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Psychoanalysis & Philosophy (I)

Cathal Horan analyses Freud through the eyes of Hegel and Schopenhauer.

“What are you reading that for?” he asked in an indignant tone.

I put the book down slowly and tried not to look too flustered. I had been caught red-handed. The best line of approach was to tackle the issue head on and not to act embarrassed. I mean, it was nothing to be ashamed of, was it?

I had better explain that the embarrassing material I had been caught with was not pornography – although the shocked tone of my accuser seemed to indicate that it was on a par with such a discovery – but merely Sigmund Freud’s Civilisation and Its Discontents; and my accuser was a fellow student from the philosophy course I was studying at the time.

“What do you mean?” I responded inquisitively.

“Well, I mean, all his theories have been proven false, haven’t they? Being in love with your mother and all that. It’s just ridiculous!”

“Have you read any Freud?” I asked innocently.

“Why would I, when all his theories have been proved wrong!”

Anyone who has ever studied Freud has probably had a similar experience. It seems the popularly-held view is that Freud’s theories are no longer relevant: that they have been disproved and have no basis in common sense.

In one way we can see Freud as being a victim of his own success. His theories have become part of our everyday vocabulary: Freudian slips, resistance, the Oedipus complex. However, this popularity has also resulted in his theories being reduced to sound bites which present Freudian theory as children being in love with their mothers. Undoubtedly, Freud was wrong about many things. Indeed, this is a trait he shares with many other great thinkers. But that should not mean we need to throw the infant out with the bathwater.

Some people consider Freud to be one of the three most important figures in human history, sharing the podium with Copernicus and Darwin. The key to this claim is that all these thinkers shook the foundations of human thought by showing that we are not as important or powerful as we’d like to think. Copernicus did this by showing that we are not at the centre of the universe, but merely on another piece of rock orbiting the sun. Darwin did it by showing that we are not even a uniquely-ordained species on our little rock, but simply one that evolved through a series of accidents, like the rest. And Freud did it by showing that we are not even in conscious rational control of our own destinies, instead being driven by unconscious forces which we do not control. So at the very least we should look at Freud’s bathwater before we throw it out.

One of the difficulties in appreciating Freud is that his pseudo-scientific language does not easily relate to our experience. This is not difficult to apprehend when we read Freud’s description of romantic feelings: “The word ‘love’ then shifts more into the sphere of the ego’s pure relation of pleasure to the object, finally affixing itself to sexual objects in the narrower sense, as well as to those objects satisfying the needs of sublimated sexual drives.” I can’t see that selling too many Mills & Boon novels!

However, it may be possible to gain a better understanding of Freud if we look at his theories from a philosophical perspective. If we do this, we can see that Freud’s theories are not that controversial, revolutionary, or indeed, original. We can see Freud’s project as an attempt to answer one of the classic philosophical questions: what is the relationship between the self and the world? Two philosophers who have attempted to answer this question are Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer. By looking at their philosophies we can see that two of Freud’s central concepts, the Oedipus complex and the unconscious, are attempts to answer this fundamental question. Also, we can see that through their respective philosophies they both touched upon issues which Freud would later develop in relation to psychoanalysis.

Absolutely Hegel

Hegel’s philosophy is itself famously difficult to understand, so it may seem odd to try and elucidate Freud with reference to such a dense and complex thinker. However, we’re not exploring the depths of Hegel’s theory, but only its similarity to some of Freud’s thought. For this purpose we only need to be familiar with the basic structure of Hegel’s thought.

Hegel’s goal is to show that there is such a thing as absolute knowledge. By this he means knowledge in which there is no difference between thought and experience. Hegel isn’t advocating here an extreme form of idealism in which the world only exists in our mind. Instead he claims in the Phenomenology of Spirit that for absolute knowledge “consciousness must know the object as itself.” Unfortunately, Hegel is not explicit about what exactly constitutes absolute knowledge. Instead, in a roundabout way, he attempts to show the limitations of other forms of knowledge, and thus why we must accept absolute knowledge as the only viable goal.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel tries to show that progress to this state of knowledge is the only true way to understand how the self relates to the world. He claims that we engage in a ‘dialectical’ process where first we seek knowledge in the world of external objects. Here we see ourselves as being separate from the world: self and world are two separate entities. But through the dialectical process we encounter a “negation [a negation turns the previous situation on its head]… through which progress through the complete series of forms comes about of itself.” According to Hegel, this series of forms shows the different ways in which we try and overcome the self/world distinction. Hegel believes we will eventually transition from consciousness to self-consciousness when we realise that by seeking knowledge in external objects separate from consciousness we detach ourselves from the world. As a result of being detached and isolated from the world, we deprive ourselves of the full richness of human experience. Hegel believes that self-consciousness is closer to absolute knowing, since being self-consciousness means being conscious of ourselves as well as being conscious of the objects around us.

