That is one reason, I suspect , we hold on to “knowingness” in spite of our boredom and irritation with it: the “alternative,” if there is one, is nameless. This, I think, is one of the more profound reasons that Freud-bashing has recently become so popular in our culture. Of course there are other reasons, some of them good ones: a reaction against a previous hagiography of Freud and inflated claims for psychoanalysis; the demand for cheaper and more biochemical forms of treatment; and so on. But it is striking that none of the Freud-bashers tries to give an account of the fundamental human phenomenon to which all of psychoanalysis is a response: the fact of motivated irrationality. Humans regularly behave in ways they do not well understand, which cause pain to themselves and others, which violate their best understanding of what they want and what they care about. And yet, for all of that, there is, as Shakespeare put it, method in their madness. These behavings are not simply meaningless intrusions into ordinary life: they express some motivational state, they have a “logic” of their own. Once you recognize the phenomenon of motivated irrationality, you are committed to there being some form of unconscious meaning. This is a fact which is recognized by Plato and Aristotle, by Augustine, Shakespeare, Proust, and Nietzsche. Freud’s originality lies only in the systematic ways way he worked out this fundamental idea.
Jonathan Lear – Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul p.54
Freud discovered archaic thinking in the concrete images and loose associations of dreams and in the physical symptoms of hysterics. But because he was a scientist of his day, he could not fully appreciate its significance. A scientist, for Freud, was a discoverer of an independently existing reality. Thus he took his interpretations of unconscious motivation to be discoveries of what was already there in the patient’s mind, causing the concrete images and the physical symptoms. This put Freud in a difficult conceptual position, and he clearly felt the strain. For if the archaic “thinking” is a remnant of infantile life, it seems odd that it should be cause by something so mature as a conceptual judgment of the type expressed in an analytic interpretation. A more compelling picture is to see the interpretation as growing naturally out of the archaic “thinking” it interprets. A good interpretation represents the end of a developmental process which begins with archaic attempts “to say the same thing.” The interpretation allows the mind to understand, at the level of a conceptualized judgment, what it has been trying to say all along, in more primitive ways. Insofar as there is a natural developmental thrust by which the mind moves from archaic to more sophisticated formulations, the mind must be striving to understand its own activities. Thanks to Freud, it is by now well known that this thrust towards self-understanding is blocked by myriad inhibiting forces which freeze much of the mind’s activity at archaic levels.
A good psychoanalytic interpretation, then, does more than uncover itself. For an unconscious thought is not a fully conceptualized judgment, needing to be pulled through the looking glass by its conscious image. At least one of the reasons an unconscious thought its unconscious is that conscious mind does not easily recognize this form of mental activity. An interpretation takes up the dreams, bodily symptoms and symptomatic acts in which, say, a wish is archaically expressed, and offers the concepts with which that wish can be consciously understood. What we call an “unconscious thought” tends to be a conscious conceptualized judgment that stands in a developmental relation to a more archaic, preconceptualized form of mental activity that is genuinely unconscious. The unconscious needs to be developed to be recognized as such. Although Freud’s psychoanalytic practice embodies this developmental approach, this is not his theoretical self-understanding. Many, though not all, of his remarks suggest that he conceived of himself as simply uncovering a hidden thought. This, of course, fits with the image of science as discovering and independently existing reality.
Jonathan Lear – Love and Its Place in Nature p.7
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