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FreudReview - Freud
by Jonathan Lear
Routledge, 2005
Review by Andrea Bellelli, MD
Jun 27th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 26)

A hundred and fifty years after Freud's birth, and hundred and six after the publication of the Interpretation of dreams, its official manifesto, psychoanalysis has gone through widespread glory and has now fallen into disrepute. Nowadays psychoanalysis has no credibility as a theory on the etiology and pathogenesis of mental disease, and has been demonstrated not to be more effective than other psychotherapies; only psychoanalysts, historians and philosophers still write about psychoanalysis. Jonathan Lear is a philosopher and has the ambition to extract form Freud's writings a logically plausible, and possibly ethically sound, interpretation of human thinking and behavior. This is the meaning of the reasoned and instructive comparison between Freud and such classics as Socrates and Plato, and the best part of his book. However, Lear is oblivious of the criticism to Freud's theories, both within and outside the environment of psychoanalytical societies, and either confuses or neglects the difference between the subjective and objective evaluation of Freud's explanations.

Lear's account of Freud's theory follows three distinct paths, among which he chooses the one that best suits his immediate needs: when he agrees with the hypothesis he is discussing, he presents a fair and often stimulating discussion of Freud's thinking. When Lear disagrees, he simply corrects Freud and presents to us his own opinion, rather than Freud's: "Let me simply state my intuition ... " (p.27); "Here is what I suspect was happening with Mr R [the Rat man]" (p. 33); "I would like to try out a more austere hypothesis than the one Freud put forward." (p. 158). Finally, when he agrees with Freud and thinks that the point has relevance to moral philosophy he extends the propositions of the founder of psychoanalysis: "By now it should be clear that Freud's principles of mental functioning --the pleasure principle and the reality principle -- are essentially ethical in nature." (p. 153 italics in the original). These three styles, that alternate throughout the book, can be defined as comment, change and extension, and make Lear's contribution original, or at least unusual. Freud apologetics and critics have written mostly comments, in which they tried to reconstruct as faithfully as possible Freud's ideas, to explain their origins and correlation with contemporary medical knowledge and philosophy, and to add whatever evidences were available, in favor or against; psychoanalysts have often tried to change or evolve Freud's theory, some of them to the point of refusing part of it; and artists and philosophers have tried to extend psychoanalysis and to develop its non-medical implications. Lear tries to do everything, except collecting evidence pro or con, or quoting the evidence collected by others.

Although the book makes a stimulating reading, the arbitrary switching between different perspectives and the deliberate omission of previous criticisms make it somewhat confusing for every reader who is not familiar with psychoanalysis and its scientific and philosophical evaluation.

Lear's principal interest is in moral philosophy and his Freud is a follower of Socrates and Plato: thus this is the point we may want to address first. Socrates put the imperative "know thyself" as the basis of moral philosophy and the scope of our existence, and Freud clearly made a strong attempt in this direction: no objection is possible against Lear's attempt to consider Freud as Socrates' heir and follower. However, Freud would have refused this interpretation of his work, for he thought that psychoanalysis was an objective science of the mind, rather than an ethical philosophy. Lear's idea that "Freud's principles of mental functioning ... are essentially ethical in nature." (p.153) is innovative, in the sense that Freud implied precisely the opposite, i.e. that the principles, as well as the other elements of his "metapsychology" are rooted in the neurophysiology. To make a sense out of this antinomy, I assume that Lear means that ethics is a in some way a consequence of metapsychology, a plausible extension of Freud's theory, that Freud himself perhaps would not have disliked; indeed he thought that the Superego is our internal moral agency. Even if we accept this reading, however, Lear's argument is far from compelling, for Freud's principles are at a lower level of functioning than the Superego and are present at birth, before the formation of the Ego and Superego. Clearly we face here a change of the original hypothesis.

Psychoanalytic interpretations are discussed everywhere in the book, and we may want to consider them next. Lear makes scarce reference to their intrinsically arbitrary nature. Indeed, many psychoanalysts have questioned Freud's interpretations, and have proposed theirs instead, without realizing that any is as good as any other, and none is empirically sound (I quote this judgement from an old book by Timpanaro, The Freudian lapsus). In view of the attempt to present Freud as Socrates' disciple, one may question in which sense Freud's interpretations, uncertain as they were, should be considered a veridical account of the psychological processes of humans. Would the ethical consequences be the same if Dora's (or anybody else's) Oedipus complex, whose solution causes the formation of the Superego, did not exist, as modern psychological research suggests? Would we be any closer to Socrates' "know thyself" imperative if our theory of the mind were wrong? To answer these questions it is important to distinguish between hypotheses that are empirically unsound, i.e. disproved by subsequent empirical research (e.g. the nature and mechanisms of Ego drives), and opinions that are scarcely convincing, i.e. incapable of persuading (e.g. the interpretations that Dora refused). Neither false hypotheses nor implausible opinions fulfill Socrates' "know thyself" imperative, but the two must be analyzed using different logical instruments.

