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Freud and the Judaeo-Christian tradition

Frederick Crews and Richard Webster – a TLS exchange

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22 September 2004


, though it was published some seven years ago, to the list of great public-argumentative exchanges. It appeared in the Times Literary Supplement . . . and, of course, the argument persists as to whether there is anything of lasting worth in Freud.’’


‘THE FOLLOWING EXCHANGE of letters was published in the Times Literary Supplement in May, June and July 1997. It took place in response to my review of Frederick Crews’s book The Memory Wars. For this review, which was published in the TLS on 16 May 1997, see The Bewildered Visionary (in which the factual error referred to by Crews in his first letter has been silently corrected).


The Times Literary Supplement
23 May 1997.

Frederick Crews writes:

Sir, - Richard Webster’s discussion of my book The Memory Wars (May 16) is generally sympathetic and discerning, but two points require comment. First, Webster makes a factual error in asserting that Peter Swales and I “succeeded in forcing the postponement” of the Library of Congress’s Freud exhibition.


Swales alone originated and circulated a petition - signed by many scholars who were alarmed by the orthodox Freudian line-up of the show’s organizers and catalogue contributors - asking that some deference be paid to the full range of judgment about Freud’s achievement. That request could have been easily met, and in the end, as the guest curator Michael Roth gratefully acknowledged to the signers, the petition did help him to widen the base of representation in the catalogue. Meanwhile, however, the Library stunned all parties by announcing that a shortfall in funding would require postponement of the show. At that point, the American Psychoanalytic Association, in the best tradition of Freud’s secret “Committees”, appointed a clandestine “Task Force to Monitor Freud Exhibit”, whipping up ire against the villainous Swales and Crews and instructing academic Freudians to flood the Library’s director with “citizen-scholar” letters of protest that were to be written on stationery suppressing the writers’ psychoanalytic affiliation. The more public side of this campaign - numerous opinion pieces denouncing the (wholly imaginary) Swales- Crews conspiracy - evidently affected even so unFreudian a reader as Richard Webster.

Second, Webster’s review, like his otherwise cogent book Why Freud Was Wrong, ends with what can only be characterized as a rant against “Judaeo-Christian rationalism”, with the present writer serving as Exhibit A. But my objections to psychoanalysis are garden-variety empirical ones that comport with common sense. I fail to see what is philosophically “rationalist”, much less “Judaeo-Christian”, about exposing the Freudians’ chronic fudging of disconfirmatory evidence. If we must be on the look-out for spilt religion, a prime candidate might be Webster’s own one-man crusade to rescue science from its soulless materialism.

Berkeley, California.

6 June 1997, Richard Webster replies:

Sir, - In my review of The Memory Wars by Frederick Crews (May 16), I carelessly wrote that Peter Swales and Frederick Crews had “succeeded in forcing the postponement” of the proposed Library of Congress exhibition on Freud. The implication of these words is that they had set out to achieve just such a negative result. This was, as I know, not the case, and I am most grateful to Professor Crews for making it clear (Letters, May 23) that the aim of the action which Swales originated was positive - namely to obtain proper representation in the exhibition for a range of critical views of Freud.

It is a pity that, after helpfully dispelling one misunderstanding, Frederick Crews should propagate another by misrepresenting my own position. Nowhere do I suggest, either in my review, or in my recent book, that there is anything reprehensible about “exposing the Freudians’ chronic fudging of disconfirmatory evidence”. Indeed, I specifically praise Crews for the cogency and the effectiveness with which he does just this. My major reservation about Crews’s approach, as I made clear in my review, is that he sometimes goes further and allows his evident contempt for psychoanalysis to obstruct his own attempt to understand it. As an example of this attitude, I cite what I regard as Crews’s wholly indefensible verdict on psychoanalysis - that it belongs in “history’s ashcan”.

Noting that the tendency to anathematize the beliefs one disagrees with is part of our Judaeo-Christian heritage, I gently suggested, using the inclusive first person plural, that we need to moderate our rationalistic hostility to psychoanalysis: “Only, perhaps, if we are able to temper our Judaeo-Christian rationalism with a degree of tenderness, and recognize the incidental or accidental wealth which is contained within the psychoanalytic tradition, will we be able to assess Freud justly . . . .”

When Frederick Crews responds to this moderately worded criticism of his position by dismissing it as a “rant”, he exemplifies the point I am trying to make. When he implicitly claims immunity from the Judaeo-Christian religious heritage which has shaped our intellectual culture, he exhibits the very rationalism he denies. His characterization of my position as being marked by “spilt religion” is redundant, since, by my own analysis, spilt religion is what afflicts us all. The real problems begin only when we seek to deny this.

