Freud’s Living Corpse: Psychoanalysis versus Neuroscience (Julie Reshe)

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Freud bunny

In his comment to one of my online articles, an adherent of psychoanalysis expressed his indignation at the fact that although one of my doctoral specializations was psychoanalysis and that I currently direct the Institute of Psychoanalysis of The Global Center For Advanced Studies, I am not one of Freud’s followers. His reaction surprised me, since, in my opinion, the doctoral degree is an indication of the ability to practice a critical attitude towards the studied material, and not a certificate of participation in any fan club or religious sect.

But in fairness it should be noted that I am rather an exception to the rule. Education in the humanities indeed often resembles a religious community. As a result of studying Freud’s theories students are converted into Freudians, and, accordingly, the diplomas they obtain indeed confirms their inability to gain a critical attitude toward psychoanalysis. It is easy to understand such degreed sectarians; it’s quite difficult to recognize the irrelevancy of the object of study to which you have devoted a significant portion of your life’s time and efforts.

Basic skills, which the student of psychoanalysis should grasp, is the art of ignoring the fact that Freud is dead. Without this skill it is impossible to consider his ideas to be a source of truths that are relevant for our time. In the field of psychoanalytic education, thereby, students learn to perform the trick of drawing Freud’s musty corpse into the present, pretending that it is still alive, or at least, not so musty.

In one of the provinces in Indonesia there is an unusual funeral ceremony. Guests attending the funeral, are happily laughing and dancing near a corpse, behaving as if the hero of the occasion is alive. This custom may well have been a source of inspiration for the invention of the ceremony accompanying the awarding of diplomas to graduates, especially those who’ve studied psychoanalysis.


Frank Sulloway’s 1979 work Freud, Biologist of the Mind to this day remains a key revisionist work on psychoanalysis. In his book Freud is presented as a brilliant plagiarist, stubborn and ruthless self propagator, adherent of insane ideas and premature conclusions. Sulloway was just one among many others who made an effort to debunk the myth of the scientific significance of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.

Today, given the existence of a colossal number of revisionist works on Freud, it is no longer possible to perceive his doctrine as unquestionable, the mere existence of apologists of traditional psychoanalysis in our days is a strange anomaly.

Here’s some science news: Freud’s doctrine is fully discredited in the scientific field, starting with his theory of the Oedipus complex, up to his idea of penis envy, which today is recognized as something both sad and funny. Most scientists believe that Freud is at best outdated and at worst is of no scientific interest. In academic circles of almost any discipline it is considered unacceptable to refer to Freud as a relevant source of knowledge.

Regarding psychology itself, to the development of which Freud’s contribution is considered to be the most important, in 1996, it came to the conclusion that “[T]here is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically […] of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas.”1

In 2004 Todd Dufresne in his work “Psychoanalysis Is Dead” made an even more radical conclusion:

Freud is truly in a class of his own. Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say. But, luckily for him, academics have been — and still are — infinitely creative in their efforts to whitewash his errors, even as lay readers grow increasingly dumbfounded by the entire mess.2

Reflecting on the reasons on why some researchers are still attempting to prove the relevance of Freudian doctrine, Dufresne claims that one must take into account that the myth about truths revealed by psychoanalysis has existed for decades, many therapists have based their reputation on this myth, enormous amount of books was written in this field, many academic titles were awarded for the study of traditional psychoanalysis, and yet after all this, it is still quite complicated to acknowledge that psychoanalysis was more of a mistake.

In the above-mentioned work, Freud, Biologist of the Mind, Sulloway has not only exposed the doctrine of psychoanalysis, he also pointed to where he believes lies the true greatness of Freud. The disclosure of such greatness, paradoxically, was constantly prevented by his most sincere followers. In the opinion of Sulloway, Freud’s status and his general popularity was largely promoted by the psychoanalytic legend, which was supported both by Freud and his followers.

According to this legend, Freud was a revolutionary loner. Claiming that conviction concerning the independence and originality of Freud’s ideas is a significant exaggeration, Sulloway attempts to dispel the prejudice that Freud developed his ideas in intellectual isolation.

Sulloway addresses his criticism to earlier biographers of Freud, noting that they represent his accomplishments in a false light by portraying him as a psychological thinker. Freud’s ideas, according to Sulloway’s findings, are an offshoot of the biological thought that has been dominant since the late-nineteenth century to the present. Freud, therefore, should not be considered a psychological thinker, but rather a“crypto-biologist” or “biologist of the mind” – herein lies the essence of his true greatness.


