The Foundations of Psychoanalysis

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The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique
The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (first edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Adolf Grünbaum
Country United States
Language English
Series Pittsburgh Series in Philosophy and History of Science
Subject Psychoanalysis
Published 1984 (University of California Press)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 310
ISBN 978-0520050174

The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique is a 1984 book by the philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, in which Grünbaum offers a philosophical critique of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, evaluating the claim that it is a natural science. Grünbaum argues that there are methodological and epistemological reasons to conclude that some central Freudian theories are not well supported by empirical evidence. He also criticizes the hermeneutic interpretation of psychoanalysis propounded by the philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Paul Ricœur. The book was influential and has been considered the most important philosophical critique of Freud.


According to Grünbaum, the "first impetus" for his critical examination of psychoanalysis came from his questioning of Karl Popper's philosophy of science: he suspected that Popper's "indictment of the Freudian corpus as inherently untestable had fundamentally misdiagnosed its very genuine epistemic defects, which are often quite subtle." Grünbaum acknowledged a debt to several philosophers, including Clark Glymour and Alexander Nehamas. Critic Frederick Crews read the draft of what became The Foundations of Psychoanalysis in 1977 and helped Grünbaum to obtain a publication offer from the University of California Press.[1]


Grünbaum offers a "philosophical critique of the foundations of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis" and evaluates Freud's claim that psychoanalysis has the status of a natural science. He also criticizes the hermeneutic interpretation of psychoanalysis propounded by the philosophers Habermas and Ricœur, whom he finds guilty both of misreading Freud and misunderstanding the natural sciences. Grünbaum recounts the development of Freud's work, noting that Freud described his theory of repression as "the most essential part" of psychoanalysis, and that when the psychologist Saul Rosenzweig announced that he had experimental evidence for repression, Freud replied that it was superfluous given clinical observations.[2] Grünbaum argues that there are methodological and epistemological reasons to think that some central Freudian doctrines are not well supported by empirical evidence.[3] (For example, Grünbaum is critical of Freud's theory of dreams,[4] which he considers the cornerstone of psychoanalysis).[5]

Despite taking this position, Grünbaum approves of Freud's interpretation of religion[6] and argues against the idea that psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science. He criticizes Karl Popper's view that psychoanalytic propositions cannot be disconfirmed and that psychoanalysis is therefore pseudo-scientific.[7][8][9] Grünbaum considers Popper, like many other philosophers who have written about Freud, to be both a poor reader of Freud and a poor logician. Grünbaum observes, for example, that Freud's theory that paranoia results from repressed homosexuality invites the obviously falsifiable prediction that a decline in the repression of homosexuality should result in a corresponding decline of paranoia, thereby disproving Popper's claim that psychoanalytic propositions are unfalsifiable.[10]

In Grünbaum's view, the causal claims of psychoanalysis must be assessed through methodological procedures deriving from the work of Francis Bacon and John Stuart Mill.[11]


The Foundations of Psychoanalysis was influential.[12] It was seen as a landmark in the debate over the merits of psychoanalysis when it was published, and a number of critics of Freud hailed it as a masterpiece.[9] The book has also been considered the most important philosophical critique of Freud,[13] though the amount of space Grünbaum devotes to criticizing hermeneutic interpretations of Freud (which amounts to a third of his book) has become notorious.[11][14] Psychoanalysts have given Grünbaum greater attention than other recent critics of psychoanalysis.[14]

Scientific and academic journals[edit]

M. A. Notturno and the psychiatrist Paul R. McHugh wrote in Metaphilosophy that Grünbaum cogently argues that the clinical evidence held by Freud to provide the empirical basis for psychoanalysis is weak and that the validation of Freud's cardinal hypotheses must come mainly from extra-clinical studies.[15]

Author John Kerr wrote that The Foundations of Psychoanalysis "has come to define contemporary debate over the evidentiary status of Freud's claims."[16] Author Richard Webster, writing in Why Freud Was Wrong (1995), noted that Grünbaum's work has been criticized by Frank Cioffi, who rejects his portrayal of Freud as a philosophically astute investigator of human psychology. Webster argued that while the book contains many insights and much pertinent criticism of Freud's approach, it has been overvalued by critics of psychoanalysis because of Grünbaum's overly theoretical and abstract style of argument, which has distracted attention away from issues such as Freud's character.[17]

Evaluations in books[edit]

The psychologist Hans Eysenck, writing in Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985), deemed The Foundations of Psychoanalysis the definitive work on the subject, praising Grünbaum's "logical rigour and argumentative precision" and "extensive scholarship of both the psychoanalytic literature."[18] Professor of German Ritchie Robertson wrote that The Foundations of Psychoanalysis is the leading scientific critique of Freud's work.[19]

