Saturday, February 08, 2020

Freud (1856 – 1923) – Fraudulent origin of therapy culture

Freud (alongside Marx) is credited as being a theorist who practically shaped 20th century thought. He has had a deep and lasting influence in learning, not only through his theories on childhood development but also through psychoanalysis and therapy which in turn influenced counseling, coaching and mentoring.

Freud and childhood

Although he wrote no specific text on education, childhood development is, for Freud fundamental and formative. But his theory is pathological as adults inhibit, prohibit and repress desires and instincts, especially sexuality, in the face of reality. As he said, ‘The main aim of all education is to teach the child to control its instincts.’ The danger is in neuroses, the potential harmful effect of much parenting and education. We internalise and the ego becomes education’s enabler as it battles the id. It was then, through the ever more obscure theorising of Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Lacan, among others, that Freudian theory was related directly to education and the convolutions of ‘psychopedagogy‘.

Therapy culture

The general rise of psychoanalytic and therapeutic culture led to the public vocabulary of self-esteem, counseling and syndromes entering the learning sphere in the 80s. The state, through education, took an interest in our internal, emotional lives of students. On the one hand this led to an increase in pastoral care in schools and an increase in the interest of parenting. However, many see this pathological view of education as having led to an obsessive interest in over-bearing parenting, the over-diagnosis of certain syndromes and the overuse of drugs on children perceived to be problematic.


Freud’s theories largely depend on an idea he did not create, the concept of the ‘unconscious’. The idea that learning can be forgotten, but still exist and be the cause of action from the unconscious mind, was not unique to Freud. What Freud did was attribute reluctance by his patients to talk about sex, and other personal memories as evidence for a whole edifice of unconscious structures and processes.

Freud debunked

Little of Freud’s theories are now used in modern psychology. Popper’s critique of his theory on philosophical grounds and for failing to satisfy even minimal scientific standards prepared the way for serious scientific critiques. On the whole they show that Freud’s theories are poorly researched, based on single cases tiny samples and his own self-analysis. They claim his theories are speculative, subjective, self-fulfilling and not scientific in the sense that Freud claimed they were. Critiques have come from Grunbaum, Frederick Crews, Macmillan and Frank Cioffi. He has also come under serious attack from feminists for reducing women to ‘castrated’, reserve players in his psycho-sexual world.
Freud’s methods were far from science and at times downright dangerous. Emma Eckstein had a bone surgically removed from her nose, which led to suppuration for days. Another surgeon found that a gauze had been left in the wound and its removal almost killed the patient. Freud had diagnosed her as having a ‘nasal neurosis’ based on excessive masturbation and when he heard about her reaction to her months of pain and misery diagnosed this behaviour as hysteria.
In fact the scale of the debunking is astonishing. Little, if any, of Freud’s work has survived the scrutiny of later research. Macmillan in Freud Evaluated and many other texts have knocked off the theories one by one. The list of debunked theories include: Freudian slips, Free association, Id, Ego Superego, Repression, Regression, Projection, Sublimation, Denial, Transference (and counter-transference), Penis envy, Oedipus complex and Infantile sexuality.


Grayling puts his vast appeal down to his writing talent, the sense that readers are having deep secrets revealed, its appearance as a theory of human nature and, above all his focus on the taboo subject of sex.  However the Id, Ego and Superego hypotheses have, like most Freudian psychological concepts, been abandoned by serious, scientific psychology. It turned out to be a non-scientific mess (despite Freud’s belief that it was science) which built a theoretical structure that was hugely speculative. It over-reached itself so far that little was salvageable other than a recognition that important processes do lie beneath consciousness, something that was not a Freudian discovery.

A narrative that underlies not the psychological but psychoanalytic, even the psychiatric input to learning, whether happiness, wellness or happiness, is the therapeutic narrative that goes back to Freud. This narrative draws on a Freudian view of the world that we are flawed beings and sees almost everyone in need of therapy.

This narrative refuses to die and has morphed from fairly benign mentoring to more intrusive counseling and now onto wellness, happiness and mindfulness Descriptive definitions suddenly become prescriptive techniques to be applied to all. Just as the underlying Freudian theory fades (almost nothing has survived) this narrative, the therapeutic narrative, described well by Frank Furedi in Therapy Culture (2004) gets resurrected. It has even resulted in rather foolish attempts by HR to read our unconscious, namely unconscious bias.


Freud, S (1977). On sexuality: Three essays on the theory of sexuality and other works. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Freud, S. (1952). Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics. New York: Norton
Freud, S. (2004). Civilization and its discontents. London: Penguin.
Freud, S (1965). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. New York: Norton.
Popper, K. R. (1966). The open society and its enemies. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Macmillan, M. (1997). Freud evaluated: The completed arc. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press
Crews, F. C. (1995).The memory wars: Freud's legacy in dispute. New York: New York Review of Books
Cioffi, F. (1998). Freud and the question of pseudoscience. Chicago: Open Court
Furedi, F. (2004) Therapy Culture. Routledge

Grayling A.C. Scientist or storyteller?

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