Indeed, till our days Freud is associated exclusively with the theory of psychoanalysis, although, before he started to study unconscious processes, he was an anatomist, studying brain functions at a basic biological level. Moreover, he managed to make a significant contribution to the development of neurobiology.

Being initially trained as a neurologist, Freud worked as a researcher at the Institute of Physiology under the guidance of Ernst Brücke, an outstanding physiologist of his time. Freud was examining the brains of frogs, crayfish, and lampreys. Among other things he explored the relationship between gray matter and the nerve fibers.

Let’s take a look on the passage from his lecture (1884) where Freud described his observations:

If we assume that the fibrils of the nerve fibre have the significance of isolated paths of conduction, then we would have to say that the pathways in which the nerve fibres are separate are confluent in the nerve cell: then the nerve cell becomes the ‘beginning’ of all those nerve fibres anatomically connected with it […] I do not know if the existing material suffices to decide this important problem. If this assumption could be established it would take us a good step further in the physiology of the nerve elements: we could imagine that a stimulus of a certain strength might break down the isolated fibres, so that the nerve as a unit conducts the excitation, and so on.3

An “important problem,” which Freud addresses in this passage it related with the dispute between ‘neuronists’ and ‘reticularists’ ongoing at the time. The progressiveness of Freud’s scientific assumptions, which testified in favor of the ‘neuronists,’ becomes apparent in the context of this dispute.

Due to the structural peculiarity of the brain cells and imperfectness of technology involved in  the exploration of neuronal tissue, not all biologists of Freud’s time thought that neurons were individual cells. In contrast to the more simple form of other cell types, brain cells have a large number of thin extensions. Microscopy at Freud’s time was not sufficiently developed to clarify whether those extensions are a constitutive part of a cell structure, or a part of continuous network of nerves.

Those who rejected the hypothesis that the brain is composed of individual cells, and believed instead that it is a continuous network of nerves, belonged to the camp of ‘reticularists.’ ‘Neuronists,’ in their turn, argued that the brain consists of a basic structural elements—neurons.

Among others Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann belonged to the camp of ‘neuronists.’ In 1839, they formulated a cell theory, according to which every living thing consists of the same basic structural units—cells, with no exception for the human brain. Santiago Ramón y Cajal is considered to be the founder of modern neurobiology and the most outstanding neuroscientist. It was he who, based on cell theory, formulated the neuron doctrine.

Cajal improved the techniques of the study of brain cells, which enabled him to distinctly see the boundaries of the neuron, and confirm in such a way that, despite the large number of extensions, nerve cells are separate structural elements. In 1906, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the structure of the nervous system.

Freud’s research though remained in the background, despite the fact that the above mentioned excerpt from his lecture, which was delivered seven years before Cajal’s neuron doctrine became recognized, may be considered an evidence that Freud was the foremost scientist of his time and was moving in the right direction. Regardless, Freud’s name remained in the history of neuroscience, partly because in his main work Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates Cajal refers to the results of Freud’s scientific research, that confirm his own conclusions.


What stands behind Freud’s transformation from scientist into a bounder discredited in the academic world?

In the mid-eighties of the XIX century, in spite of its achievements in science, Freud resigned from the research of nerve cells. However, he remained well aware of the latest achievements in neurobiology and even used some of Cajal’s latest ideas in his unpublished manuscript Project for a Scientific Psychology, on which he worked in the 1890s, that is, already after he began to develop a theory of psychoanalysis.

In his project Freud planned to elaborate an interdisciplinary model of mind, describing it in terms of amounts of energy and neuronal processes. Freud’s manuscript was highly advanced for his time, he described the work of the mind as thoroughly as was possible given the state of development of neuroscience and evolutionary biology in the year 1895. Yet Freud never published this work and in 1897 he even renounced the research necessary for its completion.

Biographers of Freud indicate different reasons for such a decision. The conventional view is that the main reason was the comparatively primitive state of the neural doctrine, since even the basic mechanisms of neurons functioning still were requiring clarification: being dissatisfied with the limitation of language in objective science, Freud changed his method of research, and focused on psychology. As Freud himself asserts in chapter VII of Interpretation of Dreams, he decided to limit himself to a study of what may be stated in the form of psychological descriptions.

