Friday, 10 October 2008

Why We Still Study Freud...

One of my dilemmas as a Muslim teacher of psychology is whether I should or should not teach Freudian psychology. As a person, my religion, Islam, is what defines me first-and-foremost. That I am bounded by the standards of professionalism as a teacher, though of paramount importance, to me does not supersede my religious values and obligations. With that in mind, how then can I justify teaching my students that during their pre-school years they all had romantic feelings towards their parents, that when they were infants they all obtained sexual pleasure when breast-fed by their mothers, that young girls are envious of boys for their genitals and young boys envious of girls for having a womb, that religions are nothing but illusions and neurotic compulsions etc. All these, very obviously are NOT Islamic, hence the argument for Islamization of knowledge. Even then, rather than Islamizing Freud, why not discard totally Freud and psychoanalysis from our syllabus?

Well, the reason why we don’t do this is because, although Freud was not right on many issues, he was also not totally wrong. There are two books that I often refer to for an in-depth scholarly critic against Freudian psychology: ‘Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire’ by Hans Eysenck, and ‘Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect of Freud’s Theory’ by E. Fuller Torrey. Both, though highly commendable work, contain some very cruelly unfair and negative remarks against Freud and his ideas.

I was an undergraduate student when I first read both books. I was a psychology major but was (maybe am still) suffering from an acute intellectual identity crisis. Reading these two books didn’t help much to resolve the conflict. In fact, it made me feel even more confused and disillusioned to the extent that at one point I even considered quitting psychology and reinvent myself with studies of religions, spirituality, mysticism and philosophy (in addition to my ever burning interest in politics and history).

Now, with almost five years of experience teaching psychology, I like to believe that my level of understanding of psychological theories has grown more sophisticated. In the case of Freud and his psychoanalytic school, having read some of the primary sources in the last few years, I believe I can now understand and appreciate better Freud’s ideas. I can only claim to have read three books authored by Freud himself: ‘Totem & Taboo’, ‘The Future of an Illusion’, and ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’. But even from reading these three books, it was very clear to me that Freud has not always been fairly depicted in contemporary psychology text books.

I certainly believe Freud was quite right to say that the unconscious is the key to understand one’s personality. And his deliberation on the id, ego and superego to me was a fair reflection of man’s constant battles against his own whims and desires. Of course, I won’t go as far to say that it is exactly the same with the Quranic depiction on the nafs (mutmainnah, al-ammarah, al-lawwamah). There are indeed some fundamental differences between them both philosophically and operationally.

One of Freud’s most brilliant assertions was his defence mechanisms. I do not think that there is any doubt that all of us do try to repress (if not forget) painful and embarrassing memories, we do sometimes project our anger not to the person we are angry with but to others weaker and more vulnerable, and we do to sometimes quite strangely embrace the very habit and behaviours that we openly denounce as immoral and unacceptable.

Some things are just so eerily true, which, in the case of Freud’s views on war and aggression, even Albert Einstein was greatly impressed. Below is an excerpt from Freud’s famous letter to Einstein:

Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless, men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching, on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method. This refinement is, however, a late development. To start with, group force was the factor which, in small communities, decided points of ownership and the question which man's will was to prevail. Very soon physical force was implemented, then replaced, by the use of various adjuncts; he proved the victor whose weapon was the better, or handled the more skillfully. Now, for the first time, with the coming of weapons, superior brains began to oust brute force, but the object of the conflict remained the same: one party was to be constrained, by the injury done him or impairment of his strength, to retract a claim or a refusal. This end is most effectively gained when the opponent is definitely put out of action--in other words, is killed.

(Sigmund Freud’s letter to Albert Einstein dated September 1932. Click here to read the entire Einstein-Freud correspondence)

So, where was Freud wrong? The mistakes Freud made are in fact the same mistakes made by many others who came after him; the mistake of overemphasizing and overgeneralizing his claims. Yes, he was wrong to overemphasize on human sexuality, and he was wrong to present his theories as a universal theory despite the very small number of case studies from which he derived almost all his ideas from. But then, didn’t Skinner overemphasize on learning factors (hence largely ignoring biological and genetic factors), Hull on drive-reduction as the basis of all reinforcements, and Maslow on self-actualisation and peak experiences? They were all scholars who promoted their own theories and approaches and all of them believed theirs were without flaws and most superior.

Why then that Freud continues to be the most convenient target of criticism? His ideas I guess were just too explicit and radical. Be-as-that-may, I am quite sure Freud will forever remain an important part of any psychology syllabus.

1 comment:

Rausyanfikir said...

Nice entry sir.

I would recommend you to google the video entitled "The Century of Self".

Very interesting video that link Freudian psychology with consumerism binge.

I do believe on the subconscious mind though.

Do write more on your field of teaching!