Freud's interpretations of single events of the life of single patients often produced a logically reasonable and subjectively convincing framework. These were never, nor could have ever been, objectively satisfactory in the scientific sense: no statistical correlations can be estimated from single events, and no causal relationships can be inferred. Lear, however, is fascinated by Freud's interpretation of dreams, associations, lapsus and so on, and explicitly states that from a philosophical standpoint what matters is that they are "possible" (rather than, I assume, empirically sound). This is a point on which agreement is possible if we switch from an objective to a subjective point of view: possible does not mean empirically true, but subjectively convincing; Freud would be horrified. A philosopher may take this as minor defect of the theory: Socrates did never imagine to have one and the same theory for everybody, and his imperative was an invitation to everyone to explore his own personality and character; thus a subjectively convincing clinical interpretation is a step towards self confidence.

Freud would never have accepted Lear's as a faithful representation of his theory, but his view was and is untenable, thus we may neglect this point. There is, however, a drawback in Lear's rewriting of Freud's hypotheses: the interpretation is right or wrong on the basis of it being subjectively plausible for the analyst and the patient, and any interpretation that the patient refuses must be discarded. We end up in an interpersonal hermeneutics, as proposed by Habermas, Ricoeur, Schafer and many others, and we drop the pretence to unmask the unconscious drives behind the resistences of the patient.

A special problem arises in the case of those Freud's hypotheses like determinism, the drives or the pleasure principle, to name just a few, that cannot be reinterpretated as subjective opinions, have been demonstrated to be empirically false, and have been criticized by the psychoanalysts themselves. Lear does not consider the case that a possible (i.e. subjectively convincing) interpretation is based on an empirically disproven hypothesis, e.g. with reference to the ethical implications of the unconscious wishes revealed by dreams he says: "But if we take Freud's discoveries seriously, the problem of taking responsibility for our thrown natures is radicalized beyond anything Heidegger imagined." If there is one thing that the last thirty years of philosophical and empirical studies have shown, it is that we should not take Freud seriously in the sense Lear is suggesting. Freud's hypotheses are, maybe, fascinating hermeneutical journeys through our humanity, that we may find convincing or unconvincing, but surely they are not discoveries in the usual sense of the term, and should not be taken seriously if this means believing that they are empirically confirmed, for they are not. Lear's arguments start with a "let us assume that the hypothesis is true" (p.113), but he never considers the opposite view, and we are left wondering what he would think under the much more reasonable assumption that Freud's hypothesis is false.

Another major change is caused by Lear refusal of Freud's explanation of the compulsion to repeat. He assumes instead that grave traumas derange the functioning of mind in a way that is not more primitive than the normal adult ideation; i.e. war neuroses do not reenact primordial nightmares linked to the death drive and the compulsion to repeat; rather, Lear says, traumas disorganize the adult mind and cause it to act in a deranged, non functional way. This hypothesis is certainly more appealing than Freud's, but is profoundly disruptive for the rest of the theory. Freud always assumed that the most powerful forces acting upon our mind are internal ones, and that the mind cannot be damaged from the exterior but only from the inside. Stimuli, wishes, censorships all arise internally and literally tear our mind apart; traumas only recall repressed internal conflicts. Freud was so sure of this that he neglected the possibility that the psychoanalyst can influence his patients, in spite of being warned against this possibility by all his contemporaries, most notably by Wilhelm Fliess. External events, even traumatic, act because they summon internal forces usually kept at bay by our defenses; and since defenses in the baby are less powerful, infantile stages of development resemble those psychiatric diseases that may occur in adulthood. This hypothesis has long been criticized, by those psychologists who think that psychoanalysis is a wrong theory; but now we have a Freud follower who proposes that an external trauma is capable of deranging the mind and causing disease. Accepting this idea would bring us straight to the theories of Adler, who had to resign from the Psychoanalytic Association or those of Fairbairn, who explicitly declared that Freud was wrong.

Why then should we go through this book? The answer is Lear has a real point: in spite of Freud's disclaims, psychoanalysis has important ethical implications, and addresses philosophical issues that deserve consideration. Indeed, even though Freud wanted it to be an empirical science, it has been denied this status and is nowadays appreciated only as one of the humanities. This is the most poignant argument in favor of Lear's interpretation of psychoanalysis.

 

© 2006 Andrea Bellelli

 

Andrea Bellelli has an MD and a degree in psychology, and teaches biochemistry in the Medical School of the University of Rome, Italy.


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