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In this new (and expanded) version of a book first edited in French in 2006 (Borch-Jacobsen & Shamdasani, 2006), two historians of psychiatry and mental health, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani, argue that Freud and his followers invented a myth, the "freudian legend". The reason they did so is they wanted to protect psychoanalysis from any kind of criticism.
The Freudian legend consists mainly into three tales:
1°) Freud's discovery of the unconscious is the upshot of an heroic "self-analysis";
2°) This discovery was a major scientific revolution, comparable in importance to Galileo's revolution in physics and Darwin's revolution in biology;
3°) Freud, had to fight his contemporaries' prejudices and resistances while he was assessing his major discoveries, especially because of the sexual content of his concepts and laws, and especially because those contents were veridical.
The two authors are debunking all those tales. They show in the meantime that once one does not have any reason anymore to believe in those tales, reasons to believe in the concepts and stories brought by psychoanalysis are simply gone.
For psychoanalysis is, contrary to what Freud and his followers claimed, devoid of any empirical content, in the respectable sense of the term, that is, a public object, which one is able to observe in replicable circumstances describable through concrete terms. In other words, psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science.
One of the authors (Borch-Jacobsen) co-authored the Black Book of Psychoanalysis (Meyer, 2005), which was hardly good news for French psychoanalysts, one of the two countries in the world, France being, with Argentina, where psychoanalysis has still a prominent place in Mental Health Institutions. This book is part of what is known as the "Freud wars", which are still raging in France (see the recent case of Sophie Robert's the wall, a film critical on psychoanalysis when applied to the treatment of children with ASD, which was forbidden on the request of three french psychoanalysts).
This book will be of interest to anyone concerned with debunking myths. I don't think reading it requires specific skills or knowledge, though I guess it may be appreciated from various perspectives. General readers may learn from this book as well as advanced scholars.
After this general presentation, I would like now to offer a survey of the book.
In their thoughtful and provocative introduction, Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani display the main elements of their strategy: "opening the black box" (p.16).
For example, it is well known today that Freud stands to psychology as Copernicus to astronomy and Darwin to biology.
This story of the "three humiliations", where Mankind learns, with Copernicus, that it is not at the center of the Universe, then, with Darwin, that it is not at the center of the living world, and, eventually, with Freud, that it is not even able to master its own inner mental life, which gives to Freud a prominent role, leaves out of the picture two facts.
First fact: the story is not Freud's property. Actually, Haeckel is the inventor of this "genealogical schema" (p.10), as Assoun (1981) has shown.
Second fact: Freud was far from being legitimate in this self-attribution of the rôle of the founder of scientific psychology. At the time (1916), his few contributions to the field of psychiatry were far from being validated by the community of scientists working in the area, as it is shown in the book.
A study of the historical and cultural context of Freud's statements helps to undermine this fable. Not trusting the official history and statements and applying the historian's methods and arguments is the core of Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani attack against the freudian legend.
In the first chapter, we learn how Freud privatized psychoanalysis, that is excluded it from the overt, public, critical context of normal science. The process of "privatization" must be construed as acting at two levels: the institutional level, and the epistemological level.
On the one hand, Freud restricted progressively the circle of the scientists who shall be labeled as "psychoanalysts". He did not participate to congresses when he was not the initiator.
And, as he realized he could not control what was said on his work during those congresses, he just decided to initiate the congresses, taking the right to exclude anyone he wanted. The International Psychoanalytical Association was built on this model.
But Freud could not help the quarrels to take place into the association he created. He then imposed a model where he was dominating vertically all the members of the association, transforming the life of what was meant to be a community of scientists into "an edifying fable, a scientific 'family romance'" (p.116)
On the other hand, Freud decided that psychoanalysis would be strictly dependent on what he decided it would be. It was coupled with a myth of "immaculate conception" (p.104), that is, the idea (hammered Freud in On the history of the psycho-analytic movement) that Freud was, theoretically speaking, a virgin when he came across the psychoanalytical objects: the Unconscious, Oedipus, Repression, Seduction, a myth which is by no means true, argue the two authors.