Earlier forms of consciousness put much more emphasis on the external world in the search for knowledge. Self-consciousness shifts the emphasis onto the subject. Hegel claims that this shift changes the way we interact with the world by introducing the element of desire; or as Hegel says, “self-consciousness is Desire.” He believes that it introduces desire because self-consciousness wants to limit threats to its new-found independence from the external world. Whereas previously the self was dependant on the world for knowledge, it now has both forms of knowledge under the one skull, and this introduces a new richness and vitality to our experience. We do not want to give this up. To prevent this from happening we have a desire to remove or destroy any evidence of the external world. Hegel puts this strongly when he claims that self-consciousness is “certain of itself only by superseding this other that presents itself to self-consciousness as an independent life.” The final phase in the attainment of knowledge and full being is when we collapse the difference between these two elements of consciousness. Thus, the ultimate desire, the ultimate satisfaction, is when we not merely destroy another object, but when we assimilate these objects into our own world (especially other objects which have self-consciousness): “self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness.”

Did Someone Mention Freud?

What has this all got to do with Freud? The link is in how young children relate to the world. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) pioneered experimental studies of child development. According to him, children up to the age of two don’t distinguish the external world from their experiences – and consequently they cannot understand how other people might see the world differently. If we think about how Hegel described absolute knowledge as thought being identical with being, then it appears we experience absolute knowledge as infants. If we cannot tell where our thoughts end and the world begins, then, in a way, thought and being are the same to us. But this is a reversal of the Hegelian dialectic. We do not start out with sense-certainty, seeking knowledge in the external world. Instead, we start out assuming that (what adults call) external objects and the external world are all contained within our own mind. Freud describes this sense of ‘absolute knowledge’ when he claims that “the new-born baby does not at first separate his ego from an outside world that is the source of the feelings flowing towards him.” This for Freud is the ‘oceanic’ feeling many people associate with religious experience.

This means we can claim a link between Freud’s idea of early childhood experience and Hegel’s concept of absolute knowledge. Moreover, Hegel claimed that the main element of the shift towards absolute knowledge, initially involving the transition to self-consciousness, is that it introduces the element of desire. Freud similarly claims that in early childhood we go though the Oedipus complex, in which we desire or want to possess the objects in our world of experience. The main object in our early world, according to Freud, is our mother. Here, understanding the language we use is important in helping us understand Freud. When Freud claims that young children desire their mothers or want to sexually possess them he is using the term ‘sexual’ in the broadest descriptive sense, to represent the total psychological energy a child possesses. We usually mean ‘sexual’ in a narrower, romantic sense.

Hegel claims that when we reach a level of understanding approaching absolute knowledge, our experiences intensify and there is a new richness to the world. Similarly, in the early childhood psychological state, every emotion is heightened. We see ample evidence of this when we see a child go from glowing happiness to howling despair in a second. Every emotion is total as there is no compartmentalisation of any experience. We begin to differentiate between reality and imagination as we begin to separate out experiences. We can conceive of our psychological development here as a dilution of emotional intensity in proportion to our distinction of objects we experience in the external world. However, these diluted experiences sprang forth from an initially concentrated experience, an experience in which Freud feels we cannot identify explicit sexual impulses: “what we ultimately conclude regarding the differentiation of psychic energies is that initially … they remain clustered together, and hence undifferentiable in terms of our crude analysis, and that only the supervention of object-cathexis makes it possible to differentiate sexual energy, the libido, from the energy of the ego drives.” (from On Narcissism, 1914).

Willingly Schopenhauer

So Hegel’s philosophical project can be seen to foreshadow Freud’s psychoanalytic theory concerning infantile sexuality. At the very least there are similarities between their theories which may show Freud’s ideas on the topic in a less offputting and more plausible light. Unfortunately, Hegel’s philosophy doesn’t help us to understand Freud’s other ground-breaking concept, the theory of the unconscious.

As hinted, Freud’s theory of the unconscious is controversial because it seems to undercut any assumption that we are in control of our own desires and choices and therefore free. In his book An Existentialist Critique of Freud, Gerald Izenberg claims that “in demonstrating that the ego was not master in its own house, psychoanalysis seemed to have struck the ultimate blow against rational optimism about the prospect of human freedom.” However, was Freud the first person to strike this blow?

Arthur Schopenhauer believed that the answer to the self/world question is much simpler than Hegel’s complex phenomenology suggests. The world, he says, is given to us as a representation: our experience of the world is a representation of the world in our minds. Schopenhauer believes that most people will reject this view, and will simply point to external objects as evidence that the world is more than a representation. But he emphasises that this is not logical, since it presupposes what it intends to prove: you have to assume that you already know where the subjective world stops and the objective begins to be able to point to some external object.

One object, however, appears to us differently. That object is our body, which is given to us in two ways. Firstly, as an object in our representation, and as such it is subject to the laws of nature. Secondly, our interaction with the body appears “as what is known immediately to everyone, and is denoted by the word will.” According to Schopenhauer, the world we sense is only a representation of objects, but we have access to the inner workings, the will, of one of these objects, through the direct experience we have of our own ability to will our bodies into action. For Schopenhauer, our direct experience of willing is a direct experience of the hidden inner nature of the world. This enables us to understand the will as not merely another representation.

