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Literary theory talks broadly about three sources of text: texts themselves, the social context and the author's psyche. In the latter aspect, the ideas of psychiatrists Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan are still taught as useful windows onto texts, the latter in particular because so many of his ideas are founded in linguistics.

However, from the point of view of psychology, both of these authors have now been discredited. In clinical terms, Freud's contributions to the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used by clinicians as the gold standard for diagnoses, have been completely scrubbed and his clinical record called into serious question. Lacan is even more controversial, with his quasi-mathematical language having been wholly debunked by scientists and later philosophers and psychologists referring to him as a fraud.

At least one professor, Frederick Crews at Berkley, has gone from teaching Freud to aggressively debunking him in a number of books. However, both Freud and Lacan are still being taught as part of literary theory courses. Given that their work is now seen, at best, as being controversial, why do they stay on the syllabus? Do they still offer some kind of useful insight, despite their theories being discredited?

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    From experience I think the short answer might be that most English professors know very little about mathematics, science, or the scientific method (or even nothing at all).
    – Tom
    May 6 at 19:47
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    I don't understand. If an author had Freudian theory (or Marxism, or Christian theology, or Greek mythology) in mind when writing, why wouldn't an understanding of said theory be helpful to understanding the work, regardless of the scientific merit of the theory?
    – user14111
    May 7 at 0:39
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    Obligatory link: "You are also allowed to pretend that the works of Freud present a correct model of human psychology and the works of Marx present a correct model of sociology and economics (it's not clear to me whether practitioners in the field actually believe Freud and Marx or if it's just a convention of the genre)." May 7 at 20:13
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    @user14111 This is not a question about authorial intent. Psychoanalytic criticism has been applied to works that predate psychoanalysis, e.g. Shakespeare. (Freud himself wrote about Shakespeare's Hamlet. Lacan wrote a strange interpretation of Hugo's poem "Booz endormi".)
    – Tsundoku
    May 7 at 21:54
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    I think it's a bit of a mistake to mix Lacan and Freud into one single entity. Their theories operate in rather different ways, the critiques of the two are also quite different, and they have different statuses in modern Literary criticism. This question might be better asked addressing the two separately. May 8 at 15:55

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I’m reminded of something that my Abnormal Psych professor said about Freud, “He remains influential because he’s esthetically pleasing.”

I think that this is the core of Freud and Lacan’s continued influence in literary criticism, although most of the theoretical frameworks that were popular in the late twentieth century have been falling away as a historico-textual approach with a dose of New Criticism dominates in most critical discourse these days.

Much of what appealed about literary theory was not so much its applicability but its somewhat onanistic esthetic pleasures. Most (all?) of the writing about deconstructionism was theoretical in nature with little critical writing actually applying the principles of deconstructionism. Freudian and Lacanian criticism tended to make it out of the graduate literary seminars and into the pages of journals, but this was largely because they were in a sense more practical, providing a framework for being able to look at a text in a useful interpretive manner.

I can’t write a whole lot about Lacan. He’s dense to the point of being incomprehensible as evidenced by this exchange from The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis:

Lacan: Have I thrown some light on your question?

J.-A. Miller: Some light and some shadow.

With Freud, things tend to fall into two categories: An overly complicated proto-behavioralism (e.g., the account of the woman who had trouble drinking water because she had seen a dog lapping water sloppily from the pitcher¹) and an application of literary traditions to psychoanalysis that had dubious applicability to his patients’ real problems (e.g., the Oedipus Complex).

Both of these work better in a literary critical context. A Skinnerian behaviorialism might be workable for understanding a text, but it doesn’t really make for an esthetically pleasing way to write about the text and part of literary criticism is not simply making an argument, but making it in an esthetically pleasing way (your college English professors might not have acknowledge as much but it is very much an aspect of humanistic academic writing).

The latter concept, on the other hand, is directly connected to literature and influenced by it as well. There was a back and forth between the literary tradition and Freudian psychoanalysis where the framework not only influenced the interpretation of texts but was influenced by the interpretation of texts. Add in the fact that post-Freud,² many writers were fascinated by Freudian concepts and deliberately inserted them into their texts and Freud ends up being more relevant in the halls of the English department than the Psychology department.


