscientific because of methodological reasons. You can hear criticism of some parts of it, but surely not his approach of observing as a whole. Evolutionary theory is a part of biology that has its own methods — it doesn’t really work as pure laboratory research. It’s just not possible to control the extinction of species in a controlled setting, for example, you can just collect signs and remnants of species that once existed, and try to come to conclusions from these signs. Darwin collected data by careful observation, by traveling to different locations and trying to find out how species developed over time in different environments. I can not remember reading any psychologists criticizing Darwin for being “unscientific”, although he did not base his findings on experimentation and quantification.

A much more interesting question regarding psychoanalysis, from my perspective, is what kind of science it is. And again, when we look at Freud’s academic education, we can easily see that he was not just a prolific writer, but also a very dedicated laboratorian. He worked with Ernst Brücke, a very famous professor of physiology in Vienna. For the first 20 years of his scientific career, Freud was mostly observing and dissecting vertebrates and human brains.

One of the papers I wrote on this subject was named “From the Eel to the Ego”, because the first animal that Freud was working on was the eel. Freud tried to find out whether the eel had two sexes or just one. He dissected hundreds of eels and put them into certain liquids, trying to see whether there are distinctive cells that you can identify as a male or female. That is just one example of many of his early studies that he performed, many of these were concerned with the existence of biological structures that are invisible to the eye. But if you have the right method and you know how to use it, you can make these structures visible. This “style of research” was absolutely standard during the 19th century and I would argue that the idea of science as a technique of making observations and bringing invisible structures to the realm of the visible is the same scheme that Freud used when he developed his psychoanalytic techniques: The basic idea is that you need the right instruments and a lot of practical experience to bring to light what was invisible before.

I do not think that the people who criticize psychoanalysis for being unscientific would, in general, say that this whole approach is unscientific per se. So what do they mean when they say “unscientific”? Psychoanalysis is a theory, but it is also a method, and it is an organization of academics and practitioners. I think it is not very fruitful to engage into a general and vague discussion whether a body of knowledge, methods and experts is unscientific in general or not. I think it is necessary to make the criticism more precise to start a meaningful discussion.

Q: Bruce Fink, American Lacanian psychoanalyst, who writes a lot about Freud, mentioned, that “Just because certain of Freud’s more speculative theories have rightly been called into question and even sharply critiqued, that doesn’t mean that the more fundamental concepts and techniques he developed related to the unconscious, free association, and dream interpretation are useless. Studies in France have shown that people who go through analysis often say that their work with dreams was the most helpful part of their analyses. I think we should take what patients say was most helpful very seriously indeed!”

What do you think about the value of Sigmund Freud precisely in a clinical setting today?

MW: Well, before I answer, I have to underline that I’m not a psychotherapist or psychoanalyst. I think I should be clear and transparent in that. However, I do have a lot of colleagues who work in that area. First of all, the university where I work at is a little bit special in the sense that you can study psychotherapy as an academic subject and at a certain point you can choose into which direction you want to develop with no financial impact, so you can freely choose if you do a training in behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, Gestalt therapy or whatever you are interested in. That is a very important topic, because the rise of behavioral therapy has a lot to do with economic issues. Psychoanalysis is usually more expensive — it takes much more time to do the training and it usually takes much longer until you finish a therapy. Some might say it’s never really finished. From an economic point of view, if two schools of therapy promised to produce the same output, you would obviously take the cheaper one.

On the other hand, I do agree that clinical institutions should not waste resources. That is fair to say because we are all paying for it, but rising numbers of behavioral therapists cannot be accounted as a proof that their methods are superior if their training is cheaper. Secondly, I would say that the whole area of psychotherapy has become much more fluid in the sense that trainees are introduced into one school, but after a few months or years it doesn’t matter so much anymore which background they have. In my perspective, most practitioners just try out techniques they got to learn from somebody else and just include them into their practice if they think they are working.

So, in applied fields, the scene is often becoming less dogmatic and more eclectic. For example, there are many behavioral therapists who do mindfulness training nowadays. That is kind of funny because behavioral therapy has roots in behaviorism, whose proponents had strong inclinations towards the concept of consciousness.

If you offer trainings on mindfulness with a theoretical background that, in its most distinct form, denies the existence of consciousness in general, how does this fit together? I think the answer is: it just doesn’t, but for many practitioners, it also doesn’t matter — as long as it seems to work for them.

I think the same thing is happening to psychoanalysis: many practitioners just try a little bit of dream interpretation. If they think it’s a useful tool, then they just stick with it. Obviously, Freud would not have liked or approved any of that. He would have strongly criticized such an eclectic way of doing psychotherapy because he was obviously strongly convinced that you need a systematic and coherent theoretical background to understand what you’re doing.

Furthermore, when patients enter the clinical setting, they often have certain expectations. Very often they also come with their own explanations of what led to their own mental problems and you hear them using psychoanalytic concepts. For example, they are referring to their childhood as the main cause of their current problems. What I’m trying to stress is that psychotherapists have to relate to the self-understanding of patients, even if they don’t agree with their theories. That doesn’t mean that therapists should believe them, but I think they should not ignore the self-understanding of their patients. In many cases, psychoanalysis still pops up in a clinical setting, and therapists from every current have to react to that in a respectful manner.

Q: In one of the interviews, when speaking about Freud, Lacan completely denied the crisis of psychoanalysis of which we hear more and more last decades and said: “this so-called crisis. It does not exist, it could not. Psychoanalysis has not come close to finding its own limits, yet. There is still so much to discover in practice and in consciousness. In psychoanalysis, there are no immediate answers, but only the long and patient search for reasons. Secondly, Freud. How can it be said that he has been left behind when we have still not yet entirely understood him? What we do know for sure is that he made us aware of things that are entirely novel, that would not even have been imagined before him, from the problems of the unconscious to the importance of sexuality, from access to the symbolic sphere to subjection to the laws of language. His doctrine put truth itself in question, and this concerns everyone, each individual personally. It is hardly in crisis.”

What do you think about the crisis of psychoanalysis and is it even real?

MW: Actually, I’ve been writing quite a bit on the crisis of psychology and I do think that this topic has turned out to be ever-unfinished in many areas. For more than one hundred years, there have been philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists and academics from many different disciplines who saw psychology in a state of “crisis”.

All through the 20th century, these debates circled around the question whether or not psychology should be a unified discipline with one set of methods and concepts, or a gathering of many different approaches under one umbrella. From today’s perspective, the repeated alarming calls of a “crisis” did not unify psychology at all, and I think the same can be said about the different schools of psychoanalysis.

One interesting part of the whole discussion is that in our everyday language, “crisis” is often used to describe a process of decay and destruction. What is considered to be in a state of “crisis”, from this perspective, is in danger of disintegration. However, from an etymological perspective, we know that crisis was used to describe a moment of decision: in Hippocratic medicine, “crisis” referred to the moment in time when a patient would either die or recover. So “crisis” does not just have to warn us of something to fall apart, but rather a moment of decision between death or reconstruction. Every crisis, from this perspective, refers to a phase of transition and development. In this sense, I would hope for psychoanalysis to be in a crisis — which, hopefully, will not lead to its decay, but to its further development in the 21st century.
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