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Open MindedReview - Open Minded
Working Out the Logic of the Soul
by Jonathan Lear
Harvard University Press, 1998
Review by Glenn Branch
Mar 5th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 10)

Of the dozen of Jonathan Lear’s essays contained in Open Minded, the most important, the most memorable, and the most likely to be of interest to the average reader is "On Killing Freud (Again)"; Lear’s own estimation of its importance is evident from its taking the place of honor immediately after the introductory essay. Originally published (under the title "The Shrink Is In") in The New Republic at the height of the furor surrounding the Freud exhibit at the Library of Congress, it shows Lear at his worst. Its primary thesis, ostensibly and "crazy as this may seem" (p. 19), is that "psychoanalysis is crucial for a truly democratic culture to thrive" (p. 19). It is virtually impossible to assess the thesis, however, because Lear is evasive—to the point of preposterousness—about the content of its key term psychoanalysis.

Lear concedes that "Freud botched some of his most important cases"—without, however, itemizing which cases were unbotched—and concedes also that "a number of his hypotheses are false, his analytic technique can seem flat-footed and intrusive, and in his speculations he was a bit of a cowboy." The value of Freud’s explorations is apparent, however, when viewed in light of the tradition that recognizes that "there are significant meanings for human well-being which are obscured from immediate awareness." Freud’s contribution to the tradition, "which goes back to Sophocles and which extends through Plato, Saint Augustine and Shakespeare to Proust and Nietzsche," is "to locate these meanings fully inside the human world," i.e., within the unconscious. "People make more meaning than they know what to do with," Lear explains. "This is what Freud meant by the unconscious." (All quotations are from p. 18.)

It is difficult to imagine Freud himself looking at these vapidities with anything but scorn. At least he, unlike Lear, was more or less clear about what distinctive claims he intended to be asserting. Here Frederick Crews’s question to Lear is just: "What did Freud add to the previously garnered pearls of wisdom, and do his innovations constitute actual knowledge or merely a set of overweening speculations?"—especially if, as Lear avers, psychoanalysis is singularly important as the supposed sine qua non of democracy. (I take Crews’s comment from his essay "Freudian Suspicion and Suspicion of Freud," which was delivered originally at "The Flight from Science and Reason" conference in 1995, to be found on the web on the Burying Freud website.)

Lear’s thesis, again, is that psychoanalysis is crucial for a truly democratic culture to thrive. But what crucial role is psychoanalysis to play? Is Lear asserting only that it is crucial for democracy that psychoanalysis is officially allowed to exist? Hardly, for the same is true of astrology, numerology, and creationism. As John Stuart Mill memorably wrote, "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind" (chapter 2 of "On Liberty"). Is Lear then asserting that it is crucial for democracy that psychoanalysis is officially encouraged to exist? Although Lear himself is silent on the question, it is worth recalling that Harold P. Blum, executive director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, was enthusiastic about the Library of Congress exhibit in part because it would constitute a quasi-official governmental endorsement of Freud, whose portrait would hang in the rotunda of the Library of Congress, "where so many of our presidents’ portraits have also been placed" (quoted in Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, ed. Frederick C. Crews, p. xvii).

Lear’s argument that psychoanalysis, whatever it is, is crucial, however it is, to democracy starts with the claim that "there are two very different images of what humans must be like if democracy is to be a viable form of government" (p. 28). The first is the rational choice model, beloved of economists, on which humans are isolated, rational, social atoms, bent single-mindedly on maximizing utility. Lear comments that "if one thinks that this is the only image of humanity which will sustain democracy, one will tend to view psychoanalysis as suspiciously antidemocratic" (p. 29). Even if psychoanalysis is inconsistent with the rational choice model, which is not at all clear, Lear’s comment is still misleading. Those who accept the rational choice model—among whom I am happy not to count myself—presumably accept it on the basis of what they take to be the evidence, not because they think that their acceptance of it serves the democratic ideal; consequently, they reject psychoanalysis primarily because its claims are false, not primarily because its claims are antithetical to the democratic ideal.

"Is there," Lear asks, "another, more satisfying image of what humans are like which nevertheless makes it plausible that they should organize themselves and live in democratic societies?" (p. 29). It is troublesome that his terminology is so imbued with subjectivity: surely the question is not whether or not the rational choice model is satisfying but whether or not it is accurate, precise, justified, warranted, and so on. It is also troublesome that Lear conspicuously fails to state what is so unsatisfying about the rational choice model. It is extraordinarily troublesome that he assumes there is only one alternative to the rational choice model, on which the socially subatomic structure of human beings is to be engaged with via psychoanalysis. Lear wholly neglects, for example, the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. I am not prepared to herald the theory of choice implicit in evolutionary psychology as the scientific answer to the rational choice model—embryonic and unformed, it is as yet protoscientific—but at least it is not the pseudoscientific theory preached by Freud.

