Reclaiming Freud as a Naturalist


This article is meant to reclaim Freud as a naturalist. During the 20th century, Freud’s writings were used by various schools of thought in support of their ideas regardless of Freud’s own views and original intentions. The abuse of Freudian psychoanalysis is an unfortunate trend that we have been witnessing in the humanities for many decades. First, I will explain how Freud has been abused in the name of poststructuralism and postmodernism, then I will argue why a better alternative to the postmodern approach is to look at Freud as a naturalist.

“Scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves.”—Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

Two Freuds?

We can roughly divide the followers of Freudian psychoanalysis into two groups insofar as science is concerned: those who see psychoanalysis as a field that should exhibit scientific discipline, and those who reinterpret Freud to their hearts’ content regardless of the original context in which Freud’s ideas were formulated. Today, the former group is perhaps best exemplified by neuropsychoanalysts, and the latter group by postmodernists and cultural critics. I will focus on the latter group in this article.

To put it bluntly, in his essay, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Foucault argues that Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx started a hermeneutical revolution. The message of Foucault’s argument comes down to this: these were the thinkers who enabled poststructuralism and postmodernism. In other words, they provided later philosophical movements with indispensable interpretive tools and techniques—something that Foucault praises them for. Likewise, in Freud and Lacan, Althusser, just like Foucault, puts Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in one group, but not under the right category; that is to say, Althusser and Foucault tune out any naturalistic trace in the works of these authors to paint a postmodern picture of them—a picture more attuned to the French taste. Of course, Althusser and Foucault are just representatives of a large group of thinkers, and the problem goes beyond these two figures. In contrast to this view, Leiter groups Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx alongside naturalist philosophers such as David Hume (Leiter, 2015, p. 4).

The question is, who is right? Foucault or Leiter? For the remainder of this brief article, I will argue in favour of Leiter’s position. It is my hope that this article will make the reader pause for a moment to reassess his or her views on Freud and Freudian psychoanalysis.

How Foucault got Freud Wrong

Before we continue, let’s briefly examine what Foucault, as a representative of the poststructuralist clan, has to tell us about Freud. Foucault believes that Freud (alongside Marx and Nietzsche) has “established an endless possibility of discourse” (Foucault, 1998, p. 217). The endlessness of this possibility can be seen not just outside psychoanalysis but also within psychoanalysis:

To say that Freud founded psychoanalysis does not (simply) mean that we find the concept of the libido or the technique of dream analysis in the works of Karl Abraham or Melanie Klein; it means that Freud made possible a certain number of divergences—with respect to his own texts, concepts, and hypotheses—that all arise from the psychoanalytic discourse itself. (Foucault, 1998, p. 218)

Although Foucault does not use the term “recursion,” we could say that, according to him, the interpretive technique of psychoanalysis is open to endless discourse because of its recursive nature. Foucault uses the phrase “the perpetual play of mirrors” to describe this phenomenon (Foucault, 1998, p. 272). In other words, not only can we interpret the world by using the techniques of interpretation which Freud has given us but also we can interrogate Freud himself with these same techniques (see Foucault, 1998, p. 272). However, according to Foucault, re-examining Freud would not necessarily give us the original Freud; rather, it would give us a new Freudian psychoanalysis:

Reexamination of Galileo’s text may well change our understanding of the history of mechanics, but it will never be able to change mechanics itself. On the other hand, reexamining Freud’s texts modifies psychoanalysis itself, just as a reexamination of Marx’s would modify Marxism. (Foucault, 1998, p. 219)

Evidently, poststructuralists are boastfully indifferent to the original meaning and intentions of Freud’s work. Not only that, but they aim at modification, at altering the past! This is what I take issue with. Freudian psychoanalysis, as originally formulated by Freud, cannot possibly change—no matter how hard a postmodernist twists it. Psychoanalytic history can tell us what Freud did, said, thought, and wrote. Certain things are indisputable. Projects such as the Lacanian “return to Freud,” as interesting as they may be, can have no bearing on the historical facts of psychoanalysis. What remains a historical fact is that Freud brought scientific discipline to his investigations, and as a scientist, he had scientific intentions. It goes without saying that endless discourse is at odds with scientific discourse!

