What's the current state of thought regarding symbolism within psychological analysis?
September 2, 2008 5:09 AM   Subscribe

What's the current state of thought regarding symbolism within psychological analysis (ie Freud and Jung)? I have only a slight knowledge of psychology, but I understand that both Freud and Jung have been widely discredited. Has there been any advances in symbolistic psychology since Freud and Jung's time? Is it still considered a valid tool with which to analyse the human mind and, in a wider context, the workings of the world?

As you might be able to guess, I'm approaching this from the angle of critical theory but it all comes from a psychological root that was once highly regarded and I'm interested in understanding the validity or otherwise of it nowadays.
posted by humblepigeon to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've just realized that it's entirely possible this question will be misinterpreted. To make it clear, I'm NOT interested in a discussion on the validity of using Freud or Jung's ideas in psychological analysis (as discussed in another AskMeFi question). I'm interested specifically in their use of symbolism and whether it has been discredited, as well as if anybody has picked up the torch and taken it further. I'm also not interested in a discussion of well-publicized flaws in Freud's research techniques, unless it's relevant to the argument at hand.
posted by humblepigeon at 5:19 AM on September 2, 2008


Symbolism is too fraught with the prejudices of the therapist to be useful. Therapist believes "cigar" is code for man issues, and so anyone that smokes really has man issues? It was a good start toward understanding the human mind, but has been surpassed.
posted by gjc at 5:25 AM on September 2, 2008


It was a good start toward understanding the human mind, but has been surpassed.

Surpassed by what?
posted by humblepigeon at 5:30 AM on September 2, 2008


It has been discredited. Or, rather, reassessment suggests that there was no reason to credit it in the first place. But i suspect you knew that, since you know that Freud has been discredited in a pretty all encompassing way.
posted by ewkpates at 5:51 AM on September 2, 2008


I think that certainly metaphor (over "symbolistic") has it's place in psychology. There is one line of thought with linguists that language brought about the capacity for abstract thought. A sound or word represents a noun or concept, which in turn might be representative of another. Look at how a phrase "the whole nine yards" which derives from WWII pilots' shooting all of their ammo at a target has come to mean putting all of the effort or resources forth to finishing a task.

While interesting, this is not terribly enlightening on an individual or therapeutic level. As to the idea that "Freud has been discredited in a pretty all encompassing way," I certainly agree this is true in a societal sense. I'm not so sure that this is true within the Psychology Community. (Although his concepts of death instinct and penis envy are quite dubious).

There's a certain interesting thing that happens when people study Freud. At first the ideas are so radical that people immediately reject them-- we can't metabolize some of these concepts. Although after years of study in Psychology people tend to go in the direction of more acceptance of Freud. When you think about it, whatever "the answers" are about Psychology, they are more likely complex rather than immediately straight forward. Because if it were all so simple we probably would not have problems, and need therapists, etc.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 6:16 AM on September 2, 2008


Though Freud's more "interesting" positions have, as has been noted here, widely discredited, on a deeper level Freud remains incredibly influential. For instance, the idea that current psychological maladies can be explained by repressed/unexpiated experiences, particularly from childhood, is completely Freudian. So is the idea that therapy can have a positive role in "curing" such "symptoms." Neuroses are a distinctly Freudian idea which hasn't gone anywhere either. These ideas aren't generally considered "Freudian" because they've become so deeply rooted in our culture that we don't tend to remember that it's entirely possible to not believe those things.
posted by valkyryn at 6:31 AM on September 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


There's no doubt that Freud is still influential... and where that influence is strong the science and research tend to be weaker.

Your science pays the price for your subservience to myth.

I went to a Crews lecture on Freud once. He was not warmly received. He challenged the audience to say what the sun was a symbol of, and then, when answered, asked, "Why?".

The audience was ashamed it could not answer the question or give a reason for linking any of Freud's symbols to their proposed meaning. But, on the other hand, very few minds were opened at that lecture. The less science you practice, the less scientific your thinking.
posted by ewkpates at 8:13 AM on September 2, 2008


Has there been any advances in symbolistic psychology since Freud and Jung's time? Is it still considered a valid tool with which to analyse the human mind and, in a wider context, the workings of the world?

I still consider it a valid tool for understanding dreams. But I think that dream symbolism tends to be much more idiosyncratic than Freud and Jung's systems.

If you're trying to understand a dream, it's better to try to put it into the context of what the dreamer was experiencing the day before and what associations they have with that particular part of the dream.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:31 AM on September 2, 2008


Your question glosses over one of the major differences between Freud and Jung: Freud understood symbolism to be personal and generated from within the person and their life story, while Jung understood symbols to be more universal. The power of Interpretation of Dreams was precisely that Freud understood dream analysis to be useless without a thorough understanding of the particularities of the dreamer. Freud wrote the book in an intellectual climate in which there were many "dream dictionaries" which purported to explain dreams by recourse to supposedly universal symbols, but he wrote in opposition to those books.

