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The Psychoanalytic MovementReview - The Psychoanalytic Movement
The Cunning of Unreason
by Ernest Gellner
Blackwell Publishers, 2003
Review by Asunción Álvarez, M.A.
Mar 25th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 13)

Ernest Gellner's The Psychoanalytic Movement has become, together with such books as Adolf Grünbaum's, or Frank Crewes's Memory Wars, one of the classic texts of the by now well-established tradition of Freud-bashing. As the blurb has it in The Psychoanalytic Movement Gellner "was as concerned to explain the fabulous success of psychoanalysis as to debunk its pretensions." Gellner's twofold thesis can be expressed, in a nutshell, as follows:

a)      psychoanalysis is based on a system of ideas which is both untestable and unsubstantiated;

b)      this system of ideas constitutes a quasi-religious system beliefs and practices, which explains the success of psychoanalytical theory in becoming the dominant idiom for the discussion of the human personality and of human relations.

Thesis (a) is not very original -- the unscientific status of psychoanalysis has been frequently denounced by such thinkers as the aforementioned Grünbaum, or, more famously, Karl Popper. It is thesis (b) that constitutes the conceptual hub of the book. And indeed the most remarkable feature of The Psychoanalytic Movement is that its emphasis lies not on the scientific or therapeutic validity of psychoanalysis, but rather on the historical circumstances of its creation and rise, which are regarded as akin to the dynamics of religious belief.

Taking the religious analogy as his guideline, Gellner aims to explain the social and intellectual success of psychoanalytical theory in the terms in which a historian of religion might give an account of, say, the creation and rise of Islam under Muhammad and his successors.  Thus Gellner defines psychoanalysis as

like Christianity, […] a founded or historic rather than a traditional system of beliefs and practices. It has an even more precise point of foundation than Christianity. Neither the identity nor the existence of its Founder is in doubt.

In the first chapters of the book, Gellner briefly locates the Founder (i.e. Freud) within the historical and sociocultural context of fin-de-sičcle Vienna. More broadly, he also attempts to contextualize the creation of Freudian theory within the history of ideas. This leads to some rather hilarious generalizations, which Gellner chooses to expound under such colourful subtitles as "The Last Angel" (when speaking about Hume's conception of mankind), "The Harbinger of the Pays Réel" (that's Nietzsche), "The Battering Ram" (that's the Nietzschean Will to Power). One might wonder whether these formulae might not be intentionally comic, were it not for the gross simplifications of philosophical history that can be found under them:

The great pre-industrial and pre-scientific civilisations, especially perhaps the Western ones, tend to see man as half-angel, half-beast. Perhaps there was an earlier stage when he was more at peace with himself and his instinctual drives […] However, there can be no doubt but that, with their severe ethics, influential clerisies and codified expectations, these civilisations do have a marked tendency towards a kind of dualistic and demanding vision. (p. 10)


With the coming of a unitary vision of the world, man had to return to nature, to be seen as part of it rather than as the fruit of the intrusion of something higher, divine, into the world. [...] So duality was overcome: the old cohabitation of Angel and Beast was replaced by Hume's famous 'Bundle of Perceptions' (p. 12)

Indeed, Freud is seen by Gellner as a throwback to the rigid, antinaturalistic dualism predating the advent of science -- in short, to (Western) religion. Thus in chapter 2, "The Plague", he pursues his religious analogy by linking key concepts of psychoanalytic theory to religious terms: mental health is equated to the religious promise of eternal bliss in the afterlife, repression is compared to Original Sin, psychoanalytic practice is seen as pastoral care, and so on.

More interestingly are the later chapters, in which the post-Freudian psychoanalytical institution is analysed and evaluated in terms of the diffusion of a religion and the setup of a religious establishment. In these chapters some interesting insights can be found concerning the deficiencies which afflict the institution of psychoanalysis, particularly in the United States: thus the psychoanalytical profession is described as

a delimited, duly authorised, separate and demarcated guild, whose members are in a different sacramental condition from ordinary people, and who are in a special cognitive state which alone makes access to the realm in question possible. They, and they alone, can provide effective pastoral care, solace, support and comfort […] What confers authority on their intuitions is their sacramental state confirmed by the guild, which cannot be subjected to extraneous, independent checks. 

However, despite its occasional felicities, Gellner's book suffers from the same flaw which characterizes his view of the history of ideas: oversimplification. In regarding Freud and as a dualistic patriarch who would be bent on the "normalization" of "sinful" (i.e. mentally unhealthy) human beings according to his own religious doctrine of psychoanalysis, Gellner collapses several entities into one huge, frightful ideological bogey.

First of all, in dealing with psychoanalysis as whole, one must distinguish several layers:

a)      the textual corpus of what Freud himself wrote;

b)      the interpretations which the post-Freudians gave to Freudian theory;

c)      the clinical practice established by the post-Freudians.

A direct reading of the Freudian corpus makes the notion that Freud sought to establish a quasi-religious movement in creating psychoanalysis highly risible: for it is hard to see how a man who described himself as "a godless Jew", a scientist, and a firm supporter of Darwinian theory might re-create himself as a sort of latter-day dualistic patriarch. Moreover, as regards morals, for instance -- the basis for most religious oppression --, Freud was remarkably progressive both for his time and for ours, regarding homosexuality as on a par with heterosexuality, and giving wide berth for the professionalization of women.

What Freud's successors made of Freudian theory is another matter altogether, and it is here where Gellner certainly might have a point. For the moralistic implications with which post-Freudian theory and practice became imbued -- particularly in the United States --, as well as the almost-cultic character of its institutions, certainly are legitimate targets for criticism.

The book is prefaced with a useful foreword by José Brunner, in which he expounds Gellner's intellectual background as a sociologist and anthropologist, and, curiously enough, points out the numerous similarities and affinities between Gellner and Sigmund Freud. In an ironical twist, a foreword bringing together the careers of critic and criticized may be a fitting introduction to a book which so thoroughly confuses Freud's claims with those of his followers.


© 2004 Asunción Álvarez


Asunción Álvarez, M.A. is an MPhil/PhD student in the Philosophy of Psychology programme at King's College London. Her main research interests are intentionality and mental representation, as well as the conceptual underpinnings of current psychological theory and practice. She is currently working on a thesis on mental representation and trauma.


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