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Frank J. Sulloway - Freud, Biologist of the Mind Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend-Harvard University Press (1992)

In light of the lively response elicited by the publication of Freud, Biologist of the Mind in 1979, I would
like to discuss several critical reactions in the hope of dispelling certain misunderstandings1. Some commentators,
especially those who represent the humanities, have disputed my attempt to explicate the biological underpinnings of
Freud's theories. In this connection I have occasionally been accused of arguing that Freud was nothing but a "biologist
of the mind," and that his theories are actually a sort of biology masquerading as psychology. Such a position is
definitely not the thesis of this book, which maintains instead that Freudian psychoanalysis is a sophisticated
"psychobiology," the biological sources of which have not been generally recognized. In my title I have used the word
biologist in conjunction with mind to denote the broad spectrum of approaches—physiological, evolutionary,
embryological, anthropological, and psychological—that characterized Freud's approach to the psyche. Freud was a
"biologist of the mind" in the same broad sense that Darwin was; and no one, reading Darwin's Descent of Man or his
Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, would consider Darwin any less of a brilliant psychologist for his
simultaneous interest in the biological aspects of human behavior.
If I have also drawn attention to occasional parallels between Freud's thinking and the tenets of ethology and
sociobiology, this is due to their common roots in evolutionary theory rather than to a specific intent on my part to
ally psychoanalysis with any contemporary theories of human behavior. Indeed, one of the main conclusions of this
book is that Freud endorsed an erroneous, non-Darwinian version of evolutionary theory (involving Lamarckian
inheritance and the biogenetic law) that doomed many of his most important psychoanalytic hypotheses from the
outset. It is nevertheless a sign of how misunderstood Freud's theories have become that commentators should react
with surprise and disapproval at the assertion that Freud, ethology, and sociobiology share a common intellectual
Whereas reviewers with scientific or medical backgrounds, including many psychoanalysts, have responded
favorably to my basic arguments, humanists have tended to be more negative in their reactions, usually for the various
reasons I have already discussed. These disparate reactions reflect the evidently bifurcated manner in which Freud's
own thought—a "two cultures" synthesis of scientific and humanistic interests—is now perceived in these contrasting
domains. To humanists, Freud is an epic poet and a hero of literature. Moreover, his theories are often deliberately
segregated from the sciences under a variety of labels, such as "hermeneutics" and "Geistesivissenschaft" Freud
himself helped to cultivate this kind of image when he elected to exclude from his Gesammelte Werke almost all of
his numerous publications in the fields of neurology and neuroanatomy. By arguing, as I have done here, for the
preeminence of the natural sciences in Freud's vision of man, I am far from denying or devaluing the rich humanist
element that also informs Freud's psychology and that has helped to make it so popular. But one must read the whole
Freudian corpus, not just Freud's ostensibly psychological and literary works, to make full conceptual and historical
sense of psychoanalysis. Seen in this perspective, Freud's unique synthesis of psychology and biology constitutes the
central core around which psychoanalysis, with all of its intellectual ramifications, took form.
It is now more than a decade since this book was published, and I have benefited in the meantime from the
continual stream of literature on Freud and his theories. One important extension of a central argument in this book
has recently been made by Patricia Kitcher, a philosopher2. In close agreement with my own general assessment of
Freud's thinking, Kitcher sees psychoanalysis as a highly interdisciplinary theory with biology, and its
psychobiological derivative—sexology—at the core. From a scientific viewpoint, the unusually interdisciplinary
nature of Freud's theories has proved to be a double-edged sword. True, the breadth of Freud's vision gave
psychoanalysis tremendous appeal and broad applicability to other intellectual domains. But Freud's heavy reliance
The remarks that follow draw on 'Freud, Biologist of the Mind in Retrospect: A Review of My Reviewers; which I presented as pan of the Meetthe-Author Session at the American Psychoanalytic Association Annual Meeting (San Juan, Puerto Rico, 8 May 198, ; recorded and distributed by
Teacifem. Inc., Chicago. IL). Another portion of my participation in this session (-Freud and Biology: The Hidden Legacy") has since been
published in The Problematic Science: Psychology in Ntneteenth-Century Thought, ed. William R. Woodward and Mitchell G. Ash (New York.