In line with this view, the doctrine of psychoanalysis is considered to be a consequence of Freud’s reorientation from an objective science to a subjective approach to the understanding of how the human mind works. The method of psychoanalysis is the introspective method of therapeutic conversations. As the material for their research analysts use patients’ stories about their inner life: memories of childhood, dreams and desires, which the analyst interprets as a manifestation of the patient’s unconscious that determines their conscious thoughts and behavior.

There is also an opinion that Freud had to resign his studies of neural processes after he fell in love with his future wife. The income of scientists at his time didn’t allow them to support a family. That is why he has decided to start his own medical practice. “Perhaps if a scientific career could have ensured a living wage then, as it does today, Freud would be known as a neuroanatomist and a co-founder of the neuron doctrine, instead of as the father of psychoanalysis.”4

It should be noted that in his study of neurons Santiago Ramón y Cajal was guided by the same interest that guided Freud in his psychoanalytic studies: Cajal started to explore the brain at the cellular level, following his desire to establish a rational psychology. However, unlike Freud, who reoriented his investigations towards a deductive structural theory of the psyche, Cajal remained faithful to the inductive methodology of the study of basic elements of the nervous system.

The history of the development of neurobiology proved the effectiveness of Cajal’s research methodology. During the last half century scientists were able to learn a lot about human mental activity precisely due to the implementation of the inductive method of neuroscience, based on the study of the brain “one cell at a time.”5

However, advances in neuroscience does not suggest that Freud made the wrong decision switching to the inductive methodology. Certainly, from the perspective of objective science his reorientation was a fatal mistake which meant that Freud could no longer be considered a scientist. For instance, Malcolm Macmillan, scientist, who analyzed the doctrine of psychoanalysis, concluded that Freud “once he had forsaken laboratory work for the care and understanding of neurotics, neither thought nor acted like a scientist; he sincerely but obtusely mistook his loyalty to materialist reductionism for methodological rigor.”6

Although the theory of psychoanalysis can be considered as evidence of Freud’s break with science, paradoxically, precisely this “fatal error” is a telling manifestation of how scientific thought progress occurs through hypothesis testing. Furthermore, Freud not only did not deny the possibility of being refuted, he also continuously and consciously was refuting himself, reexamining his thought. Therefore, he remained a scientist, both as a former neurologist, and as a refuted psychologist, and played a significant role in the development of neurobiology and scientific psychology.


In 1896, Freud confessed in one of his letters: “In my youth I was attracted to the study of philosophy, and now, moving from medicine to psychology, I’m on the verge of the realization of my dream.”7 Freud’s transformation indeed can be interpreted as a transformation of the scientist into philosopher. But after fulfilling his dream of his initiation into philosophy, Freud has not ceased to be a scientist, and in fact, and at a minimum, he even began to see the theory of psychoanalysis as a significant contribution to the development of science. Therefore, Freud had become a philosopher not in consequence of any rejection of his scientific ambitions.

Despite the fact that Freud moved away from the study of the neural system and switched to psychology, his previous research greatly influenced his later thinking. In general, the psychoanalytic theory he developed can be seen as based on neuroscience. For example, Andrew Brooke argues that Freud has not abandoned the neuroscientific model he started to develop in his Project for a Scientific Psychology, he just transformed it into a metapsychology by employing a different language for his purposes.8

Robert Holt, professor of psychology, expressed a similar thought:

In many respects Freud seems to have undergone a profound re-orientation as he turned from being a neuroanatomical researcher to a clinical neurologist who experimented with psychotherapy, finally becoming the first psychoanalyst. We would be poor psychologists, however, if we imagined that there was not at least as much continuity as change in this development. Twenty years of passionate investment in the study of the nervous system were not easily tossed aside by Freud’s decision to become a psychologist instead and to work with a purely abstract, hypothetical model.9

Sulloway also points out this mistake, while attempting to debunk the biographical legend of Freud. According to him, at the heart of this legend lies a myth that Freud’s science, psychoanalysis, is a pure psychology. Concepts that constitute psychoanalysis, according to this legend, were developed as a result of Freud’s renunciation of his identity of neurologist and cessation of his attempts to understand mental life in terms of biology and chemistry.

Sulloway disputed this belief by pointing out that Freud, while developing his theory of psychoanalysis, did not abandon biological reductionism in favor of an autonomous concept of mind, and that, on the contrary, his psychoanalytical theory is rooted in a biological mode of thinking.

