Freud: Charlatan of the mind

March 24, 2020 • 10:00 am

About fifteen years ago, I decided to read Freud. After all, he was touted as one of the three greatest thinkers of our time, along with Einstein and Marx (all Jewish men), and while I found Marx boring, I could at least try to read Freud. And I did: I read a lot of Freud, including his major books on dream analysis, the psychopathology of everyday life, The Future of an Illusion, his book on jokes, his General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, and many of his famous case studies, like “Little Hans” and the “Wolf Man.”

I was appalled. As a scientist, I recognized that his works were tendentious in the extreme. He wasn’t following the data, but massaging the data to conform to his preconceptions. In other words, he was ridden with confirmation bias. In fact, I couldn’t find a single idea in his works that was new (the “unconscious” had been suggested by others), and a lot of ideas that were complete crap (e.g., the Oedipus complex). In the end, I couldn’t figure out why he was regarded as such a great thinker. While psychoanalysis was touted by Freud as a “science,” there was no science in it: it was in fact the opposite of science—pseudoscience based on faith (a religion, really) and, ultimately, on Freud’s ambition to be famous.

Then I discovered that a professor named Fred Crews, once chairman of English at UC Berkeley, had devoted a lot of his writing to criticizing Freud in an objective but hard-hitting way. He had several articles on Freud in The New York Review of Books (e.g., here and here), as well as two excellent books on Freud, which I show below (click on screenshot to go to the Amazon site):

And this more recent book (2017):

The second book, involving years of diligent scholarship, is delightful though distressing, for you’ll discover the true mendacity of this ambitious, preening, and narcissistic man. Crews, once a literary critic adhering to the school of New Criticism, writes extremely well (this is a biography of the early Freud), and simply takes Freud to pieces.

Although some critics dissed the book, I couldn’t find a single critique that took issue with Crews’s painstakingly-accrued facts about Freud’s life. These critics seemed to be of the pro-Freud school—that group of people who, even if they decry psychoanalysis, can’t bear to hear that the Emperor had no clothes. At any rate, I would urge you to consider the second book for your quarantine reading. It’s a page-turner.

Now LiveScience has an article about Freud with a provocative title (click on screenshot):

The spoiler is given in the title, but there are a few pungent quotes from Crews:

“Statistically, it’s conceivable that a man can be as dishonest and slippery as Freud and still come up with something true,” Crews said. “I’ve tried my best to examine his theories and to ask the question: What was the empirical evidence behind them? But when you ask these questions, then you eventually just lose hope.”

As damning an assessment as that is, it wasn’t always like this for the founding father of psychoanalysis, who wrote that mental health problems could be cured by bringing unconscious thoughts back into the conscious realm. In his own time, Freud enjoyed celebrity status as a leading intellectual of the 20th century.

Chief among Freud’s overflow of opinions was the “Oedipus complex,” the hypothesis that every young boy wants to have sex with his mother and so wants to murder his father, whom he sees as a rival. But there’s a catch. The boy also has the foresight to realize that his father is simultaneously his protector. Presented with this challenging scenario, the child is forced to repress his homicidal cravings.

“It’s just about the craziest idea that anyone ever had,” Crews said. When people asked about young girls, Freud hastily came up with another idea, the Electra complex. “It’s just a cut-and-paste job. Suddenly, the little girl wants to have sex with her father,” Crews said. “It’s completely ludicrous.”

I wrote a post about the second book when it came out, and referred to a podcast with Crews. That’s still available, and you can listen to it or download it by clicking on the screenshot, where you’ll get 51 minutes of food for thought:


h/t: Bill

66 thoughts on “Freud: Charlatan of the mind

  1. What an insult to Einstein, being listed with those talentless hacks. He was a genius, and there were plenty of greater thinkers than Marx and Freud. Dirac and Feynman and Hawking, for example, and the Hawking wasn’t even one of the smartest physicists of his time.


    1. I remember reading Chris Hitchens’ book of collected essays by non-believers and finding it extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Then I reached the essay by Marx. I was surprised by how incredibly long-winded and dull it was, and how it said almost nothing in the process.
      I thought it was absolutely appalling writing, made worse by the constant use of chiasmi, presumably to inject some grandeur into the banalities and platitudes.