I have sketched above what I take to be the main line of argument in Lear’s essay for the thesis that psychoanalysis is essential for democracy; it fails miserably. There is in addition a subsidiary line of argument, suggested by Lear’s smug assertion that "psychoanalysis thus becomes the first therapy which sets freedom rather than some specific image of human happiness as its goal" (p. 22, emphasis Lear’s). On the (substantial, controversial, and undefended) assumption that democracy requires what John Rawls calls a liberalism of freedom, it is thus arguable that the ambition of psychoanalysis is distinctively en rapport with the democratic ideal—both aim to promote freedom. Even if the argument is sound, however, its conclusion is compatible with the claim that psychoanalysis’s ambition is typically frustrated by its practice, which Lear never attempts to dispel.

Ironically, the subsidiary line of argument occurs in the context of Lear’s defensive account of Freud’s attempt to avoid suggestion:

No one did more to devise a form of treatment which avoids suggestion […] It was Freud who first set the avoidance of suggestion as a therapeutic ideal—and it is Freud who devised the first therapeutic technique aimed at achieving it. Psychoanalysis distinguishes itself from other forms of talking cure by its rigorous attempt to work out a procedure that genuinely avoids suggestion (p. 22).

The parallel is exact: here, too, Lear is praising psychoanalysis for its ambition while evading the question of its efficacy in realizing it. Even if Freud's attempts to avoid the effect of suggestion were particularly valiant (which I doubt), it is nevertheless difficult to quell the common suspicion that suggestion is not only not inimical to, but in fact essential to, the practice of psychoanalysis.

Later in the essay, Lear reiterates, "Yet I believe that when psychoanalysis is done properly there is no form of clinical intervention—in psychology, psychiatry, or general medicine—which pays greater respect to the individual client or patient" (pp. 25–26). Note how foxily it is stated here! First, it is expressed in the form of a credo, and it always seems somehow ungracious to inquire into the epistemological credentials of someone’s credo. Second, the crucial proviso "when done properly" is as yet empty. If imperfectly respectful psychoanalysis is as such improper, then his claim is tautologous; if not, then nothing about psychoanalysis as such is en rapport with the democratic ideal. Third, it appears only on careful inspection that Lear’s claim is at bottom only that, vis-à-vis respect for the patient, psychoanalysis is no worse than other treatments, which makes mincemeat of the original thesis that psychoanalysis is essential to democracy.

Although the primary theme in "On Killing Freud (Again)" is the supposed necessity of psychoanalysis for democracy, Lear takes time to discuss the epistemological criticism of psychoanalysis due to Adolf Grünbaum. Noting correctly that "the causal claims of psychoanalysis cannot be established in the same way as a causal claim in a hard-core empirical science like experimental physics" (p. 23), Lear associates himself with the movement to identify the epistemology of psychoanalytic assertion with the epistemology of so-called folk psychology. "What are we to do—abandon our ordinary practice of interpreting people?" he orates. "Psychoanalysis is an extension of our ordinary psychological ways of interpreting people in terms of their beliefs, desires, hopes, and fears." (p. 25). Yes, but precisely because psychoanalysis is an extension—and typically not, as the logicians would say, a conservative extension—of our ordinary interpretive practice, it immediately encounters distinctive epistemological problems of its own, problems that it is apparently incapable of overcoming.

For example, take the exemplary case of Little Hans. (I draw heavily on Joseph Wolpe and Stanley Rachman’s "Psychoanalytic Evidence: A Critique Based on Freud’s Case of Little Hans," in Critical Essays on Psychoanalysis, ed. Stanley Rachman, pp. 198–220, NY, 1963) Little Hans himself claimed that his fear of going into the streets, his depression in the evening, and his fear of being bitten by horses was due to—brace yourself—his having witnessed a frightening accident in which a horse fell. In our ordinary interpretive practice, Hans’s avowal would be regarded as presumptive, if not irrefutable, evidence for the correctness of his causal claim. The crucial question, then, is what warrant is there supposed to be for allowing the far-fetched oedipal alternative favored by Freud and by Hans’s father to override or undermine the quotidian explanation warranted by our ordinary interpretive practice. Neither Freud nor Lear answers the question satisfactorily.

