Freud argued that religious belief is an illusion. And he meant this in a precise sense: a belief is an illusion if it is derived from human wishes. Illusions are by their very nature misleading. For people take their beliefs to be responsive to the way things are. So if a belief is held in place by wishes, people are misled about their orientation to the world. Beliefs can be true or false; the same holds for illusions. It is not out of the question for an illusion to be true. The essential problem for an illusion, then, is that we are mistaken about the basis of our commitment to it. We take it to be a belief based on the responsiveness to the world; in fact, it is held in place by primordial wishes of which we are unconscious.
Freud’s argument is oblique. He does not address religion directly; and ostensibly he makes no claims about whether religious beliefs are illusions. That is, whatever the truth of religious claims, the fact that we believe them is not based on that truth, but rather on infantile wishes. His expectations seems to be that once we recognize these beliefs as illusions, and come to see the kind of wishes they gratify, the temptation towards religious belief will fall away. At the very least, we will see that we ought to give up religious belief.
Jonathan Lear – Freud p.203
Appearances to the contrary, there is nothing in Freud’s critique of morality that calls this Socratic-Platonic picture into question. Freud thinks he is entitled to infer from the pathology of, say, the moral masochist to the idea that everyone with a superego, living a recognizably moral life is thereby unhappy. But this is an argument from pathology that is not valid. If happiness were simply equated with pleasure, then any restriction of pleasure would be a restriction on one’s happiness. And if pleasure were simply equated with the gratification of one’s wishes, then any restriction on gratification by the superego would be a source of unhappiness. But there are significant reasons for doubting whether either of the antecedents in these conditionals is true. An analyst-teacher of mine once said, ‘The only thing worse than an Oedipal defeat is an Oedipal triumph.’ Succeeding in gratifying all one’s wishes is not the route to happiness.
Jonathan Lear – Freud p.202
[Freud] wants to show that morality and religious beliefs have different origins and serve different purposes than they claim. These are grand reflections about the meaning of western civilization. And they are, in my opinion, the least valuable aspect of Freud’s work. Precisely because they are so far removed from his clinical work, crucial assumptions in his arguments are unjustified, inferences are dubious and his conclusions are not established. I do not think this part of Freud’s work will stand the test of time.
Jonathan Lear – Freud p.192
For in addition to our long-standing puzzlement over the human condition, we are also ever-tempted by complacency when it come to self-understanding. And we live in an age when that complacency has, at least for the time being, been shaken. We can see that complacency in a package of beliefs that were in full flower at the end of millennium:
- That we can find out all we need to know about human behavior and motivation by conducting polls, examining democratic votes, choices made in the market–place, and changing fashions. In short, human motivation is essentially transparent.
- That all human disagreements are in principle resolvable through rational conversation and mutual understanding. Each of us is acting on the basis of what we think is reasonable, if we keep trying to understand the other’s point of view, we shall eventually resolve our disagreement or at least reach a point where we can ‘agree to disagree.’
- That we have reached ‘the end of history’: the epochal struggles of historical change are over; what is left is basically a homogenizing process of ‘globalization.’
- That all serious psychological problems will soon be treatable either by drugs or neurosurgery. Anti-depressants provided the paradigm. What hitherto looked like intractable suffering can be treated by a drug which affects neurotransmitters in the brain. Since every psychological problem must make some difference in the brain, eventually we will discover what that is and learn how to change it. Thus,
- The only form of psychotherapy that is needed is rational conversation. A person may suffer from a ‘cognitive error’: he may believe, for example, that he is an unsuccessful person, and will thereby continue to fail. But then all one really needs to do is point out his mistake. He will come to see himself as successful and will thereby start to succeed. Or we can simple teach people new behaviors so that they can cope better. Behavioral therapy or cognitive therapy is all we need. And thus,
- ‘Freud is dead’: His account of a ‘talking cure’ – psychoanalysis – has about as much validity as invoking Zeus.
It is possible to hold any of these beliefs without holding the others, but one can see how they all hang together to form a certain outlook about what humans are like. And what makes this outlook powerful is that there is truth in each of the beliefs: we can find out much about humans via empirical polls, it is always useful to seek mutual understanding, there is a process of globalization occurring, neuroscience will make remarkable advances in treating psychological suffering, rational conversation can be a big help, and Freud was wrong about many of his beliefs and deserves to be criticized. What, then, is the problem? It lies in the implicit assumption that this picture gives us the whole truth about human beings. Herein lies the complacency. We are encouraged to think that this outlook gives us an account of human motivation without remainder. We can thus dismiss any darker accounts of human motivation which do not already fit this picture.