      That was a real shock to me. Hitch’s critical faculties vanished out the window when it came to Marx’s writing.

      1. I had the same experience. I could not make sense of the essay by Marx. Almost everything else in the anthology was good.

      2. I had the exact same experience. You’re talking about The Portable Atheist, right? I too came up to Marx’s essay and after a couple pages went to the next chapter. Horrible, cumbersome writing that was barely intelligible. I thought it was my failings…glad to see at least two others had the same experience.

      3. Das Kapital is a slog, but it’s also a foundational work of economics (which, not for no reason, did Thomas Carlyle label “the dismal science”).

        The Manifesto, OTOH, contains some lively prose, as does the journalism Marx wrote for Horace Greeley’s New-York Daily Tribune in the mid-19th century and some of his essays, such as “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.”

        1. I haven’t read the Kapital, but I doubt that any work of Marx has value as a foundational work of economics, given the pathetic economic failures of all governments that have tried to follow Marx.

    2. Marx was maybe dull but he was not a talentless hack. His work in economics laid the basis for much of the current understanding of labour and its relation to capital, and subsequent economic thought (Wikipedia).

      Siegmund Freud was also not a talentless hack and certainly a creative thinker. The most central concept of Freud, the unconscious, is still the basis of much research. Being wrong in science is normal, being right on something is very difficult.

      All three were important scientists, and even Einstein made many mistakes. The question who is the greatest thinker, is a matter of opinion.

      1. “All three were important scientists”
        Adolf Hitler was an important politician, as is Drumpf. Important relates to effects on people, some pretty bad, to say the least in both those cases.

        ‘Important for the increase in human knowledge’ would be better, and the comparison of Einstein with the other two in that sense is just laughable.

        “Einstein made many mistakes”
        His papers in journals have no meaningless babble whatsoever. Marx’s did, and Freud’s were almost nothing but.

        “who is the greatest thinker, is a matter of opinion”
        It is a meaningless question, especially regarding different areas. But when an area is virtually science-free, and the theory can be interpreted to predict any possibility whatsoever, it is better to dismiss most of it out-of-hand.

      2. “All three were important scientists”

        I’m not convinced you are using the word “scientist” sensibly. Do you also include “Christian Scientists”?

    1. We got so many great works of art from Freud, his influence in fiction has been gigantic. He gave serious writers license to effectively write about the fantastical and supernatural, because that’s what his theories of the unconscious are: fantasy worlds that impinge upon our real world.

      Look at Twin Peaks – there is no way you can credibly write something like that without Freud’s ideas to lend an imprimatur of respectability to it all. It’d have been a ghost story before he came along.

      Sure, he was scientifically pretty worthless, but he greatly expanded the scope of fiction. Narrative inconclusiveness, narrative impressionism, uncertainty about reality, worlds-within-worlds, symbolism, dream-logic…he made it ok to go hog wild with these things as a writer(in whatever medium).

      1. “We got so many great works of art from Freud, his influence in fiction has been gigantic.”

        A mostly negative one, and its largely exclusive to the West. Reducing all human complexity to “daddy issues” or “trauma” isn’t beneficial nor enriching to art and storytelling at all, it destroys depth not at add to it.

        “He gave serious writers license to effectively write about the fantastical and supernatural, because that’s what his theories of the unconscious are: fantasy worlds that impinge upon our real world.”

        Serious writers all over the world have already been doing this since the dawn of literature and storytelling as a human pastime, LONG before Freud “theories” were formed.

        “Look at Twin Peaks – there is no way you can credibly write something like that without Freud’s ideas to lend an imprimatur of respectability to it all. It’d have been a ghost story before he came along.”

        You don’t need Psychoanalysis nor anything like it to write a story like Twin Peaks at all. You’d have to be completely devoid of imagination and intellectual curiosity to think that you do.

        “but he greatly expanded the scope of fiction. Narrative inconclusiveness, narrative impressionism, uncertainty about reality, worlds-within-worlds, symbolism, dream-logic…he made it ok to go hog wild with these things as a writer(in whatever medium)”

        The theories of Freud and Marx largely ruined and pathologized all of the above among modern fiction. They only made them “respectable” among Secular Westerners by giving them a seemingly scientific materialist explanation for them.

