Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was ambivalent towards philosophy. In just the same way that philosophy purports to explain the world, so too does psychoanalysis. But whereas the former aims merely at explanation, the latter seeks to turn this explanatory power back upon ourselves to serve the aims of life. While Aristotle is dismissive of reason as a means to an end as fit for manual labor and unworthy of a free man, Francis Bacon, the father of the experimental method of the sciences, argues, writing in the 17th
century, that means-end reasoning can and should be directed towards “the relief of man’s estate,” which is to say, the alleviation of suffering. Psychoanalysis dovetails with this goal.
Freud is committed to the idea that we are driven by our instincts.
As for the explanation of the world that psychoanalysis offers, Freud is committed to the idea that we are driven by our instincts, and that it’s our clash with others and with the external world, which frustrates the realization of our instincts, that drives the rise of culture. We’re forced to come to grips with the fact that our fellows have rightful claims on us if we wish to have the freedom to do as we please within a diminished sphere of action, which we might call the liberal state, and we’re also forced to come to grips with the fact of death, a figure for all sorts of limitations on our powers brought home to us as we grow.
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Freud’s philosophical side is in play in the example he sets of the right way to live, which comes down to the right way to act. Freud’s whole oeuvre, it has been argued, is about right conduct, and so about ethics, which entailed, in his view, taking up the responsibilities and opportunities afforded by work and love. Freud practiced what he preached about work and love insofar as he married and had children, which differentiates him from so many of the prominent philosophers with whom we are familiar, and his creation from out of nothing of psychoanalysis served as the realization of his hopes of becoming a prominent figure himself while also making a living. Today, psychoanalysis as a curative method is overshadowed by psychiatry, which is in the vein of more traditional Western medicine, but the talk therapy he pioneered as a way to help alleviate the stresses to which we all are liable in modern society is a billion-dollar industry.
In practicing what he preached, Freud is a Socratic figure.
In practicing what he preached, Freud is a Socratic figure. Socrates is considered by those who study philosophy to have differentiated himself, and stood out from his predecessors, by moving away from their habits of cosmological speculation, the causes and nature of all things, towards the realm of ethics, of right conduct. And Socrates is differentiated from his immediate intellectual descendants, Plato and Aristotle, in this, too. His father was a mason and his mother a midwife, and Socrates went about the agora, the marketplace in Athens, where the practical business of buying and selling goes on, engaging anyone and everyone in dialogue about things concerning which they were supposed to have knowledge, both by their own reckoning and by others'. In Plato’s telling, this always sufficed to demonstrate both just how little it is we know, and the wisdom of being open to the possibility that we are wrong about something all the way down to the ground, which is the condition of possibility of learning, in a way that wanting above all to be right, and to win the argument, is not. Plato and Aristotle, unlike Socrates – and Freud – were aristocrats, people who did not have to worry about money, and they not only each founded and led schools, but reflected on right conduct from the perspective of those who would write about the various answers offered by society. Socrates, by contrast, wrote nothing. His dialogic method is thus his signature art, and the resemblance to it of psychoanalysis deserves to be remarked upon.
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Freud made his name with the work that was his breakthrough, The Interpretation of Dreams (1901), in which he set forth a unique method distinct from anything that had gone before, including the Socratic method. In the modern world, such thoughts about dreams as had been had in the ancient world, principally that they were visions inspired by God or the divine “beyond,” could not be sustained, for belief in the divine was on the wane. But dreams were held in low esteem because of modern philosophy, as well. Descartes, in his Meditations, had worried that what he took to be his waking self could be really nothing but a dream, and so had leveled the accusation against dreams that they are deceptive and could not be trusted. The dream’s status as irrational in the eyes of philosophy seemed to count against it as a possible source of wisdom.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud’s succinct formulation is that a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. The dream presents to us nonsensical ideas or imaginings in order to escape the censorship of our conscious, waking minds, which have been habituated by polite society to repress outrageous fantasies that come to us naturally. These nonsensical ideas, with the guidance of the analyst in interpreting them – the principal rule is that the patient should censor nothing of what comes to him in free association – turn out to be a distorted form of the wish of which the dream comes to tell us, if only we would listen. The dream has been likened, in the psychoanalytic imagination, to a hieroglyph, impenetrable in its mystery, but ultimately decipherable.
If philosophy such as Descartes' gave rise to Enlightenment thinking, then enlightened thinking saw the dream as something born of darkness, incomprehensible and so a threat to rational order. Freud rescued the dream from the disrepute to which philosophy would consign it by considering it as something from which knowledge could be had, thus redoubling the Enlightenment’s advance of reason by claiming the night for the sake of the day.
If philosophy such as Descartes' gave rise to Enlightenment thinking, then enlightened thinking saw the dream as something born of darkness.
Freud did spurn the view of dreams as occult phenomena bearing messages from another world, but he maintained the view of them as a communication from the unconscious, where the “un-” signifies something unknown and, in its totality, unknowable, for the unconscious is a source, rather than a domain. Freud claimed to have discovered the unconscious in the same way in which any scientific discovery of the age had been made, and insisted on the scientific status of psychoanalysis because he thought of it as a description of the way the world really is. His protégé, Theodore Reik, relates in his reminiscences of Freud that Freud actually preferred applied psychoanalysis, the use of it to interpret art and literature, to the use of it for treating patients, and this is the sense in which it tends to be used today, notwithstanding the prestige it once enjoyed as a cure.
