Mencken on Psychology
by DCDave

Barring sociology (which is yet, of course, scarcely a science at all, but rather a monkeyshine which happens to pay, like play-acting or theology), psychology is the youngest of the sciences, and hence chiefly guesswork, empiricism, hocus-pocus, poppycock. On the one hand, there are still enormous gaps in its data, so that the determination of its simplest principles remains difficult, not to say impossible; and, on the other hand, the very hollowness and nebulosity of it, particularly around the edges, encourages a horde of quacks to invade it, sophisticate it and make nonsense of it. Worse, this state of affairs tends to such confusion of effort and direction that the quack and the honest inquirer are often found in the same man. It is, indeed, a commonplace to encounter a professor who spends his days in the laborious accumulation of psychological statistics, sticking pins into babies and plotting upon a chart the ebb and flow of their yells, and his nights chasing poltergeists and other such celestial fauna over the hurdles of the spiritualist's atelier, or gazing into a crystal in the privacy of his own chamber. The Binet test and the buncombe of mesmerism are alike the children of what we roughly denominate psychology, and perhaps of equal legitimacy. Even so ingenious and competent an investigator as Prof. Dr. Sigmund Freud, who has told us a lot that is of the first importance about the materials and machinery of thought, has also told us a lot that is trivial and dubious. The essential doctirines of Freudism, no doubt, come close to the truth, but many of Freud's remoter deductions are far more scandalous than sound, and many of the professed Freudians, both American and European, have grease-paint on their noses and bladders in their hands and are other wise quite indistinguishable from evangelists and circus clowns. H.L. Mencken in "The Genealogy of Etiquette."

I know, I know, Mencken was writing three quarters of a century ago, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Indeed so. We now know that Mencken greatly over-estimated Freud.

David Martin
September 10, 2000

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