  2. From what I can gather is that there is no objective method or standards for evaluating the efficacy of any form of psychological therapy for mental disorders. There are no blood tests or scans that can provide this information. All the therapist can do is draw a judgment on how well the patient seems to be progressing. If the patient seems to be progressing, the therapist cannot tell if this would have taken place without therapy. Do most therapists accumulate data as to their success rate with patients and, if so, to whom do they send the results? Moreover, the therapist could be biased in reporting progress. How many therapists would be inclined to report that nine out of ten patients had no or minimal progress?

    I’m not saying that therapy doesn’t help some people. What I am saying is that it is difficult to determine what therapeutic method is the most effective since there doesn’t seem to be any objective standards.

    1. I think that psychiatrist use lists nowadays, Lists about behavior (preferably filled in by a third party).

  3. Originally, in the 60s, I was excited by Freud. Fascinating ideas which everyone took very seriously. I only read snippets but figured psychoanalysis was a real thing. A while later, I read an article of criticism that pointed out his lack of empiricism and I completely lost interest in him. There are still psychiatrist, I understand, who advocate Freud’s psychoanalysis, but most of the field has gone over to meds.

  4. I have Crews’ book. Maybe I’ll reread it. I’ve got the time to read a lot of the stuff in my skeptic/atheist library.

    In addition to his pseudoscientific psychologist crap, Freud also wrote on religion and was one of the most well known atheists for several generations. As I recall, his theory on religion was that the concept of God had historically been cobbled together out of the instincts and memories of infants and small children, with Deities standing in for parental figures who watch, punish, and reward.

    Unlike the rest of his ruminations, this one always seemed reasonably plausible to me. I suspect the young mind’s imprinting of human caretaking authority figures is at least a factor in our formation of the Ultimate Caretaker. If so, that might then be an example of something Freud advocated which wasn’t total crap.

    I very much doubt he came up with it though. Instead, he put a spin on it and made it popular.

    1. William Blake was one who clearly preceded him, with the idea of “Nobodaddy” — a fake God constructed of people’s authoritarian fantasies and infantile desires.

      And of course a great deal of Innocence and Experience explores the subconscious and the influence of early experiences on the formation of adult psychology. (Infant Sorrow, for one.)

      And, incidentally, Blake also is the only candidate I’ve ever come across of a mystic who ever intuitively predicted something that was later scientifically proven: that babies can smile. In Infant Joy he has a new born baby able to smile at 2 days old. Coleridge objected to the poem on the grounds that babies can’t smile till at least 6 months.

      (Here’s his original illustration for it — always worth looking at.)

      1. How new born is newborn? I had thought some or many of those ‘smiles’ were a kind of grimace brought on by gas in the tummy.

  5. Fred Crews is a treasure, not only for his utter demolition of the Freud cult, but also for two splendid satires: “The Pooh Perplex” and much later “Postmodern Pooh”, which I read only recently. Prof. Crews’ strength is his super-powerful bullshit detector.

  6. At least we got the wonderful film, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, from his existence! And Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, and I’m sure quite a few others I’m leaving out. But my brain is pretty fried right now.

  7. Crews is one of my intellectual heroes: He embodies how a reversal of perspective (he was once a Freudian literary “critic”) can fuel a passionate, life-long career in correcting one’s own intellectual mistakes.

    I rate him alongside Pinker, Dennett, Paul Fussell, Judith Rich Harris, in my intellectual growth over my lifetime.

    And my favorite anti-Freud quote: “Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts. I really do not care.”–Nabokov

  8. I don’t see much of a scientific contribution from Freud. Like PCC I think he was basically just making stuff up – occasionally he happened to be correct, but it was utterly unscientific and mostly unfalsifiable.

    But there is one area where he has been hugely, massively influential, and that’s in fiction.
    The idea that there is a grand sub-surface world of impulses, motivations, meanings beneath every person’s conscious mind is enormously attractive – it adds mystery and intrigue to the most mundane of human functions, it deepens the psychological character of apparently straightforward, boring people, it satisfies the natural narcissistic desire to see oneself as uniquely deep and interesting, and containing multitudes.