Insofar as Freud understood symbols to be meaningful primarily to the people they concerned, his focus on symbols has never been supplanted. Neither has his approach been discredited: his general description of the human mind (a small conscious component informed by vast stores of unconscious knowledge) is an accurate one, as far as we now know, and his approach to treatment has been vindicated by many studies which prove that psychotherapy is useful not only when it is CBT, but also when it is psychodynamic. Hence, it's reasonable to assume that his approach to symbols is useful, if only within the purview of the treatment modalities he helped to describe. On the other hand, since many many people share his view of the genesis and utility of personal symbols and symbolism, Freud's approach still has currency as a way to describe minds within culture (as opposed to clinically withing a biological discipline).
posted by OmieWise at 9:11 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Neat question. I guess if you want to see where the symbolism of Freud and Jung went after them, read Jacques Lacan. He was a pretty prominent Freudian in the sixties.
posted by Laugh_track at 9:18 AM on September 2, 2008


These ideas aren't generally considered "Freudian" because they've become so deeply rooted in our culture that we don't tend to remember that it's entirely possible to not believe those things.

Nicely put. The so-called modern world gets very hard to grasp without a few "Freudisms" to fall back on. Even the Simpsons had fun with the Washington Monument. And don't even get started on advertising.
posted by philip-random at 9:34 AM on September 2, 2008


What Omie said.
posted by Wolof at 10:16 PM on September 2, 2008


If Omie was right, then I'm sure we'll be able to find studies that link symbols to meanings in the brain somewhere in the scientific literature... we'll be able to find studies that substantiate the claim that the dreaming process is an intentional narrative (someone telling a story) rather than a constructed narrative (someone creating a story around random elements).

Freud and Jung weren't scientists. At best they were philosophers, at worst they were cult leaders. If psychology is a science, and it is desperately trying to be, then dreams are not well researched, and have little role (or focus) in most modern (and scientifically demonstrated as effective) psychological treatment tools.

The question here is the problem: What is the current state of thought... ? For who? The cult followers?

I took the question as, "What is the current scientific state of thought..." but hey, I guess any thought is as good as any other.
posted by ewkpates at 8:08 AM on September 3, 2008


The question here is the problem: What is the current state of thought... ? For who? The cult followers?

As the question states, I'm approaching this from a cultural and critical perspective. In particular, I'm referencing the massively popular analysis of mythology made by Joseph Campbell. All narratives can be successfully analyzed using Campbell's structures, but without Freud/Jung, they wouldn't (couldn't) exist. Campbell wasn't alone in using Freud/Jung to critically analyze texts---it's pretty much the basis of 20th century critical theory in one way or another.

What I find intriguing, and what this question was asked in order to discover, is whether the foundations of the likes of Campbell's critical position, based as they are in psychological symbolism, are still valid, and, if not, what has taken their place.
posted by humblepigeon at 8:46 AM on September 3, 2008


If Omie was right, then I'm sure we'll be able to find studies that link symbols to meanings in the brain somewhere in the scientific literature... we'll be able to find studies that substantiate the claim that the dreaming process is an intentional narrative (someone telling a story) rather than a constructed narrative (someone creating a story around random elements).

With all due respect, can you point to studies that link language to meaning in the brain? We know language has meaning, and it's certainly related to specific brain structures, but I'm not aware of any studies that specify the level of granularity that ewkpates suggests would be necessary to validate Freud's insights. But, ewkpates' comment really points out the way that people misunderstand (willfully?) Freud. Whether the narrative of a dream, for instance, is intentional or created, what matters is the reactions a person has to the dream. Freud said as much.
posted by OmieWise at 11:36 AM on September 9, 2008


With a little less respect, I make these two points:

1. Meaning in the brain is association between a sound and another sensory object. The mechanics of that process can be tested by asking people to pick up a "hammer" out of a group of objects. No need to pry open the brain there.

What does a hammer symbolize in dreams? Anything you like. There is no evidence that a hammer represents anything. There is no evidence that anything in a dream represents anything else. The symbolism of dreams is bogus, and the idea that dreams are a narrative at all is unproven.

2. Freud said so many things that had no basis in fact and weren't consistent that you can easily use his quotes to take both sides in an argument.

I've been thinking about humblepigeon's question for some time now, and all I've come up with is this:

I wonder if culture changes more rapidly now because more data is available and more communication is occurring. I wonder if the best work on myths is being done in the assessment of generational perspectives... the new myths are the myths of generational culture... which, like all good myths, are frames of perspective.
posted by ewkpates at 4:18 AM on September 10, 2008


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