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Ernest Gellner and The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason and the Cunning of Freud

The best cover of The Psychoanalytic Movement

Finishing off the examination of Ernest Gellner and his well-meaning but somewhat pig-headed Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism, we come to his attack on psychoanalysis, The Psychoanlaytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason. This book was published in 1985, 35 years after Words and Things, his attack on Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy.

Like Words and Things, it is a centaur, half-sociology and half-philosophical critique, and just as ill-tempered. It is a better book than Words and Things, because the game is much bigger. Here, Gellner is going after an intellectual and social movement a million times more successful, and at least several times more dubious.

The attack is successful, but as with Words and Things, the centaur form of the book makes it a mixed success. I will try to separate the threads and pick out the book’s vital core from the sometimes shaky surrounding membrane.

Because it is so much more an inviting sociological target, and because the sociology of psychoanalysis is that much more mixed in with its underlying philosophy (i.e., the patient-therapist relationship), psychoanalysis is in many ways the perfect subject for Gellner, ripe for the sort of attack that ordinary language philosophy didn’t seem to merit.

The danger is his being too obvious or unoriginal. Adolf Grunbaum has carefully critiqued the theoretical work of psychoanalysis, while George Makari’s Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis showed the bizarre evolution and personal flaws of the movement’s leaders. Both are books Gellner would not have bothered to write. Gellner’s task rather is to place a quicker critique of that sort into a larger sociological framework.

Consequently, there is a sense at times that Gellner is struggling to make more out of the material than there is. Having identified the endless flaws of psychoanalytic theory and how they yielded a hegemonic power structure in the psychoanalytic community, Gellner has to walk a line between the dangers of (a) restricting his critique to Freud and his direct scions and thus letting the larger societal trend get away, and (b) extending his critique to psychotherapy in general and thus reducing the theory to mere therapeutic practice in all its myriad forms.

Gellner’s solution is to approach things genealogically. By showing how Freud’s initial paradigm caught fire and appealed to the bourgeois masses, he can indict both Freudian psychoanalytic theory as well as its less-direct consequences today, which are the polluted offspring of a manipulative intellectual charlatan. This is his goal, anyway. Ultimately, the minute particulars of psychoanalytic theory and practice seem to fall away in favor of a sociological exploration of psychotherapy in general, which is still heavily influenced, as are we all, by Freud’s ideas.

In some ways Freud is an easier target than a more obscure thinker like Austin or Ryle because a good chunk of his thinking has been absorbed into the common argot. His tripartite psyche, repression, the unconscious, and assorted other concepts have become ubiquitous cultural abstractions even if they aren’t metaphysical entities. So what’s left over seems even more objectionable because we take the less objectionable stuff for granted.

And yet just as Wittgenstein eluded Gellner’s grasp, Freud dodges Gellner’s shots better than the rest of the psychoanalytic community. This is not because Freud’s theory is so very defensible, but because Gellner is attacking it on grounds on which it has never been seriously judged. By 1985 psychoanalysis was definitely not seen as the sort of science that you’d find in the DSM (however dubious that might be), yet its therapeutic children continued unabated.

The story that George Makari tells in Revolution in Mind  is that of psychoanalysis emancipating itself from the empirical sciences and going into pure speculation and mythology, often excessively so. Yet if anything this probably aided in its success. As Gellner says:

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement

Yet as the “science” is quite loose, it’s rather pointless to attack the ideas for not being scientifically grounded, at least in 1985. It’s akin to criticizing Hegel for misunderstanding Sophocles or, indeed, criticizing Freud for misunderstanding Sophocles. It doesn’t teach us anything about their success.

No matter what ridiculous claims Freud made for his theory being “scientific,” psychoanalysis was never even provisionally held to the sort of rigorous standard to which Wittgenstein held his own thoughts, or else it would have collapsed. The scientific rhetoric was necessary, as Freud well knew, to getting his project off the ground and initially accepted in the medical and psychological community, but it became secondary once success was assured. The interesting story is not psychoanalysis pretending to be a science, but psychotherapy’s underlying Freudian groundwork surviving the debunking of those scientific claims.

As the Freudians are still fond of quoting:

if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives . . .

W. H. Auden, In Memory of Sigmund Freud

Freud was an incisively creative mind, which Gellner acknowledges, and in conjunction with his brilliant self-marketing, he managed to gain an astonishing amount of traction for some of his psychological metaphors and models. That his theories were held to be science among several influential groups for quite some time is one depressing measure of his success.