What can we know about the will? We cannot gain knowledge of the will simply by reference to our actions, as these are only the representations, the outward appearance of things. Schopenhauer stresses that since the will is not in space and time, it unfortunately cannot ever be fully understood. We can know it directly when we make choices, as that force which is at the centre of human striving, and also in its emotional resonances. Schopenhauer also describes pain as occurring when something is “contrary to the will, and gratification or pleasure when in accordance with the will.” In this sense Schopenhauer believes that every action must be striving towards some end, whether these ends are sought consciously or, as Schopenhauer says, ‘blindly’. So every action is a manifestation of our will, but that does not mean we are aware of our willing in every action.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Will

When Schopenhauer talks about the will, in some ways he could well be talking about Freud’s theory of the unconscious. Like Schopenhauer, Freud talks about our inner thoughts and hidden motivations. Freud, however, is more optimistic than Schopenhauer (although that would not be hard) about the prospect of obtaining knowledge of our inner processes, “inner objects being less unknowable than the outside world.” This doesn’t mean Freud thinks we can know the unconscious directly. The unconscious is governed by what he calls the primary processes of displacement and condensation. Displacement is where our mental energy, or libido, is transferred from one idea to another, with the new idea becoming a substitute for the former. Condensation is where two or more images are bound together and end up with one image or symbol standing for them all. Thus the meaning or emotion we associate with one thing may also be linked to something else.

These primary processes are different from the secondary processes at work in consciousness. The secondary processes that are active during waking life include causality, space, time, morality and linearity. Our conscious ideas do not tend to become fused together or displaced as easily as in our unconscious. The full extent of the primary processes only becomes evident during dreaming, according to Freud. It is here that we can see how an image such as a house could stand for many things, such as our body, our mind, and our emotions, or as a symbol of security or solidity, or even just a house!

The primary/secondary split echoes Schopenhauer’s philosophy in two ways. Firstly, Schopenhauer claims that the will does not exist in space, time or causality. But neither does the unconscious pay attention to space, time or causality. Secondly, Schopenhauer states that the will does not fall under the four principles of sufficient reason which apply to objects in our representation. These principles of logical, empirical, transcendental and meta-logical reasoning echo Freud’s secondary processes which create the conditions for coherent conscious experience. So both the will and the unconscious are not subject to the laws of conscious perception/subjective representation.

However, it is not just these aspects of the unconscious and the will that are related. They share a similar nature also. For Freud the unconscious is the source of all our striving and activity. All of our energy for life is plumbed from the unconscious, where it resides in the form of drives. Problems arise when some of these drives are frustrated or repressed because they are unacceptable to the conscious image we have of ourselves. If you remember, Schopenhauer also talks about the will as motivating all activity, and every action being the manifestation of that will. He also described pain as being evidence of the frustration of the main pleasure-seeking goal of the will. This is similar to the frustration the unconscious experiences when its drives are repressed. (In his earlier theory Freud described the unconscious as only being concerned with pleasure seeking, but he later reformulated this theory to include what he called a death drive. However, this is contentious.)

Finally, both Freud and Schopenhauer view the attempt to understand the unconscious and the will respectively as being the most important endeavour we can embark upon. Schopenhauer believes that by understanding the will we turn what is dull and meaningless into a vivid and purposeful world. Freud believes that by gaining a better understanding of the forces at work in our unconscious we can prevent a build-up of repressed libido which will eventually otherwise find an outlet in either neurosis or psychosis – or as Freud claimed, by attempting to realise the unconscious, we can make ourselves healthy enough to be unhappy!

Evaluating Freud

What have we achieved by this philosophical look at Freud’s bathwater? Do Freud’s concepts help us to better understand our relationship with the world around us?

We have achieved two things. Firstly, we have given Freud a philosophical foundation from which he can be judged. One example of the benefit provided by this critical foundation is in relation to the Oedipus complex. Previously there was a danger of simply rejecting it because it did not make sexual, romantic or even practical sense. But now we can ask instead, does it make sense as an explanation of how children relate to the world? To some it will, to others it will not; but at least these critical evaluations can be addressed from the same intellectual plane. The second thing we have achieved is that we have provided a useful language for our critical evaluations. We can talk about the Oedipus complex in terms of desire, and claim that Hegel’s description is a more accurate depiction of the desire we experience as children, for example. Or we might say that Schopenhauer provides a better perspective for understanding unconscious drives than Freud’s dream interpretation.

So the next time someone asks you why you’re reading Freud, you can say for the same reason someone reads Hegel or Schopenhauer: simply to understand how we relate to the world around us.

© Cathal Horan 2008

Cathal Horan is studying for an MPhil in Psychoanalytic Studies at the Philosophy Department of Trinity College, Dublin, while working as a software engineer.

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