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Thursday, May 5, 2011


Well, you asked for it [six or seven of you did, anyway, which is more than enough for me.] So here we go. This will take a little while, and besides, I am in Paris, which has other attractions besides my laptop, so be patient.

The Thought of Sigmund Freud


With this post, I begin a tutorial on the thought of Sigmund Freud. Several caveats are in order as I launch on what may well be a series of five or six posts. First of all, I am no sort of expert on Freud or psychoanalysis. I have, if I may put it this way, the intimate knowledge of psychoanalysis that clay has of the craft of pottery. Having spent twenty years of my life in one form of psychotherapy or another, I have a pretty good worm’s eye view of the matter, but nothing more. Faithful readers of this blog will be well acquainted with my habit of referring my readers to my published writings on whatever subject I am pontificating about [irrelevant aside, triggered by my use of the word “pontification” – as Susie and I walked through the parvis in front of Notre Dame this morning, we encountered a full-scale avertissement of the current efforts to fast-track the beatification of Pope Paul II, on the way to his inevitable sanctification. My word of advice to those in need of intercession with the Heavenly Father – pin your hopes on someone else. I have enough respect for deities in which I do not place faith to believe that this is one sanctification the See has got wrong.] At any rate, there are no publications by me on Freud, for the very good reason that such would be, for me, a bridge too far.

Second, and rather more important, you will find, as I proceed that I have the as idiosyncratic a view of Freud and psychoanalysis as those I have already exhibited with regard to anarchism or Marxism. You will expect me to spend a good deal of time on infant sexuality or the Oedipus Complex or Freud’s retrograde opinions about homosexuality. All of those will come up, inevitably, but they will get very short shrift [another religious metaphor, it turns out.] My goal is to show you, as clearly as I am able, what I understand to be the fundamental and revolutionary ideas that Freud bequeathed to us. I do genuinely believe them to be both revolutionary and true, hence of the greatest importance for our understanding of the human condition. If I am successful, perhaps you will find what I have to say both interesting and useful.

So, with those warnings, let me begin.

Part One: The Discovery of the Unconscious

Anyone interested in the bare facts of Freud’s life is directed to the Wikipedia article on him. My understanding of Freud is deeply indebted to the brilliant book by the philosopher Richard Wollheim, Freud [later, Sigmund Freud] first published in 1971. Peter Gay, the great intellectual historian of modern Europe, is the author of an important biography of Freud. For those who wish to read Freud’s own writings, which were voluminous, I recommend starting with the work he himself considered his masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899.

For our purposes, it is important to place Freud in his historical time and place. Freud was born in 1856 to a Jewish family in a small town in Moravia, and moved with his family in 1865 to Vienna, the city with which he is most closely associated. He studied medicine at the University of Vienna, and chose neurology as his specialty. An early turning point in his development came in 1885, when he won a fellowship to spend time in Paris working under a famous neurologist named Charcot.

There are two fundamental facts about Freud that it is absolutely essential to be clear about as we proceed. They shaped and defined everything Freud did and said, and although everyone knows them, they tend to be ignored when Freud’s thought is discussed. The first fact is that Freud was a medically trained neurologist – not a philosopher, not a sociologist, not a cultural critic, not a literary critic, not an ideologue, not even a psychologist, but a neurologist. His first research was an unsuccessful effort to decipher the mysterious sexuality of the eel [who knew there was a problem?]. He thought as a neurologist, he saw the problems of his patients as a neurologist, he sought neurological explanations of the symptoms he encountered. And he remained, to the end of his days, as a neurologist would, convinced that what he was studying ultimately had to have a basis in, an explanation in, the nervous system of the human body.

The second fact is that during most of his professional career, Freud spent six or eight hours a day, five or six days a week, in his consulting room seeing patients. He did not spend an hour a day, just to keep his license, as it were, and then knock off to speculate about the human condition. He was, during his entire career, a practicing physician. That means that the focus of his concern, each working day, was curing the patients who came to him seeking treatment for their ailments. To him, the most compelling evidence of the correctness of a hypothesis he might formulate about the sources of a patient’s symptoms was his success in relieving those symptoms.

Furthermore, as a practicing physician trained as a scientist, he was always ready to revise an explanation or scuttle an hypothesis if the evidence pointed in another direction. At a certain point in his career, he developed something of a following of other physicians who gathered around him and in effect undertook to proselytize for his theories. And because his theories met with a good deal of skepticism and opposition, this circle took on the mental set of a cult or cause. But that was not the way Freud thought, and though he was convinced that his theories were correct, I do not think he wanted to become a quasi-religious guru of a cult.

Freud was, at least at first, simply one more young doctor following the great Charcot as he made his rounds in a mental hospital. Eventually, Freud established a closer working relationship with Charcot. Many of the patients Charcot treated suffered from what were called “hysterical” symptoms [you can amuse yourself by exploring, on the internet, the connection made by ancient Greek physicians, and their successors over the millennia, between mental problems and the womb – “hysteria” and “hysterectomy” have the same root.] Patients would present, for example, suffering from blindness or deafness or partial paralysis for which there was no discernible neurological cause. This was the late nineteenth century, not the early twenty-first, and doctors did not have the armamentarium of sophisticated diagnostic techniques now routinely employed – no CT scans, no MRIs, not even x-rays, which, although they were being developed, were not yet used for medical purposes. But neurologists did have a quite sophisticated knowledge of the anatomy of the nervous system, and they were capable of finding damage to the optic nerve or the auditory nerve or the verves serving the hand or arm or leg, if damage there was.

Charcot had been having some success in the treatment of hysterical symptoms with the radically new technique of hypnosis. Under hypnosis, patients could recall what they were thinking and doing when the hysterical symptom began. After being brought out of the hypnotic state, if confronted with this information, in some cases they were thereupon relieved of the symptom. They were, or at least appeared to be, cured. Freud learned all this from Charcot, and himself began to use hypnosis in the treatment of hysteria. It might be, for example, that a patient afflicted with periods of hysterical blindness would recall seeing something terrible or “unacceptable” that she could not reconcile herself to [the patients were mostly women, at this point, by the way.] The blindness, it seemed to Freud, was the patient’s way of shutting out terrible sights, or perhaps even of punishing herself for having seen something that she should not have seen.

But these explanations for the symptom, although apparently confirmed by the relief produced by hypnosis, posed a deep, fundamental, conceptual problem, the eventual solution of which laid the foundations for everything that Freud subsequently did. This is the most important single idea in this entire “tutorial,” far more important than infant sexuality or the Oedeipus Complex or what ever Discontents Civilization maybe feeling. I am going to take a good long time to explain it, and you my find my explanation tedious, but stay with me, because if you do not completely understand this simple idea, nothing I say hereafter will really make much sense to you.


john c. halasz said...

Eels. Slightly OT, if not entirely, but it's my favorite story about Aristotle the empiricist. Aristotle thought that most species develop from seed, like following from like in accordance with the categorical structure of the cosmos. But there were a few exceptions, the causal origins of which he could only explain through spontaneous generation, among them eels. The actual facts are these: Mediterranean eels don't develop sex organs til shortly before spawning, and after they spawn they die, and they spawn off the coast of Bermuda.

john c. halasz said...

BTW that etymology of the phrase "short shift", as deriving from "shrive", -to confess and grant penance/absolution,- I did not know or suspect. The quick confession granted to a condemned man. It revived in memory a piece of my long-ago, late-adolescent poetastry:

"Oh! Shrive me not, crowds of false innocence!/ I'll abide by my heart's own indolence."

Hey! At least it's worked. So far. Or maybe not so much. Or maybe not at all.