Gellner succeeds, however, when he tries to understand the success rather than attacking the theory.

Two stories emerge, related but distinct. First there is Freud the empire-builder, who keeps reins on psychoanalysis and jealously guards the keys to his process and movement. Freud was indeed autocratic, though not quite the tyrant Gellner makes out. Makari shows Freud as a self-doubting genius (albeit one who is careerist, unethical, narcissistic, and a plagiarist) who had good reason to keep control, as most of his followers are far from his intellectual equal. Of the Freudians, Ferenczi and Melanie Klein acquit themselves without too much damage but do not impress, while Carl Jung and Anna Freud come off very badly indeed.

Makari’s book is far more successful than Gellner’s in showing the poison that went around in these circles, and his lack of a blatant axe to grind allows the twisted process to emerge organically. Gellner is right to see Freud as a demagogue of a sort, but he really can’t be bothered to do the background.

Yet this does not prove fatal to Gellner. The second story, and the one Gellner is more effective in telling, is the large scale story of the success of psychoanalysis and consequently psychotherapy in general. Here Gellner can deal with the received ideas of psychoanalysis in general and try to figure out its place in society.

Somewhat ironically, Gellner must consequently credit Freud with having pulled off something amazing in selling his wares to the public. But what did he sell? A secular mythos and practice.

One way of seeing the ideological achievement of Sigmund Freud is to understand that he has constructed a solid, non-conjectural, support-providing world, something that had disappeared from our life; that he invented a technique for supplying this commodity made-to-measure for individual consumers; and that he had erected it using exclusively modern, intellectually acceptable bricks.

Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement

Freud’s achievement, then, was appealing to a societal neurosis (I use that term ironically) in an instinctive, brilliant way, and offering a solution that was less an idea than a ritual. It is a cutting of the Gordian knot of modernism, of God-is-Deadism, as Gellner points out in a fairly compelling comparison with Nietzsche.

Gellner sometimes puts it as the need for an authority (the therapist), but the better way to put it is the need to find a stable, validated frame narrative for one’s existence. The accomplishment of psychoanalysis is to turn this process not into a one-time fix (which would never work), but into a repeated ritual to shore up the authority.

Again, the irony. By identifying a neurosis that requires ritual treatment, Gellner very nearly excuses the psychoanalytic requirement for potentially unending treatment. He points out a number of problems of modernity which Freudian practice claims to solve, two of which are particularly spot-on:

  • The Weberian problem of a ‘disenchanted’, cold, impersonal world. The modern world is in fact bound to be such: cognitive growth goes jointly with specialised, single-strand cognitive inquiry, which inevitably separates the intellectual exploration of the world from personal relations, values, and the hierarchical ordering of society. Freud restored a form of cognition which, while articulated in an impeccably modern idiom, and seemingly part of medicine and science, was firmly locked in with a hierarchical and comforting personal relation, and with values and the hope of personal salvation. Thus a reality is reenchanted, and its enchantment is permanently serviced, albeit at a price.
  • The Durkheimian problem of reuniting cognition, ritual, and social order. Psychoanalysis has or is an astoundingly effective ritual, adapted to an individualist age, engendering all those affective consequences which Durkheim associated with ritual, and indeed separating the sacred and profane with all the neatness which that theory postulated.

To offer a persuasive solution to so fundamental a set of problems, and to offer them in a way that the solution is lived out rather than merely thought, ratified by both ritual and an intense personal relationship, and generally not consciously thought out at all, is an astonishing achievement.

I find this extremely compelling, not least  because it seems so obvious after reading it that Freud provided one very dominant mythos of our age. (Others helped out too, as did amorphous cultural processes.) Foucault and others had already been here, but this is the best summation I have read, and a testament to Gellner’s intuitive thinking.

Those philosophers today who ask for a reenchantment of reality to brighten our supposedly cold, industrialized world do not realize that we have already reenchanted our mental frameworks as much as any past culture, albeit in a more tenuous and somewhat neurotic way. But any further reenchantment would require religious dogmatism, so I’m not complaining.

I think Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy does a good job of explaining in depth what Freud contributed in this direction. If Freud was a philosopher, he is best thought of as hermeneutic.

Gellner’s statements about the analyst as shaman, the analyst as mystic, the analyst as deity, are interesting and sometimes compelling, but they detract from his more powerful point that the raw practice itself is what’s successful, not the particulars of the relationship. Hence why psychotherapy continues even as classical psychoanalysis has waned.

