What Was Freud Thinking: A Short Historical Introduction to Freud’s Theories and Therapies (Book Review)

Author:  Silverstein, Barry
Publisher: Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishers, 2003
Reviewed By: Wendy Katz, Fall 2004, pp. 64-65

Barry Silverstein calls his new book a “Freud 101,” and indeed the most likely audience for this introduction to Freud’s theories would seem to be college students. Silverstein tells us that in contemporary introductory psychology textbooks Freud remains the single most cited author, and that psychology students should therefore understand the basics of his work. But this book has a more ambitious goal than simply to guide undergraduates through Freud’s theory; it also promises to address the development of Freud’s thought in its historical context and to uncover and demystify Freud’s “self-crafted legend.” Because college students these days are apt to be taught an anemic version of Freud’s thought, often presented as an archaic and sexist set of developmental or psychological models to be memorized for a multiple choice exam (i.e., oral, anal, phallic; id, ego, superego), a book that presents the insight and complexity of Freud’s thought, while straightforwardly acknowledging its problematic aspects, is particularly welcome.

Freud’s claim to discovery and originality is Silverstein’s most frequent object of critique. He points out repeatedly where Freud has failed to cite or acknowledge those who influenced his thinking. This gentle criticism also serves the purpose of providing a more thorough historical context for Freud than even more advanced students are typically exposed to. Silverstein explains how Freud’s thinking borrowed directly from predecessors and contemporaries in other fields, and speculates on works and people that might have influenced Freud more remotely, i.e., things Freud likely read in his early education, courses he was known to have taken at university, and people he might have come into contact with. The discussions of these sources and resources tend to be brief, but Silverstein provides many useful references for the interested reader to pursue. In addition to showing these known and likely intellectual influences, Silverstein makes use of Freud’s letters to Fliess to speculate on personal motivations underlying some of his theoretical formulations.

The book is organized chronologically, with short chapters addressing the major phases of Freud’s thinking and writing. In each of the many chapters, Silverstein explicates the major writings of the phase, and comments on the biographical events and intellectual atmosphere that he believes have influenced that work. At the end of each chapter, he provides references for further study. One weakness of this format is that the chapters are of vastly uneven lengths and many seem to have no clear outline or argument, instead moving from straight explication of theory to fascinating but tangential facts about Freud’s life, to exposures of distortion, error and irrationality in Freud’s writing. In this, as in some other aspects of this book, better editing would have made for smoother and more rewarding reading. Nevertheless, there is much of value here for the student of Freud.

Silverstein begins with a prologue in which he sets out his justification for providing students with a “balanced” account of Freud’s theory. He writes, “My concern is what Freud wrote and what Freud did, and what it meant to him at the time.” In this way, he distances himself from Freud’s attackers and defenders. In a separate brief introduction, however, Silverstein emphasizes how Freud used rhetoric with the goals of presenting himself as heroic and original and of attempting to control the official history of psychoanalysis. By this manner of presentation, Silverstein invites the reader to judge for himself, promising implicitly that he will be debunking much of the Freudian myth in the pages that follow. Such an introduction will certainly entice the reader, but it may be somewhat misleading as the introduction for the entire book in its suggestion that this is the book’s primary theme. In fact, the main point is to guide the reader through Freud’s individual intellectual journey.

Silverstein goes on to provide a brief account of Freud’s early experiences studying with Charcot, followed by another short chapter on his work with Breuer. In this latter chapter, he describes some early ideas Freud was exploring, including psychic conflict, compromise formation, the symbolic use of the body, and ideas of nervous energy. In the same chapter he describes how Freud compromised with Breuer on areas of conflict in order to have access to publication, and provides evidence about how the facts of the Anna O. case were distorted in order to better fit the theory. This mix of elucidating the theory and critiquing the theorist is interesting, and one only wishes it had been enriched by more information about each topic and more commentary on the significance of the alleged intellectual compromise.

