Books by Richard Webster

Released: Sept. 13, 1995

A thorough and largely successfulif sometimes overreachingdebunking of the major theories of the founding father of psychoanalysis. Webster, a British journalist and essayist, repeatedly demonstrates what a poor scientist and flawed clinician Freud was. In his early writings on hysteria, he repeatedly mistook what apparently were physiological phenomena for psychological ones (for instance, he interpreted the tics displayed by Frau Emmy von N. as signs of hysteria, but they closely resemble the symptoms of Tourette's syndrome). Webster also documents how Freud usually provided no or highly inadequate empirical evidence for his hypotheses; engaged in rigid typologies (e.g., in universalizing the Oedipus complex); searched in dreams for veiled symbols of supposedly unconscious sexual desires while ignoring patients' reports of conscious ones; and manipulated some patients to the point of coercion so as to derive verbal material that would conform to his theories. Webster also portrays a Freud who was fame-starved, grandiose, ``messianic,'' as well as distant, sometimes cruel, and intellectually authoritarian with his early followers. The weakest part of this book is a long, murky critique of the entire metaphysical tradition of Cartesian mind-body dualism in which, according to Webster, Freud's thinking falls. Webster's reference to ``the Freud myth'' and his unequivocally harsh view of psychoanalysis as ``a complex pseudo-science which should be recognised as one of the great follies of Western civilization'' typify his proclivity to overstate his case. His book also is excessively long, with extraneous material such as a technical critique of Freud's mentor, Charcot. At times, Webster engages in such sweeping, highly questionable claims as his allusion to Freud's ``need to defer to authority and to established cultural traditions.'' On balance, however, the strengths of Webster's provocative presentation of the many flaws in Freud's work outweigh its intellectual and stylistic shortcomings. Read full book review >