What About Freud?

Hebrew University psychology students' recent campaign to secure the place of psychoanalysis in academia is actually a continuation of pre-state disputes.

In 1936, Prof. Nandor Fodor, a chemist, sought to mark Sigmund Freud's 80th birthday by placing a bust of the founder of psychoanalysis in his Hebrew University laboratory. The idea was met with opposition. The official argument stressed religious injunctions against images and statues, but these claims masked a contentious dispute over Freud's place in the state-in-the-making's academic sphere.

Asher Cohen, Sigmund Freud and Eran Rolnik Tomer Neuberg / Jini, AP, Daniel Tchetchik
Tomer Neuberg / Jini, AP, Daniel Tchetchik

Freud, who sat on the first executive board of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, advocated opening a department there for the study of psychoanalysis. But his requests and those of his disciples were rejected, and in the end it was decided that this field of study - which, detractors claim, lacks empirical foundations - did not have a place in academia. The Freud bust ended up in the stairwell of the university library.

Such arguments and anecdotes about Freud are recorded in a new book, "Osei Hanefashot: Im Freud L'eretz Yisrael 1918-1948" ("Freud in Zion: History of Psychoanalysis in the Land of Israel 1918-1948" ), written by Dr. Eran Rolnik, a psychiatrist and a historian at Tel Aviv University.

Some view the recent campaign waged by psychology students in Jerusalem, which Haaretz exposed last week, as the continuation of these pre-state disputes. The students are protesting the proclivity of members of the psychology department to emphasize scientific-empirical aspects of the field, while downplaying its long-standing interest in the unconscious and other non-empirical topics.

The dispute erupted after one of the department's introductory courses was altered, a change which (the students claim ) led to the virtual erasure of Freudian psychology from the undergraduate program. But the real struggle could begin when the department moves from the Mount Scopus campus (where the university's humanities and social sciences faculties are based ) to the Givat Ram campus, where it will operate as part of the life sciences faculty - and effectively be annexed to the biology department and the Safra Center for Brain Sciences.

"This is a sad move," says Prof. Rachel Blass, a former member of Hebrew University's psychology department. "It's another step in a trend that will lead to the end of psychology. In 30 years, psychology will not be an academic field - it will be swallowed up by biology. The understanding of essentially mental processes which will pertain exclusively to their biological foundations. Something vital in the encounter with the human soul will disappear."

"You can't understand a human being in the 21st century without taking psychoanalysis seriously," says Prof. Amia Lieblich, another former member of the Hebrew University department who currently teaches at Tel Aviv Academic College. "Saying that Freud won't be taught in psychology is like saying the Bible won't be taught at a Jewish school. Psychology is a field that aims to understand the individual and his psyche, and that requires an array of powerful tools. Anyone who removes this foundation of psychology turns it into a shallow discipline."

Prof. Shmuel Erlich, who left the department at Hebrew University five years ago, says, "Psychology is created by combining the studies of philosophy and physiology at medical schools. It is the science of human beings, and the big question is how should we view the individual: Only through empirical, statistical lenses, and in a laboratory? Or, alongside this perspective, is there also room for a prism taken from humanistic therapy?"

Not people, brains

"I feel sorry for them," says Rolnik, referring to the heads of the Hebrew University's psychology department. "Those who fail to grasp that the study of the human unconscious requires a sort of science unlike that which organizes information in natural sciences are basically saying they don't want to be psychologists."

"Let's suppose I show you a painting by Van Gogh, and ask you what you see. And you talk to me about how carbon molecules are gripping together and making up the colors in the painting," Rolnik continues. "Instead of dealing with the essential matter - the painting - they want to deal with carbon and nerve systems. The problem is that psychologists are not relevant to that discussion - chemists and biologists don't really need psychologists. Psychoanalysis can pose deep questions relating to the human unconscious and behavior, but in psychology departments around the country very few professionals grasp that psychoanalysis is not just a therapeutic technique - it is also a unique research method.

