Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), known by some as the only true genius in the history of psychology, is a vastly misunderstood and misrepresented thinker. He is misrepresented in popular media as much as he is misrepresented in university classrooms. He is simplified and caricatured on PowerPoint slides by people who never read a page written by him. I think it is important to return to Freud, to take him seriously, to read him directly, and I think there are at least three reasons we ought to do so.
1. Freud is a Great Writer
The older I become and the more I read, the more I appreciate the value of style. The way someone writes–which is itself a reflection of how someone thinks–is in many ways more important than what they write about. Reading a great writer of science-fiction, such as Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick, can teach us more (yes, even about psychology) than reading a sloppy writer who is informing us about “solid facts” found in a “recent study”. A great writer inspires us to think, ignites our imagination, and helps us pay attention to important question. The person who told you about the “solid fact” will keep you dependent on their authority. By contrast, a great writer will take you a step closer toward becoming an independent thinker.
The reading experience isn’t contained in the moments you are holding the book in your hands. The experience continues after you close the book. What makes a writer great is reflected, among other things, in what happens after you close the book and move on to something else. The great writer’s influence continues, working in the background, in the unconscious, educating our taste and our attention. Reading Freud shows how we can go about pursuing a question. The intellectual moves he makes in his writing, his use of examples, his use of analogies, and his relentless desire to theorize and to connect observations across domains are all immensely instructive.
2. Freud’s Work is Foundational
Contemporary “mainstream” academic psychology is disappointing in part because it has no concern with foundation and foundational questions. It is not even anti-foundationalist. It’s simply indifferent to deeper questions. In that sense, a nihilism and a cynicism permeates mainstream psychology, as if the researchers tacitly know there is not much behind what they do.
Freud is concerned with foundation, with first principles. He is concerned with the structure of the psyche, with the nature of consciousness, with evolutionary theory, and with individual development. If you read his work, you will find out just how many constraints he is working with. He wants a theoretical framework that can be applied not only to his patients, but also psychological development across the human lifespan. He is working with evolutionary biology when he is theorizing about libido and the mobility of the libidinal forces throughout a healthy life. His theory of dream interpretation has the same underlying structure as his theory of neurosis. And his theory of neurosis informs an extremely responsible and ethical image of the patient-analyst relationship.
3. Freud Covers Lots of Ground
I was surprised when I read Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, a book in which Freud discusses the psychology of crowds (Why do people behave so differently when they lose themselves in a crowd?). We see how careful and up-to-date he is in studying other people’s work on the topic, and we see how–despite addressing a topic that is somewhat new to him–he is remaining connected to his psychoanalytic framework.
Freud is concerned with a wide range of topics: Religion, parenting, society, inner conflicts, art, the unconscious, individual autonomy, and many other psychological topics and themes. At the same time, he attempts to uncover connections across all these different domains. Following him along, thinking through the problems with him, is a rich and stimulating experience. We don’t have to agree with him. Agreeing with an author isn’t a necessary condition for benefiting from their work.
If you join me in studying Freud, feel free to share your experience with me. It’s important that we discover thinkers on our own, looking past their reputation, their image in the media and the mainstream psychology. Discovering them and thinking about them on our own is an important step in developing as autonomous psychologists in our own right.