Freud and "Empirical Validation"

The following was written in response to a comment on Reddit:

A lot of Freud's ideas turned out to not be empirically validated. So we should ignore them. [??]

To understand what's going on here, we need to think a little more about knowledge, with an understanding that the goal of Science is to produce knowledge.

Contemporary Institutional Science, especially within academia, privileges the detached observer, in the sense that the method is only seen as valid if we follow the model of "arbitrary viewer witnesses phenomenon and repeats results while following the same steps." The intent of this method is to gain universal knowledge, which applies no matter where or who you are, as we assume is the case in the natural or "hard" sciences.

The issue with psychoanalytic knowledge is that, while it is scientific on the philosophical level of "knowledge derived from sensory observations", it dispenses with the idea of the arbitrary viewer and universal subject. Psychoanalytic conclusions derive from observations made within the analytic experience, which is a privileged means of accessing certain information which might be otherwise unattainable, through the act of free association and the context of the analytic relationship. The result is that psychoanalysis can still claim to be a science in the philosophical sense1, as it derives from empirical observation, and can reach meaningful conclusions that work exceedingly well within certain contexts, but also that we cannot attribute to it the kind of universal validity that e.g. physics has.

This is not necessarily a bad thing: all the "soft" sciences like sociology, psychology, etc. have similar constraints, but they often remain unaware of them. Psychology, especially personality and social psychology, tend to act "as if" they were hard sciences, in the sense of attempting to draw universal conclusions. But these sciences overextend themselves in terms of how they design their instruments. Does "Big 5" point to something meaningful in terms of personality structure, or is it merely scores on a test? What even is a personality structure? Can we empirically verify the existence of a personality? These sorts of questions tend to get hand-waved away, especially in didactic contexts, even though they are of utmost importance for the field of inquiry.

So to address the question of "are Freud's ideas empirically validated?", taken literally, we can answer "of course they are, plenty of psychoanalysts have replicated the same ideas empirically in their own work." But the subtext here is that, given the "hard science" assumptions I described above, that "empirical validation" actually means "universality and a detached observer". And to that question, the answer is "of course we can't create a little quiz which validates Freud's conclusions, because there is no way to reliably access the empirical 'data' from which his conclusions were derived without the context of the analytic situation."

Sorry if this is overly technical, I tried to address your comment thoroughly, and I hope this makes sense, although you may find it unsatisfying. The reason this is unsatisfying is that educational and state institutions privilege Institutional Science's conclusions over the conclusions of other epistemological frameworks, in my opinion because it's expedient and produces a broad deference to expertise. Zizek might call this "ideology".


  1. Lacan's answer to "is psychoanalysis a science?" (Seminar XI) is more complex. He saw psychoanalytic constructs as being "meta-theories": broad principles that permit you to construct scientific theories that apply to a particular analysand's observed discourse. So to the question "is psychoanalysis a science?", he answered "it's not a science (i.e. a field of science), it is on the same epistemological plane as science itself, is parallel to it." Basically, for the domain of psychoanalysis-science, each analysand is a separate "field" for whom the analysand must construct a separate paradigm, subject to e.g. Kuhn's laws. In other words, psychoanalysis is more like a philosophy of science than science. 


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