Its various misrepresentations notwithstanding, I welcome Crews’s letter. For it at least has the merit of making clear that, although Frederick Crews and I agree about many aspects of Freud (and about the recovered memory movement), we have fundamentally different views of Freud’s cultural significance. At root we disagree about the ability of Western science as presently constituted to deliver a profound and accurate understanding of human nature. Professor Crews appears to regard the Western scientific tradition as essentially sound in this respect, and believes that Freud is a gross aberration from it. I believe that the Western intellectual tradition is essentially unsound as a guide to human nature, and believe that Freud exemplifies this tradition. My further argument, outlined in the introduction to my book (Why Freud Was Wrong), is that practically all modern theories of human nature, especially those associated with structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, secrete disguised versions of Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy.

The chasm of disagreement which separates Frederick Crews’s estimate of Freud’s significance from mine would seem to invite careful and measured exploration. Crews declines to engage in such exploration. By describing a serious argument about cultural history as a “rant”, he calls to mind those defenders of psychoanalysis who, when faced by unwelcome criticism of the founder of psychoanalysis, seek to diminish the seriousness and integrity of this criticism by characterizing it as “Freud-bashing”. As a frequent victim of just this shallow strategy, Crews should know better than to engage in the same kind of strategy himself.

Southwold, Suffolk.

20 June 1997. Frederick Crews replies:

Sir, - I thank Richard Webster (Letters, June 6) for specifying that Peter Swales and I never attempted to impede the holding of a Freud exhibition. Nor, to my knowledge, has anyone else done so. Published allegations to the contrary have served the evident purpose of turning a policy question - should a prosperous therapeutic guild, espousing a patently mythic and self-interested conception of its founder’s “discoveries”, wield exclusive control over a federal historical exhibition of that founder’s career and influence? - into a challenge to the Library of Congress to hold fast against “censors”.

Time will tell whether the rescheduled exhibition reflects the neutral eclecticism professed by its guest curator, Michael Roth. Meanwhile, a check of Freudian publications reveals that various groups are now trying to take credit for what Horacio Etchegoyen, President of the International Psychoanalytical Association, calls “the large mobilization which led to the exhibition being reprogrammed for 1998, without altering its previous organization” (IPA Newsletter, Volume Three, no 1).

Ever since Webster sent me a draft version of his book Why Freud Was Wrong, he and I have gone round and round, privately, about his hobbyhorse of “Judaeo-Christian rationalism”. I warned him that reviewers would be dismayed by the way a generally sound, evidentially based critique of Freud’s postulates metamorphosed, in the course of his book, into a protest against the whole Western tradition of empirical enquiry. Webster accordingly made some revisions - not, however, to keep this well-founded prediction from being realized but to temper his praise of my animadversions against psychoanalysis (“modern rational empiricism at its most brilliant”) with bitter denunciation (“the pure opium of orthodoxy”). Since the praise and blame attached to the very same feature of my work - namely, its insistence that each Freudian notion be held accountable to ordinary standards of corroboration - Webster’s eventual treatment of me became scarcely less confusing than his treatment of Freud.

According to Webster, my lack of residual “tenderness” towards Freud’s legacy is to be deplored. Here, however, is his own assessment, from Why Freud Was Wrong: 

“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. In creating his particular pseudo-science, Freud developed an autocratic, anti-empirical intellectual style which has contributed immeasurably to the intellectual ills of our own era. His original theoretical system, his habits of thought and his entire attitude to scientific research are so far removed from any responsible method of inquiry that no intellectual approach basing itself upon these is likely to endure.” 

This is, of course, exactly my own view; just how it is to be tenderized without recourse to self-contradiction is by no means clear from Webster’s book or letter.

Webster now calls for “careful and measured exploration” of our disagreement, but he continues to misportray me as someone who holds no faith in anything but materialist science, who conceives of himself as a purely rational being, and who envisions a sterile utopian society that has been purged of every illusion. I have repeatedly told him that all this is the sheerest twaddle - that I simply hold the self-evident view that scientific claims ought to be empirically tested - but to no avail. Webster’s laboured case against “rationalism” as a late product of religious asceticism requires contemporary exemplars, and I (in the good company of the late Sir Peter Medawar) must be enlisted to play that far-fetched role.

The actual nub of our difference can be found in Webster’s belief, spelled out in Why Freud Was Wrong, that “no negative critique of psycho-analysis, however powerful, can ever constitute an adequate refutation of the theories which Freud put forward”. “Crews”, Webster complains, “shows little enthusiasm for the project of replacing such beliefs with any new, systematic theory of human nature.” Quite right. The idea that a body of unfounded speculation as megalomaniacal in its pretensions as Freud’s needs to be “replaced” before it can be refuted makes no more sense than saying the same thing about palmistry or UFOlogy. If Webster fails to grasp this elementary point, it is because he himself shares Freud’s desire to play Prometheus, bringing humankind the gift of a soulful, totalizing science that will enshrine in law his romantic preconceptions about “human nature”. The outcome is indeed a rant, as readers of Richard Webster’s vague and shadow-boxing closing chapters can discover for themselves.

Berkeley, California.


4 July 1997, Richard Webster replies:

Sir, - By far the easiest way to seek to justify a misrepresentation is to engage in more misrepresentations. Partly because I have a genuine regard for some of Frederick Crews’s work, and partly because I know that this work is itself frequently misrepresented, I had hoped that he would decline to take this path.

