Above is Google’s nGram of books mentioning three Jewish intellectual heroes through 2007 (the last full year of data, I believe). The trajectory of Einstein’s green line makes him looks like the real deal, while Freud (red) and Marx (blue) look like burst bubbles.
Events after 2007 may have helped stabilize the decline of Marx (his ideas can be useful conceptual tools, just as Malthus’s can, without requiring complete submission to either Marx’s or Malthus’s model of how the world works).
During the latter part of his life, Freud was almost exactly as famous as Einstein (who was a huge celebrity after 1919), and then ascended into the heights during the 1950s, where he stayed until the 1990s.
There are plenty of theories for why this was so. Freud’s Austria was quite anti-Semitic, and close association with him, whether as a colleague or a patient, would have been stigmatizing for non-Jews.
But more pertinently: In my (Jewish) view, there can be no doubt that there was something familiar and accessible to Jews in the Talmudic nature of the psychoanalytic process. Instead of probing Torah narratives and commandments to know God’s will, psychoanalysts probe patients’ utterances to know their unconscious drives. I can see why the simple transfer of methodology from the interrogation of miracle-based texts to exegesis of exotic psychological tropes might appeal to the Jewish psyche …
Some kids’ moms felt they missed their calling as a dancer or a writer. Mine, a high school graduate with native intelligence, but underdeveloped critical thinking skills harnessed to overdeveloped self-confidence, was an analyst manqué. I simply accepted that “what do you think you/she/he really meant by that?” was a normal response to even the most banal assertion at our dinner table. I assumed all families were like that, but they weren’t. It really was a Jewish thing. …
This was in the 1950s. I was an impressionable teenager, and I did not find her idea as ludicrous as I would in retrospect. Just as “red diaper” babies in the 1930s and ’40s were raised by their parents to believe the world was divided between evil capitalists and right-thinking Communists, I was for many years persuaded by my mother’s equally binary approach to life that history was a struggle between the psychologically crippled and the psychologically healthy (amongst whom she naturally counted herself).
To my mother, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts (there are, of course, important differences between their professions, but it was all the same to her) were god-like figures, all-knowing and pure of intention, their craft a unitary corrective to what ailed modern man. It never occurred to her that the power to give the thumbs up or down on a politician’s readiness for office, then based entirely in the personal opinion of someone whose judgments were rooted in hypotheses and theories, might lead to corruption. Her naïveté is astonishing in retrospect, but I suppose one could say the same about Marxist utopians. …
Kernels of doubt occasionally lodged in my mind, though. One memorable incident that my mother witnessed and reported to me involved her friend’s husband, an almost parodically Jewish–German psychoanalyst. When his five-year old son told him, in mixed company, “I love you so much I could eat you up,” his father calmly and ponderously responded, “I know zat you fantasize about killing me, dear boy, but zis is nozzing to feel guilty about.”
Psychoanalysis is pretty well over today. It is crazily time- and money-consuming, and it rarely accomplishes anything for people suffering from true mental anguish. Coping strategies and medication have replaced extended, unstructured talking marathons, obsessions with toilet training trauma and alleged Oedipal fantasies. The focus is increasingly on short-term life crises or truly debilitating problems for which some form of chemical treatment is part of the solution.
But when I was a young adult, settling in for no-cutoff therapy with a “shrink” was commonplace, for Jews at any rate, for what I was led to believe were serious, but what I would now call trivial, reasons: normal clashes with parents and siblings, sorrow over a teenage break-up, less than perfect social success.
Being neurotic, or even being thought to be neurotic, was a kind of social capital amongst Jews of my generation. … Neurosis was supposedly a psychological deficit, but amongst highly self-regarding middle-class Jews of a certain stripe—“snowflakes” avant la lettre—it came to be equated with superior intelligence and psychological complexity, just as social activists today, wracked by perceived omnipresent racial, gender and class microaggressions, feel a sense of special righteousness in calling them out. For a highly educated Jewish young woman in artsy circles to admit that she was psychologically normal and got along swell with her parents made her a bit pathetic, a bit of a simpleton. …
Looking back, I can see that blind faith in psychiatry as the Answer was a kind of mania in the 1950s and beyond for Jews who had lost touch with the faith of their fathers, but were too bourgeois and socially conformist to find appeal in far-left political radicalism. Smart, striving secular Jews, who couldn’t for one reason or another complete the upstream leap to material good fortune, tended to gravitate to political ideology. And there were enough of them to make up a massively disproportionate share of the Communist movement in the West.
That agrees with my impression that Freudianism was largely for more conservative liberal Jews who wanted a Jewish-invented “scientific” ideology just like Marx had provided, but who didn’t like Marxism (often for the very good reason that they were quite bourgeois and figured they’d get expropriated).
In the early 20th Century, there were a whole lot of high IQ Jews, but there was a shortage of great Jewish thinkers to idolize due to the Jewish community being so self-limiting until so late. There was Marx, but maybe you didn’t think Marxism would do you and your upper middle class family much good. So that kind of left Freud by default.
Freudianism’s immense prestige no doubt set back the psychological sciences by a few decades. But Freud didn’t collectivize agriculture or invade Poland, so, when grading him on the curve of his era, he seems not so bad. Freud was basically L. Ron Hubbard with a higher IQ fan club, but by the standards of 20th Century cult leaders, he didn’t cause all that much harm.
The funny thing looking back was how much courage it took to publicly laugh at Freud’s absurd pretensions to be scientific. Apparently, you had to have the immense self-confidence of a Vladimir Nabokov to scoff at Freud. (Commenters add the names Wittgenstein, Popper, and Sartre to the honor roll of skeptics, but that just reinforces my point about how much self-confidence was required to publicly dissent from Freudianism.)
One important question is whether the fall of Freud has caused any second thoughts among Jewish intellectuals about how their predecessors ever fell for Freud and how they talked the gentiles into assuming they weren’t crazy and that Freud was important. As far as I can tell, the collapse of Freud’s reputation has not led to much general Jewish doubt about Jewish intellectual influence or to unfortunate intellectual predilections that Jews might be particularly susceptible to.