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Comments on Richard
Webster's book: Why
Freud Was Wrong:
Sin, Science and
Psychoanalysis
a
Siri Erika Gullestad
a
Psychological Clinic 1, Institute of
Psychology, University of Oslo, Box 1094
Blindern, N-0317, Oslo, Norway
Version of record first published: 21 Jan
2013.

To cite this article: Siri Erika Gullestad (1998): Comments on Richard


Webster's book: Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, The
Scandinavian Psychoanalytic Review, 21:1, 92-96

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Comments on Richard Webster's book: Why Freud Was Wrong:
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Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis

Siri Erika Gullestad

In October 1997, a conference on the future ofpsychiatry took place in Oslo,


arranged by Einar Kring len, a senior professor of psychiatry, University of
Oslo. Richard Webster, the author of "Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science
and Psychoanalysis" was one of the two main speakers. One of Webster's
central theses is that psychoanalysis is mostly a dogmatic, religious belief
system, and not a scientifically founded enterprise. A panel was invited to
comment on Webster's presentation. Siri Erika Gullestad, Professor of Clin-
ical Psychology, University of Oslo, and psychoanalyst, was one of the pan-
elists. In the following, her discussion of Webster's book is presented.

In my discussion, I have chosen to concentrate on three of Webster's


points, as they are elaborated in his book "Why Freud Was Wrong".
These are firstly, psychoanalysis and sexuality; secondly, Webster's analysis
of Freud's character, and thirdly, his view on psychoanalysis as a science.
As far as sexuality is concerned, Webster claims that psychoanalysis
is not the revolutionary theory Freud claimed it was. Psychoanalysis is
essentially a version of traditional orthodox Judaeo-Christian religion; up-
dating the doctrine of Original Sin and presenting it in a secular form -
a theory safe from the attacks of science precisely because it is "presented
as science" (p. 7). Webster's main objection is tha~ psychoanalysis repre-
sents a "glorification of the spirit at the expense of the body" (p. 4).
Freud's texts are, according to Webster, characterized by "distaste" and
"disgust" (p. 4) of different forms of sexuality. There is no enthusiasm for
"the realm of the obscene" (p. 4). On the contrary, "the science of sexuality
which Freud brought into being, is couched in a language purged of ob-

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scenity" (p. 4). To Webster, psychoanalysis represents an apparent rebellion
against the Judaeo-Christian hostility towards the body; but in reality, it
continues this very hostility.
First, it should be noted that from a historical and political point of view,
and especially for a Norwegian public, this may seem a somewhat surprising
interpretation. In Norway, psychoanalysis was, in the l930-1940's, read,
quite in contrast to Webster, as a theory of liberation. Psychoanalysis was
part of a broad cultural movement which advocated a rational, enlightened
approach to the human body and to sexual behavior, and which deeply in-
fluenced Norwegian politics of health and sexual education. Webster's pro-
ject is to establish an alternative theory of sexuality and human nature. We
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learn that one of the obstacles to such a theory, is the scientific attitude itself
(p. 489) which is inappropriate to the study of what Webster calls "carnal
humanity" (s. 489). He accuses Freud of his use of"technical terminology"
and his "intellectualising the realm of the sexual" (s. 477). Webster asks for
the concrete, the blood, sweat and tears of human behavior in general and
human sexual behavior in particular. To me, this is exactly what clinical
psychoanalysis is about. The therapeutic encounter is a very trivial dialogue,
cast in the ordinary emotional prose of daily life, filled with concrete details
of bodily and sexual functioning. Above all, it is a dialogue about affects and
feeling states. If the patient escapes into abstractions and intellectualisation,
this is what the analyst will point out to him. As analysts, we know that the
affects are hiding in the concrete! I can think of no other human discourse
which penetrates in greater depths into the sexuality of the unique person in
all its nuances oflove, aggression and ambivalence. How these observations
are to be conceptualised in more-or-less formalised theoretical constructs,
has been a matter of continuous debate throughout the history of psychoan-
alysis and still is. In this context, we should not forget Freud's own view on
theory: "For these ideas are not the foundations of the science upon which
everything rests. That foundation is observation alone. They are not at the
bottom, but the top of the whole structure, and they can be replaced and
discarded without damaging it" (Freud, 1914, p. 77). Even if one can discuss
the relevance of the theoretical conceptualisation of the clinical obser-
vations, this does not mean that psychoanalysis intellectualises sexuality. To
conclude, psychoanalysis is neither a rationalistic theory advocating "sup-
pression", as Webster will have it, nor is it a theory of unqualified liberation
and polymorphous acting out. Rather, the central concepts are "inte-
gration" and "channeling" of instinctual forces. On a general level, psycho-
analysis deals with integration of drive and reality. On an object-relational