"For decades, psychoanalysis has been presented in psychology departments as though it were ridiculous. In the morning, lecturers bash Freud in their classrooms, and in the evening they run off to receive psychotherapy training from psychoanalysts," Rolnik says. "Now they think that if they bet on one horse - the scientific horse - some sort of miracle will take place and psychology will turn into a noble, empirical scientific field. But neurological science deals not with people, but with peoples' brains."

"This is a mistaken decision, which both damages the field of psychology while neglecting to make a serious statement about the place of psychoanalysis in academia or culture," Rolnik explains. "Psychology has not managed to convince itself that it is a distinctive science, and it's been gripped by this sort of inferiority complex for dozens of years. Now they think that getting rid of Freud and merging into life sciences will solve the problem.

"No doubt, life sciences have something to offer psychology. Freud himself acknowledged that a century ago. But the crisis faced by the psychology department today will not be resolved by latching onto all sorts of intellectual fads. This is an American trend that was fashionable 20 years ago, and psychiatry is only gradually getting over it.

"In fact, the pendulum of interest is currently swinging back in the direction of psychoanalysis," Rolnik says. "Take a look at the course schedule in humanities departments at Tel Aviv University, or the courses taught in psychotherapy programs. You will not find a word that appears more often than 'Freud' or 'psychoanalysis' in these listings. It's hard to find a field of knowledge that is not influenced by psychoanalytic thinking - apart from psychology, apparently.

"I am not worried about psychoanalysis, since it will continue to flourish and develop in other places. Nor am I worried about students who want to learn about, listen to, understand and care for human beings, because they realized a long time ago that they would need to study in other places. My worry relates to the field of study called psychology, which has relinquished its most important asset," Rolnik concludes.

False advertising?

Opponents of the department's relocation claim that Hebrew University received a substantial donation to establish a large center for brain sciences, and as the psychology department wants its share of the grant it's doing whatever it can to move to Givat Ram. Another explanation holds that empirical-based work wins larger research grants than those pursued within traditional fields of psychology.

These opponents also accuse the department of false advertising, since students enroll thinking they will learn about psychology, but end up taking courses in statistics and biology.

"Virtually nobody comes to the department aiming to become a psychology researcher of the sort fashioned by its courses," says a former senior lecturer in the department. "Students enroll because they want to be clinicians, or because they are interested in learning about the human experience in depth, and the department knowingly misleads them. Were the department to reveal the truth about the character of its studies, it would have 30, rather than 150, students - and these would be lower quality students as well. The students' outrage is entirely justified." Prof. Asher Cohen, the head of Hebrew University's psychology department, had the following to say in response: "There is no effort being made to hide the department's fields of study. We have always been a research department, and everything depends upon the composition of the faculty."

"In all branches of psychology, there has been a tendency in recent years to focus on connections between psychology and life sciences," he continues. "That has happened at Harvard and Stanford, and it is happening at Hebrew University. We made a thorough study of the situation around the world and found that more than half of the departments we reviewed decided to move to life sciences."

Cohen also emphasizes that two international committees that examined psychology studies at Hebrew University strongly endorse his department's current direction.

"We are not afraid of competition, nor are we afraid to display our abilities. We will continue to deal with humanistic research as well," he says.

Cohen takes exception to remarks made last week to Haaretz by department colleague Prof. Yaacov Schul, branding psychology as more of an art than a science. "Any science depends on the data," Cohen stresses.

He also denies that the department has ever concealed its character from students. "I talk about its character all the time," he says, explaining that some portion of the confusion stems from gaps between popular perceptions of psychology and the fields of psychological study that have always been pursued in academia.

"For 40 years I've tried to persuade my family that I'm not a clinical psychologist," he says, smiling. "Our students sometimes arrive with a romantic perception of the discipline, and then they have to deal with statistics. Some of them don't love that, and don't want it. But that's the way it's always been..."

Cohen does not deny that there are financial motivations behind the department's relocation. "There is some truth to that [explanation]," he says, "but we would never have made this move had we not felt that we belonged. I think there's a slightly better chance of receiving funding there. And the natural sciences were happy to receive us. They feel we belong with them."