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When Harvard psychologists declared war on Sigmund Freud, Freud won

Sigmund Freud developed the decidedly unscientific principles of psychoanalysis in a time when most psychologists were trying to join the ranks of chemists and medical doctors.
Sigmund Freud statue
Decades after his death, the legacy of Sigmund Freud lives on. (Credit: Stanislav Kozlovskiy / Wikipedia)
Key Takeaways
  • It’s hard to realize just how controversial the now ubiquitous ideas of Sigmund Freud were when they were introduced.
  • At Harvard University, Freud was scorned by psychologists who were trying to turn their discipline from a social into a natural science.
  • That the modern-day discipline of psychology is multifaceted as opposed to singularly scientific is a testament to Freud’s lasting influence.

Today, it is virtually impossible to study psychology without taking into consideration the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Though 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 the conscious and unconscious mind, continue to inform the way we think about ourselves.

Whether you idolize him or approach his writing with caution and skepticism, every practicing psychologist is to some extent indebted to Freud. And yet, this was not always the case. As sociologist George Homans wrote in his autobiography Coming to my Senses, “For educated persons today it is easy to forget how fresh and radical Freud seemed in the 1930s or how much controversy he inspired.” Due to these controversies, many contemporaries treated him not with respect but with reserve or even disdain. 

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

Among these contemporaries was the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, who met Freud while traveling through Europe for a fellowship. Though 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 in a streetcar on the way over: a young boy telling his mother he did not want to sit on a “dirty seat” next to a “dirty man.”

Allport hoped the psychoanalyst would offer some insight on the neurosis. To his dismay, Freud remained silent and motionless until he finally opened his mouth and said, “And was that little boy you?” This reply made an unfavorable impression on Allport who, although he has been described by coworkers as clean and highly organized, left Vienna with the belief that Freudian thought was too concerned with subconscious motivations to give any consideration to conscious ones.

Psychology: social or natural science?

Gordon Allport was far from the only psychologist at Harvard who took issue with Sigmund Freud. Indeed, the majority of his department wanted nothing to do with psychoanalysis. The motivation for this distaste was twofold. First, topics like sexual defiance and sexuality in general — both essential 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 important, however, association with psychoanalysis threatened to taint the scientific status that Harvard’s psychology department had fought long and hard to attain. When the discipline was introduced at the university during the late 1800s, it was incorporated in the department of philosophy, not the medical school. As time went on, Harvard psychologists not only came to desire institutional independence, but the same levels of authority and prestige enjoyed by the natural sciences they imitated.

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

Presently, we think of psychology as part social science and part natural science. Back then, the discipline was expected to pick one side or the other. Allport’s superiors, psychology professor Edwin Boring and university president James Conant, wanted psychology to join forces with chemistry and medicine, not philosophy and ancient literature. Instead of Freud or Carl Jung, they hired animal behaviorist Karl Lashley to reinforce their psychology staff. 

True to his calling, Lashley argued that people should be studied the same way we do animals. In behaviorism, animals are treated like “black boxes.” Since we cannot truly know what goes on inside their heads (though modern-day neurologists are getting closer), the only thing about them that we can study with relative certainty is their responses to external stimuli. Under the auspices of Lashley, research projects at Harvard had to resemble experiments with hypotheses and control populations.

Biotropes vs. sociotropes

The 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’s sociotropes looked beyond human behavior in favor of investigating the invisible and intangible, yet meaningful mental processes that Lashley ignored.  

Rallying the sociotropes was Henry Murray, author of the initially unorthodox but by now classic psychology text Explorations in Personality. Murray, who became interested in depth psychology after a “life-altering” 1925 meeting 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 “thought of consciousness as large and the unconscious as a little bit of a thing down there,” whereas “Freud thought the 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 did share an antagonism toward the biotropes, whose ever-increasing insistence on scientific inquiry left little space for academics who dared to think differently. As newly elected president of the American Psychological Association, he openly condemned the behaviorism of Lashley, whose meteoric rise in popularity at Harvard University he attributed to the “waxing and waning fashions of the day.” In the same speech, he called for the democratization of psychological study.

Allport’s call was 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 (though no longer existing) department in which psychologists, alongside sociologists and cultural anthropologists, could pursue unconventional, interdisciplinary research projects. The fact that the modern-day discipline of psychology is multifaceted as opposed to singularly scientific in its character points to the lasting influence of Sigmund Freud and the scholars he inspired.

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