I posted a while back on the fact that ‘psychology’ isn’t proper science, still less a valid way of understanding the human condition.
To me, the problem is summed up by where ‘psychology’ was taken by one of its pioneers, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich, like his teacher Sigsmund Freud, thought everybody was psychologically defective – it was only a matter of degree – and he believed the whole problem flowed from repressed sex-drive.
This may have been true of the late nineteenth century bourgeoise European society in which Freud and his disciples lived. But human reality is more complex, and many societies around the world were not framed by the ‘hangups’ on which these early ‘psychologists’ pivoted, still less by their idea of a universal human ‘normal’ defined by their own European period socio-cultural values.
That was made clear when these ‘psychologists’ discovered other societies, filtering what they observed through those same culture-specific prejudices. Reich, for instance, discovered Trobriand island culture in 1929, after their society was popularised in European intellectual circles because they didn’t have Western period-specific prejudices towards sex. The Trobrianders – apparently – transcended the ‘inhibitions’ that ‘psychologists’ insisted were a universal human problem. The fact that the Trobrianders had their own socio-cultural frameworks which provoked issues in their own terms never emerged to these early researchers.
Reich decided to cure the ‘sex repression’ he diagnosed in all his patients by getting them to strip, then handling them during the – er – ‘consultation’ and so, he insisted, ‘breaking down’ what he called their sexually-driven ‘psychological armour’.
This tells us more about Reich’s tactics for getting his own jollies at others’ expense than anything else. And it was pseudo-science of the worst kind, because it involved power and victims. But it was only the beginning. Reich’s next ‘psychological’ discovery was that human sexual activity produced an invisible force, like electromagnetic energy. Naturally his force trumped all the rest – indeed, Reich believed his ‘sex energy’ was so fundamental to the fabric of reality that the entire universe was created by it.
Why the entire 46 billion light-year diameter universe containing 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars was produced wholly by the ‘sex energy’ of a single species on a small and rather insignificant planet was never explained. But by any measure, Reich’s astonishing display of egocentric onanism – sorry, I mean psychological discovery – was absurd.
Naturally this was only the beginning. By 1939 Reich was in the United States, and because psychology was such an advanced science, it didn’t take Reich long to invent a device to capture his ‘sex energy’, which he called an ‘orgone accumulator’. This was a box the size and shape of a toilet cubicle in which somebody could sit alone in total privacy so as to indulge in – er – well anyway, it was meant to collect and focus ‘sex energy’ on the occupant. And there was more. Reich also insisted that when enhanced with a series of rather phallic-looking barrels, his – um – ‘appliance’ could spurt the collected ‘sex energy’ into the clouds and make it rain. He also claimed his ‘device’ could cure every disease from the common cold to cancer.
The whole thing was woo of the worst order – underscored in 1941 when Reich tried to get Albert Einstein to endorse the ‘accumulator’. It was trivial for Einstein to show that Reich’s ideas were nonsense, but that merely caused Reich to decide Einstein was part of a conspiracy against him. Reich then fell foul of the FDA over his medical claims about his ‘orgone accumulator’. He refused to accept their authority, and his ‘device’ was subject to injunction in 1954, preventing inter-state shipment even of ‘accumulator’ parts.
Frustrated by real science, Reich went back to psychology, where his next major psychological break-through – from his house, which he named Orgonon – was that evil UFOs were distributing ‘black’ Orgone energy.
Now, I know ‘psychology’ has moved on from the hang-ups, ego-driven power games and creepy personal gratification of early twentieth century Germanic woo-merchants. But when I look at the way Reich, Freud, Jung and the rest intellectualised their hangups and period mind-set into the field, I wonder about the fundamentals.
When I look at the way Jung’s attempt to classify the human psyche into tight categories – mediated by his own prejudices and culture – led to the ‘psychometric’ woo on which modern corporate practises pivot, and when I look at the ease with which those classifications misrepresent real people and are used as devices for bullying, I wonder about the ethics.
As humans, we have a colossal capacity to intellectualise ourselves down blind alleys, with a conviction that captures generations at the expense of reason. It seems to me that ‘psychology’ is one of them.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016