You know how sometimes just one small piece of a conversation you have sticks with you for years because you keep thinking of ways you could have addressed some part of it differently? I have one of those for you today. At some point between five and ten years ago (I know that’s a big gap, but like I said, I don’t remember the majority of this conversation), while I was in grad school for women’s studies, I was hanging out with a postdoc in biology.
Somehow we ended up talking about Sigmund Freud. I don’t remember exactly why or how, except that I had mentioned for some reason that psychoanalytic theory is used (among many other approaches) in some feminist theory. “Freud?” she repeated. “I thought he was debunked long ago!”
I tried to explain that while a lot of Freudian theory was considered obsolete if taken at face value, there were other aspects that could be considered useful unto themselves and even more that later theorists had used as conceptual starting points and then built on into something completely different.
While I didn’t think of it in these terms then—which is exactly why the conversation replays in my mind years later—I was arguing that there’s no such thing as “debunking” in the humanities…
…that humanities scholars—and many social scientists—think less in terms of whether something is “true” or “false,” “correct” or “incorrect,” and more in terms of whether it’s “useful” or “not useful.”
Freud’s original theories may or may not be “correct,” but they have proven themselves useful for scholars of the mind, as well as of culture and society, who apply concepts like the unconscious (or collective unconscious), the morality principle, defense mechanisms, psychosexual development, and so on, to their work. Even if you dismiss the literal idea of penis envy or the Oedipus complex, you can still get behind the idea that defense mechanisms like repression, denial, and reaction formation are the unconscious mind’s tools for dealing with stressors or information that doesn’t fit into one’s understanding of reality.
Freud wasn’t a feminist at all, but psychoanalytic feminists as well have picked up on some of his concepts and either integrated them with social theory (e.g., Jane Flax) or turned his work on its head to illustrate a psychoanalysis centered on female anatomy instead of male (e.g., Luce Irigaray). It’s not hard to find many others.
There are a lot of concepts not only in psychology but other areas of theory, and not only in scholarship but in everyday conversation, that wouldn’t exist if Freud had ever been “debunked”: the id/ego/superego, libido, the concept of the self in childhood development, the pleasure principle, transference, anal retentiveness, and so many others. Rather than saying Freud has been debunked, which implies dismissal and a lack of acknowledgement, it’s better to say that he started a conversation that has split off in numerous unanticipated directions, many of them based on disagreement with the original core theories. Disagreement is, of course, at least as fruitful an entrance to conversation as agreement could ever be.
The point isn’t Freudianism, though. The point is the conversation.
For humanities and social science PhD candidates, as well as all students and scholars at earlier and later points in their academic careers, seeing one’s own work as part of a larger conversation among thinkers can help.
It can help you understand how to read and apply the writings of foundational theorists. The foundational texts feel like drudgery when you’re trying to get to the current scholars who do fun stuff like critique cult TV shows, study cross-dressers in southeast Asia, or interview women in prison. But seeing how those funky new scholars apply the dusty old ones to their work can give you a clearer view of the threads in the conversation already taking place.
It can help you understand who your audience is when you write anything from a reaction paper to a dissertation and beyond. Even if the only person who ever reads your paper is your professor, you’re still taking part in an expansive scholarly conversation. You’re cultivating your ideas and your overall impression of the subject, and you might be (perhaps more often than some students think) influencing that one reader’s understanding of the subject—or at least her understanding of how the subject might be read. Even a first-year undergrad is a conversant. Keep that scholarly audience in mind while writing to keep the text targeted.
It can help you understand what makes a literature review effective. These are your conversation partners, and being clear about what they said and when is just as important as knowing and explaining why it’s useful. I’ve read many a lit review that consisted chiefly of quotation after quotation of cited material, with little to no discussion about what, specifically, the author hoped to gain by engaging with that author. A strong lit review doesn’t simply provide a static background for the current research; it describes how the current research fits into these existing threads of discussion. The end of a dissertation or research paper will usually suggest some future directions for the conversation to take.
I don’t know whether the biology postdoc had this impression of “debunking” because she was a biologist; any field, after all, can embrace “usefulness” over “correctness.” But the conversation had an effect on me that has contributed to how I think not just about theory but about the process of writing, even ten years after the conversation occurred. Evidently, I didn’t “debunk” her, either, but drew on my disagreement to develop a more complete overall view.
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