Core elements of the original framework remain, of course, which is why Freud survives even if psychoanalysis mostly does not. Gellner points out that one key technique is providing a safe space for the externalization of one’s inner demons: that is, treating them as demons, not one’s conscious self.

 The flaw of the Freudian Unconscious is not that it constitutes a scandalous inversion of conscious proprieties, but that it remains far, far too close to them. Freudianism is a kind of animism. It projects (rightly or wrongly), on to forces outside our consciousness, the kind of trait or attribute which our culture had habitually attributed to our conscious activity. As in other forms of animism, this is combined with the claim that these spirits of the deep can be understood, conjured up, appeased and rendered harmless only by certain practitioners of mysteries, members of a restrictive guild with specialised initiation rites.

Yet the guild has opened up now, and the process remains, with whatever bits of the theory have been appropriated by the collective societal consciousness. Not surprisingly, most of these do come from Freud himself rather than his less brilliant followers.

Consequently, Gellner’s position is weakened a bit. Because psychoanalysis qua theory proves to be a bit of a red herring (you don’t need the Oedipus Complex and the Death-Instinct for psychotherapy to be successful), the therapist doesn’t come out looking too bad. An expensive luxury? Certainly. A disingenuous practitioner? Perhaps. But having acknowledged the contemporary human’s unstinting desire for a healthier structure/mythos for understanding–or perhaps more accurately, simplifyingone’s own life, Gellner is too quick to assess that the result is unavoidably meaningless.

There is a pragmatic evaluative process, albeit not a terribly scientific one, which is the practical terms of the individual patient’s life. This was the process that slowly killed off psychoanalysis proper. Today, in the absence of a proper theory, evaluations are now performed ad hoc. Such case-by-case evaluations guarantee mixed results at best and gross abuses of power at worst, but psychotherapy is not the self-validating closed system that psychoanalysis-the-theory was. Such systems survive only by opening up, and I think that Freud laid the groundwork for that himself by reversing and revising his positions over the course of his life.

So oddly, Gellner makes the case that psychotherapy was more or less an inevitable coping mechanism that needed to arise given the conditions of modernity. If Freud had not existed, society would have had to invent him. (And, indeed, society did invent its version of him, throwing out the psychosexual and anthropological esoterica it could not use and keeping the basic model and method.) Gellner would like it if we could shrug off those needs and abandon the enchantments that psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic metaphors provide, but since he’s made such a powerful case for why they’re so appealing, it doesn’t seem very likely. Genuine science is never enough. Something always gets piled on top, and frequently it’s called science too.

The grave issue remains that Freud’s absolutist claim to truth for his theory was necessary if psychoanalysis were to gain purchase, so that it could then, under some duress, shrug off its claims to absolute knowledge in favor of a more humble, pragmatic stance and then live on more deftly as psychotherapy. Alas, though, this is the paradox of all of the human “sciences”: we only ever hear about the ones that started with absurd hubris.


  1. Some brief background:
    When, as a physician and psychiatrist, I applied for analytic training in1968, I did so with the belief that psychoanalytic theory had been developed and tested by scientific means and become standardized. Of course it became clear in time that such was not the case, but, by then, inspired by the scientists of my prior training, I was testing its concepts for concrete definability and subjecting its principles to tests of predictive capability. The experience was very fruitful and exciting and I described its results at intervals in papers, but they failed to stir interest and journal editors regularly rejected them (for non-objective reasons). I then wisely left the institutional (i.e. Societal) part of my professional life and my research flourished.

    My point in response to the above essay:
    I am rather fascinated by what appears to be a sociological aspect of my long clinical and scientific career and extensive readings, namely that critics of the lack of science in psychoanalysis do not necessarily indicate a desire to have such. For someone in my position (i.e. having an extensive collection of hard-science discoveries) it is an odd thing to find myself having no ready means of sharing them with like-minded colleagues, academics, teachers and lay critics.
    I would be very interested in hearing from you and others about this phenomenon. To understand it could pave the way to productive change.

