The Coming of Unreason

Ernest Gellner

London, 1985.

With tremendous verve, Gellner accounts for the huge influence of Freudianism on 20th-century culture, and wittily dissects the doctrines subscribed to by the movement. Having held professorships in Philosophy, in Sociology and in Social Anthropology, he is unusually well-equipped for the job.

Psychoanalysis has various distinctive features that account for its appeal:

  1. it promises salvation
  2. there are good reasons for believing it
  3. there are good reasons for doubting it
  4. the middle ground is out of bounds

The last item concerns the notoriously untestable nature of psychoanalysis: any attempt by a critic or patient to independently evaluate the standing of the theory is systematically disallowed by key role of the Unconscious itself:

"The existence of this entity totally transforms the status of all evidence and of all choice and abandonment of theories." (p.202)

What happens to objections to psychoanalysis is a novel kind of ad hominem rejoinder, whereby they are interpreted in terms of unconscious desires, i.e. in terms of the necessarily invisible machinations of the cunning Unconscious itself.

"The patient is and must be deprived, if he is cooperating with the therapy, of retaining some stance from which he could attempt a critical evaluation of it. The internal terms of reference preclude it; the external ones are superficial and devalued by the very concept of the Unconscious. If he does not cooperate, plainly he can't blame the therapy for failing to work; but if he does cooperate it is even plainer, for it is built into its theory and practice, that he can't blame the therapy either. Criticism at this level of mere consciousness proves and establishes nothing." (p.49)

This is of course a familiar feature of many other therapeutic or pseudo-therapeutic systems. Another problematical aspect of psychoanalysis is what Gellner terms naive mentalism, based, in turn, on naive realism. Once unconscious determinants have been exposed and neutralized in the course of therapy, it is supposed that a person directly perceives the psychological facts of his case, without further theoretical interpretation or analysis being necessary. When some kind of theory is invoked, it takes the form of pseudo-hydraulics:

"one may doubt... whether the sketchily constructed model of sluices and channels and chambers and locks and water-wheels, which translate [instinctual forces] into concrete and specific directions of conduct and feeling, is in any way scientifically serious, as opposed to being mere metaphor. It is loose, sloppy, merely verbal, and explains any conduct only in retrospect." (p.107)

The famous method of free association as a route to fathoming the Unconscious is also fraught with snags. Just because strong feelings may be attributed to unconscious roots, and such feelings are provoked by free association, it does not follow that the Unconscious is revealed by this method. It is not only supposed to be endlessly cunning, it is also held to be devoid of logical constraints, which poses the further problem of presumably depriving it of any determinate content (p.149).

Finally, we head for the exit, or more specifically, what Gellner terms the Exit Valve. This device controls the manner of termination of therapy in a definitive way. In the whole scheme of things, there are only three ways for therapy to end up:

  1. successful termination (though this may be rare or undefined)
  2. non-terminating, indefinite treatment
  3. unsuccessful termination, due to some deficiency of patient and/or analyst

There is no fourth option: the possibility of seeing therapy through to termination and then rejecting the system is just not part of the conceptual scheme whatsoever. The system itself is thus maintained by the Exit Valve.

Despite the theoretical problems, does the therapy work? This has not been shown:

"if there is any therapeutic effectiveness in this technique, the supporting statistics should, and indubitably would, long ago have been collected by the guild itself - if they were available." (p.222)

Gellner Resource Page



Paul Taylor 2002