  1. This is a half-remembered anecdote which I don’t really have time to dig up now.

  2. This is also the case with Marxist thought as well.

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    The "half-remembered anecdote" is from Joseph Breuer's case history of Bertha Pappenheim (aka "Anna O.") in Studien über Hysterie (1895). There is an English translation in Studies in Hysteria (1937), p. 23. May 6 at 16:53
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Psychoanalysis is still taken quite seriously in certain circles, and there are even entire institutions still in existence that are dedicated to teaching it, such as the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. While far less popular that it used to be, it's also evidently still used in clinical practice.

So, the idea isn't entirely "dead", even in psychology.

Even people who don't agree with his ideas will still teach about him, given how important he was historically. His ideas heavily dominated the entire intellectual landscape for decades.

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    The question is about the value of psychoanalytic theory in the context of literary criticism. Whether Freud and Lacan have been discredited or not as psychological theories is beyond the scope of Literature Stack Exchange.
    – Tsundoku
    May 8 at 22:42
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    @Tsundoku The OP is explicitly asking about it in context of psychological theory. My point is that the premise of the question isn't 100% correct (because, while most people disagree with it now, it still has at least some credence). May 9 at 14:25
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How do you mean they are discredited? Certainly they have many critics (as anyone), but that doesn't mean a theory is discredited. Psychology is not exact science like physics where you can discredit a theory by a contradiction with an experiment.

Both Freud and Lacan where great thinkers who were of great value for the development of human thought in general. Otherwise, psychoanlysis and psychoterapy in general wouldn't exist or wouldn't be the same, to say the least. Hence, some of their thoughts are still very valuable for the understanding of humans, and are therefore very relevant in literary criticism.

We should be careful with the word discredited in humanistic sciences. You could say the same for DSM. Its results are criticised so much in academic community that someone could say it is discredited. But it is not, at least not completely. DSM alone has changed through its five versions, so far. In the same way, instead of saying discredited, you could say that Freud's and Lacan's thought has reached version 5005 until this day.

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    I disagree that you can't refute theories experimentally in psychology (in many cases you can), but overall this is a valid point; +1 from me. May 7 at 16:03
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    The question is about the value of psychoanalytic theory in the context of literary criticism. Whether Freud and Lacan have been discredited or not as psychological theories is beyond the scope of Literature Stack Exchange.
    – Tsundoku
    May 8 at 22:42
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    @Tsundoku I disagree - by that logic, we should close all historical context questions as off-topic for being about history. The entire question is about why the literary theory is taken seriously given that the psychological theory is discredited. Whether the psychological theory is, in fact, discredited or not is highly relevant. May 9 at 14:28
  • @EJoshuaS-StandwithUkraine An answer that addresses only the status of the psychological status without discussing the main part of the question is not a real answer to the question.
    – Tsundoku
    May 9 at 14:58
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Have you heard of the replication crisis?

It confirms what many natural scientists and mathematicians had long suspected: That many fields that call themselves sciences lack scientific rigor. This concerns serious and important subjects like economics and medicine: Some doctors felt the need to found a branch called "evidence based medicine" — imagine chemists feeling the need to found "evidence based chemistry"!

Subjects that are even softer, like psychology and literature, are by all regular standards not sciences at all — they are conversations. I'm not even saying that that is bad: Telling stories about people is an adequate approach of exploring the human condition. Perhaps we shouldn't dissect the living soul any more than we should dissect the living body. Instead we should observe, prod, squeeze when necessary, go where it hurts or pleases or excites or simply is pretty, and ask and tell.

The concepts that emerge in these stories are often very useful when we try to make sense of ourselves and others. They guide our approaches to a confusing and overwhelmingly complex subject, much like Tarot cards or horoscopes. But they shouldn't be taken as scientifically proven truths.

Under this paradigm Freud and Lacan are not right or wrong as much as in and out of fashion. Each era celebrates and elaborates on the stories which resonate at that point in history. In the early 20th century that was Freud; after the war it was a mix of Freud and Marx, which then sprouted a very hip, very intellectual and very French branch that took conversation quite literally. Have they been discredited? Which credit? That would be like looking at Magritte's painting and complaining that this is not a pipe, or perhaps yelling "you are not a real prince at all!" during a Hamlet performance.

They are still good stories.

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  • Couldn't agree more. It is impossible to discredit a story. Moreover, Freud's stories (psychoanalysis) actually helped many people in his time and later (and even now).
    – Milan
    May 9 at 19:41

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