Praeger. 1g82), pp. 108-227.
See Patricia Kitcher - Freud's Dream. A Complete Interdisciplinary Science of the Mind
on these neighboring fields committed him to revising his theories when various key assumptions on which he built
his initial hypotheses were shown to be false. This Freud failed to do, as when he dismissed the mounting biological
evidence against the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics with the retort "But we can't be bothered with
the biologists. We have our own science" (Wortis 1954:84).
Developing a plausible theory, as Freud did in the period from 1890 to about 1910, is only the first step in
successful scientific research. The second and far more crucial step of good science is to subject one's theories to
rigorous criticisms, or at least to respond judiciously to the unfavorable evidence and arguments cited by other
researchers. Freud and his followers were unable to navigate this second step, and so Freud's theories have gradually
been refuted by the progress in the very disciplines from which he drew his most significant inspirations. One need
only consult the current scientific literature on dreaming, for example, to see how totally mistaken Freud was in his
general model of the mind.3 Moreover, as Morris Eagle has convincingly shown, most current versions of
psychoanalytic theory do not differ from classical psychoanalysis in any of the epistemological problems they
confront, and they cannot therefore claim to have escaped refutation4.
As a result of work published since 1979, I consider Freud, Biologist of the Mind to be incomplete in one
important respect, which I have attempted to remedy elsewhere.5 When writing this book I was primarily concerned
with Freud as a theorist rather than as a therapist, and I paid relatively brief attention to his clinical techniques and
case histories. Stimulated by Adolf Grunbaum's trenchant critique of psychoanalysis, as well as by Frederick Crews,
I have come to realize that Freud's practical science of psychotherapy highlights a number of serious pitfalls in his
general approach to scientific research.6 The psychoanalytic patient is continually being influenced, as Grunbaum has
emphasized, by a knowledge of the analyst's theories. For this reason therapeutic success can never be taken as a real
proof of the validity of Freud's theories. This important conclusion is based on the well-known power of suggestion
and on serious flaws in Freud's own arguments against such placebo effects. Grunbaum's powerful critique has
prompted me to take a more detailed look at Freud's case histories, which have generally been described by the
psychoanalytically devout as "the pillars on which psychoanalysis as an empirical science rests" (Eissler 1965:395).
The possibility of a major reassessment of Freud's case histories has also been facilitated by publication of several
new sources on Freud's patients. In particular, we now have access to Karin Obholzer's fascinating interviews with
the Wolf Man, perhaps Freud's most famous patient, whom she located in Vienna in the late 1970s just before his
death at 92.7 What these interviews and other related studies have revealed is the extent to which Freud's case histories
are fatally contaminated by arbitrary "reconstructions" of supposedly repressed childhood events and by exaggerated
claims about therapeutic efficacy.8
See J. Allan Hobson, The Dreaming Brain (New York: Basic Books. 1988) for a comprehensive review of the research on dreaming and for a
critical discussion of Freud's theories in the light of current knowledge. For another critical assessment of psychoanalytic theory, see Hans Eysenck,
The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985).
Morris N. Eagle, “The Epistemological Status of Recent Developments in Psychoanalytic Theory.” in Physics, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis:
Essays in Honor of Adolf Grunbaum, ed. Robert S. Cohen and Larry Laudan (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1983). pp. 3-55; Recent Developments in
Psychoanalysis: A Critical Evaluation (New York: McCraw-Hill, 1984); and "Critical Notice: Adolf Grunbaum's The Foundations of
Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique", Philosophy of Science, 53 (1986):65-89.
Frank J. Sulloway, "Reassessing Freud's Case Histories: The Social Construction of Psychoanalysis", Isis. 82. 245-75.
