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March 6 | 1991 | Tech Talk | Search | MIT News | Comments | MIT


The Faults and Frauds of Freud

The Faults and Frauds of Freud
by Eugene F. Mallove

Sigmund Freud "cooked" data and launched the pseudo-scientific 
psychoanalysis movement, contends historian of science Dr. Frank J. 
Sulloway in a paper that he delivered at the AAAS annual meeting last 
month. Dr. Sulloway is a visiting scholar at MIT in the Program in 
Science, Technology, and Society.

An expert on Freud, whose book Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the 
Psychoanalytic Legend (Basic, 1979) won the prestigious Pfizer Award of 
the History of Science Society in 1980, Sulloway has extended his 
earlier views in light of his more recent historical research.

He says, "The supreme irony is that Freud developed concepts like 
censorship and repression and clinical attempts to overcome their 
supposedly pathogenic effects through psychotherapy. In fact, the 
history of Freud's movement illustrates these general distorting 
tendencies--censorship and repression--with a clarity and 
tendentiousness that are frankly extraordinary in the history of 

Nor in Dr. Sulloway's view has the distortion been only in Freud's 
legend. He says, "Freud's case histories are rampant with censorship, 
distortions, highly dubious 'reconstructions,' and exaggerated claims. 
Moreover, Freud's choice of cases to publish is highly unusual."

According to Dr. Sulloway, of Freud's six principal case histories, one 
involved a patient who fled therapy in disgust after only three months, 
two were not actually treated by him, and another involved no real 
therapy. Of the patients actually treated by Freud, only two involved 
purported cures, claims Sulloway. "Based on one of these patient's 
subsequent testimony, his 'cure' was a complete misrepresentation of the 
facts," he says. 

It wasn't easy for Sulloway to get to the truth about these cases, 
because, as he says, "The destruction of history was an essential part 
of becoming and remaining a great hero in the eyes of posterity. Freud 
actively cultivated the 'unknowable' about himself in order to set 
himself apart from the nonheroic component of humanity." Among other 
deeds to that end, Freud destroyed personal documents. His followers 
also decreed that some correspondence could not be seen until sometime 
in the 21st and 22nd centuries.

Why did Freud publish seemingly fraudulent case histories? "Not because 
he considered them the empirical 'pillars' of psychoanalysis, as some 
analysts have claimed. Rather, the case histories served other crucial 
functions, including Freud's progressive substitution of rhetoric for 
evidence and his efforts to induce readers, including patients, to 
abandon 'resistance' to his theories," says Dr. Sulloway.

Sulloway notes that Freud believed that psychoanalysis could never be 
learned simply from published case histories. As Freud increasingly 
argued, to learn psychoanalysis required a personal analysis. 

"Unlike training procedures used in the natural sciences, however, those 
developed within psychoanalysis were increasingly divorced from the open 
peer criticism associated with education within universities and medical 
schools," observes Dr. Sulloway. Psychoanalytic education increasingly 
took shelter within privately controlled institutes.

"Freud's training methods therefore represent a backward step toward the 
kind of learning based on authority and secrecy that typified 
scholasticism and alchemy prior to the Scientific Revolution. 
Ultimately, Freud's decision to privatize and socially construct the 
analytic training process reflects serious methodological shortcomings 
inherent in psychoanalysis itself," claims Sulloway.

Dr. Sulloway's earlier work on Freud, he says, "emphasized the 
insufficiently appreciated continuity between Freud's earlier career as 
a biologist and neurophysiologist." Sulloway has argued that Freud's 
most essential psychoanalytic concepts were based on erroneous out-of-
date assumptions from 19th century biology. "Bad biology spawned bad 
psychology," he writes. "Freud erected his psychoanalytic edifice on a 
kind of intellectual quicksand, a circumstance that consequently doomed 
many of his most important theoretical conclusions from the outset."  

Dr. Sulloway's recent paper on Freud will be published in the June issue 
of the journal of the history of science, Isis. Sulloway has also 
written extensively on the life of Charles Darwin and is engaged in a 
major study of revolutionary temperament in science. In 1984, he was 
awarded a five-year MacArthur Fellowship.


March 6 | 1991 | Tech Talk | Search | MIT News | Comments | MIT