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World: How Has Freud's Work Held Up?

Sigmund Freud in 1922 (Courtesy Photo) WASHINGTON May 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- More than a century has elapsed since Sigmund Freud scandalized Victorian society with his idea that all male children want to sleep with their mothers, and that idea has been discounted by all but a handful of staunch Freudians. Likewise, many of his other ideas, such as "penis envy," have also failed to garner any empirical support.

Nevertheless, Freud's influence pervades modern culture, and his books remain on university syllabi -- although they are more likely to be read by historians or philosophers than psychologists or psychiatrists. RFE/RL correspondent Julie Corwin spoke to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of "Strangers To Ourselves: Discovering The Adaptive Unconscious," about Freud's legacy.

RFE/RL: Would you talk a little bit about Freud as a theorist of human nature? How well have his ideas stood up?

Timothy Wilson: He was a genius in the sense that he recognized before most people how much of mental life is unconscious. But I think modern psychology would say with the benefit of hindsight that it was a myopic view in that he got it a little bit wrong as to how the unconscious operates and what its true nature is. So in a nutshell he characterized the unconscious as a repository of primary urges and instincts that is infantile and controls us by trying to make us express our most base instincts.

RFE/RL: Was this a startlingly original idea at the time? Or had others already started talking about this?

Timothy Wilson (courtesy photo)

Wilson: He really has to be credited with talking about the unconscious as a major force in our lives. Again I think one of the things that [was] a problem -- and it certainly is not his fault -- he really didn't have the methods to study it like we do. He relied almost entirely on clinical observations, and he was a brilliant clinician in some ways, but I think that also limited the kinds of insights that he could come up with. And I think made him miss the sort of normal everyday functioning of the unconscious.

RFE/RL: What about some of his other ideas -- that children have sexual fantasies?

Wilson: Freud wrote so much and he contradicted himself so much that it's hard... There's no doubt that he was wildly wrong in many ways. Everyone would agree that many of his ideas were wrong. The specific one that you mentioned I think, most theorists today would just say that he was probably too obsessed with sex. But, on the other hand, I think he may have been onto something in terms of children certainly having urges toward parents. So whether that was the driving force of our lives is questionable, but I don't think he was totally off base there.

RFE/RL: And the notion that women are incomplete men?

Wilson: Oh, completely wrong. I mean he was just absurd in his treatment of women. I think that was clearly one of his huge gaffes that I think is almost laughable today.

I think [Freud's] legacy has persisted in literary criticism, for example, much more than in psychology. And I think that's a little unfortunate. I teach him in some of my courses because I think we can learn from it -- not that it's all right. Freud was so many things. He was a clinician, a therapist, a theoretician.

RFE/RL: Maybe one way to look at him now is as more of a philosopher who offered flashes of insight about the nature of civilization -- or as a poet who offers us a radically different way to look at the world -- rather than as a scientist?

Wilson: I think there's something to that in the sense that if you look at universities today as to where Freud is taught, you're much more likely to see him on the syllabus of an English course than a psychology course. I think his legacy has persisted in literary criticism, for example, much more than in psychology. And I think that's a little unfortunate. I actually teach him in some of my courses because I think we can learn from it -- not that it's all right. Freud was so many things. He was a clinician, a therapist, a theoretician, and, you know, the whole other side of this are his ideas about therapy.

RFE/RL: Yes, what about his contributions to the practice of psychotherapy today?

Wilson: There's a lot of doubt about that today as to whether psychoanalytic therapy is the best treatment for disorders. I mean that's a huge area that -- I wouldn't say it's necessarily ineffective. But I think there's a lot of questioning about what the best kinds of therapies are. That's just another example of where he remains controversial.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud in 1938 (courtesy photo)

ON THE COUCH: A century and half after his birth, SIGMUND FREUD continues to influence cultural and scientific discourse. "There are no neutrals in the Freud wars," academic Peter Gay wrote in "Time" magazine in 1999. "Admiration, even downright adulation, on one side; skepticism, even downright disdain, on the other. This is not hyperbole.... But on one thing the contending parties agree: for good or ill, Sigmund Freud, more than any other explorer of the psyche, has shaped the mind of the 20th century. The very fierceness and persistence of his detractors are a wry tribute to the staying power of Freud's ideas."


Listen to an excerpt of Freud speaking in a 1938 BBC interview:
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Related Links:
The Freud Museum, Vienna
The Freud Museum, London
The Sigmund Freud Archives
Freud Museum Picture Library
A Freud Bibliography

Sigmund Freud arriving in London in 1938 (AFP)