Freud was a dominant thinker in 20th c intellectual history, testimony to which is given by the sheer volume of articles, papers and books written by and about him and the psychoanalytic method.

Another testament to his importance are the controversies surrounding this work. As the late neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate, Eric Kandel said of psychoanalysis, "It is the disease that it, itself, attempts to cure." Then there are the rejections of Freudianism by mid-century behavioral scientists and logical positivists who insisted that concepts such as the unconscious weren't amenable to empirical verification, relegating Freud's work, in their view, to pseudoscience.

But are these condemnations fair? much less accurate?

For example, in late 19th c Windelbrand described:

Nomothetic and idiographic scientific methods are terms used to describe two distinct approaches to knowledge, each one corresponding to a different intellectual tendency, and each one corresponding to a different branch of academia.

Based on this dichotomy, Freudianism could be described as idiographic and qualitative in nature.

A spate or recent papers discuss the utility of idiographic, single case studies for hypothesis generation, e.g., Of Talking Pigs and Black Swans: Single Holistic Case Study Design.

If nothing else, Freudianism is to be credited for generating testable hypotheses, from early cognitive scientists such as Hebb and Campbell, ego psychologists such as Gordon Allport as well as more recent work by neuroscientists such as Heather Berlin on the neural underpinnings of Freud's theory of mind, all of whom can be regarded as post-Freudian.

On a more general note, there is the revisionism implicit in the questioning of RCTs (random controlled trials) as the sine qua non or gold standard of scientific method.

So, where does this leave us wrt Freud?

*** Edits added after original posting ***

Frederick Crewes was among the more vocal of Freud critics, as noted in his obituaries just a few days ago.




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    $\begingroup$ Virtually all members of the Vienna Circle expressed positive views about psychoanalysis, Otto Neurath in particular pointed to the unconscious as an important progress. To the best of my knowledge criticism of Freud in the US was initiated by American philosophers from the pragmatist tradition, some influenced by the logical positivists, such as Ernest Nagel, some not influenced by them, such as Sidney Hook. As late as the 1960s you can find Phillip Frank and Rudolf Carnap defending Freud's work as scientific, even if flawed. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ Beautiful comment and interesting question. I’m astonished by the superficiality with which Freud and his cultural heritage are sometime dismissed. It would be very interesting to reconstruct the history of this rejection, in particular in the US. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ I do not understand why this question was voted closed. I voted to reopen and opened a discussion on MoSM:Meta to invite those who feel this question should be closed to engage in the discussion on this question. $\endgroup$
    – Georg Essl
    Commented Jun 25 at 7:49
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    $\begingroup$ @MikhailKatz I am strongly in favor of including any form of inquiry that has thought of itself as scientific, because only in that frame can one seriously talk of "history of science". I don't think frequency of tags is grounds for exclusion unless there is indeed a stated policy or prior community consensus. I am not aware of either. $\endgroup$
    – Georg Essl
    Commented Jun 25 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to what DJohnson says, distinguishing what is science and what is not science often involves the assumption, rather metaphysical, that exists only one science and not the sciences, each of them having its own methodology and epistemological status, a philosophical stance that is more accepted nowadays. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 26 at 12:21

1 Answer 1


I cannot contribute what I consider an answer, but here are some thoughts about the posed question. It seems to me that the very notion of "what questions are being asked" are of interest here. I want to point to the dynamics of "asking better questions" in terms of evolution of "scientific thinking". Are we seeing different and perhaps completely new conjectures being proposed that turn out to be fruitful, even if wrong or later altered.

One can look at Freud from the perspective of mental health before his work. One can, as the question suggests largely look at his work through post-hoc analyses and challenges, but here I want to point at a contemporary example:

Brown recognizes that Freud himself emphasizes psychoanalysis as a science, in their perceived contrast to prevailing contemporary or prior models of understanding mental function and mental health. This includes Brown's understanding that scientific theories are characterized by being incomplete, malleable, and so forth and are not meant to put forth a rigid "worldview".

In some sense one could read this as a recognition of trying to be scientific in a field that hasn't tried to be, such as mental health, can constitute a Kuhnian "paradigm shift".

The core of Brown's paper is a set of questions:

Is the type of theory into which Freud has forced his monumental discoveries the best type of theory into which they could be forced? How is Freudian theory related to the type of theory used by modern physics? Could our knowledge of psychodynamics be furthered by a different type of theoretical approach?

I.e. Brown asks if Freud has the correct "structure theory" for his theories and if one can perhaps draw from innovations in other sciences (physics) to glean some sense of progress in theory formation (an emergent idea of comparative sciences). He contrasts "class theory" with "field theory" with fields being in analogy to continua in physical theories. Brown believes the field model to be more fitting and that categorization leading to problems.

The reason why I wanted to point this paper at this question is precisely the same problem in the question itself. Can we reduce the thinking and interpretation of Freud's work to few categories (Was he a scienist? Is his work compatible with the scientific method?) or is it perhaps that we need to understand it in much more complex, "fluid", and dynamical and contextualized senses? That said certain categorizations tend to be good approximations or demarcations of change. So perhaps another way to ask the question is "How did the understanding and study of mental health gradually and fundamentally change and improve due to the work of Freud? How did psychodynamical theories, psychotherapy, etc change, alter, and improve from Freud onward?"

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    $\begingroup$ Very thoughtful response, especially appreciated is the complete absence of the kneejerk, wholesale rejection of the man and his ideas that is so commonplace today. $\endgroup$
    – DJohnson
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:17

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