By the time Freud died in London in 1939, he was already a legend.footnote1 By the 1950s, he exerted a grip on many imaginations comparable to that of the great figures—Moses, Leonard, Goth, Dostoyevsky—about whom he wrote. Equally important, Frankfurt School theorists placed his work at the centre of twentieth-century critical theory. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminist and gay critiques certainly called into question Freud’s stature, but in some ways they also enhanced it. Kate Millett called Freud ‘the strongest individual. . .force’ in the twentieth-century gender counter-revolution, which granted him great power. Other feminists, beginning with Juliet Mitchell, argued that psychoanalysis, far from being counter-revolutionary, actually laid bare the psychodynamics of sexism. Gayle Rubin, for example, called psychoanalysis ‘feminist theory manqué.’footnote2

Around the same time, scholarly works began to appear which called for a downward revision in Freud’s standing. Henri Ellenberger’s The Discovery of the Unconscious (1971) challenged Freud’s originality by situating his thought in the context of nineteenth-century dynamic psychiatry. Frank Sulloway’s Freud, Biologist of the Mind (1979) did the same with nineteenth-century biology. In 1986, Adolf Grünbaum’s The Foundations of Psychoanalysis rejected Freud’s claims to scientific standing on technical philosophical grounds that would also delegitimate vast areas of social and cultural theory, and that normally would have been of little interest to anyone outside Grünbaum’s research speciality.footnote3 But Grünbaum’s work was taken very seriously, not least by analysts who were by this time losing faith in their project. These first wounds opened the way for media-driven polemics. In his 1984 book, The Assault on Truth, Jeffrey Masson, editor of the then unpublished letters by Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, held that the letters would show that Freud had suppressed his knowledge of infantile sexual abuse. When the letters were published, of course, they showed no such thing, but the story is still widely believed. Finally, Frederick Crews put forth a wholly negative view of Freud combining an attack on his character, his theory and the analytic method of treatment.footnote4 Crews’s attack has proven widely influential; I have even heard it described as ‘speaking truth to power’. In light of this history, how are we to understand psychoanalysis today?

There are certainly important issues involved in evaluating the scientific status of psychoanalysis, but Freud defended psychoanalysis as a Wissenschaft, a research programme that included a speculative dimension, and not as a positivistic and predictive science. It was the American ego-psychologists of the 1950s and 1960s who defined it in those terms, thus leaving themselves open to Grünbaum’s critique. In contrast to rival depth psychologies, notably Jung’s, Freud sought to keep psychoanalysis open to developments in the natural sciences. Of course, work in such areas as neurophysiology, evolutionary biology or the psychology and anthropology of the emotions may modify or disprove specific analytic formulations. But before discarding analytic thought in toto, I would want to know why normally exploratory criteria in the philosophy of science were in this case being used in a prescriptive way. As for the efficacy of analytic treatment, about which many doubts have been raised, all forms of psychotherapy, other than drugs or behavioural modification, are based on some variation of psychoanalysis. So this evaluation should only occur as part of a much vaster exploration of psychotherapy in general and, even more broadly, of the whole system of modern ‘health’. As for the attacks on Freud’s character, we owe largely to Freud our appreciation of how ‘flawed’ all of us are, and I am not aware that Freud exempted himself from this judgement.

By contrast, the important question is whether psychoanalysis was, and can still be understood as, a critical theory, one that challenged the forms of domination and ideology that characterize our society, or whether it was an essentially conservative, anti-political and sexist body of thought. Even now, almost a century after the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, the most sophisticated writings on psychoanalysis are still polarized over this question. Critics of Freud stress his sexism and homophobia. Sander Gilman, a recent example, argues that Freud projected onto women negative stereotypes of the Jew taken from the medical literature of his time.footnote5 Meanwhile, Freud’s advocates in the sphere of sexual politics, reflecting the repudiation of 1970s ‘essentialism’, argue that his texts destabilize fixed meanings of gender and upset conventional assumptions about sexuality.footnote6 Terms like ‘sexism’, ‘homophobia’, and ‘destabilize’ are new, but some version of this polarization goes back to the earliest years of our century.

Why are discussions of Freud still polarized in this way? A key reason is the absence of a genuinely historical understanding of psychoanalysis. In spite of all that we know concerning its past, we still have not historicized Freud. For most of those who stress Freud’s contribution to gay or feminist theory, there is not even the pretence of history; there is only close reading of Freud’s texts. Gilman offers the appearance of history, but only that. As in other new historicist approaches, there is little sense of an institutional matrix or social order. The reasoning is analogical, not causal. Gilman seems to think that because he has demonstrated homologies between anti-Jewish and anti-female literature, he has explained the relation between the two discourses.

We do, of course, have a vast non-theoretical historical literature on psychoanalysis situating it, for example, in such contexts as fin-de-siècle Vienna (by Carl Schorske, William McGrath, Peter Gay), London in the 1940s (Phyllis Grosskurth, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl), New York City in the 1920s (Ann Douglas) and 1950s (Nathan Hale, Elizabeth Kurzweil) and Paris in the 1960s (Elisabeth Roudinesco, Sherry Turkle). But knowing the past is not the same as historicizing it. Historicization requires a deeply conceptualized context, and places the question of critique at its centre in a way that academic history and biography normally do not.

The two most important scholars who have attempted to historize psychoanalysis in this sense were Carl Schorske and Christopher Lasch.footnote7 Schorske supplied the most important overall explanation of the nineteenth-century origins of psychoanalysis; Lasch, of its place within twentieth-century Fordist mass-consumption and the welfare state. Both scholars were deeply influenced by the Frankfurt School framework, especially by the idea that there had been a decline from nineteenth-century liberalism and ‘independence’—the general outlook of an ascendant nineteenth-century bourgeoisie—to the psychologization and mass culture of the twentieth century. Schorske called analysis ‘counter-political’, meaning that it reduced an outward-looking liberal rationalism to a preoccupation with inner, psychological conflicts. Lasch followed Philip Rieff in describing analysis as marking a shift from ‘economic man’ to ‘psychological man’, which Lasch explained as the result of the dependence or ‘narcissism’ provoked by the modern welfare state. There already exists, therefore, an important line of thought situating analysis in the context of the shift from liberal or competitive to developed or Fordist capitalism. I will take this body of thought as my starting point, from which, however, I will quickly diverge.