Freud p.1

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