When Harvard declared war on Freud, Freud won

Today, it is practically impossible to study psychology without taking into account the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Although his theory of psychosexual development—in which personality develops through early childhood interactions with oral, anal, and urinary stimuli—has been repeatedly debunked, other Freudian concepts, such as the relationship between Conscious and unconscious minds continue to inform how we think about ourselves.

Whether you idolize him or approach his writings with caution and skepticism, every practicing psychologist is in some measure indebted to Freud. And yet, this has not always been the case. As sociologist George Homans wrote in his autobiography Coming back to my senses, “For educated people today, it is easy to forget how fresh and radical Freud seemed in the 1930s or how controversial he was.” Because of these controversies, many contemporaries treated him not with respect but with reserve and even disdain.

Henry Murray suggested that Freud mistook Gordon Allport for one of his patients. (Credit: Freud.org / Wikipedia)

Among these contemporaries was Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, who met Freud while traveling through Europe for a scholarship. Although not entirely sold on psychoanalysis himself, Allport was intrigued by its clinical potential, and so he came to Vienna with an open mind. Hoping to spark an enlightening conversation, he told Freud about something he had observed on a streetcar on the way: a young boy telling his mother that he did not want to sit on a “dirty seat” next to a “dirty man”.

Allport hoped that the psychoanalyst would provide some insight into neurosis. Much to his dismay, Freud remained silent and still until he finally opened his mouth and said, “And was that little boy you?” This response made an unfavorable impression on Allport who, although described by his colleagues as clean and highly organized, left Vienna with the belief that Freudian thought was too preoccupied with subconscious motivations to give any consideration to conscious motives.

Psychology: social science or natural sciences?

Gordon Allport was far from the only Harvard psychologist to oppose Sigmund Freud. Indeed, the majority of his department wanted nothing to do with psychoanalysis. The motivation for this disgust was twofold. First, topics like sexual defiance and sexuality in general—both central to Freud’s work—were still considered taboo in conservative Boston, even among its most educated elites, and therefore unfit for academic study.

Second and more importantly, however, the association with psychoanalysis threatened to taint the scientific status that Harvard’s psychology department had fought long and hard to achieve. When the discipline was introduced to the university in the late 1800s, it became part of the philosophy department, not the medical school. Over time, Harvard psychologists came to desire not just institutional independence, but the same levels of authority and prestige enjoyed by the natural sciences they were emulating.

Leading Harvard psychologists insisted that people should be studied the same way we study animals. (Credit: Damien Neadle/Wikipedia)

Currently, we consider psychology as part of social sciences and natural sciences. At the time, the discipline was expected to choose one side or the other. Allport’s superiors, psychology professor Edwin Boring and university president James Conant, wanted psychology to associate with chemistry and medicine, not philosophy and ancient literature. Instead of Freud or Carl Jung, they hired animal behaviorist Karl Lashley to bolster their psychology team.

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True to his calling, Lashley argued that people should be studied in the same way as animals. In behaviorism, animals are treated as “black boxes”. Since we can’t really know what’s going on inside their heads (although modern neurologists are getting closer), the only thing about them that we can study with relative certainty is their responses to external stimuli. Under Lashley’s auspices, research projects at Harvard were to resemble experiments with hypotheses and control populations.

Biotropic vs Sociotropic

Biotropes, as Lashley and his followers were called, attempted to prevent the university from allocating resources to sociotropes – that is, members of the psychology department interested in the social rather than scientific aspects of their discipline. Following in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud, Harvard sociotropes looked beyond human behavior in favor of an investigation of invisible and intangible, yet meaningful, mental processes that Lashley ignored.

Henry Murray, author of the initially unorthodox but now classic psychology text, rallied the sociotropes. Personality explorations. Murray, who became interested in depth psychology after a “life-changing” 1925 encounter with Carl Jung, was one of the first Americans to practice psychoanalysis. A friend and colleague of Allport, he rationalized the latter’s clash with Freud by stating that he “considered consciousness as big and the unconscious as a small thing there”, whereas “Freud thought that consciousness was a little thing up there”. , the unconscious the iceberg below.

Ultimately, Harvard University created a new department where psychologists could freely explore Freud’s ideas. (Credit: Jacob Rus/Wikipedia)

While Allport did not share Murray’s admiration for Sigmund Freud, they shared an antagonism toward biotropes, whose ever-increasing emphasis on scientific inquiry left little room for scholars who dared to think differently. As newly elected president of the American Psychological Association, he openly condemned Lashley’s behaviorism, whose meteoric rise in popularity at Harvard University he attributed to the “rising and waning fads of the time”. In the same speech, he called for the democratization of psychological study.

Allport’s call has been answered, sort of. As described by Patrick L. Schmidt in his new book, Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science: The Rise and Fall of the Department of Social Relations, the university created a new department (although it no longer exists) in which psychologists, alongside sociologists and cultural anthropologists, could pursue unconventional and interdisciplinary research projects. That the modern discipline of psychology is multifaceted rather than singularly scientific in character indicates the enduring influence of Sigmund Freud and the researchers he inspired.

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