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Analytic FreudReview - Analytic Freud
Philosophy and Psychoanalysis
by Michael P. Levine (editor)
Routledge, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jul 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 31)

I recently decided to sell many of my books on psychoanalysis. I'm still keeping my Freud collection, but I am running low on shelf space, and I haven't opened most of my psychoanalytic books since I bought them. Psychoanalysis just seems so old fashioned now, both in its method of therapy - the couch, the long silences, several sessions each week - and its elaborate theory, gothic in its twists and turns, not to mention the soot that has accumulated in the crannies of its architecture. The books I am clearing out, secondary literature from the 1970s and 1980s on the moral, political, and philosophical ramifications of psychoanalysis, don't successfully compete with more recent work on the wide ramifications of a psychological understanding of society.

Nevertheless, I have a grudging respect for people who engage in psychoanalytic thought, precisely because it demands such a knowledge of the literature, such a commitment to the enterprise, and because it addresses issues in psychology that much of the rest of the discipline prefers to avoid. They believe that psychology should have an overarching theory of the human psyche, and not just a collection of generalizations from experiments. Of course the problem for psychoanalysis has been the difficulty in getting its theory to even be consistent with those experiments, let alone in giving the best explanation of the data, or, perish the thought, making a bold prediction. The house of psychoanalysis has indeed brought shame on itself in its refusal to grapple with empirical data, shunning criticisms like those of Adolf Grunbaum, and retiring into a shell of arrogance and obscurity.

Recently there have been a number of books engaging in "Freud-bashing": maybe the most scholarly debate was started by Frederick Crews, and his New York Review of Books articles, along with replies, are reprinted in Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute. Other recent books attaching Freud include Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis by Richard Webster and The Malignant Effect of Freud's Theory on American Thought and Culture by the self-righteous E Fuller Torrey. One of the most considered and careful of recent books assessing Freud's work is the dauntingly large Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc by Malcolm MacMillan. It sits on my shelf waiting to be opened, but it looks good enough for me to keep it, even while I pick out other psychoanalytic books I am ready to part with.

Philosophy has, like many other disciplines, had something of a love-hate relationship with psychoanalysis. It has focused on the testability of psychoanalytic theory, and the possible conceptual confusion. One of the first and still most important criticisms of psychoanalysis by a philosopher, writing in the legacy of Wittgenstein and Ryle, was Alisdair MacIntyre's The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis, which has been recently reprinted. A nice collection of articles, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, put together by Brian Farrell, represents well some of the concerns of philosophers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Adolf Grunbaum, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Wisdom, and Jonathan Glover. One of the best and most overlooked books on Freud's work in the last ten years is Patricia Kitcher's Freud's Dream: A Complete Interdisciplinary Science of Mind, which looks at the strength's and weaknesses of Freud's methodology, and draws lessons for modern cognitive science.

Probably the best collection of philosophical papers on psychoanalysis is Richard Wollheim and Jim Hopkins' Philosophical Essays on Freud, now sadly out of print. More recently, in 1991, Jerome Neu edited The Cambridge Companion to Freud, which contained some interesting articles, exploring a wide range of aspects of Freud's work. But it is fair to say that philosophers, like many of their peers in other disciplines, have been rather wary of psychoanalysis recently. I can use my own case as an example: when I first planned to write my Ph.D. dissertation, it was to be on the psychoanalytic concept of the self. But after doing enough reading, I changed my mind: it was clear to me that the topic had dubious prospects, not much better than a defense of the flat earth theory. I never lost my interest in psychoanalysis, and especially the issues it raises about understanding the self, but I continue to be dismayed at how defenders of psychoanalysis seem to have circled their wagons and are ready to fight to the last, or worse, seem utterly oblivious to the massive epistemological problems faced by psychoanalysis. The divisive dialog has not been conducive to an exploration of the most interesting parts of philosophy of psychoanalysis, that being the nature of explanation of human psychology, and the feasibility and consequences of increasing the number of concepts in our psychological toolbox.

This year Routledge has published The Analytic Freud, edited by Michael Levine. It contains articles by some distinguished philosophers known for their work on psychoanalysis, philosophy of psychology and ethics, including Marcia Cavell, Michael Stocker, Nancy Sherman, Grant Gillett, Amelie Rorty, and Jennifer Radden. The book is divided into four sections: Mind, Ethics, Sexuality, and Civilization, although the grouping is in fact rather arbitrary. In my view the best paper is by Jim Hopkins. He has this paper also on his web site. Another good paper, of limited scope, is by Radden on the concept of melancholy and the importance of Freud's paper "Mourning and Melancholia." Sherman's paper on our ability to control our emotions starts out well, although it degenerates into exegesis of psychoanalytic theory. Tamas Pataki gives an interesting analysis of the concept of wish fulfillment and some of the secondary literature, although his paper could have done with some severe editing.

Indeed, the editor should probably have taken a harder line with many of his contributors. Gillett's paper on "Moral authenticity and the unconscious," while not too lengthy, is sprawling and unclear. Rorty's paper is simply a slightly modified version of one she published in 1988. Marguerite La Caze devotes her paper to the issue of sublimation, the idea that people can redirect their sexual energy to other ends. Freud used the concept in his analysis of Leonardo da Vinci. La Caze admires Freud's approach as an analysis of creativity. Since the theory of sublimation is, to say the least, controversial, and most people including myself regard it as downright stupid, La Caze at least owes her readers some explanation of why she takes it seriously. Instead, she goes into a discussion of the creativity of heterosexual couples that verges on the laughable. Jose Brunner goes into Freud's discussion of the law and societal rules, relying heavily on two of Freud's strangest and weakest books, Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism. Freud's anthropological speculations carry no more credibility than Nietzsche's (or for that matter, most evolutionary psychology), and it is amazing to me that anyone seriously proposes that they have any explanatory power.

Stocker's paper in this collection is especially disappointing because he has written some truly excellent papers on moral psychology. Here, however, he advances the apparently empirical thesis that akrasia, which can loosely be equated with a tendency to give into temptation, paradigmatically involves regression, i.e., a more primitive form of action than normal practical reasoning. This is an interesting suggestion, of course, but how might one verify it? Further, there is a problem due to a fact pointed out by his co-author, Elizabeth Hegeman, who wrote the fourth and final section of the paper. As she says, "What is regressive depends on the differences in personality of character, and may not be judged regressive by others; thus the notion of regression is quite variable and subject to cultural norms, since both what is 'mature' and what is devalued, or regressive/akratic, may vary over the course of time and according to cultural values." Presumably since he is a co-author of the paper, Stocker accepts this entailment of his view, but it is a much more radical view than anything he explicitly discusses in his part of the paper. He writes as if he were giving a naturalistic account of akrasia, and not an account of the culturally variable judgments society makes about people giving into temptation.

In brief, this collection on the philosophy of psychoanalysis falls short of the standards set by its predecessors. I'll keep it on my shelf for a few years, but I can't promise that it will last much longer than that.


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