It is in this context that "self-analysis" was invented. To become a psychoanalyst, one has to be analysed by another psychoanalyst, to control the interpretations. Only Freud makes exception to this rule: he was his own analyst...
In the second chapter, the most important part of this book, the authors construe Freud's psychoanalysis as a bundle of "interprefactions", a neologism as the reader of this review will have certainly noticed. What is an "interprefaction"? This is the "process of the transmutations of interpretation and construction into positive facts" (p.144). It is purportedly that the two authors do not speak of freudian "lies", and avoid accusing Freud of having told "untrue" or "unreal" things.
They make the point that psychotherapy implies constructions, and sometimes, "suggestion". For example, psychiatrists of the Nancy School made an extensive use of "suggestion". It just means that, as long as it is accepted by both doctors and patients, a narrative may take place and help the patient to "get better", that is to rebuild her own life.
This narrative does not have to be "true" or "real", but it is not a lie, it is a fiction constructed in a contractually accepted situation, where doctors and patients share a common aim: allowing the patient to "get better", to feel in accordance with her choices and so on...
The trouble with psychoanalysis is, the two authors argue, that Freud made use of his constructions out of the cabinet, and when it was inside the cabinet, he was forcing the interpretations. He never respected the idea that patient and doctor should collaborate. He never accepted the idea that one is not a position to interpret another's thoughts outside of this contractual therapeutic "alliance" (the authors don't use this term).
Freud saw what he wanted to see, and suggested to the patients his own theory, even if the patient were firmly and persistently in disagreement. These forceful treatments are documented in chapter 3. The authors write (p.159) that "faced with a self-validating system of this type, the significant question is not one of knowing whether it is true or false, real or invented, historical or legendary, but rather of comprehending how it functions, how it produces effects which 'interprefact' inner worlds".
In the fourth chapter, the stories of Jones' "official" biography of Freud and of the Freud Archives are displayed as partaking to a manipulation orchestrated by Freud's families and friends, not to mention the Standard Edition of Freud's works by Strachey.
The conditions under which K. Eissler impose an "embargo" on Freud's archives are indeed unbelievable. Shamdasani and Borch-Jacobsen write: "the goal of the Freud Archives had never been to make the documents of Freudianism available to the public [...] What Anna Freud and the Freudian Family sought, quite simply, was a safety deposit box where they could lock up the archives, their archives, and protect them from the curiosity of outsiders." (p.292)
This book is fascinating and convincing and I took a lot of pleasure reading it. The reservations I would like to express bear upon the real aim of this book.
If we believe the two authors, as soon as you undertake to scrap the surface of the "official" history of psychoanalysis (and that is what they do), everything crumbles, like in those movies, where mommies disappear when some air enters into the tomb. Opening the black would inevitably provoke the destruction of psychoanalysis.
Shamdasani and Borch-Jacobsen conclude by saying that "we should hurry to study Psychoanalysis whilst we can, for we will soon no longer be able to discern its features – and for good reason: because it never was" (p.307).
So, what is the meaning of something like the Freud Files? Is it meant to get rid of a dangerous thing (and so it would be comparable to The Black Book of Psychoanalysis), or is it meant to study and record a curiosity which is inexorably declining (In this case, it would be comparable to ethnography...)? It is not easy, whatever the high merits of the book are, to decide between the two options.
The author's constructivist thesis is that psychoanalysis produced effects as long as the legend was living, which means that, once the truth behind the legend is unveiled, psychoanalysis does not produce effects anymore. And one must acknowledge, whether one likes it or not, that it is hardly the case...
ASSOUN, Paul-Laurent (1981), Introduction à l'épistémologie freudienne, Paris, Payot
BORCH-JACOBSEN, Mikkel & SHAMDASANI, Sonu (2006), Le dossier Freud. Enquête sur l'histoire de la psychanalyse, Paris, Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond/Le Seuil
MEYER, Catherine (ed.) (2005), with M. Borch-Jacobsen, J. Cottraux, D. Pleux & J. Van Rillaer, Le livre noir de la psychanalyse. Vivre, penser et aller mieux sans Freud, Paris, Les Arènes
© 2012 Christophe Al-Saleh
Christophe Al-Saleh, Department of Philosophy, University of Amiens, France