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Philosophy and Psychoanalysis PDF Print E-mail

given by Lisa Thatcher

Psychoanalysis and Philosophy.


Good evening everyone.

As many of you will know from my previous talks, I take us through large complicated subjects, and tonight I will do it again. But this should be a fun one, and there is lots of room for dissent and broad discussion after, so I am not going to perform a lengthy introduction on the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis. I am going to get right into he meat of it.

What is psychoanalysis?

For those of you here tonight unfamiliar with psychoanalysis, I will give a brief overview.

The history of the major discoveries in psychoanalysis is largely interwoven with the life and professional career of a single man, Sigmund Freud.

The book ‘studies on Hysteria’ actually marks the beginning of psychoanalysis, although the term was not used by Freud until a year later (1896). Prior to this time, he spoke of “Breuer’s cathartic method,” and occasionally of “psychical analysis.”

Psychoanalysis is primarily two things:

1) It comprises of several interlocking theories concerning the functioning of the mind.

2) Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic method for neurotic disorders.

I will briefly address the practise, then we will get into the theory.

As therapeutic technique, psychoanalysis is different from psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychology and the other therapies we would refer to as “counselling” in general. Its difference comes from the stipulation of the existence of a psychic unconscious. It insists on analysis of this psychic unconscious and the integration of the contents of the unconscious as therapeutic procedure. This is, very roughly, how psychoanalysis works. The Analyst, after hearing the thoughts of the Analysand (the analytic patient) formulates and then explains the unconscious basis for the patient’s symptoms and character problems. The patient is referred to as the Analysand because their role in realistically organising their thought is crucial to the analysis being able to take place. They are called the Analysand to give them a role as a partner in the formulation of the cure. Analysis takes place in the Analyst’s office, on the famous couch, where the analysand will lay down in order to be comfortable and most importantly, relaxed. Sigmund Freud discovered this technique. The Analyst asks that the Analysand be very honest in their communications. They will then be asked to speak about their childhood, dreams, hopes, wishes, and fantasies. This process usually beings with sessions of at least an hour, several times a week. Two visits a week minimum at first. It is the role of the Analyst to create a safe environment by being sufficiently detached so they can hear without prejudice. Eventually, the analyst will direct the speaking or make slight interjections where they see an opportunity to get the analysand to break through a point of resistance. The analyst interprets the subconscious through the so-called “controlled” conscious communications of the analysand. The role of the Analyst after listening carefully will be to intervene in order to break through the resistance to the original event that is built up subconsciously in the analysand. This resistance is the thing that is resulting in the disorder. This will go on for months and or most likely years. The average length of time for proper psychoanalysis is five and half years, at the rate of four or five sessions a week. You’re probably starting to get a picture of where the problems for some people of psychoanalysis lay. “Disorders” treated tend to steer away from severe psychosis or extreme problems. Typical applications can be depression, or self esteem issues that are playing themselves out in the analysand’s life etc. The most famous Analysand in Western pop culture would have to be Woody Allen. His films have all been based on his on going Psychoanalysis. He is a good example of how the analysand will take responsibility for a portion of their own analysis.

Criticisms of Psychoanalysis as a practise are primarily three:

1) It takes a bizarrely long time.

2) It generally costs a lot of money, although there are analysts who are trying to rectify this.

3) The largest criticism fired at Psychoanalysis is that it doesn’t work. That is, a “disease” can’t be identified and measured. Then when the “cure” is applied, seen to have removed this disease. Forever or even for a while. These claims are under dispute, but it remains a large problem for psychoanalysis. A problem particularly with legal bodies (as in its legitimisation) and science. Recent developments in neuroscience have resulted in one side arguing that it has found biological proof of the unconscious, and the other side stating that the biological discoveries proves we were wrong about an unconscious. However, tonight we won’t be concerned so much with the practise of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis also refers to a theory that has been interpreted as a form of scientific study. Psychoanalysis is also applied to the study of social, cultural, and religious phenomena. In this latter aspect, demanding for a re-evaluation of the mechanisms and meanings of culture, psychoanalysis has penetrated the consciousness of the wider public beyond its therapeutic limits. And this is the aspect of Psychoanalysis that we will deal with tonight. It is seen as both a method of evaluating civilisation, and the action of evaluating ourselves as human beings in the civilisation. In this way, the practise of psychoanalysis is seen almost as the testing laboratory for its own evolving theories. In other words, it is a reflexive study. That is, it is the act of itself, studying itself. Psychoanalysis has impacted very heavily on Western culture. The idea of the sub conscious driving all our thoughts, and that problems in childhood come out later in metaphoric patterns as adults, have become a strong part of our culture. These same notions of Freud’s have been incorporated into other areas of psychology and have had measured results that support the theories. So we don’t abandon the theories of Psychoanalysis, and in fact it is the process of psychoanalysis itself that has come up with these ideas. Freud observed his patients and the world around him to come up with these theories, and others after him have expanded or worked through his ideas.

