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Freud, the Reluctant PhilosopherReview - Freud, the Reluctant Philosopher
by Alfred I. Tauber
Princeton University Press, 2010
Review by E. James Lieberman, M.D.
Dec 13th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 50)

Freud admired philosophers, writers and artists for their insights, contrasting his own path to enlightenment as slower, methodical and scientific. Coveting a Nobel prize, he grumbled when Havelock Ellis praised his artistry, calling it a put-down. Alfred Tauber, Director of the Center for Philosophy and the History of Science at Boston University, acknowledges Freud as a philosopher who shunned the label, but who "founded his own philosophy of human nature on both an empirically based psychology and a humanistic philosophy coupled to a vision of moral self-responsibility." Freud's ongoing effort to "produce a social philosophy" includes an emphasis in this challenging book on the "ultimate ethical mission" of psychoanalysis.  (xiv).

Tauber addresses three groups of readers: those who respect Freud's contributions and want a philosophical perspective; those who want to understand the influence of philosophy on Freud; and those interested in the clash of philosophical systems from 1880 to 1930. Tauber presents background on systems from Kant to Wittgenstein for readers like myself, not expert in philosophy. Eight chapters take up two-thirds of the book; the last third has 50 pages of notes in small type (many very important) and 25 pages of references. He devotes three chapters to Freud's epistemology and metaphysics, and three to the underlying ethical themes within psychoanalysis. Tauber's expertise combines philosophy with history of science and medicine and he culls a trove of information that few scholars can confidently address. A summary of Kant's place in the history of ideas would have helped, as would an outline of the evolution of therapy since Freud's time. As "neo-Kantian" frequently appears, I sought help from The Great Psychologists: Aristotle to Freud by Robert Watson (1968) and Makers of Modern Thought, Bruce Mazlish, ed. (1972).

Freud adopted, at least implicitly, a philosophy that supported both his science and his therapy. For his psychology, he employed a form of naturalism (oriented by evolutionary theories) constructed around a dynamic psychic will; for his therapy, he accepted a mind-body duality, which utilized a conception of reason independent of psychic (biological) forces. (3)

This paragraph can be challenged and clarified. Freud, who was skeptical about ego strength versus id and superego, hardly ever mentioned will, which for Tauber is a key concept. As for mind-body duality,  psychoanalysis purportedly frees the biological part of psyche from soma, enabling reason with autonomy, mental and moral. "This conception of reason is lifted directly from Kant and, like Kant, Freud employed this rationality for epistemological and moral ends." (9) Making no claims for its scientific or therapeutic success, Tauber considers psychoanalysis part of "Freud's own intellectual biography, namely, the shift from a postulated science of the mind to a humanist inquiry of the soul." (8) Philosophically Freud's project stands between Kant and Nietzsche, between unitary, universal law and "radical pluralism." But unlike Nietzsche, who lauds instincts, Freud favors "the reason that would control them." (11)

Kant reconciled "the determinism of the natural world…and the autonomy of reason, which bestows moral responsibility and free choice." Freudian analysis "raises self-consciousness to a new level of complexity." Freud might have subscribed to David Hume's position on ethics as rationalized emotion, but sided with Kant's "moral inquiry as a deliberate and enlightened pursuit." (19) Freud "radically altered Western notions of personal identity…[his] philosophy—unsystematic, deliberately undeclared, and often ill-formed—commands abiding interest." (23)

Freud's early immersion in philosophy at 18, with Franz Brentano, fills much of two chapters leading up to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. Neo-Kantians include Wilhelm Windelband, Albert Lange and Wilhelm Dilthey. Their focus (I simplify): How and what do we know, and how should we act?

By insisting on making psychoanalysis an objective science, Freud betrayed the more fundamental commitment to the deductive understanding of the unconscious. That inconsistency would leave psychoanalysis open to scathing criticism, for instead of claiming the approach as a method of interpretation through inferences and narrative constructions, limited by constraints easily identified and embracing a circumscribed skepticism, Freud sought to establish psychoanalysis as a means to decipher psychic cause—a positivist science of the mind—and thereby lost the support of those who understood the philosophical errors he committed. (104)

In chapter 4, "The Paradox of Freedom," Tauber views psychoanalytic therapy through Kant's eyes  ("psychic" again refers to biology). 

