Why Freud (Still) Matters
CTE Staff Lecture
E. Paul Colella
Thursday, September 23, 2010
If you think that the title of this talk announces an attempt on my part to locate Freud within contemporary debates in the field of psychology, you will be disappointed. I have no credential in that field other than an undergraduate psychology major that I completed more than 35 years ago. The expiration date on that knowledge has long since passed, I assure you. But the class that I am currently teaching actually owes its origins to those days in the early 1970’s when I was an undergraduate student at Boston College. I was, at that time, a psychology major satisfying a university core requirement in philosophy with a course entitled “Freud and Existential Psychology”. The course content intrigued me and it was nothing like the material I encountered in my major courses in psychology. I recall meeting with the psychology department chair, Dr. Leonard Berkowitz, who also served as my major’s advisor. I shared my enthusiasm for this course with him and asked him to direct me to more classes like it in the department of psychology. At that point, he removed the pipe that he always had in his mouth and said, “I think that you ought to become a philosophy major.” It was the best bit of academic advising I have ever received.
Looking back, I realize that I took more away from that advising appointment than merely a signed change of major form. In fact, it is the event that would lead to my offering a course on Freud & Philosophy here at Xavier University and my speaking with you today. My fascination with Freud as a thinker of great imagination, together with my recognition of the unique light that his ideas cast on the central problems of philosophy, first nurtured back in 1971 provide the energy behind the class I offer this semester and what I will say to you today. Late in life, Freud was to remark that it seemed his unique destiny to “disturb the sleep of mankind”. This admission has an air of the pun about it. After all, one of the central tenets of psychoanalysis is his revolutionary theory of dream interpretation in which dreams are shown to be disguised narratives that conceal the fulfillment of a repressed wish. But there is a second meaning at work in Freud’s comment; one that provides a window on why he still matters for my students. This is what I shall share with you this afternoon; a series of loose observations as to why undergraduate students should read Freud’s books with care and why they should reflect upon his ideas deeply. Freud awakens us to the obvious, and he challenges us to re-think the commonplace in a manner that arouses a renewed awareness of the mystery that resides there. I can only sketch these ideas today, I will look at them more closely in the talks to follow this fall.
Freud invites comparison with another great “disturber of sleep” whose place in the philosophical education of our students is unassailable. I am speaking of Socrates. Socrates’ life (and death) was dedicated to the philosophical questioning of beliefs that had become secured commonplaces in the lives of his contemporaries. In a sense, his fellow Athenians had developed a web of illusions about their lives and their shared experiences that, to Socrates’ mind, resulted in their living a kind of shadowy existence rather than a fully self-conscious, fully human life. Still claiming belief in the traditional gods and religion, these beliefs seemed to make little connection with the routine affairs of their daily lives. Traditional beliefs no longer applicable to a radically altered world received respectful lip service, but no real living commitment. People accepted a confusing hodge-podge of ideas about themselves and their world which formed a contradictory mass in their heads. Socrates took it upon himself to ask the so-called “stupid question”; meaning the question which everyone else felt was settled belief. “What is justice?”, “Can virtue be taught?”, “What is the fully human life and how does one go about living it?” These questions made him seem so odd; after all, no one ever thought of questioning things that were so obvious to everyone. At his trial, Socrates attempted to defend himself as a kind of “gadfly”; and likens his fellow citizens to …
… a great and noble horse who is lazy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life … all day long and in all places I am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you … you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead … then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives … (Apology, 30e)
Socrates’ educational mission was to shine the light of criticism on the most cherished illusions of his countrymen; their beliefs in religion, political notions and what is ultimately valuable. His goal was to cultivate in them a renewed self-knowledge that would make possible a more fully human mode of life for themselves and for their city. My suggestion is that Freud is very much like Socrates, and that the benefit he offers to our students is comparable to that provided by the hero of Plato’s Republic. Curiously enough, Freud’s similarity to Socrates goes further than my foregoing remarks suggest. You may recall how things ended up for Socrates. Not well. Accused of corrupting the youth and belief in gods different from those accepted by the city, he was put on trial, found guilty and put to death. Freud shares a similar, if rather analogous fate. The “corrupting” character of his own ideas with regard to human nature, together with his questioning not only of the God of institutional religion, but also the many divinities that his contemporaries declared to be “sacred” made him a similar kind of outsider and nuisance to his own contemporaries. If he was not put to death by official authority (although hounded by the Nazis who visited his home when Austria was swallowed up in 1938), he was the target of vilification, rebuke, or perhaps worse, condemned to irrelevance.