But since Professor Crews persists (Letters, June 20) in his need to engage in the contemptuous dismissal of those who contest his views, and since in his most recent letter some of my key arguments are first traduced and then consigned to the same ashcan in which he has already deposited psychoanalysis, I hope I may be allowed to set the record straight. The issues are much larger than any merely personal squabble between Crews and me, and it would be a serious matter indeed if bullying rhetoric and distortion of the kind he deploys in his last letter were to be allowed to silence debate.

In the first place, Crews contrives in his letter to give the impression that my book Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis mutates from being “a generally sound, evidentially based” critique of Freud’s theories into “a protest against the whole Western tradition of empirical inquiry”. Crews is right in one respect. When he read my book in manuscript, he did indeed warn me that the last part of it might be construed in this way. So horrified was I by the possibility of such a grotesque misunderstanding that I completely rewrote the concluding chapters.

Knowing by this time the itchiness of Crews’s trigger-finger, and something of the wildness of his aim when faced with criticism, I actually anticipated that he would persist in his misunderstanding. I therefore included a sentence intended to clarify the situation beyond all doubt. For while I do indeed criticize those (including Crews) who uncritically celebrate “empiricism” and “common sense”, I emphasize that this does not imply a rejection either of science or empiricism: “as should be clear from the criticisms of Freud which have been made throughout this book, I believe that an empirical approach is a prerequisite of genuine science and, indeed, that empiricism is perhaps the most valuable element in the entire intellectual tradition of the West” (p 448). The last part of my book is indeed a protest against one aspect of the Western intellectual tradition. But what I protest against is the way in which we have allowed the empirical, evidence-based investigation of nature and human nature to be restricted and in some cases eclipsed by religious or post-religious rationalism. It is to the potency of such rationalism that I ascribe the success of a whole variety of counter-empirical theories of human nature, including those put forward by Freud, Marx and Levi-Strauss. In this respect, as in many others, my book is less a protest against empiricism than a paean to it - or at least to that kind of regenerate empiricism which I characterize as “truly scientific”.

Having practically inverted one of my arguments and systematically misstated my own criticisms of his position, Crews goes on to quote a passage from my book in which I deliver a particularly severe judgment on Freud. This judgment, he writes, corresponds exactly to his own view, and any attempt to moderate this negative view of Freud’s legacy would inevitably lead into contradiction. What Crews omits to point out is that the passage he quotes is actually extracted from a discussion in which I deliberately contrast the relative poverty of Freud’s own achievement with the incidental wealth contributed to the psychoanalytic tradition by some of Freud’s more talented followers. There is no contradiction here. There is simply the recognition that, as I put it later in the book, “the intellectual estate of psychoanalysis is a large and complex one”.

Crews ends his letter by mocking me for suggesting that the best way of refuting psychoanalysis is to replace it. This, according to Crews, “makes no more sense than saying the same thing about palmistry or UFOlogy”. If Crews really does believe that psychoanalysis should be treated as the equivalent of palmistry or UFOlogy, then his reading of cultural history is even more wayward than I had previously imagined. Here is another of those many differences between Crews’s approach to Freud and mine. Such is the contempt he feels for psychoanalysis and its founder that he appears to want to push Freud to the periphery and consign him to the outer darkness. In contrast, I locate Freud where I believe he belongs - at the very centre of our culture. Crews’s dispute with psychoanalysis is a dispute with an aberrant intellectual heresy he is intent on crushing. My argument with psychoanalysis is simultaneously a critique of some of the most powerful orthodoxies of our culture (including Judaeo-Christian rationalism), which I believe need to be explained rather than expunged. Readers of the TLS do not need me to indicate to them which of these approaches is likely to lead to “rant” and which is more likely to lead to reasoned debate.

Southwold, Suffolk.


NOTE: In view of Crews’s suggestion that my book ends by being ‘a protest against the whole Western tradition of empirical inquiry’, it seems worth adding here that, by the time this correspondence took place in 1997, both Frederick Crews and I had evidently forgotten the manner in which I ended the first letter to him I ever wrote — a letter dated 27 July 1993 asking whether he would be prepared to read my manuscript in draft form. My letter ended with these words: ‘I look forward to reading more of your essays, and take this opportunity of thanking you for tending the flame of empirically-based scholarship in a world where most people seem intent on snuffing it out.’



Readers who seek a succinct summary of the larger historical argument of Why Freud Was Wrong and the manner in which it bears on Judaeo-Christian rationalism may find such a summary in what is, in my view, the most interesting review of the book which has appeared. This review, which notes and takes gentle exception to my ‘apparent atheism and occasional flashes of scorn for Christianity’ was written in 1999 and contributed to the website as a ‘customer review’. It appeared under the name D. P. Hodgson - who turns out to be the Reverend David Hodgson, Rector of All Saints Church in Wokingham, Berkshire. I am most grateful to him.