Sigmund Freud is no longer the revered figure he once was. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that Freud is no longer routinely assigned even in psychology curricula. In a way, Freud is following the downward path of that other great totem of the last couple of centuries, Karl Marx. It's hard to believe so many intelligent people spent their lives studying these two thinkers. Intellectuals, we have to conclude, are often fatally attracted to far-out theories that tease the mind but that bear little relation to what's actually going on in the world.
Marxism worked well in academic laboratories and only failed miserably when it was actually tried. Similarly for decades Freud spun out his elaborate theories, and they sounded so scientific and so modern and so avant garde. Depression? Well, that's because your sister abused you when you were four, and you have concealed from yourself the memory of it, but if you do hundreds of hours of therapy, you can excavate the source of your anxiety, and by coming to terms with it you can slowly overcome it. But today when you go to the doctor and are diagnosed with depression, he gives you a pill and you feel better. No need for most people to visit the therapist's couch.
Freud also argued that what we are secretly attracted to, we make into a taboo. Freud explained the "incest taboo" by saying that we secretly want to have sex with our mothers and our sisters, and so we repress those feelings and outlaw them. In Freud’s words, “The strength of the incestuous wishes can be detected behind the prohibition against them.”
The cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out the shortcoming of this theory. Pinker notes that by Freud's logic the fact that humans are averse to eating cow dung shows that we secretly want to eat it. Pinker's point is that there are sound evolutionary reasons both for avoiding cow dung and for avoiding incest. The former is unhealthy and attracts disease-carrying insects; the latter results in biological abnormalities. So natural selection produces humans who avoid both. Once again, Freudian fantasy is replaced with a much more plausible scientific alternative.
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