Also present in "On Killing Freud (Again)" is the theme that dismissing Freud—like Bunbury—as "quite exploded" (the victim of a revolutionary outrage?) is somehow symptomatic of malaise in the culture at large. Lear develops the theme in the following essay, "Knowingness and Abandonment: An Oedipus for Our Time," delivered to what I presume was a friendly audience at a conference sponsored by the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. In it, Lear acknowledges that "the psychoanalytic profession has for too long clung to a defense which is, by now, outworn and boring: namely, the stance that psychoanalysis has a special secret to give to culture" (p. 33). Note, by the way, that there is no admission here that the defense was wrong, or unjustifiable, or specious; there is only the acknowledgment that it is no longer effective. Then, reversing the charge, Lear accuses the culture at large of adopting the face of knowingness, of becoming systematically dead to the idea of unconscious motivation. To rectify the situation, unsurprisingly, he recommends the recognition of Freud’s exploration of the fundamental idea of unconscious meaning.

The strategy of "Knowingness and Abandonment" is truly audacious, a lovely case of the tu quoque in action. Plenty of Freud’s critics—e.g., Ludwig Wittgenstein in his various writings on Freud, Ernest Gellner in The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason, and John Farrell in Freud’s Paranoid Quest: Psychoanalysis and Modern Suspicion—have remarked that the appeal of psychoanalysis consists largely in its promise to bestow on its adherents unique distinctive insight into the secrets of the human heart. Lear, however, says that it is the failure to accept psychoanalysis that engenders knowingness, jaded pretension to omniscience, the tendency to drawl "been there; done that" at the slightest provocation. But by their fruits ye shall know them, and it is instructive that Lear is unable to overcome the temptation to pretend to Freudian omniscience himself. Particularly revealing is the following comment from the preface to the book:

And this type of facile dismissal seeps effortlessly into the culture. In countless conversations—at cocktail and dinner parties, not to mention the informal conversations which go on in professional settings, like the grand rounds of a psychiatry department or a conference of historians or philosophers, I will hear someone say, "But, of course, Freud has been completely discredited." There will be a tacit assent of the group, and then it will dawn on me that no one in the group has read a word of Freud. Already knowing that Freud is discredited gives the group permission to know nothing (p. 5).

Lear’s claim to the uncanny ability to discern the reading habits of everyone at a cocktail party on the basis of the comment of one partygoer is no doubt hyperbole, but it is hard to think of any plausible claim of which it is the hyperbolic version.

Similarly, in "On Killing Freud (Again)," to illustrate the hostility to Freud of the culture at large, Lear notes that "in just the past few weeks Basic Books has brought out a long-winded tirade with what it no doubt hopes will be the sensational title Why Freud Was Wrong" (p. 17). Unless he reads very quickly, then, he hadn’t read Why Freud Was Wrong at the time of his essay’s original publication—judging it, not even by its cover, but merely by its title. Lear’s implication that what is behind Richard Webster’s book is only the sordid desire to shock is offensive; it is not very plausible either. There are better ways to attain notoriety than to write 600-page screeds on Freud. And two can play at Lear’s game: I note with shock and dismay—feigned, to be sure—the prurient blurb from Newsweek on the back cover of Open Minded that connects l’affaire Lewinsky with Freud’s famous apothegm about the occasional self-identity of cigars.

Moreover, the preface to "On Killing Freud (Again)" is irritatingly tendentious. Lear writes, "This essay originally appeared in the New Republic on December 25, 1995, in response to the Library of Congress’ decision to cave in to yet another instance of Freud-bashing. Since I consider this incident to be exemplary of many others, I have left the essay essentially as it was originally published and have made no effort to ‘bring it up to date.’" (p. 16). Precisely what anti-Freudian pogroms is Lear inviting the reader to assume to have occurred? For information on real torments, inflicted by, not on, Freudians, see Edward Dolnick’s excellent review of the horrific Freudian ministrations in the 1950s to the schizophrenic, the obsessive-compulsive, and the autistic in Madness on the Couch: Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis. Lear, to his credit, disavows "the inflated claims that the psychoanalytic profession made for itself in the 1950s and 1960s" (p. 17), but he fails to praise those who deflated the claims—who, by the way, weren’t psychoanalysts.

In the foregoing comments, I have focused only on the first three essays of Open Minded, and I think I was right to do so, for these are the essays that are the most important and the most interesting both to readers of Metapsychology and (apparently) to Lear himself. There are nine other essays as well in Open Minded, dealing variously with issues in psychoanalytic theory, ancient Greek philosophy, and the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In justice to Lear, I should say that the final two essays—"Transcendental Anthropology" and "The Disappearing ‘We’", both of which deal with aspects of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy—struck me as really excellent: cogent, eloquent, and insightful. I have no compunction whatsoever about enthusiastically recommending them to any student of Wittgenstein’s work. Lear himself might insist that it is in virtue of his admiration for Freud that he is able to write so well about Wittgenstein. I can only record my suspicion that it is in spite of it.


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