Preferred Citation: Robinson, Paul. Freud and His Critics. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

Adolf Grünbaum: The Philosophical Critique of Freud

Karl Popper and the Question of Falsifiability

Grünbaum was a critic of Karl Popper before he became a critic of Freud. Indeed, it was through Popper that Grünbaum was drawn to Freud. “The first impetus for my inquiry into the intellectual merits of the psychoanalytic enterprise,” he writes, “came from my doubts concerning Karl Popper’s philosophy of science” (xii). The philosophy of science in question was the theory of falsifiability, which Popper proposed in place of inductivism as the essential measure of scientific knowledge. Popper saw the need for this supposedly more rigorous standard, he said, when he encountered intellectual systems like Marxism and psychoanalysis that claim to derive from observation—that is, from some form of inductive reasoning—yet obviously fall far short of true science. “My problem perhaps took the simple form, ‘What is wrong with Marxism, psychoanalysis, and individual [Adlerian] psychology? Why are they so different from physical theories, from Newton’s theory, and especially from the theory of relativity?’ ”[17] Popper’s solution was the notion of falsifiability: these pseudosciences may base their ideas on observation, but, unlike true science, they advance propositions that are not open to the possibility of disproof. A scientific theory is a high-risk affair; it asserts things that have a real chance of being contradicted by as yet undisclosed facts. Indeed, science conducts its business so as to encourage the discovery of precisely such disconfirming facts. A pseudoscience, by contrast, is never in danger of this embarrassment. Its propositions are so designed as to be immune to contradictory evidence, because every imaginable state of affairs can somehow be reconciled with them. In Popper’s view, the theories of Freud and Adler offer especially clear-cut examples of such nonfalsifiable (and hence unscientific) intellectual systems:

Neither Freud nor Adler excludes any particular person’s acting in any particular way, whatever the outward circumstances. Whether a man sacrificed his life to rescue a drowning child (a case of sublimation) or whether he murdered the child by drowning him (a case of repression) could not possibly be predicted or excluded by Freud’s theory; the theory was compatible with everything that could happen.[18]

Psychoanalysis was “simply non-testable, irrefutable. There was no conceivable human behaviour which would contradict” it.[19]

Grünbaum views this charge as astonishingly ignorant. In fact, Grünbaum professes amazement at Popper’s “obliviousness to Freud’s actual writings” (124). Instead of citing real instances of intellectual malfeasance, Popper rests his entire case on a hypothetical example (known as the drowning baby), which Grünbaum dismisses as “grossly contrived” (114). (It is more than contrived: the notion that intentionally drowning a baby might count as an instance of “repression” makes little psychoanalytic sense.) Grünbaum then proceeds to offer evidence, from the Freudian corpus, that controverts Popper’s strictures. In both theory and practice, Grünbaum insists, Freud honored the criterion of falsifiability.

An early example is provided by “A Reply to Criticism of My Paper on Anxiety Neurosis” (1895), in which Freud defends his hypothesis that anxiety neuroses are caused by a contemporary disturbance in sexual life, such as masturbation or coitus interruptus. In the paper Freud admits that his theory would be discredited if his critics could produce a case of anxiety neurosis in the absence of sexual anomalies. “My theory can only be refuted,” he writes, “when I have been shown phobias where sexual life is normal.”[20] A Popperian might complain that Freud does not make this concession in the spirit of falsifiability; his “only” suggests a less than open mind about the likelihood of contrary instances. But the passage satisfies Grünbaum that Freud was prepared to play the scientific game by the rules—that he advanced empirically “risky” propositions. Freud’s statement, Grünbaum writes, “would do any falsificationist proud” (120).

Grünbaum is even more impressed by the 1915 paper “A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-Analytic Theory of the Disease,” whose very title seems to have a falsificationist ring about it. Here Freud discusses a seemingly paranoid woman in whom he finds no evidence of homosexuality. In other words, the case contradicts the psychoanalytic theory that paranoia is caused by repressed homosexual desire. Grünbaum admires the paper because in it Freud expressly recognizes the intellectual consequences of his negative finding: either he must give up his theory of paranoia, or he must contemplate the possibility that the woman is not in fact suffering from the disease. “Freud explicitly allowed that if the young woman was paranoid, then her case was a refuting instance of the etiology he had postulated for that disorder. Alternatively, he reckoned with the possibility that she was not paranoid” (109). Like Freud’s much earlier “Reply to Criticisms of My Paper on Anxiety Neurosis,” “A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-Analytic Theory of the Disease,” Grünbaum argues, is admirably sensitive to the criterion of falsifiability.