Jonathan Lear – Freud p.1
The field of ethics, which is so full of problems, presents us with another fact: namely that ill-luck – that is, external frustration – so greatly enhances the power of the conscience in the super-ego. As long as things go well with a man, his conscience is lenient and lets the ego do all sorts of things; but when misfortune befalls him, he searches his soul, acknowledges his sinfulness, heightens the demands of his conscience, imposes abstinences on himself and punishes himself with penances. Whole peoples have behaved in this way and still do. This however, is easily explained by the original infantile stage of conscience, which, as we see, is not given up after the introjection into the super-ego, but persists alongside of it and behind it. Fate is regarded as a substitute for the parental agency. If a man is unfortunate it means that he is no longer loved by this higher power; and, threatened by such a loss of love, he once more bows to the parental representative in his super-ego – a representative whom, in his days of good fortune, he was ready to neglect. This becomes especially clear where Fate is looked upon in the strictly religious sense of being nothing else than an expression of the Divine Will.
Sigmund Freud – Civilization and Its Discontents p.118
I have now come to the end of what I had to say upon this case. There remain two problems, of the many that it raised, which seem to me to deserve special emphasis. The first relates to the phylogenetically inherited schemata, which, like the categories of philosophy, are concerned with the business of “placing” the impressions derived from actual experience. I am inclined to take the view that they are precipitates from the history of human civilization. The Oedipus complex, which comprises a child’s relation to its parents, is one of them – is, in fact, the best known member of the class. Wherever experiences fail to fit in with the hereditary schema, they become remodeled in the imagination – a process which might very profitably be followed out in detail. It is precisely such cases that are calculated to convince us of the independent existence of the schema. We are often able to see the schema triumphing over the experience of the individual; as when in our present case the boy’s father became the castrator and the menace to his infantile sexuality in spite of what was in other respects an inverted Oedipus complex. A similar process is at work where a nurse comes to play the mother’s part or where the two become fused together. The contradiction between experience and the schema seem to introduce an abundance of material in the conflicts of childhood.
The second problem is not far removed from the first, but it is incomparably more important. If one considers the behaviors of the four-year-old child towards the re-activated primal scene. Or even if one thinks of the far simpler reactions of the one-and-a-half-year-old child when the scene was actually experienced, it is hard to dismiss the view that some sort of hardly definable knowledge, something, as it were, preparatory to an understanding, was at work in the child at the time. What this may have consisted in we can form no conception; we have nothing at our disposal but the single analogy – and it is an excellent one – of the far reaching instinctive knowledge of animals.
If human beings too possessed an instinctive endowment such as this, it would not be surprising that it should be very particularly concerned with the processes of sexual life, even though it could not be by any means confined to them. This instinctive factor would then be the nucleus of the unconscious, a primitive kind of mental activity, which would later be dethroned and overlaid by human reason, when the faculty came to be acquired, but which in some people, perhaps in every one, would retain the power of drawing down to it the higher mental processes. Repression would be the return to this instinctive stage, and man would thus be paying for his great new acquisition with his liability to neuroses, and would be bearing witness by the possibility of the neuroses to the existence of those earlier, instinct-like, preliminary stages. But the significance of the traumas of early childhood would lie in the fact that to this unconscious they would contribute material which would save it from being worn away by the subsequent course of development.
Sigmund Freud – Three Case Histories p.278
I have been driven to regard as the earliest recognizable sexual organization the so-called “cannibalistic” or “oral” phase, during which the original attachment of sexual excitation to the nutritional instinct still dominates the scene. It is not to be expected that we should come upon direct manifestations of this phase, but only upon indications of it where disturbances have been set up. Impairment of the nutritional instinct (though this can of course have other causes) draws our attention to a failure on the part of the organism to master its sexual excitation. In this phase the sexual aim could only be cannibalism – eating… It is well known that there is a neurosis which occurs at a much later age, in girls at the time of puberty or soon afterwards, and which expresses aversion to sexuality by means of anorexia. This neurosis will have to be brought into relation with the oral phase of sexual life. The erotic aim of the oral organization further makes its appearance at the height of a lover’s paroxysm (in such phrases as “I could devour you with love”) and in affectionate intercourse with children, when the grown-up person is pretending to be a child himself… Permanent marks have been left by this oral phase of sexuality upon the usages of language. People commonly speak, for instance, of an “appetizing” love-object, and describes persons they are fond of as “sweet”… In dreams sweet things and sweetmeats stand regularly for caresses or sexual gratifications.
Sigmund Freud – Three Case Histories p.265