Besides, Foucault’s example does not hold, because by re-examining what is known as “Galileo’s ship,” Einstein really did change mechanics itself! Likewise, psychoanalysis can (and must!) also change and evolve, but not in the way postmodernists imaginethe change. We cannot retroactively modify Freud to our hearts’ content so he would fit our theories!

What Is Naturalism?

Defining naturalism in all its shades and variations is beyond the scope of this article; instead, I will provide a concise definition of naturalism (as it is commonly understood) that can encompass all its forms:

Naturalists are concerned with the natural world, and they do not appeal to supernatural entities (such as God or spiritual forces) when they explain the natural world. Human beings and human behaviour are located within the natural world; therefore, in explaining human behaviour, naturalists offer naturalised explanations, i.e., explanations that have their origins in people and their natural environment. Understandably, naturalism is tightly linked to science, and what all naturalists show is scientific discipline in their inquiries.

What I have offered is a broad definition of naturalism. As already stated, there are various shades and forms of naturalism. Freud was a special kind of naturalist; in my view, the best type of naturalism that describes Freud is methodological naturalism:

Common features of a methodological naturalism are an emphasis on empirical research and a rejection of a priori theorizing (in which one starts by analyzing concepts and terms, apart from experience, and moves from this to claims about the world and what exists). […] Methodological naturalists, atheist and theist alike, hold that science properly understood and practiced (and perhaps also philosophy) should not appeal to supernatural entities or forces. (Clark, 2016, p. 5)

Freud as a Naturalist

Here is a simple argument that might persuade you that Freud was a naturalist: Some intellectuals sit behind a desk and come up with grandiose ideas on a diet of coffee and cigarettes. Such ideas are typically as robust as the smoke of their cigarettes. Unlike armchair philosophers such as Hegel or Derrida, Freud was never satisfied with using his armchair as his main operation base; rather, besides his scientific training, he talked to patients and accumulated data to come up with and support his theories.

Freud passes the litmus test for naturalism and ticks all the boxes, and more: Freud had scientific training; he never appealed to any transcendent or supernatural phenomenon; his theory of the mind was materialistic; he gave a naturalised account of religion; he always emphasised the importance of scientific discipline and saw science as the only path that shouldbe followed; he remained committed to empiricism; he wanted to discover psychoanalytic laws and gave a lawlike account of the mind and human behaviour; he gave a naturalised account of human behaviour that is causal and deterministic; likewise, his theory of the unconscious is causal; and the list goes on.

The above list is not surprising when we consider how Freud put his position in clear terms:

The intellect and the mind are objects for scientific research in exactly the same way as any non-human things.(Freud, 1981b, p. 159)

Some Basic Arguments in Favour of Freud as a Naturalist

Freud saw himself alongside Copernicus and Darwin (Freud, 1981a, pp. 139–141), not because he had caused a hermeneutical revolution, but because he saw his work as a scientific revolution. Although, admittedly, it would be too much of a stretch to call Freud a scientist on a par with Einstein, it would be unfair to call him unscientific. Even the Popperian criterion of testability seems inadequate for calling Freudian psychoanalysis unscientific, for, as Grünbaum points out, Popperians are at a loss when they are pressed to answer “what proof Popper has offered that none of the consequences of the theoretical Freudian postulates are empirically testable” (Grünbaum, 1985, p. 113). Although one might argue that psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science, I do not think we could stretch that labelling to include Freud and call him a pseudo-scientist. I understand the challenges of defending Freud based on today’s standards of science, but many of his critics do him an injustice by not reading him closely and not knowing the history behind his theories.