This Kantian scenario is enacted on the couch by self-reflection, rational interpretation, the freeing from internalized psychic influences, and the authorship of a reconceived autobiography. Achieving this independent authority, moral choice becomes fulfillment of self-defined goals and liberation from psychic control. The battle waged to achieve a new form of moral agency follows the flag of self-determination. Thus psychoanalysis, which begins as an epistemological method, in the end serves an ethical enterprise. (124-125)

Further: "Psychoanalysis thus becomes a moral philosophy of investigation underwriting an ethics of personal identity." The moral agent "is centered on reason, not the superego." (134) This leads to "the most ironic of Freud's debts to Kant: …. Analysis as an exercise of reason over nature not only serves Freud's scientific ambitions, but also draws upon the Kantian construction of reason as constitutive of moral inquiry." Tauber finds in this "a case for the moral will." Freudian exploration not value free: "insight and perspective emerge from a new appraisal of personal identity (and moral agency more generally)."  Kant "encapsulates the Enlightenment project: Reason is the medium of both morals and action, but…always subject to criticism." (136)  Freud considered Kant's stance too speculative, based on idealism, not science, and "failed to develop psychoanalysis as a moral enterprise," which it is, Tauber emphasizes. Both men "began with an epistemology and ended with a moral philosophy. (138, 139) Freud, like Kant, held opposing metaphysical positons: "humans are determined: humans are free," and thus "split the mind's faculties"—albeit differently. Freud did not address the free will versus determinism question and "simply avoids the issue of selfhood and the place of consciousness altogether." (143)

Freud is no Kantian, Tauber states in Chapter 5, addressing the concept of self and the resemblance of Schopenhauer's will to Freud's unconscious. Then comes Nietzsche, who celebrates will, while Freud seeks to control it. Chapter 6 considers self, identity, reflexivity, relation, and personhood with a nod to Georg Hegel. Bringing in Spinoza (Ch. 7), Tauber acknowledges that the ethical is latent in Freud's writings. "Freud expanded the Romantic and Enlightenment hopes for human fulfillment. He did so with a formulation that resonated with much of Western twentieth-century culture and at the same time pushed those despairing elements aside to make room for a paradoxical hope in a most unhappy century. We are determined, yet free." (226). In closing, Tauber proposes a sequel to chide his colleagues: Freud and the Reluctant Philosophers—because they don't engage him and have yet to "exhaust that rich mine."

  Despite his wish to be a scientist discovering laws of mental function, Freud was a philosopher  and moralizer.  Getting to "know thyself" from the standpoint of this brilliant Darwinian biologist, amateur archeologist and literary sexologist warrants many a philosophical treatise. Calling Freud an ethicist is an ennobling stretch; Tauber's effort is commendably provocative if not convincing. The book pays scant attention to this genius as a person, or to his close followers. Freud was quite cynical about his fellow man, and somewhat at a loss considering women and children. He was obsessed with a formula, the Oedipus complex, through which we can supposedly grasp and forgive our patricidal unconscious and be reasonable, reassured by scientific presumption freighted with old-fashioned suggestion.

Tauber omits Martin Buber, whose concept of "I and Thou" adds ethical substance to all human encounters, including psychotherapy. He also leaves out Freud's closest, most philosophically astute associate, Otto Rank, who emphasized relationship in therapy over pseudo-scientific enlightenment, and wrote extensively about ethics in the "analytic situation" (See Will Therapy and Truth and Reality). A few scholars include Rank in recent books that also deal with Kant and Freud: Edward S. Reed in From Soul to Mind: The Emergence of Psychology from Erasmus Darwin to William James (1997); Martin Halliwell in Romantic Science and the Experience of Self (1999); Lesley Chamberlain in The Secret Artist: A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud (2000; listed in Tauber's bibliography); and Maxine Sheets-Johnstone in The Roots of Morality (2008).


© 2011 E. James Lieberman


E. James Lieberman, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus, George Washington University School of Medicine


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