By Graham Peterson
Psychoanalysis is an awful theory of mind, and we should be suspicious of claims that rely on it. When we hear about someone, or some group, compensating for something, or about their complex, or envy, or more directly, about their narcissism and ego and phobias and so forth, we should think twice.
Note that psychoanalysis is often just a cudgel. We use psychoanalytic theories to “pathologize” people and groups, and the pathology is often baseless. Of course all theories can be used to bad effects, like say biology and eugenics, but psychoanalysis hasn’t had many countervailing good outcomes in the same way gene therapy has.
The first premise of most psychoanalytic theories is that there exists out there in the world some normal level of X. A normal number of possessions. A normal amount of emotional security. Someone who finds themselves with less than that (arbitrary and exogenously imposed) normal level of X experiences a lack, and sets out to compensate. This person experiences envy and inferiority.
Maybe people do overcompensate, but compensate over what? What sets the level of normal? Is it something we all just know and agree on? The psychoanalyst? It looks like the theory is something people — usually the dominant group of people — use to assert what should be normal, than it is a device to discover what the level of normal is.
Now, there may be a way to establish the level of normal. Maybe we can go out and take an average over some behavior. A mode. A median. We could then establish how much a person or group deviates from that level. Past some threshold, maybe they experience a lack and need to compensate.
But psychoanalysis works in the reverse. It starts at abnormal, asserting that X is abnormal, and then defines normal in terms of abnormal. In this view, normality chases the psychoanalyst around, trying to keep up with the list of things she has claimed are perverse. Psychoanalysis is a fancy grammar for for stamping people and groups as moral deviants, and clearing others of it.
As much is pretty obvious if you go back and read original psychoanalysis. The essay On Narcissism, by Sigmund Freud, starts with the blank assertion that masturbation is disgusting, that it is prototypical of all self love, that homosexuals suffer disproportionately from it, and that it is thus the basis of narcissism. That sounds morally distasteful to modern people, but the problem is analytical.
The theory doesn’t tell us how to establish the normal level of self love that would allow us to measure deviations from it, and diagnose narcissism beyond some threshold. In fact it says the opposite. It says, “go out and find people whom you believe are behaving badly; attribute their behavior to self love. From that you can derive the normal level of self love by comparing.”
It’s circular: one derives narcissism by asserting narcissism.
The same goes for phobias. What is a phobia? It is the assertion that a person or group is more afraid of something than they should be. The theory cannot tell us how to determine the level of fear that is normal, allowing us to go out and measure deviations from that norm, because the norm itself is defined in terms of the phobia. It’s again circular: one derives phobias by asserting phobias.
Psychoanalytic theory in this way has been used throughout its history to malign people.
First it was women, envying penises. Then via Merton’s theory of anomie it was poor blacks, envying middle class consumption. Lately it’s been homophobes and masculinity. No matter how many times we decide that theorists have, once again, acted as society’s hit men and legitimated routine prejudice, the theory just won’t die. Because it is extremely attractive.
People love to shame and ostracize one another. It’s a tribal thing, and we’re still (often for the worse) tribal people. Psychoanalytic theory gives us a very legitimate and Official Sounding basis over which to do so. It allows us, in the first instance, to make ex cathedra assertions about the nasty nature of deviants and out groups, and in the second instance, relieves us of any responsibility to prove those claims with external evidence.
Psychoanalysis relies on assumptions about the subconscious mind, which is by definition unobservable, even to the person who possesses it. So psychoanalysis allows us to make moral claims on people’s character, that are untestable with those people’s revealed behaviors, all the while sounding like you’re not making moral claims at all. Moreover, it postulates that people are secretly afraid, insecure, power hungry, and envious.
It’s the apotheosis of pseudoscience, it’s an engine of paranoia and prejudice, and we should just stop it.