In the next chapter, “Sex and Neuroses,” Silverstein shifts back to a straight explanation of the theory. He describes Freud’s growing conviction that sexuality lay at the core of neurosis, and explains Freud’s ideas about energy and excitation. Silverstein then suggests Freud’s use of cocaine and Freud’s own sexual frustration as likely factors contributing to his theory of actual neurosis, and points out how Freud bolstered his image as an iconoclast by de-emphasizing the continuity of his own ideas about sexuality with those of contemporary physicians. A highlight of this chapter is Silverstein’s explication of the ways that Freud borrowed ideas from other areas of science. For example, he speculates, “[Freud’s] search for specific causes of specific symptoms was influenced by advances in bacteriology and the rise of germ theory.”

Creative speculations of this type are scattered throughout the book, although Silverstein often throws them out without going on to offer support for these ideas or further reflection upon them. For example, Silverstein presents an intriguing hypothesis about the religious quality of the psychoanalytic movement being connected to late 19th century revivalist trends. In a chapter called “Defending the Sexual Theory,” Silverstein reports that Freud had a superstitious belief that he would die between ages of 61 and 62, and speculates that this fact colored Freud’s approach to the metapsychological essays of 1915, i.e., he saw them as a “last testament.” These are stimulating ideas, although the reader is at times left unsure of Silverstein’s reasoning, as they are asserted rather than argued.

In chapters on the development of dream analysis and on childhood sexuality, Silverstein again criticizes Freud’s overblown claims to originality and his failure to cite teachers whose ideas he borrowed or contemporaries whose writings were in agreement with his. In other chapters, like the one on the seduction theory, he explains important concepts (e.g., deferred action), and at the same time critiques Freud for having blatantly influenced and disregarded his patients in order to confirm his theory. In discussing childhood sexuality, Silverstein gives accounts of the Oedipus complex and of castration anxiety and penis envy that are disappointingly brief, given that these concepts are controversial in popular culture and that his intended audience of college students may have been exposed to distorted versions of them. A later discussion of Freud’s theories about female development and the superego is similarly brief, with the usual quotations reflecting Freud’s befuddlement presented but left without comment. Nonetheless, these presentations certainly provide stimulating jumping-off points for class discussions.

Silverstein provides a very comprehensible explanation of Freud’s shift to the structural theory and the change in his theory of anxiety. Later chapters on defense mechanisms, character types and Freud’s writings on culture seem brief and cursory, however, as though the effort to cover Freud’s work so exhaustively has taken its toll on the author’s stamina. In the areas of Freud’s writings on religion and culture, for instance, Silverstein provides references but says little about the actual theories of those who influenced Freud, in contrast to the very pertinent information he provided in the earlier chapters on “Mind and Body,” and “The Seduction Theory” about the theories of other psychologists, physicians and philosophers.

The book concludes with a four page epilogue which reiterates its major points: that Freud’s thinking must be seen in historical context, and that despite its many problems, the questions Freud attempted to confront were basic to human life and his insights were significant. Certainly, these points are important and valid, but one feels that a more synthesizing conclusion might have been provided, especially given that this book lacks an index and therefore makes great organizational demands on the reader. I wondered, given Silverstein’s assertion in the prologue that Freud’s thinking has contemporary relevance, why there was no discussion of how Freud’s dilemmas (e.g., linking mind and brain, validating the theory, thinking of mind in mechanistic vs. hermeneutic terms) have carried forward into modern psychoanalytic thinking. Why is no assessment offered of the significance of all the fudging that has been documented throughout the book, and no sense of how one might then evaluate the validity of the theory? While I am not suggesting that readers are incapable of drawing their own conclusions, it is unusual for an author to leave so much hanging, especially in a book that is intended to be read by novices. Perhaps this omission is simply a result of the flawed editing that mars the book throughout.

These minor quibbles aside, it is clear that What Was Freud Thinking? will provide a very useful accompaniment for college courses that treat Freud’s theories. It is appealing in its down-to-earth, straightforward language and its efforts to make aspects of psychoanalytic theory accessible: for example by referring to Woody Allen movies. It lays out the essence of the major Freudian concepts in simple terms, and raises significant questions that will enliven class discussions. The value of this book for more advanced students of psychoanalysis is less in its explication of theory, for which there are many thorough guides, than in its extensive collection of references to books about Freud and psychoanalysis and to contemporary sources that influenced Freud.

Reviewer Note

Wendy Katz is a candidate at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Research and Training. She practices in New York City.


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