Is Freudianism Crazy?

I found myself discussing Freud today, who I find difficult to evaluate. When people bring him up or ask me what I think of his psychology, I’m usually at a loss how to answer.

I think partly this ie because it’s much easier (for me at least) to identify Freudian language than Freudian propositions. That is, if someone says “the Oedipus complex revolves around castration anxiety”, I know that’s a Freudian claim but I only know that because it’s expressed in Freudian terms. If the same claim were made in different language, I might not so easily recognise it as ‘Freudian’. This is unhelpful.

I think this may be part of why so many people write Freudianism off as ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’ – it seems more like a closed system of dubious concepts than a set of theses that can be expressed in neutral terms and evaluated. So I realised that to get to grips with what I thought of Freud, I should try to correct that.

I won’t consider Freudian theory in general, but just the particular topic I was discussing today: children’s psychological development. Given that ‘Freudians’ disagree among themselves on most specific claims, what things does a developmental theory have to say in order to be ‘Freudian or close to it’? I see at least 5 or 6 points:

1) The unity and organisation that characterises a ‘person’ is neither natural nor simple – it’s the acheivement of an active, complex process of ‘putting together’ that can easily generate internal conflicts;

2) What happens in the mind is not automatically known to the mind – self-understanding is very limited, and sometimes actively impeded (‘repression’);

3) The developing mind is organised around its relationships to its parents, and these relationships play a huge role in other relations – socialisation is mediated through representations of parents;

4) These relationships involve both positive and negative emotions – children don’t simply love their parents, but also hate, fear, etc. their parents, because their whole emotional life, is at first so centred around their parents;

5) The child’s psyche naturally contains sexual feelings, which are not at first specifically associated with the genitals, and these too largely take shape within the ‘matrix’ of the child’s relationships with its parents;

This is exactly how I remember my childhood.

If these 5 claims are accepted, then it seems like you’ve already accepted ‘Oedipus complex’ style weirdness in principle: whether or not you posit a repressed wish to kill one’s father and have sex with one’s mother, you have posited some sexual dimension, and some aggressive dimension, in the child’s feelings towards its parents, and the possibility, even the likeliehood, that these could arise as a structural crisis in the psyche and then be repressed.

And the thing is, all of these claims, when shorn of Greek-myth-symbolism and references to ‘phalluses’, seem pretty plausible to me. Claims 1 and 2 seem to be needed as background to make sense of, really, any of the data of psychology that I’m familiar with.

Claim 3 also seems plausible: it makes sense that the people who you see everyday and who deal with your every need will be the main focus of attention. The less obvious idea is about what we might call ‘object-slippage’: that a relationship to one object can be influenced by emotions or attitudes that were originally directed onto another object. If this happens a lot, then we would expect that the child’s experiences with diverse objects will both affect, and be affected by, their psychologically central relationships with their parents. And we have quite good evidence that ‘object slippage’  can happen – indeed, it has been artificially induced in experiments, such as those behind this link about the two factor theory of emotion.

(Of course, if this happens gradually and subconsciously during development, the underlying psychological structure may come to reflect the actual experiences with the parents less than it does other factors, which might be a reason to avoid saying that it’s “really” about the parents)

Finally, claims 4 and 5 seem very plausible: why should we think that children are completely devoid of certain huge classes of emotion? And why doubt that these emotions should at first be related to those central objects that condition every part of the child’s life?

Now, I may be ignorant of Freud, or have misunderstood something vital, but this set of claims, in my head, best sums up ‘a Freudian theory of childhood’, in the broadest sense that’s still meaningful. If they’re all, in fact, fairly sensible, then I suppose I should profess a broadly positive opinion of Freud, and disagreement that, though it may be extensive, rests on a substantial shared set of premises.

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