It is impossible to impartially analyze the legacy of Freud, by withdrawing it from its scientific context. The doctrine of psychoanalysis is rooted in the biological thought advanced for its time; for Freud’s theory, it was both the basis and the material for bold interpretations. Psychoanalysis thus is not a consequence of Freud’s refusal of his identity as biologist. Rather, it is a bold speculation on the basis of science.

Theories of psychoanalysis should be regarded as pushing the interactive boundaries between philosophy and the science of Freud’s time. To follow the legend which was criticized by Sulloway, that is, to consider Freud as a thinker who breaks with science and as a result reveals the truth, means to fall into a delusion, one which does not allow the recognition of the most valuable in Freud’s work.


One of the manifestations of the negative impact of the legend, which withdraws Freud from the scientific context, is an erroneous assessment of his contribution to the developed of the theory of the unconscious. Insights in the field of unconscious are claimed to be the greatest merit of Freud, which is seen as the result of his transition from biology to psychology. Adherents of the idea of Freud’s revolutionary theories proclaim him to be a discoverer of the unconscious: allegedly Freud was the first one who pointed out that human thought and behavior are mostly determined by unconscious processes, thus accomplished “a revolution” in the understanding of mental life.

Although the study of unconscious mental processes indeed was considered by Freud as a base for psychoanalytic theory, Freud was not at all revolutionary in his thoughts on the unconscious. The unconscious existed before Freud, both as a philosophical and as a biological category.

In the early 19th century, Schopenhauer proclaimed that everything that happens is determined by the unconscious world will, and human behavior is no exception to this principle. Nietzsche inherited Schopenhauer’s views when elaborating his own notion of the will to power—it can be defined as an unconscious instinct at the basis of any kind of human activity, including cognition.

Freud was also not the first one who began to consider concepts of the unconscious in the field of psychology. According to the historian of psychology Mark Altschule, “It is difficult—or perhaps impossible—to find a nineteenth-century psychologist or psychiatrist who did not recognize unconscious cerebration as not only real but of the highest importance.”10 Freud’s merit was that he launched an effort to turn the unconscious into a scientific category, that is, to withdraw it from the mystical context. But his efforts could not be considered as a personal merit, rather, he participated in the collective effort.

Freud studied unconscious processes, relying on data from the therapy room. Joel Weinberger notices in this regard:

Ironically, the linkage of a theory of unconscious processes to data was one of the main features that distinguished Freud’s from earlier views of the unconscious; however, psychologists who embraced a positivist-empiricist philosophy of science were never enamored of the kind of data upon which Freud relied.11

Drew Westen, a psychologist at Harvard is one of the few scientists who defends psychoanalysis, yet admits that as a practicing dynamically oriented clinician he can scarcely find any proposition on Freud’s theory with which he would agree even remotely. He also considers that “no doubt, many psychoanalytic writings are obscure, muddleheaded, and ignorant of relevant empirical work,” and that doubtless Freud was wrong in “some of his fundamental ideas about human nature?”12

What, in this case, allows us to assert that Westen defends the theory of psychoanalysis? Well, he protects it in the only possible scientific way, that is, by claiming that “Grand theorists like Freud, Piaget, and Skinner are routinely the grandest purveyors of falsehood in the business. This reflects simple mathematics: The more propositions one advances (and the bolder those hypotheses are), the higher the probability that several, will be wrong.”13 Despite the fact that many of Freud’s ideas were rejected in favor of new theories, Westen assures us that this is good, this is how science advances.

According to him, the destiny that befell Freud’s theory is the best any thinker could hope for in a rapidly developing discipline after more than half a century. Today’s science knows that the unconscious exists, but it does not exist in the form that was suggested by Freud. Yet, today such advanced thinkers as cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky and the philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett formulate their thoughts as having found their inspiration in the ideas of Freud (and referring to them), while at the same time qualifying that they’d rather inherit a Freudian speculative approach to science, than the man’s ideas.


Freud himself never claimed psychoanalytic theory to be an established and proven doctrine. On this Lacan called Freud’s theoretical work “a thought in motion.”14 According to him, it is “most perennially open to revision. It is a mistake to reduce it to a collection of hackneyed phrases. Each of his ideas possesses a vitality of its own.”15  Freud himself regarded his theory as a collection of guesses and sketches, that require further research, improvements and confirmation.