Let me take a moment to paint a fuller picture for you. It seems that it is not flattering to Freud. Of course, let us acknowledge that fact that some of Freud’s theoretical vocabulary has entered our everyday speech and sits quite comfortably there, often without our awareness. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the “Freudian slip”, for example, and we oftentimes complain about certain stubborn friends as being overly “anal” about their obsessions. The plausibility of his seemingly bizarre theories about the development of young children haunt every parent who is familiar with them, and who then undertakes the challenging task of toilet-training a child. Nevertheless, many of his ideas – both the outlandish and the mild – seem to have been swept aside in the profession. Feminist psychologists castigate him for his negative view of women, the religiously committed reader will attack him for his uncompromising atheism, those who are convinced of the ultimate validity of modern democratic ideals will chafe at the authoritarian and aggressive underpinnings that Freud suggests lie at their heart. Virtually all of my students, being young and hopeful, find it difficult to embrace his pessimistic outlook for humankind’s future.
Freud had his detractors from the beginning. In an early professional lecture to physicians, he was ridiculed for proposing that hysteria was not an exclusively female disorder resulting from a “wandering womb” but was actually psychological in origin and a disorder affecting men and women alike. In the period of international tension leading up to the Great War, British scientists condemned his theories as an outgrowth of his own obsessive preoccupation with sexuality, which, they added, was so typical of the Germanic mind. In Austria’s poisonous atmosphere of anti-Semitism, Psychoanalysis was vilified as “Jewish science”, and in an ironic about-face, Jewish writers condemned Freud for his demythologizing of Moses and Judaism in the final book he would complete before cancer took his life in 1939.
Above all, Freud has been all but banished from the psychology curriculum on offer today in the American university. On this point, it seems, Xavier is no exception. The psychology majors who take my course tell me that if Freud is mentioned at all in their major courses, it is fortunate if it is as an historical figure only. In a 2007 article in the New York Times, Patricia Cohen reported that an “analysis of course descriptions at 150 public and private institutions that are highly ranked in U.S. News and World Report’s college survey … found that of the 1,175 courses that referenced psychoanalysis, more than 86 percent were offered outside psychology departments.”
Much of the recent critical literature attacks Freud as “unscientific”. Citing a veritable avalanche of commentaries on Freud’s ideas, Frederick Crewes concludes that whether we are speaking therapeutically or theoretically, “there is literally nothing to be said”, for “the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas.” Several authors are referenced, each with their own reason for condemning Freud. His crimes include guilt as an “ingenious plagiarist”, a tireless self-promoter, and a life-long devotee “of crackpot ideas and premature conclusions.” The final verdict, to which the title of Crewe’s paper alludes, is clear: “we cannot be amazed” he writes, “that the products of his efforts proved to be pseudoscience”. On this theme of being unscientific, there seems to be much agreement. Indeed, Anthony Derksen argues that there are no fewer than seven different strategies that are usually employed by the pseudo-scientist, and that Freud employs all seven! Derksen implies that Freud was a “sophisticated” pseudo-scientist who engaged in a wide range of deliberate acts of intellectual deception in an effort to make himself appear as a legitimate scientist. In this view, Freud is, using word-play, nothing but a fraud.
We could go on and it would be more of the same. I must confess that nothing I can say today will save him from these detractors. My purpose, rather, is to make a more modest case for Freud, to sketch the case that he still matters – and matters greatly – for our students. Even if the majority of his theories prove false, Freud still has much to teach us about ourselves and the world that we are making. What is more, he has much to teach to our students who endeavor to cultivate the habits of mind associated with the life of an educated person. First, there is his undoubted place in the history of ideas. His challenge to so many commonplace beliefs shook the intellectual establishment of the last century. It was no longer possible to be smugly confident in many popular beliefs ranging from humanity’s inherent goodness and natural aversion to violence, to the existence of a benevolent God who is ever available to human petition and prayer, as it might have been prior to his career. The insignificant yet routine experiences that we all share – dreams for example, or the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon where we are momentarily unable to recall a name, or even our undeniable enjoyment of jokes which make light of real aggressive attitudes towards others (such as the Lawyer joke or ethnic jokes) can no longer be dismissed as insignificant and meaningless, and without a hidden violence.
Freud teaches us that our all too frequent diagnosis of cruelty and violence as the result of moral failure on the part of those who engage in such acts must be tempered as well. Such a view may make us feel better about ourselves as morally superior to those who do such things, but this too may only be a strategy on our part to convince ourselves of something we might prefer to believe in the place of what we suspect may actually be the truth. Freud may have overstated his views on these matters, but we can ill afford to dismiss them as a whole given the realities of the world that we experience on a daily basis.
Freud also models the attitude of the fearless pursuer of new insight and truth, regardless of the cost to old belief and to personal reputation. His 1905 book on the role of sexuality in human psychology begins with an essay that challenges the most mundane accepted beliefs about the most taboo of topics. Two years later, in a short essay he draws disturbing connections between the ritual behaviors of religious believers and the obsessive behavior of neurotics. Just in case his observations about the Oedipus Complex in human beings were not unsettling enough, he employs recent anthropological research to suggest that this universal episode in developmental psychology may owe its existence to a profoundly traumatic event in humankind’s remote and barbaric past. This event, the murder of the primal father, will serve to explain the rise of civilization itself, along with moral customs and the pivotal role of political authority. It will not stop there. The instinct for aggression, violence and even death is as primitive in human nature as the instinct for sexuality, and this same impulse to violence becomes, through a complicated transformation, the energy upon which moral conscience will be built. There is still more that we could identify, but, I believe, our point is made. Freud’s intellectual fearlessness, coupled with his intellectual imagination, indicate to our students what might be achieved if only we be bold enough to think it.
