Freud's Seduction Theory - Allen Esterson

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Freud's Deterministic Assumptions

by Malcolm Macmillan

One aspect of the discussion on Freud's seduction theory that needs more attention than it usually gets is that of the deterministic assumptions underlying the various methods that Freud used to gather his data, and to a lesser extent, to interpret them. I tried to bring these out in some early papers but the best way of reading about them now is to look at Chapters 1-5 and 8 and pages 633-640, 646-648, and 655-656 of the Afterword to the 1997 MIT Press paperback of my Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc.

Briefly, I believe I have demonstrated that:

1. Freud brought to the study of hysteria a set of assumptions, deriving from Meynert and Charcot, that psychological phenomena were internally determined and unable to be affected by the observer (hypnotist, therapist, etc).

2. From the faulty adaptation of Koch's postulates Freud had used in investigating the causes of the actual neuroses, he brought to hysteria an expectation that its causes would also be sexual.

3. Part of Freud's expectations from his adaptation of Koch's postulates required him to find that each kind of neurosis had a different cause, that is, each would have a specific cause. Thus, he sought a different kind of early sexual experience for causing obsessions from that which caused hysteria.

4. As with Charcot and his hysterical symptoms of traumatic origin, Freud expected that neurotic symptoms in general (i.e. actual or psychoneurotic to make the distinction that he was making then) would contain or reflect the sensations that had been present in the cause. He called this latter 'determining quality' and is identical to thematic affinity.

Guided by these assumptions I think it was inevitable that Freud would end up by requiring his hysterical patients to recollect similar kinds of events with similar kinds of sensory content. In fact what he said he told his patients tells us that directly.

The amount of pressure (not pressure technique) Freud put on his patients, the extent to which he talked at them in therapy, and the explicit signposts he set up for them to follow are all attested to in his own words. In my view, it would not have been surprising if some patients then fabricated more-or-less complete memories of the sexual 'scenes' he required; I have seen something very like this in the recollections of people audited (i.e. treated) in scientology during the year I was involved in the Victorian Inquiry into Scientology.

But Freud also tells us two other things, the first directly and the second less so: (a) He was not deterred by the patient's total non-recollection of the 'scene' ("the thoughts were unconscious") and (b) he himself constructed some of the scenes, either in their entirety, as with the Wolf Man, or partially, as with Elisabeth von R. (Yes - not seduction cases, but they do come from either side of that episode). In what I wrote in the 70's and in the 1991 edition of Freud Evaluated I do not think I placed enough importance on these aspects of Freud's role in constructing the 'memories.'

From these points, I believe it is reasonable to conclude:

1. That the particular therapeutic modality used by Freud was unimportant in contributing to the seduction memories. That is, I believe they would have come about whether Freud had used hypnosis, the pressure method, free association, or even client centered therapy. I mention this last modality deliberately because clinical and experimental evidence shows it does not do away with therapist guidance (it may actually concentrate it), and so cannot be promoted as a superior method for attaining truths (real, 'personal,' or mythical) about patients.

2. The attempts to represent the deficiencies of Freud's theories as due to such of his personal qualities as paternalism, male bias, etc. miss the most important criticism: the basic faults of the theory are due to the faulty deterministic assumptions on which its method is based. The only outcome to be expected from the practice of another therapist who based his or her practice on the same assumptions as Freud would be the addition of an extra school to the already crowded arena of the schools of psychoanalysis. (Here I leave out the problems caused by the lack of rules for interpreting the data gathered by psychoanalysts. But its pretty clear to me that that lack interacts with the assumptions to add to the problem of the 'schools').

I conclude by stressing that after the 'collapse' of the seduction theory Freud was able to keep all his assumptions intact. Certainly the characteristics of the childhood sexual drive he fabricated (a deliberately chosen word) met all of them. The only assumption that had to be modified was that the 'true' memory could be identified by the effect of its recall in removing the symptom. In one sense, the shift after the collapse from external to internal cause was little more than a methodological hiccup - but that is another story.

Malcolm Macmillan
School of Psychology
Deakin University
Burwood. 3125.
Victoria. Australia.
Phone: + 61 3 9244 6859
Fax: + 61 3 9244 6858

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About Malcolm Macmillan

amazon.comMalcom Macmillan is the author of Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc (MIT Press, 1996). Please click on the logo if you would like to order a copy at the discounted price of $28.00. This title currently ships to any location in the world within 24 hours (shipping is charged at a rate depending on the method selected). Read the review by Professor Fred Crews.
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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