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  • Unconscious Deeps and Empirical Shallows *
  • Frederick Crews


When I was invited to participate in the spring 1998 symposium on psychoanalysis at Yale, I accepted with alacrity. 1 Here, I thought, lay the makings of a lively and fruitful debate not merely about what role psychoanalysis plays in “contemporary culture” but also about whether it deserves to play such a role. If, as I believe, Freudian ideas tell us nothing that is empirically warrantable about the mind but much about the pitfalls of question-begging discourse, then presumably the application of those same ideas to cultural problems will itself run the risk of overconfidence and even circularity. Some panelists, I told myself, will doubtless explain why they consider that worry misplaced or exaggerated, but if others—myself among them—can show that psychoanalysis has no more standing as knowledge than astrology or palmistry, then the perils of “applied analysis” will be made usefully clear.

So much for expectations. When I eventually retrieved the list of symposium participants from my mailbox, I could not recognize among the 29 presenters and panel chairs the name of any critic of psychoanalysis except my own. Nor, in asking around informally among my fellow skeptics, did I discover that any of them had been asked to join in. Even Yale faculty members whose expertise lay precisely in the area of Freud’s cultural significance were condemned to the role of spectators; yet their reservations about psychoanalysis were certainly milder [End Page 271] than my own. I guessed, then, that the question “Whose Freud?,” though by no means settled in advance, was to be negotiated among several schools of psychoanalytic thought, with my own predictable demurral counting as evidence of hospitality, however scant, to extreme perspectives.

Perhaps this was uncharitable on my part, but it was the view I took at the time. So be it, I said to myself. Even if I was being asked to play the token naysayer, I would go to New Haven and nail my theses to the door of the Whitney Humanities Center. I knew that my dissenting judgment stood no chance of giving pause to my fellow symposiasts, but I felt that it ought to be voiced. Thereby, any independent observers who might be present could weigh my reasoning against the justifications of Freudian hermeneutics that, I assumed, would be offered on all sides.

Again—so much for expectations! Even though psychoanalysis finds itself in dire straits everywhere but among humanists and a minority of “soft” social scientists, very little was said in defense of Freudian notions during our two-day conference. Apologetics were apparently deemed unnecessary among the like-minded. To my own discordant mind, however, this imperturbability mirrored the epistemic isolationism of the whole psychoanalytic tradition. Notoriously, Freudians have listened only to other Freudians, and they have been inclined to mistake the mere sharing of a controversial set of premises within their own circle for assurance that those premises have withstood all challenge.

Despite the near solidarity lasting through our weekend, I did succeed in provoking a handful of remarks intended as refutation of my errors. Those remarks typified attitudes I had encountered many times before. So, of course, I want to make an example of them here. But I will do so only in an extended afterword, leaving my original text exactly as I read it aloud—failed predictions and all. By this means, readers will possess the full basis for comments about my position made by other participants. And so to my prepared text.


To the question posed in our conference title, “Whose Freud?,” I can offer a simple reply: he’s all yours. Take my Freud—please! But do you really want him—the fanatical, self-inflated, ruthless, myopic, yet intricately devious Freud who has been unearthed by the independent scholarship of the past generation—or would you prefer the Freud of self-created legend, whose name can still conjure the illusion that [End Page 272] “psychoanalytic truth” is authenticated by the sheer genius of its discoverer?

Let me put this issue concretely by reminding you of the evocative passage in Freud’s History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement in which he describes...

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