Adolf Grunbaum, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1984); and Frederick
Crews, Skeptical Engagements (New York: Oxford University Press. 1986), especially pp. 88-111. Grubaum's critique of the "hermeneutic" view
of psychoanalysis as a theory of the "meanings" of behavior (rather than the "causes") is, to my mind, very telling and shows how fundamentally
inconsistent this position is both with itself and with Freud's own vision of psychoanalysis as a natural science.
Karin Obholzer, The Wolf-Man Sixty Years Later: Conversations with Freud's Controversial Patient, trans. Michael Shaw (London: Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1982)
See Also Patrick J. Mahony, Cries of the Wolf Man (New York: International Universities Press, 1984), and Freud and the Rat Man (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1986); and Zvi Lothane, In Defense of Schreber (Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 1992).
The Wolf Man, for example, strongly disputed the psychoanalytic myth of his cure. "That was the theory",
he told Obholzer, "that Freud had cured me 100 percent. . . . And that's why [Muriel] Gardiner recommended that I
write memoirs. To show the world how Freud had cured a seriously ill person. . . . It's all false." As the Wolf Man
plaintively concluded of his therapy, "In reality, the whole thing looks like a catastrophe. I am in the same state as
when I first came to Freud, and Freud is no more."9
What Freud's case histories also reveal is just how dependent psychoanalytic "interpretation" was on the
theoretical assumptions that were purportedly established by these very same methods of interpretation. In practice,
the whole process was essentially circular. Thus the psychobiological core of Freud's thinking, which began as an
interlocking group of hypotheses worthy of serious testing, soon became the only means of arbitrating disparate
interpretations reached through a methodology that was incapable of fostering intellectual agreement. The method of
free association and the techniques associated with dream interpretation presented a veritable mine field of potential
dangers to a unified psychoanalytic discipline, and defections from Freud's movement were frequent in the early years.
Freud could have tried to overcome these problems in verifying psychoanalytic theory by publishing a
detailed account of his methods, which others could then have independently attempted to replicate, test, and critique.
Such is the usual procedure in science. This Freud did not do, although he clearly recognized the need for doing so as
early as 1908. Instead, he and his followers attempted to overcome the problem of divergent "interpretations" of
psychoanalytic evidence through the institution of the "training analysis." Since a truly free application of the method
of free association had simply led to renegade schools within psychoanalysis, Freud sought to socially construct his
own psychoanalytic paradigm by an increasingly lengthy and privatized training process that taught his disciples how
to reach a proper Freudian interpretation. This pedagogical mechanism was largely successful in its goals, but its
success was achieved at the considerable expense of scientific integrity. Objections to psychoanalytic theory were
invariably seen as signs of "resistance" needing further analysis, and those candidates who wished to advance within
the field, and ultimately to become training analysts themselves, were rarely in a position to engage in serious
hypothesis testing.10
After 1900 Freud appears to have abandoned many of the basic safe-guards that are entailed in traditional
scientific methodology, including a reliance on public dissemination of methods and a willingness to respond to valid
peer criticism with appropriate revisions in his theories. Instead he chose to govern psychoanalysis through his "Secret
Committee" of loyal adherents and his considerable power of economic patronage through patient referrals. The
importance of open peer criticism, full disclosure of new scientific methods, and independent reproducibility of
evidence were fundamental features of science that Freud learned from his teachers and applied in his earliest
researches. But, for reasons inherent in his personality and his problematic methods, this was a lesson that he ultimately
chose to disregard. For psychoanalysis as a discipline the consequences have been largely fatal to its status as a science.
Obholzer, The Wolf Man, pp. 113, 171-72. See also Muriel Gardner, ed., The Wolf-Man: By the Wolf-Man (New York: Basic Books, 1971)
See Philip S. Holzman, “Psychoanalysis: Is the Therapy Destroying the Science?” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 33:72570