  2. Whenever I read of critics taking Freud apart, I always feel like saying, oh go on, shoot fish in a barrel, why don’t you? Yup, Freud got it wrong in lots of ways. Why is this such a persistent thought? Do people still find value in returning to the early forms of medicine, for instance, infinitely more dangerous and life-threatening than early psychoanalysis, and with similar claims to scientific endorsement, and feel they have achieved something worthwhile by discrediting them? I find the desire to challenge Freud still a very strange one. Therapy has changed enormously since his time, not least in discarding the notion of a coherent narrative providing mental health. Object relations theories are far more predominant now in your average therapy. I expect there are still Freudians out there, but then it becomes a personal choice for the client concerned, who has the right to pick whatever sort of engagement s/he wants. I generally admire the feminist critics of Freud because they were at least doing something useful with their attacks. But what’s the aim of a book like Gellner’s? To suggest people don’t go to therapy?

    I recently read Rosemary Dinnage’s fascinating collection of testimonies about the psychotherapeutic process – One to One. She interviewed about 20 people who had had long term therapy and the results are compelling. There are some real disasters, some successes, an awful lot of undecideds. But what I found most interesting was the depth and tenacity of human suffering, how intensely damaged some people have been by ordinary-seeming events in their lives. There’s no science for dealing with this because its random, unpredictable. But the reality of the misery is undeniable. Figuring out how better to address and heal these sources of genuine pain, now that’s something worth thinking about.

    Oh and I should add – insightful analysis on your part of the Gellner, I felt.

  3. Harry: The situation was clearly very different in 1968. It’s hard for me to understand what the effect of psychoanalysis had been on psychiatry at large, and whether the generally dismal climate for treatment of the insane had improved because of in spite of psychoanalysis. People like Laing, Szasz, and Grof were certainly right in critiquing aspects of psychopathology, but then contributed equally sketchy theories of their own.

    I don’t have a clear idea of how perceptions of psychiatry/psychology/psychoanalysis have evolved over the years (is there a good book?), but by the time I was old enough to be aware of any of it, psychoanalysis had receded in favor of the more quantitative DSM-based approach, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and the like. I say *more* quantitative with reservation, since it is clear that even the strictest behavioral criteria are applied wildly inconsistently at the discretion of individual practitioners.. So in many ways it’s been a case of three steps forward, two steps back. I perceive that in many ways this may have hardened remaining psychoanalysts’ suspicions of any scientific criteria, since they associate it with the classificatory and drug-oriented movements of the last thirty years which have put themselves in opposition to psychotherapy.

    Litlove: I think Gellner really does want to be a debunker, but because he has that habit of intermingling ideological critique with sociological history, the direction of his critique gets confused. He’s far from the only one; Foucault could be accused of very much the same thing. But with Gellner it seems very much inimical to his stated position of Clear-headed Rationality, which is why I find his errors so interesting.

    His ideal world does, I guess, have us all experiencing some great uplift and not buying into the myths provided by psychotherapy, philosophy, or anything else. But if even he could not manage this lofty goal and sought solace in promises of certainty that closer examination had shown not to hold up…well, I figure we all should get a break on it.

  4. Either you read Freud or not. Reading Freud means debunking at least the following: “As in other forms of animism, this is combined with the claim that these spirits of the deep can be understood, conjured up, appeased and rendered harmless only by certain practitioners of mysteries, members of a restrictive guild with specialised initiation rites.”

    If you read any of Freuds texts hoping to keep psychoanalysis open to laymen, to save it from becoming “the maid of psychiatry” as he said, to stay critical cultural analysis, then one would not come up with such a cheap argument reproduced again and again, just showing envy of the organisational power that post-modern thinkers lack totally. There were two jewish sciences in the 20th century: Psychoanalysis and critical theory. Both were hated beyond measure, because they were jewish, well organized and most of all: They were right, anybody knew it and this is why semi-erudited thinkers try to make a monkey out of them, while chewing bananas themselves.

    Same counts for Freuds “absolutist claim for truth”. While he was true on most of his basic findings (all people are born and develop certain necessary problems), his language especially in the early texts is deeply humble. More humble than many or most other philosophers of that age and later ages. Freud never “defended” his theory against reasonable doubts. He was under attack all the time nevertheless – mostly for being liberal, jewish and talking about sex, which seriously people sucked at during his time.

    Being a social anthropologist, I have read so many “critiques” of Freud from Kroeber onwards, and I can state: All serious anthropology has done so far is proving orthodox Freud. With myths, rituals and therapies. Ever wondered, why so many myths involve loosing ones penis? Revolving around golden breasts, man-eating gods and so many things? Well, so far no other theory managed to grasp mythological phenomenons without Freud – while many jumped into metaphysics claiming empiricism as their strategy.

    If you want to understand Freud, read Nietzsche. Or Moby Dick.

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