This latter point may be the most important lesson that Freud offers to our undergraduates. As a consequence of this intellectual imagination, he encourages them to think beyond the narrow, disciplinary categories that the academic establishment may impose. Freud’s theoretical life began with a very narrow set of problems surrounding the affliction then known as hysteria. As noted earlier, it was thought to be an illness affecting women only. Some believed it to be hereditary, others the result of a childhood trauma the memory of which was repressed but could not be erased. As a medical student in 1881-82, the young Freud observed his mentor, Dr. Josef Breuer, as he treated a young woman of twenty years of age - known to us as “Anna O,” – who was suffering from that disorder. Her symptoms were puzzling enough; migraine, temporary paralysis of her limbs, disturbances in her vision and in her speech, periods of time when she seemed to fall into trance-like absences, and other times when she found it impossible to drink water, her tormenting thirst notwithstanding. Quite by chance, Breuer discovered that if Anna could be made to talk about her symptoms, putting them into the form of a story, the symptoms would lessen dramatically, and for a time, would even disappear. This was the origin of what became “the talking cure”, and in a 1909 address Freud would look back to this case and identify it as the true origin of psychoanalysis.
What he learned there began a process of discovery that would not keep itself within the boundaries of the psychology of hysteria, but rather would soon expand out to encircle the entire field of human experience. In his book on Freud, Phillip Rieff argues that in psychoanalysis, “Freud found a way of being the philosopher he desired to be, and of applying his philosophy to himself, humanity, the cosmos – to everything, visible and invisible, which as a scientist and physician he observed.” If it is true that human beings stand at the center of knowledge, then all that is knowable will bear the imprint of the human knower. The Self-knowledge extolled by the ancient Greeks must necessarily inform all that we touch; our knowledge of everything else, and our knowledge of everything else becomes material for expanding our awareness of what it means to be human.
Finally, there is a very sobering lesson that Freud offers our students. It can be found in concentrated form in his book Civilization & Its Discontents. Written in late 1929 as the world was about to plunge into the chaos of world economic Depression, with the destructiveness of World War I still a fresh memory, and with the rise of fascism very clearly on the European horizon, Freud offers what is perhaps his most pessimistic argument. Evil is real, and we have a hand in it. The evils recorded in history, and those that still plague us today, are not simply reducible to the moral failure of the perpetrators, be they individuals or nations. Rather, the capacity, and yes, the need, for such misdeeds lie at the very core of human psychology. Aggression and violence are integral parts of what we are. This realization is magnified by the awareness that our technology of destruction, so clearly on display in the War, have made it possible for human conflict to put an end to humanity once and for all. The awareness of this disturbing fact is the root cause of a persistent malaise among human beings in the twentieth century. The struggle before us, writes Freud in the closing lines of that book, is the struggle to master ourselves. Freud did not live to see the twin horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but these events seem to add credence to the depressing prophecy of his 1929 book.
In closing, I would like to soften that last point a bit. I suspect that the reason why Freud matters to us is that we must confront it – Jesuit ideal for education, becoming men and women for others, is a very real challenge. In many ways, the case of the hysteric “Anna O.”, that awakened the initial insights of psychoanalysis in the early 1880’s is a metaphor for how we would like our students to approach their world. Like Anna’s symptoms, that world and their experience within it presents them with a confusing array of material that must be woven into some sort of comprehensible whole. Like Anna’s hysterical symptoms, the world that our students engage will bewilder and confound, but ultimately it must be understood. They must be bold and adventurous in their efforts – perhaps intellectually fearless like Freud – if they are to penetrate into its innermost workings and act within it in an effective way. The vocation to which we summon these young people – to be “men and women for others” - is difficult. The root causes of this fractured world may indeed be found to lie within us, deep, and concealed. The response these young people are called to make to the challenges of that imperfect world must begin with a clear awareness of what it means to be human, and it will require nothing less of them than boldness of imagination and intellectual fearlessness in discovering who they are as human beings. Insofar as this is the case, then, yes, Freud still matters, and matters much.
 Patricia Cohen, “Freud Is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the Psychology Department”, New York Times, November 25, 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/25/weekinreview/25cohen.html?_r=1&ref=sigmund_freudTop of Form
 Federick Crewes, “The Verdict on Freud”, Psychological Science, Vol. 7, No. 2, March 1996: 63.
 Ibid., p. 67.
 Anthony A. Derksen, “The Seven Strategies of the Sophisticated Pseudo-Scientist: A Look into Freud’s Rhetorical Tool Box”, Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Dec. 2001): 330.