Why Freud Was Wrong

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Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis
Why Freud Was Wrong (first edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Richard Webster
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Sigmund Freud
Published 1995 (The Orwell Press)
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 673 (2005 edition)
ISBN 978-0951592250

Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995; second edition 1996; third edition 2005) is a book by author Richard Webster, in which Webster provides a critique of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis.[1] Webster argues that Freud became a kind of Messiah and that psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science and a disguised continuation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.[2] Webster endorses Gilbert Ryle's arguments against mentalist philosophies in The Concept of Mind (1949); he also criticizes many other authors for their treatment of Freud and psychoanalysis. The book for which Webster may be best remembered,[1] Why Freud Was Wrong has been called "brilliant"[2][3] and "definitive",[4] but has also been criticized for shortcomings of scholarship and argument.[5][6][7] Why Freud Was Wrong formed part of the "Freud wars", an ongoing controversy around psychoanalysis.


Webster argues that Freud became a kind of Messiah and that psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science and a disguised continuation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.[2] He describes psychoanalysis as "perhaps the most complex and successful" pseudo-science in history.[8] He sees Freud as an impostor who sought to found a false religion.[9] However, Webster also writes that, "My ultimate goal is not to humiliate Freud or to inflict mortal injury either on him or his followers. It is to interpret and illuminate his beliefs and his personality in order that we may better understand our own culture, our own history, and indeed, our own psychology. It is to this constructive attempt to analyse the nature and sources of Freud's mistakes that my title primarily refers."[10]

Webster writes that while Ernest Jones wrote The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953-1957) with the avowed objective of correcting a "mendacious legend" about Freud, Jones replaced that negative with a positive legend. Webster believes that Jones, "did not hesitate to retouch reality wherever it seemed to conflict with the portrait which he sought to create."[11] Webster argues that while Peter Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988) is presented an objective exercise in historical scholarship, and considers the failings of psychoanalysis and Freud's mistakes, Gay nonetheless retains a reverent attitude toward Freud, preserving the myths about him created by previous biographers. Webster calls these myths the "Freud legend". He believes that the acclaim the book received shows the persistence of the Freud legend, noting that with exceptions such as Peter Swales, many reviewers praised it, especially in Britain. He sees its appeal to supporters of psychoanalysis as being its favorable view of Freudian ideas.[12]

Gilbert Ryle's arguments against mentalist philosophies in The Concept of Mind (1949) are endorsed by Webster, who suggests that they imply that "theories of human nature which repudiate the evidence of behaviour and refer solely or primarily to invisible mental events will never in themselves be able to unlock the most significant mysteries of human nature." Webster writes that Adolf Grünbaum's The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984) has been criticized by Frank Cioffi, who rejects his portrayal of Freud as a philosophically astute investigator of human psychology. Webster argues that while The Foundations of Psychoanalysis contains many insights and much pertinent criticism of Freud's approach, it has been overrated. Webster believes that Grünbaum's work has been overvalued by critics of psychoanalysis because of its style of argument, which he considers to be overly theoretical and abstract, and to have had the undesirable effect of distracting attention away from issues such as Freud's character. Webster describes Frederick Crews's The Memory Wars (1995) as one of the most trenchant and significant contributions to the debate on recovered memory therapy. Webster writes that psychologist Hans Eysenck's Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985) contains many cogent criticisms of Freud. However, Webster criticizes Eysenck for uncritically accepting Thornton's argument that Freud's patient Anna O. suffered from tuberculous meningitis. Webster writes that some of Thomas Szasz's arguments in The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) are similar to his, but that he disagrees with Szasz's view that hysteria was an emotional problem and that Jean-Martin Charcot's patients were not genuinely mentally ill. Webster concludes that "no negative critique of psychoanalysis, however powerful, can ever constitute an adequate refutation of the theories which Freud put forward. For in scientific reality bad theories can only be driven out by better theories."[13]

Scholarly reception[edit]

Why Freud Was Wrong has been called "brilliant" by psychiatrist Anthony Storr[2] and biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy,[3] and "definitive" by philosopher Raymond Tallis,[4] but has also been criticized for shortcomings of scholarship and argument.[5][7] In a preface to the 1998 edition of The Assault on Truth, first published in 1984, former psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson criticized Webster for blaming him for the current interest in recovered memories, writing that he had no interest in the recovery of memories.[6] Psychologist Louis Breger writes that some of Webster's points are valuable, but that Webster, like some other critics of Freud, too frequently jumps "from valid criticisms of some part of Freud's work to a condemnation of the whole."[14] Philosopher Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and psychologist Sonu Shamdasani write that Why Freud Was Wrong was made possible by new scholarship on Freud, and formed part of the "Freud Wars", an ongoing controversy around psychoanalysis.[15]

Publishing history[edit]

Why Freud Was Wrong was first published in 1995, then republished in 1996 with an added preface, and republished again in 2005 with a new postscript.[16] The work has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Hungarian.[17]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Woffinden 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d Storr 1996. p. 131.
  3. ^ a b Gathorne-Hardy 2005. p. 92.
  4. ^ a b Tallis 1999. p. 457.
  5. ^ a b Swales 1995.
  6. ^ a b Masson 1998. pp. 320-321.
  7. ^ a b Showalter 1997. pp. 41, 45.
  8. ^ Webster 2005. p. 12.
  9. ^ Robertson 1999. p. xxx.
  10. ^ Webster 2005. p. vii.
  11. ^ Webster 2005. p. 14.
  12. ^ Webster 2005. pp. 27-28.
  13. ^ Webster 2005. pp. 24, 455, 483, 528, 560, 577-78, 595-597.
  14. ^ Breger 2000. p. 377.
  15. ^ Borch-Jacobsen 2012. pp. 25, 311.
  16. ^ Webster 2005. pp. i, xi, xvii.
  17. ^ Webster 2011.


  • 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. 
  • Breger, Louis (2000). Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-31628-8. 
  • Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan (2005). Kinsey: A Biography. London: Pimlico. ISBN 1-84413-836-4. 
  • Masson, Jeffrey (1998). The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-02571-6. 
  • Robertson, Ritchie; Freud, Sigmund (1999). The Interpretation of Dreams. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-210049-1. 
  • Showalter, Elaine (1997). Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture. London: Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 0-330-34670-9. 
  • Storr, Anthony (1996). Freud. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-282210-9. 
  • Tallis, Raymond (1999). Enemies of Hope: A Critique of Contemporary Pessimism. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-22417-6. 
  • Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4. 
Online articles