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If The Interpretation of Dreams is Freud’s breakthrough work, Civilization and Its Discontents, published in 1930, is often taken to be the coda of his career. Here Freud puts the mark of pessimism on his work in the spirit of the age, over which the cloud of Schopenhauer hung. Many of Freud’s greatest interpreters have likewise been pessimists, and it is odd that the Frankfurt School of social theory should have been Marxist and Freudian both, since Marxism is taken to hold out the hope of a better world, even a perfect one, fully redeemed by the blood of the revolution, a good example of a prospect concerning which Freud was pessimistic.
Civilization and Its Discontents is characterized by a fatalism that is much different than the Enlightenment optimism that characterized Freud’s triumphant solution of the riddle of the dream in his work of thirty years prior. There is a poignant passage in which Freud discusses steamships and the telephone, saying that these are magical, wondrous inventions, but that, without them, we would not have to suffer the deprivation of our children, whom we could otherwise embrace, but whom we have to suffice hearing from on the other side of the world as a tinny, distant voice. For every gain, there is a loss. It has been said that the product of scientific modernity par excellence that delivers over even the most conservative skeptics of progress is the progress of medicine and the amelioration of human suffering it brings. Freud was a meliorist, a partisan of no ideology, who voted Socialist because such was the tenor of the times in an Austria-Hungary in which Jews such as himself were still liable to persecution, even if they had been granted rights.
Much has been made of the supposedly Jewish aspect of psychoanalysis, for most of Freud’s patients and disciples were Jews, and if Socrates was especially concerned with ethics and matters of conduct, this is also held to be an aspect of the Jewish religion which stands in contrast to that most prominent about Christianity, which is belief. Judaism lies at the foundation of Christianity in the form of Christianity’s worship of a Jew as God, even as, in the Europe of Freud’s time, Jews were held in contempt, so that Jews were able to speak and be credited concerning all that civilized Europe repressed, the Judaism of Jesus being the Archimedean point at which all else was levered. In his Freud’s Moses, Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi focuses on Freud’s last work, Moses and Monotheism (1939), and endeavors to claim psychoanalysis as a Jewish science in the same manner in which patriots spoke of French science or German science. Freud would have categorically denied this, as he did when others said much the same thing in less friendly terms from outside the Jewish camp, for his view of science as universal went hand-in-hand with his view that the political regime should be one of equality, a view to which the ascendant fascism at the time of his writing of Moses and Monotheism was opposed.
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No account of the contribution of Freud to modern culture would be complete without an overview of the Oedipus complex. Oedipus, according to the ancient Greek tragedy, is born to a king to whom it is prophesied that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. The infant Oedipus is left outside, exposed to the elements, to die, lest the prophecy be fulfilled, but unknown to the king, a shepherd finds the child and takes pity on it, saving its life and enabling the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The tragedy of Oedipus is associated with the divine and occult in the same way that the dream used to be in ancient times. As with the dream, Freud interprets the myth so as to render its truth prosaic, lest its distorted form cast a spell over us for our sensing its truth without knowing why, and we be content to be led by unreason’s dark power. From the horror of incest and Oedipus’s blinding himself upon his climactic realization of what he has done comes the tragedy of the adult grown out of his childhood: he still wants his mother to kiss him and make it all better, an absurd reduction of the tragic to the comic sublime.
The tragedy of Oedipus is associated with the divine and occult in the same way that the dream used to be in ancient times.
The Oedipus complex is materialist in the most literal sense, the Latin mater being the source of both the words mother and material, and the situation of “the family romance” being one in which the mother can, with the onset of puberty, no longer meet the needs of the child by dint of the father’s decree that she is (sexual) material upon which for him alone it is to practice, and his grown child had better get out and find his own. It is force that lies at the bottom of the incest taboo, a visceral reaction we have to the prospect of conjugal relations with those nearest to us, which is ingrained in us by long usage.
In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud traces this force back to a mythical prehistory in which one man ruled over a horde in which he kept all the women for himself, until the young men gathered together and killed him, arranging for a mutual agreement by which each would have his share. Needless to say, this myth bears no relation to historical reality, but it’s the psychological truth of our situation that Freud is trying to witness with this imaginary scenario.
This psychological truth is, however, already available to us through a myth that comes ready-made, that of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden on account of their having realized that they were naked – a parable for what we have related of the child’s dawning awareness of sexuality and the triggered consequence of expulsion from the father’s home. Lying coded in God’s curse of Adam to henceforth eat his bread in the sweat of his brow is the prosaic truth of the child’s need to suffer the labor of providing for himself where once he was provided for by others, the idyllic Paradise of Eden analogous to the parents' care in the age of his innocence.
The idea that the sexual partner we search out in the world is but a substitute satisfaction for the love the mother formerly provided is a cold-water bath for romantic ardor, but in its dispassionate realism is typical of the best of what psychoanalysis has to offer. Wish-fulfillment appears in our dreams because it happens so rarely in our lives. Only half-jokingly did Freud suggest that his patients would be cured once they had ceased to suffer acutely and arrived at ordinary unhappiness.
Brad Rappaport has previously published in Philosophy Now and has a forthcoming article in The Philosopher. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and also studied philosophy at the University of Essex and Vanderbilt University. Further writing can be found at vainphilosophy.com.