Debates About Freud & Repression

Simon BoagIn the December 2007 issue of Review of General Psychology, Harvard psychologist Richard J. McNally disputes a claim by Simon Boag (2006) of Macquarie U. (Australia) that Sigmund Freud’s theory of repression is routinely misrepresented in modern textbooks and even research articles. Boag argued that most writers falsely describe repression as being the motivated forgetting of memories of trauma (typically, of childhood sexual abuse). Instead, Boag noted, Freud invoked repression to explain the forgetting of unacceptable impulses and desires. Boag went on to suggest that this repeated error constitutes a form a “pathological science”; precisely the kind of “resistance to psychoanalysis… [that] Freud predicted would occur.”

McNally (2007) responded that although this was true of mature psychoanalysis, those who claim that traumatic memories are repressed are not unconsciously “resisting” psychoanalysis but, rather, are intentionally rejecting it in favor of Freud’s earlier “seduction theory,” which they believe to capture more fully the actual truth of the matter. Boag (2007) conceded that this is probably the explanation, as far as it goes, but also contended that McNally’s point fails to address the primary allegation, which was that, regardless of what they may believe to be true, many authors continue to misdescribe the psychoanalytic theory of repression in terms of traumatic memories.

Boag, S. (2006). Freudian repression, the common view, and pathological science. Review of General Psychology, 10, 74-86.

Boag, S. (2007). Pathological science and the myth of recovered memories: Reply to McNally. Review of General Psychology, 11, 361-362.

McNally, R. J. (2007). Do certain readings of Freud constitute “pathological science”? A comment on Boag (2006). Review of General Psychology, 11, 359-360.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

One thought on “Debates About Freud & Repression

  1. I am a clinical psychologist and college teacher, now retired. I have read Boag and McNally. My reply will not exactly be scientific.
    My impression is that psychologist, sociologists, political scientists, historians, and economists, among others, hate Freud because they are a variety of obsessive compulsive threatened by dirt, and they think Freud is dirty. After all, he did write about the oral, anal, and phallic stage.
    Sociology like to write about society, pol. sci about the diplomatic pouch and government, economists about money and banking, historians about the deaceased (without any notion about motivation), and psychologist like behavior theory, cognitive theory, etc. all clean. They are constricted and generally intellectual limited. I mean stupid.

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