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level, it is a matter of integration of sexuality within a love-relationship to
another human being.
I shall now turn to Webster's second point, his analysis of Freud's charac-
ter. By turning to a psychological explanation of Freud's personality, Webs-
ter sets out to explain why Freud was wrong. In the center of Webster's expla-
nation stands Freud's ambivalent ambition to fulfill his parents' dreams for
him. On the one hand, Sigmund Freud was accorded a quite extraordinary
status: he was the chosen one, the one who was to become a great man of
special intellectual achievements. On the other hand, the parental message
was one of obedience and loyalty to parental values. According to Webster,
Freud struggled all his life with this parental "contract". Repeatedly, he
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would seek to cast himself in the role of the rebel. At the same time, his fear
of rejection was such that he "took care to secrete an underlying conformity
just beneath the surface of his seemingly rebellious science" (p. 35). A child
pays a heavy price for this kind of contract, because the child experiences
its parents' adulation for its 'specialness' as a profound negation of its own
ordinary, sexual and affectional identity (p. 39). In this manner, the hostility
towards the body that Webster finds in psychoanalytic theory, is explained
by referring to personal complexes in Freud, the man. A kind of arguing ad
hominem. This kind of arguing seems to be part of a popular contemporary
social movement, that has been called the "Uncovered Secret Movement"
(Michels, 1996), which is characterized by delighting in tracking down secret
truths about revered figures from the past. Freud certainly had conflicts,
problems and probably flaws: how should he not? However, I do not accept
that these are arguments against his theories. Freud's personality is of inter-
est to biographers, historians and gossips. The value of psychoanalysis,
however, is no more dependent on it than the value of Einstein's relativity-
theory is affected by the revelation of his maltreatment of his wife (Michels,
1996). However, what is more interesting is that Webster's way of analysing
Freud's personality is an entirely psychoanalytic one. Webster speaks of am-
bivalence of conflicting wishes, of unconscious desire for vengeance, and
above all of Freud's recurrent need to religiously submit to transference fig-
ures, be it Charcot or Fliess. This postulated need to submit to authority,
Webster also finds in Freud's critics. All these concepts are the very concepts
which have become familiar to us through psychoanalytic discourse. Thus,
while "unseating" (s. vii) Freud, Webster stands on his shoulders, taking ad-
vantage of the same concepts that he disclaims. Indeed, what makes Freud-
ian theory so revolutionary, is that it has influenced the very way we reflect
on mental and psychological life, whether we agree with the theory or not.

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As to Webster's third point, the question of the scientific status of psycho-
analysis, it raises huge problems of a epistemological and methodological
nature, as well as questions as to what is to be considered psychoanalytic
data. Central questions are: What are the potentials and limitations of the
clinical method? What are the possibilities of extraclinical verification? Is
psychoanalysis to be considered a part of general psychology, with the am-
bition of explaining human behaviour, or should it rather be considered as
a hermeneutic, emphasizing understanding of meaning? In my opinion, it
testifies to the vitality of psychoanalysis as a scientific enterprise that these
questions are extensively and thoroughly discussed in informed contempor-
ary psychoanalysis. Among all these issues, I will concentrate on the prob-
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lem of the contamination of clinical psychoanalytic data by suggestion,


which is at the core of Webster's argument, and which is also central to
authors like Griinbaum (1984) and Crews (1995). Suggestion, in the mean-
ing of subjective interpretation of observations, is a general problem con-
fronting all sciences. It is naive to conceive of scientific observation as totally
free of preconceptions. Of course, suggestion represents a particular prob-
lem for the clinical method and for all psychotherapeutic treatments. How-
ever, what Webster does not recognise is that the development of Freud's
method of free association is based on a critical attitude exactly towards sug-
gestion. Mostly, Webster's examples of psychoanalysis being a suggestive
method, that is a therapeutic procedure which is "self-confirming", are
taken from Freud's pre-psychoanalytic period, in which the so-called press-
ure-technique was used. This technique was abandoned by Freud, precisely
because it was suggestive. Psychoanalysis both as an explorative method and
as a method of treatment is highly aware of the problem of suggestion. It is
constantly the object of the analyst's reflection. Concepts like countertrans-
ference and enactment testify to this. Thus, the presence of suggestion is not
unique to psychoanalysis. Rather, what is unique about psychoanalysis, is
the recognition of its presence, its efforts to explore it, understand its basis
and minimise its influence.
Although I have seen it as my task to oppose Webster on some of his
points, I feel that the intellectual odyssee he invites us to join, is a stimulat-
ing one. He has much that is critical to say about the psychoanalytic
"establishment", and about psychoanalysis as a movement, with which I
agree. There are certainly events in the history of psychoanalysis that are
nothing to be proud of, like the Secret Commitee, that Webster highlights
and that should be highlighted. However, I should like to emphasize that
Webster's book is about Freudiana. It is not about psychoanalysis as it is

95
today. I want to state this very firmly, because to an uninformed public,
the very title of Webster's book may suggest that not only was Freud
wrong, but psychoanalysis is wrong too. To me, the main question for
psychoanalysis today is not whether Freud's observations were sufficient
to support his theoretical constructs, but whether a century of observation
has substantiated these constructs. Certainly, no analyst today would deny
that many of Freud's concepts and ideas have been rejected, some have
moved to the periphery of the theory and in many aspects emphasis has
changed. Indeed, psychoanalysis of 1997 is not like the one of 1897.
When reading Webster's book I could not help noticing the frequent use
of the word "messianic". As a psychoanalyst, I am trained to pay attention
to words or special emotional significance. When Webster closes his
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monumental odyssee by telling us: "Freud made no substantial intellectual


discoveries. He was the creator of a complex pseudo-science which should
be recognised as one of the great follies of Western civilisation" (p. 438),
I cannot help but thinking: a truly messianic message!

REFERENCES

Crews, F. (1995). The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute. New York: New York
Review of Books.
Freud, S. (1914). On narcissism: an introduction. S.E. 14: 67-102.
Griinbaum, A. (1984). The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: a philosophical critique.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Michels, R. (1996). Review of "The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute" by Fred-
erick Crews. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn. 44: 573-579.
Webster, R. (1995). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. New York:
Basic Books.

Siri Erika Gullestad


Psychological Clinic l
Institute of Psychology
University of Oslo
Box l 094 Blindern
N-0317 Oslo
Norway

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