    Most of all his ideas allowed writers of all kinds of fiction to effectively write about the supernatural while retaining a respectable reputation; because that’s what Freud’s ideas are really, they’re magic and fantasy for grown ups*.
    Now you could write about dreams, and dream logic, and the way the mind might be confabulating whole new worlds that live inside the head of the narrator…previously that would all have to be done in an openly fantastical or supernatural setting. And a lot of writers didn’t really take those genres seriously. So they avoided them.

    So I’d say he massively broadened the scope of fiction and, while that wasn’t his intention, I’m still glad he existed for that reason. David Lynch’s work wouldn’t exist without him. The Sopranos. The Leftovers, Twin Peaks, Lost, Synecdoche, The Big Lebowski…etc.

    The influence of his ideas is everywhere in fiction of all kinds, and I think it has enriched that part of our culture.

    *Not trying to disparage the fantasy genre in fiction – I like fantasy as much as anyone.

    1. You’ve put your finger squarely on my main beef with literature/creative writing, why I left the field before getting a PhD:

      I promulgates bullshit cosmologies.

      So I disagree with the tone of what you say.

      I’m working overtime now to make up what I lost.

      Literature needs a properly Darwinian focus to survive.

      1. I don’t know what that means. Fiction isn’t there to do the job of science, it’s not responsible for making sure people’s personal ontologies are accurate. It’d be very boring if it were.

        1. Please pay attention to the rules about dominating a thread. As per Da Roolz, posting than 10% of posts on a thread is exceeding one’s due allotment. I will allow 15%, but it’s time that I reminded people not to take over a discussion.

    2. But what about jokes? You completely forgot about his contributions to humor;

      “I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”


      1. ‘I was in analysis. I was suicidal. As a matter of fact, I would have killed myself, but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian and if you kill yourself they make you pay for the sessions you miss.’

      1. I don’t know Hawthorne’s work so I couldn’t judge what impact Freud’s ideas had on him.

        But when I think about Freud’s impact I think about films, books, tv shows, paintings; even in subtle ways he’s influenced the way we think about pretty much everything. It’s a genre film, but Ridley Scott’s Alien carries so much more weight as a monster flick because of that central creature and its symbolism. It’s a creature that seems almost literally taken from bad dreams, and its design was explicitly Freudian.

        His ideas lengthened the shadows in the room.

        1. “he’s influenced the way we think about pretty much everything.”


          In fact, he ruined a lot of literature for me. I remember having to read “Freudian” criticism of “Hamlet.” What morbid baloney.

          “His ideas lengthened the shadows in the room.”

          Gag me with a spoon.

          Next to Darwin, he’s a piker.

      2. In “Sleeper”, Woody Allen wakes up in a future world after 200 years in suspended animation. At one point, feeling the onset of a headache, he complains: “I haven’t seen my analyst in 200 years.”

  9. I think Freud is a good example of how people sometimes select what they believe to be true based largely on function. One can see how Freud’s theories easily “worked”, in the era in which they were invented. There was still a lot of repression but not to the point where people were burned at the stake over it (in which case, I assume obsessing over various lewd ideas would quickly become unfashionable, as few things dampen titillation like a stake burning). It was perhaps an early form of tabloid culture, this idea that one was privy to scandalous insights about other people (with a sort of self-reinforcing “If you protest, it’s just more proof!” feedback loop). You notice today that when Freud is suddenly resurrected, it’s generally because someone wants to malign their enemy (This politician has such an Oedipus Complex!) You tend not to hear people say, in a warm moment of insight about a loved one “Wow, and then I realized my wonderful child has such an Oedipus Complex!”. Such theories tend to be to “otherize” people when we want to tell them what’s wrong with them. To that effect, I think Freud was (and to some degree is) so popular because people want to believe his theories.

