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Showing posts with label Freudian dream theory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Freudian dream theory. Show all posts

Friday 21 July 2017

Review: Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, everybody lies



When people answer questions from pollsters, they lie. When they make Google searches, they don’t. They know they can delete their browsing history and that’s enough privacy for the average user. People make an awful lot of searches and Google collects mega-quantities of reliable data which tell us what people are thinking and how they are feeling. This Big Data is now being mined by people like Seth Stephens-Davidowitz [S-D from now on] to answer all kinds of question, many of them at the applied end of the social science spectrum.

This is a well-meaning book but it is terribly na├»ve – not about people, whose deviant sex lives the author cheerfully catalogues, but about social science or social theory in the broadest sense. I nearly gave up on the book at chapter 2 “Was Freud Right?” which tells us that Freud was a theorist of “phallic symbols in dreams” (page 46) and goes on to prove that he was wrong about them.  S – D has been educated at Stanford and Harvard but has still has not picked up the knowledge that Freud’s reputation-making book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), begins with a very long and comprehensive critique of theories of dream symbolism (“Dream Book” theories) and follows up with an alternative account in which dreams make idiosyncratic, improvised choices of symbols to express the dream thoughts and that what is drawn on to provide the symbols for the dream is largely if not exclusively the experience of the previous day. The italicised words turn Freud’s account into a falsifiable theory whatever Karl Popper may have said (S-D has come across Popper on Freud). So S-D starts out from something worse than a schoolboy howler and as a result chapter 2 is abysmal. If you are inclined to cultural despair, you will delight in the fact that the abysmal is published by Bloomsbury.

Things do get better, sometimes significantly so, but the general problem remains that the Big Data S-D loves is crunched according to often unanalysed background theories and preconceptions. The general approach is to ask someone “What do you want to know?” and if they want to know if violent cinema films cause violent behaviour, then S-D will hit the Big Data until they yield a Yes or No answer. There are a lot of “What do you want to know?” questions which S-D is only too willing to answer. He rarely stops to consider that there might be a problem with the question.


I quite liked the Conclusion which S-D has calculated will be reached by only a minority of readers. But this Blog was created on the promise that I would only review books I had read cover to cover, give or take footnotes. But then I suppose I should acknowledge that one of S-D’s findings (page 259) is that people who make online loan applications in which they promise to repay a debt are more likely to default on a debt than those who don’t promise. The same people also take God’s name in vain. Nothing new there.

Monday 3 February 2014

Review: Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life



Stephen Grosz begins this book by telling us that for twenty five years he has worked as a psychoanalyst, spending more than 50,000 hours with patients. I calculated:  that's 2000 hours a year which implies 40 hours a week, 50 weeks of the year. He's working too hard.

He has lots of stories to tell and each of the thirty plus short chapters is a well-crafted vignette of encounters with patients, mostly in private practice in London and making use of the traditional Freudian couch. The text is double spaced which means you turn pages quickly and finish in a few hours.

All the stories are readable and some - especially those which deal with serious illness and dying - are moving.

I think that broadly Freudian psychoanalytic theory is the best of the bunch, despite attempts by some of its adherents to make of it a cult (their own) rather than the theoretical basis of a regime of treatment. Many of the criticisms are misguided. In particular, critics fail to realise that all theories are undetermined by data - another theory will always fit the same data - which does not mean that theories are useless or that none are better than others. The weak point in Freudianism is not the theory but whether a curative therapeutic practice can be founded on it - on that, there is reason to doubt.

One of the most challenging stories in the book (pp 158 - 165) concerns a young boy (seen in a public health service context) who eventually puts it to the analyst that his brain doesn't work - not like other people's - and says that it's sad. And all the analyst can do is agree, "Yes, it is really, really sad" (page 165)

For me, the strong point in Freudianism has always been the theory of dreams and the possibility which arises from that of using them diagnostically and therapeutically. So illiterate have we become that some people think that Freud's dream theory is a theory of dream symbols when it starts out, quite explicitly,  to demolish the dream symbol approach and replace it with one which argues that meaning is created in a context - and that the key context for a dream is the events of the recent past (in the strictest theory, the previous day). So you do not look up a Symbol in a Dream Book which tells you what it Stands For - no, you lead your patient back to the recent past and link the Unicorn in the dream to some event,some conversation, some book recently read and work from that link.

As you read Grosz's vignettes, you see him constantly probing for a context not only for dreams but for all symptoms and odd behaviours. Only when you find their context do they begin to yield up their meaning. In particular, he looks for a context where something otherwise bizarre makes sense as a way of achieving satisfaction or avoiding a feared outcome or as indirect acknowledgment of something known but not acknowledged.