The psychoanalyst Marshall Edelson responded to Grünbaum's arguments in Hypothesis and Evidence in Psychoanalysis (1984).[20] The psychoanalyst Joel Kovel credited Grünbaum with providing the best discussion of the problems surrounding the validation of Freud's theories.[6] In his Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988) the historian Peter Gay credited Grünbaum with discrediting Popper's argument that psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science,[7] while the philosopher Michael Ruse, writing in Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry (1988), found his discussion of Popper to be definitive.[21] The philosopher James Hopkins argued that Grünbaum's criticism of Freud's theory of dreams is based on a misunderstanding of Freud,[4] and that Mill's methodology is inapplicable to motive and therefore inappropriate to assessing psychoanalysis, a psychology of motive.[22]

The critic Frederick Crews commended Grünbaum's critique of Freud, but criticized him for focusing on Freud's clinical theory while neglecting Freud's metapsychology, and for accepting "Freud's after-the-fact professions of methodological sophistication."[23] Grünbaum was criticized by philosopher David Sachs,[19] who argued that Grünbaum focuses too much on passages from Freud's writings taken in isolation, without considering what Freud writes about the same subjects elsewhere in his work. The critic Alexander Welsh maintained that since it is not clear which parts of Freud's clinical data were reported and which were invented, Grünbaum's critique of Freud's claims to empiricism is seriously compromised. In his view, defenses of psychoanalysis against Grünbaum, including that of Edelson, suffer from the same problem.[14]

The philosopher Jonathan Lear wrote that Grünbaum effectively criticizes Ricœur and Habermas, but added that despite what is often assumed Grünbaum's arguments "do not undermine the more general possibility of a causal hermeneutic account of human motivation."[24] The philosopher Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and the psychologist Sonu Shamdasani wrote that while Grünbaum maintains that Freud was a "sophisticated scientific methodologist", who was aware of the possible effects of suggestion on his patients and attempted to deal with this issue through the "tally argument", the "tally argument" "presupposes the non-suggestibility rather than proving it." They thus consider his position unjustified. They rejected his view that Freud abandoned his seduction theory because of adverse evidence, claiming, following Cioffi, that Freud could not have had any such evidence.[25]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Grünbaum 1984. pp. xi-xiii.
  2. ^ Grünbaum 1984. pp. 1-5.
  3. ^ Quinn 2005. p. 355.
  4. ^ a b Hopkins 1991. p. 122.
  5. ^ Hobson 1993. p. 489.
  6. ^ a b Kovel 1991. p. 250.
  7. ^ a b Gay 1995. p. 745.
  8. ^ Ruse 1988. pp. 31, 280.
  9. ^ a b Webster 2005. p. 24.
  10. ^ Robinson 1993. pp. 182-183.
  11. ^ a b Hopkins 1991. pp. 127-128.
  12. ^ Quinn 2005. p. 355.
  13. ^ Robinson 1993. p. 180.
  14. ^ a b c Welsh 1994. pp. 124-125.
  15. ^ Notturno 1987.
  16. ^ Kerr 2012. p. 574.
  17. ^ Webster 2005. pp. 24, 560.
  18. ^ Eysenck 1986. p. 212.
  19. ^ a b Robertson 1999. p. x.
  20. ^ Robinson 1993. p. 181.
  21. ^ Ruse 1988. p. 31.
  22. ^ Hopkins 1991. p. 128.
  23. ^ Crews 1997. pp. vii-ix.
  24. ^ Lear 1992. p. 49.
  25. ^ Borch-Jacobsen 2012. pp. 137-8, 331.


  • Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel; Shamdasani, Sonu (2012). The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-72978-9. 
  • Crews, Frederick; Macmillan, Malcolm (1997). Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc. Cambridge: The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-63171-7. 
  • Eysenck, Hans (1986). Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-022562-5. 
  • Gay, Peter (1995). Freud: A Life for Our Time. Harmondsworth: Papermac. ISBN 0-333-48638-2. 
  • Grünbaum, Adolf (1984). The Foundations of Psychoanaylsis: A Philosophical Critique. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05016-9. 
  • Hobson, J. Allan (1993). Earman, John; et al., eds. Philosophical Problems of the Internal and External Worlds. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-3738-7. 
  • Hopkins, James (1991). Neu, Jerome, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Freud. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37779-X. 
  • Kerr, John (2012). A Dangerous Method. London: Atlantic Books. ISBN 9780857891785. 
  • Kovel, Joel (1991). History and Spirit: An Inquiry into the Philosophy of Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-2916-5. 
  • Lear, Jonathan (1992). Love and its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-16641-5. 
  • Quinn, Philip L. (2005). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-926479-1. 
  • Robertson, Ritchie; Freud, Sigmund (1999). The Interpretation of Dreams. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-210049-1. 
  • Robinson, Paul (1993). Freud and His Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08029-7. 
  • Ruse, Michael (1988). Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry. New York: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0 631 15275 X. 
  • Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4. 
  • Welsh, Alexander (1994). Freud's Wishful Dream Book. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03718-3. 
Online articles
  • Notturno, M. A.; McHugh, Paul R. "Is Freudian psychoanalytic theory really falsifiable?". JSTOR 24436813.