    It also seems to me that there is a theme in Western culture of wanting to find hidden meaning in things. Nowadays you see it in the way people obsessively analyze language – don’t get me wrong, I think language is fascinating and can tell us a lot, but I’m talking to “The secrets of the universe are hidden symbolically in this cookbook and also this album if played backwards!” levels. It’s like a sort of reverse Occam’s Razor theme that runs through our culture.

  10. Examples abound of what happens when ‘One really believes’. Check out the second AEON article today which points out the bestiaries of the medieval age as leading to the 1290 expulsion of Jews from England … AEON can be received free everyday. To me this article is an interesting explanation of the lack of a Holocaust in England quite unlike that from Germany (because the Jews were gone from England). The European Holocaust can be traced back to Luther, St John and of course ‘when one really believes the Bible to be the Word of God’. And similar to ‘Thou shalt NOT suffer a witch to live’ … which led to the witch burning era. Or the crusades etc. A good book is Charles McKay’s ‘Madness of Crowds’ from 1841 … yes … 1841. Also Martin Gardiner’s 1952 ‘Fallacies in the name of Science’. It seems that again, science is the only decent honest method to determine reality.

  11. I’m not a scientist and even I was disgusted when I first ran into Freud’s hypotheses. My first encounters with them were as references from some golden age science fiction stories. They immediately seemed like bunk and made me wonder how otherwise seemingly intelligent and thoughtful people could swallow such tripe. When I later took some time to do a bit of research and read some of his own words, my initial impressions were powerfully confirmed.

    In my opinion Freud was a charlatan and, even trying to allow for the time and place he lived, a bit of a pig.

  12. “…the ‘unconscious’ had been suggested by others.” – J. Coyne

    Yes, indeed. A famous example is Eduard von Hartmann’s “Philosophie des Unbewussten” (“Philosophy of the Unconscious”), which saw twelve German editions between 1869 and 1923.

  13. For me the Penguin books of German-British psychologist H J Eysenck did for Freud many years ago. For fans of the charlatan there is a dedicated Freud museum here in London.

  14. You can get a sense of the immense and malign influence of Freud by reading literary and academic criticism from the 1940s into the 60s and onward. He simply dominated how people thought about and analyzed culture. I remember reading an early 60s article about the Arthurian legends that claimed the spear carried by a miniature knight was obviously a reference to the penis of the character’s father!

    Very intelligent, liberal, well-placed, and well-meaning people subscribed to Freudianism. The popularity and acceptance of Freud’s quackery by the intelligentsia might make us realize that some of the current intellectual orthodoxies of today are built upon similar quicksand. I will leave it to my fellow commenters to suggest which ones…

  15. Peter Fonagy is a psychoanalyst I’ve become aware of due to Jim Al Khalili’s Life Scientific program on Radio 4 in the UK. I won’t give links in this comment in case it is rejected as spam, but Google is your friend.

    Fonagy is totally committed to evidence based science and as far as I’m aware his work on mentalisation for sufferers of borderline personality disorder is based on Freudian psychoanalysis, but has evidence that the technique works.

    He’s quite honest about the “complexities” within Freudian analysis, but also works within its paradigm and has evidence his techniques work.

    The mind is a complex thing!

    Haaretz also has a good article discussing his work and especially epistemic mistrust – it’s worth a read and quite thought provoking:

    “The problem with a child with attachment problems – and it’s a real vicious circle – is that if you’ve got a child who is more difficult to manage, then some of the biological processes that you need to establish in order to get them in the right place – and respond to them in a contingent way, so they find themselves in your mind and you can mirror their identity to them so that helps them organize themselves – that just doesn’t happen, because they’re all over the place. This can undermine some basic processes, which then makes things worse.”

  16. But for Freud, we would be still putting “mad” people in straitjackets. Freud’s concept of childhood trauma has been proved again and again (v. Hitler etc.). Has anyone analyzed the outcomes of thousands and thousands of psychotherapeutic treatments world-wide? I speak as someone who had a severe anxiety neurosis and was cured. By whom? By a Freud-trained psychoanalist.

    1. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Freud took people out of straitjackets? Childhood trauma theory of Freud (like little Hans seeing a horse’s penis and activating an Oedipus complex? Yes, psychotherapy, which is expensive and long-lasting, is not nearly as effiacious as things like CBT. Your own “cure” doesn’t prove anything about the method; it’s like saying that crystals cure anxiety become one person who rubbed a crystal was freed of anxiety.