For example, from Freud’s biography it is known that his “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” were several times supplemented and rewritten so that it subsequently expanded its size by one half. In particular, the sections on infantile sexuality and pregenital development were added only nine years after the publication of the first version of the work. In 1923, Freud himself confessed that in his research practice it often happened that “what was old and what was more recent did not admit of being merged into an entirely noncontradictory whole,”16 forcing him to expose his theory to ruthless revisions.

Freud remained a scientist, being faithful to the principles of scientific research. He did not assert that he proclaimed the truth, rather he treated his ideas as hypotheses, which later should be tested in science. Freud wrote,

The shortages in our description would probably vanish if we were already in a position to replace the psychological terms by physiological and chemical ones […] Biology is truly a land of unlimited possibilities. We may expect it to give us the most surprising information and we cannot guess what answers it will return in a few dozen years to the questions we have put to it. They may be of a kind that will blow away the whole of our artificial structure of hypotheses.17

Ideas that constitute the theory of psychoanalysis lose any sense if isolated from the intention of the subsequent research. To immobilize Freud’s theory by perceiving it as complete and as such that it narrates some discovered truths and doesn’t require any further revision, is to destroy the only thing that is valuable in his theory—the very motion of the thought that underlies it.

Freud’s thought is counter to any dogmatism. The attempt of Freud’s devoted followers to conceal the fact that Freud is dead, and thus to present his ideas as a set of dogmas that represent some truths relevant for all times, converted psychoanalysis into a mystical doctrine — exactly what Freud aimed to avoid.

The inadmissibility of dogmas is a defining feature of science, which makes it the only suitable medium for the existence of psychoanalysis, once psychoanalysis is isolated from the science, it turns into a dogma. Paradoxically, Freud’s intentions are more in line with the scientific perspective that recognizes that Freud is dead.

Pretending (like the followers of Freud do) that his body is alive and trying to mask its putrid smell, falls short in its level of pervasiveness to comply with such an experienced pervert like Freud himself. The level of perversion worthy of Freud is manifested in the way the scientific world treats him: proclaiming him dead, scientists don’t not hesitate to abuse his corpse for the sake of their own pleasure and advantage. The necrophiliac inclination of science to a far greater extent corresponds to that methodology belonging to Freud — who distorted science for the sake of science itself — than the fetishistic inclination of the most sincere admirers of his corpse.

by Julie Reshe


1 Crews F. “The verdict on Freud. Psychological Science,” 1996, 7, P.63.

Todd Dufresne “Psychoanalysis Is Dead … So How Does That Make You Feel?” Los Angeles Times, 2004. <>

3 Cit. by: The PrePsychoanalytic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. G. van de Vijver & F. Geerardyn. London: Karnac, 2002, pp. 20-21.

4 Kandel E. In search of memory: the emergence of a new science of mind. New York: WW Norton; 2006.

5 Ibid.

6 Crews F. “Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc by Malcolm Macmillan”, Online Dictionary of Mental Health, 1991. <>

7 Freud S. La Naissance de la psychanalyse. Lettres à Wilhelm Fliess, Notes et Plans (1887—1902). Paris, P. U. F. Ed. allemande: Aus den Anfângen der Psychoanalyse…— Frankfurt am Main, Fischer, 1962. P. 144.

8 Brook, A. (1998). Neuroscience versus Psychology in Freud. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 843(1), 66–79.

9 Cit. by:  Kandel E. In search of memory: the emergence of a new science of mind. New York: WW Norton; 2006.

10 Altschule, M. Origins of Concepts in Human Behavior. New York: Wiley, 1977. P.199.

11 Сit. by: Westen D. “The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science,” Psychological Bulletin 1998 by the American Psychological Association. November, 1998 Vol. 124, 3. P. 337.

12 Ibid., p. 362.

13 Ibid.

14 Lacan J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.1.

15 Ibid.

16 Freud S., On Sexuality, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1977, p. 307.

17 Freud S., Beyond the pleasure principle (1920), in Complete Psychological Works. Standard Ed. Vol 18. p. 60.

Julie Reshe is Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Institute of Psychoanalysis at The Global Center for Advanced Studies.
She completed her PhD under the supervision of Alenka Zupančič  at the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
The central point of her research interest establishes novel connections between philosophy and the biological sciences.
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