A Popperian might argue that Freud immunised his theories against criticism by using an ad hoc manoeuvre, but how well would that assumption be grounded? For instance, Cioffi argues as “if the concept of narcissism was introduced ad hoc to make the hypothesis of the sexual origin of neurosis impossible to refute” (Jupp, 1977, p. 444). In response,V. L. Jupp points out how “we learn from the editorial note to Freud’s paper ‘On Narcissism: an Introduction’ that Freud’s thinking on this subject dates back to 1909” (Jupp, 1977, p. 444). That is to say, Freud was already dealing with the concept before the time based on which Cioffi accuses him of forming an ad hoc argument. As far as other accounts are concerned, I do not see how Freud’s modification of his theories differ from, say, Einstein when he added the cosmological constant (lambda: Λ) to his theory to render it compatible with observation. It would be absurd to argue that Einstein’s cosmological constant is an ad hoc manoeuvre to immunise his theory of relativity!

Leaving the Popperians behind, on the other side of the spectrum, Foucault believes that “Freud interprets not signs but interpretations” (Foucault, 1998, p. 276). He bases his argument on the assumption that Freud could not work with anything other than what his patients told him—those reports being the patients’own interpretations in the first place (see Foucault, 1998, p. 276). Yet, Foucault misses the point, because Freud’s intention was far from getting stuck in a “perpetual play of mirrors!” Let’s take the case of memory as an example: Firstly, so far as his patients were concerned, Freud did not take what the patients said at face value; rather, he tried to corroborate the patient’s account of events by various sources. Secondly, Freud was not trying to get lost in endless interpretation; he wanted to find a causal link between the patient’s symptoms and what might have caused them. Even if we went back to Freud’s early work on psychoanalysis, we would realise that Freud was after results, not mere interpretations. Since we are discussing the problem of memory, let’s take the problem of forgetting words as it was discussed in his work in 1901. If we read Freud’s work, we would realise that Freud was not promoting the idea of free association to open the door to an “endless possibility of discourse.” First of all, he had an objective: to find out what the forgotten word was. Secondly, Freud was trying to find causal connections in his investigations. Despite his criticisms of Freud, even Grünbaum remarks,

Having deemed the lapse [of memory] to be a mini-neurotic symptom, Freud attributed its occurrence causally to the operation of some repression.(Grünbaum, 1985, p. 58)

What I mean to argue for is not Freud’s results, but his scientifically oriented way of thinking; for that reason, I appreciate that in his criticism of Freud, Grünbaum also criticises the hermeneutic conception of Freud. Founding the “possibility of a hermeneutic” (as Foucault refers to it) was not Freud’s aim.

A Personal Note in Parenthesis

I am not a poststructuralist or a postmodernist, and my views on these movements are admittedly negative. That being said, I am against neither Foucault nor poststructuralist psychoanalysis such as Lacan’s. In fact, those who know me know that Foucault and Lacan are among my favourite French thinkers of the 20th century. Those who know me also know how much I am against science-worship. I understand that the history of psychoanalysis is rich and complex, and my aim in this article is not to promote Freudian psychoanalysis over other psychoanalytic schools. What I take issue with is being indifferent to Freud’s original views and intentions. Even more disconcerting is the fact that some shamelessly twist Freud to make him fit their theories. In this article, I have chosen Foucault merely as a representative of a wider movement; I would like to ask the reader not to take my words as an attack on Foucault, but rather, only as a criticism of Foucault’s views on Freudian psychoanalysis.


I leave it up to the reader to weigh the evidence. What is clear to me is that bending Freud to make him fit our theories is not the way to go. It is indisputable that Freud had a scientific way of thinking, and that he saw science as our salvation. In fact, even Lacan, whom poststructuralists praise, understood the value of science; he understood that psychoanalysis needs to have a scientific grounding, hence his bizarre project of coming up with mathemes. However, unfortunately, in such efforts, Lacan was posing as a scientist, and, as a result, it is not surprising that Sokal and others saw such endeavours as charlatanism and an abuse of science. Instead of modifying Freud to our own ends, maybe a better path would be to accept him as he was: a naturalist.