      You’re just rationalizing what you say works for you, and your ignorance about Freudian psychoanalytic theory is palpable. Your “cure” give you no expertise at all.

  17. Freud is exactly the problem with secularism.

    Down with the Church and the Synagogue, and then along comes a pseudo-religion like psychoanalysis or dianetics to the rescue, claiming the exalted patina of science.

    Now we have wokeness to fill the void left by Freud’s departure. Today, Freud is a joke but in the early to mid-20th century, his brand of crap was taken extremely seriously.

    1. Very keenly observed. All the clichés of
      “intersectionality”, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and so on, are indeed to our time what the clichés of Freudism and Marxism were to my parent’s generation. I was always a little puzzled by how the Freud stuff got into the mix. I now understand that it did so, like the current memes of the woke, by simple repetition—the very same method that fuels the dominant theistic culture.

      1. The problem is not religion, I don’t think, it comes from the drive for external salvation, that someone or something is going to deliver us from our condition.

        People are profoundly unhappy, so you can sell them all manner of witchcraft and homopathetic remedies and BS therapies.

        People are profoundly anxious about the future, so you can offer them any kind of pie in the sky utopian political solution or network marketing schemes.

        People are afraid of death, so you can sell them any kind of happy story to allay their fears of dying and the unknown.

        Its even better if you can deliver a scapegoat to them.

        Unfortunately, I think even becoming a refuge to yourself can be turned into a religion, but I think a fundamentally stoic attitude is probably closer to the goal, especially if combined with respect for evidence and canons of reason.

  18. Just now reading through this, it surprised me that the name of Karl Popper has not appeared yet (except 6 or 7 words back just babbled by me!)

    He is a very major contributor to philosophy, the quibblers mostly seeming to me to be pipsqueaks of philosophical pecksniffery.

    (P cubed, I guess!)

    His (surprising that this should be new!) invention of the idea of falsifiability, in rooting out major cases of pseudoscientific nonsense, were apparently motivated largely by exactly two of the three famous ‘thinkers’ asked about here, namely Freud and Marx of course. There are many paragraphs written by him about how virtually any claim in the respective subject at hand can, by suitable word-smithing, be seen to be a consequence of Freudian psychology or of dialectical materialism, respectively. No observation can serve as a falsifying instance of any substantial part of either of these pseudoscientific theories.

    I’m no expert, but I AM well aware that
    (1) Popper’s writing is much more subtle than the characterization I’ve just given; and
    (2) there are valid criticisms of the extent to which his ideas are only part of an ever expanding story (with much unoriginal nonsense as well).

    But I’ve never found anything even close to what you’d call a convincing repudiation of Popper (as opposed to some very inadequate mischaracterization).

    And the constructive criticisms for the most part pale in comparison to his original work.

    Actually, the third guy, Einstein, makes something of an instance of what I just said, though of course he is miles ahead of almost anyone, including Popper of course, in adding to human knowledge. Is there anything by any physicist since Einstein, any contribution to General Relativity, which is even within a couple of orders of magnitude of the level Einstein’s original creation of that theory? I think not, so far, however great many of the physicists’ contributions since then have been.

    Getting away from topic again……

    1. Look up “Luposlipaphobia” in Gary Larson’s Far Side.
      It’s not a real word.
      The ‘lup’ refers to timber wolves.
      The ‘slip’ refers to socks on a newly waxed floor.
      So I suppose that the ‘slip’ AIN’T Freudian, despite the ‘phobia’ part.

  19. Isn`t it nice to sit in a comfortable chair in a nice, warm, softly illuminated room in front of an emphatic well-dressed person, who is listening to your story. You can tell him everythihg and you know you can trust him, he doesn`t tell it to anybody. You may cry like a child whatever your position may be in the society.
    It feels good to let go, even it may be just for a while.
    You mis these moments so badly that you are prepared to pay a lot of money for “the therapy”.
    it has nothing to do with psychoanalysis.
    Anja Eliasson

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