Unfortunately for Grünbaum’s latter illustration, Freud did not in fact abandon his hypothesis in the face of recalcitrant facts. Instead, he managed to wriggle off the methodological hook, and in a manner a Popperian would surely find incriminating. A second session with his patient turned up the gratifying evidence that she did indeed have an unconscious homosexual attachment to a woman under whom she worked: lo and behold, her paranoia had an orthodox analytic source after all. Thus, while the case may suggest a commendably rigorous theoretical commitment to the principle of falsifiability, in practice it shows Freud doing just what his Popperian critics find most objectionable about psychoanalysis: he gen erates new facts to make his patient’s circumstances fit the theory.

According to Grünbaum, then, the papers of 1895 and 1915 demonstrate that Freud understood and accepted the logic of falsification. But Grünbaum also insists that Freud practiced what he preached: on several occasions Freud actually gave up ideas because they proved empirically insupportable. That is, he operated just as Popperian theory says a scientist ought to, abandoning theoretical positions when they were contradicted by the facts:

Freud’s successive modifications of many of his hypotheses throughout most of his life were hardly empirically unmotivated, capricious, or idiosyncratic. What reconstruction, I ask, would or could Popper give us of Freud’s rationale for these repeated theory changes, and still cling to his charge of nonfalsifiability and/or to his charge that Freud was inhospitable to adverse evidence? (117)

The classic example of Freud’s changing his mind when the facts so obliged him is, of course, his decision to abandon the seduction theory. Grünbaum frequently draws attention to the famous renunciation letter of September 21, 1897, in which, Grünbaum says, Freud confesses “how adverse evidence that he himself had uncovered drove him to repudiate his previously cherished seduction etiology of hysteria” (117). Given all the controversy over Freud’s decision, this amounts to a rather simplistic account of the episode. Grünbaum leaves the impression that Freud had come upon new information that contradicted the seduction hypothesis, forcing him to renounce it. As we have seen, however, Freud’s letter in fact mentions no new evidence. Rather, it draws attention to a consequence of the seduction theory that Freud now finds empirically doubtful, namely, that the real sexual abuse of children was as common as the incidence of hysteria would require it to be (“surely such widespread perversions against children are not very probable,” he writes).[21] Had Freud actually cited some sort of new evidence—that, for example, his hysterics’ stories of seduction had, in concrete instances, been contradicted by the testimony of adults—Jeffrey Masson would never have been able to mount his argument that Freud betrayed a discovery he knew to be true. The import of the seduction theory for Freud’s reputation as a scientific methodologist is, I’m afraid, less clear than Grünbaum would like to think.

Whether or not Freud himself believed in or practiced science according to Popperian criteria, his writings, Grünbaum insists, are full of assertions that can in fact be shown to be falsifiable. Psychoanalytic theory repeatedly predicts circumstances whose failure to materialize must result in its disconfirmation. As we’ve noted, Grünbaum’s favorite example of such an obviously falsifiable idea is the Freudian etiology of paranoia, which sets up a decidedly risky epidemiological prediction: “If repressed homosexuality is indeed the specific etiologic factor in paranoia, then the decline of the taboo on homosexuality in our society should be accompanied by a decreased incidence of male paranoia” (111). The theory also invites disconfirmation through historical or anthropological research, because it implies that paranoia will be relatively uncommon in societies, such as ancient Greece, less hostile to homosexuality.

Finally, Grünbaum’s strongest evidence against Popper is supplied by psychoanalytic ideas that have actually been proven false—the ultimate scientific compliment, one might say, in a Popperian universe. Here Grünbaum cites Seymour Fisher and Roger Greenberg’s “monumental” book The Scientific Credibility of Freud’s Theories and Therapy (1977), which summarizes a vast number of empirical studies and argues that, among other psychoanalytic propositions, Freud’s theory of dreams “has been contradicted by many scientific observations.”[22] Freud’s ideas, in other words, both invite and receive empirical refutation. They are eminently falsifiable.

Adolf Grünbaum: The Philosophical Critique of Freud

Preferred Citation: Robinson, Paul. Freud and His Critics. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.