Clark, K. J. (2016). Naturalism and its Discontents. In K. J. Clark (Ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Naturalism. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Foucault, M. (1998). Aesthetics, method, and epistemology (J. D. Faubion (ed.)). The New Press.

Freud, S. (1981a). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII. Hogarth Press.

Freud, S. (1981b). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXII. Hogarth Press.

Grünbaum, A. (1985). The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique. University of California Press.

Jupp, V. L. (1977). Freud and Pseudo-Science. Philosophy, 52(202), 441–453.

Leiter, B. (2015). Nietzsche on Morality. Routledge.


  1. Thank you for your text. Freud had written a huge amount of psychoanalytic texts and to be honest not all of his work is perfectly coherent. His thinking had been naturally developing for most of his life. Sometimes you can find texts which to some point contradict some of his previous work. In many of his texts it is obvious that Freud was definitively very much in favor of naturalism. However, if you strongly generally claim that Freud was a naturalist, it would be, in my opinion, also helpful to explain why his concepts of overdetermation, construction or analysis terminable/interminable do not imply „endless interpretation“. Or how two very abstract all-encompassing drives Eros/Thanatos (which are also used to explain concrete human behavior) described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle differ from unnaturalistic „supernatural forces“ delineated by Clark.

    • Thank you for your comment. Sorry for this belated reply; I’ve just noticed your comment. As I understand it, the concept of „overdetermination“ doesn’t pose any threat to naturalism. Multiple factors may contribute to our symptoms or our dreams, but these factors should, in principle, be traceable to specific causes. But yes, you do have a point, and I acknowledge that during the last phase of his career Freud became more philosophical. I believe this change had a lot to do with observing the events of WWI and WWII. It is no coincidence that Freud wrote about Thanatos after seeing the destruction of the war. I see a sharp contrast between Freud’s writings before and after Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Nevertheless, despite taking a philosophical turn, Freud never abandoned his faith in science.

      • Because of the existence of unconsciousness you can never know whether you have traced all factors. It is a reason why in clinical psychoanalytic practice it is recommended to have a persistant attitude that there still could be other factors which also contribute to a particular symptom or dream. It is not rare to find very new perspectives on a particular psychic phenomenon even after many years of psychoanalysis.

  2. Thank you for bringing this vital consideration.

    It seems that, despite the content of the article being critical about biased postmodern view on Freud, it implicitly contains comparable subjective distortion of proclaimed invalidity of such view. Your personal note at the end partially explains your claim, yet does not immunise it against contestability.

    So I am saying to myself (and asking you): why not allow Freud to be a naturalist and at the same time endorse the deconstruction of his concepts? Do new notions necessarily lead to total erasure of primary concepts?

    I am not trying to defy your emphasis on Freud’s scientific thought orientation, but rather tackling to oppose your reckoning this deconstruction as “abuse” or considering it to be “unfortunate”.

    • Thank you for your comment.
      I am allowing Freud to be a naturalist and open to a poststructuralist/postmodernist reading at the same time. I myself have a soft spot for Lacan and Foucault. That being said, I am arguing that one should be aware of the facts; then, one is free to do what one wishes. In my view, it is crucial to acknowledge Freud’s position on science. I might be in contact with the wrong crowd of people, but most educated people I talk to are not even aware of Freud’s scientific inclinations! For me, that’s an intellectual failure.
      Then, of course, there is another, more substantial problem: in my humble opinion, postmodernism is really analogous to chasing after one’s tail—it inhibits progress. I’m not asking my readers to agree with me. What I am asking is that, if they chose to go down that road, they should at least acknowledge that they are deviating from Freud, because science and postmodernism are irreconcilable, incompatible, and at odds with each other. Taking a postmodernist position and claiming to do science is like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too!


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