To break the basic theories down, we can summarise them thus: · Psychic energy is needed to make the mind go & the energy (motivation) cannot be destroyed, it must be expressed: The psychoanalytic approach assumes that the psychological apparatus of the mind needs some kind of energy to make it go. This energy is used in psychological work such as planning, thinking, feeling, remembering. The psychic energy is thought to come from 2 main drives: Eros (or libido, the life and sexual instincts) and Thanatos (death instinct). The thinking is that at any time there is only a finite amount of energy available and if it’s busily being used say to repress memories, and deal with anxieties, then it’s not being used fruitfully. If the neuroses can be resolved, then the psychic energy can be freed to use more creatively and productively.· Psychic Determinism: Everything that happens in a person’s mind and everything a person does has a specific, identifiable cause i.e. psychic determinism. Psychoanalysis has no room for miracles, accidents or free will. All seeming contradictions of mind and behaviour can be resolved: nothing is accidental, e.g., it is not accidental when you forget someone’s name, drop something, say one thing and do another. · Humans have base instincts (unconscious urges): In Freudian psychology, the unconscious is extremely important in determining behaviour. This is a pervasive theme of the approach: that a lot of desires, motivations and conflicts are seething below the surface, below the level of consciousness. Freud believed that people are driven, fundamentally, by unconscious, animalistic, instinctual urges, particularly lust (eros) and aggression (thanatos). · Topography of the psyche (unconscious, pre-conscious, conscious): Using an iceberg metaphor, the unconscious is understood to be the large part of the mind, which is hidden from view. The pre-conscious is represented by the waterline - but it is the zone in which there are fleeting glimpses of the unconscious, "flickering" across the screen of consciousness. Finally, the relatively small part of the iceberg which sticks of the water is seen as equivalent to the small amount of conscious awareness that the human experiences. Freud also believed that if there was information that was too painful for the conscious part to bear, that defence mechanisms would act to push it down it into the unconscious part of the mind.· Structure of Mind (Id, Ego, Superego): The mind has an internal structure -- three parts with separate motivations: Id (irrational and emotional part of the mind); the Ego (rational part); and the Superego (the moral part). (Those theories have changed a lot in modern psychoanalysis)· The Way Psychic Conflicts are Resolved Shapes Personality: Personality characteristics are determined by the way in which a person learns to resolve unconscious conflicts amongst the Id, Ego & Superego. This evolves from how people handle several psychosexual stages during childhood. Personality is very strongly influenced by early experiences. Freud was the first to really emphasize the importance of early childhood experiences. People's Id, Ego and Superego develop characteristic patterns of interaction, which for them resolve the urges for psychosexual pleasures. The quality of a person's mental health was seen as determined by the extent to which psychic conflicts had been effectively resolved. If the forces of mind are in balance, according to Freud, then good psychological health ensued. Personality is viewed as a dynamic set of processes, which are always in motion i.e. psychodynamic. · Life is Painful, Therefore We Use Defence Mechanisms to Shield Our Psyche's from the Pain: Psychological defences are proposed as important aspects of human functioning. Because of human's desire for pleasure (note, they also have destructive instincts), life is essentially too painful for the human being to endure consciously; therefore much of the pain and conflict is diverted via defence mechanisms and kept within the unconscious. It is within the hidden unconscious that much of the conflict takes place, and these conflicts in the unconscious mind are seen as the root of behaviour and conscious experience. Apparently paradoxical or irrational behaviours can be accounted for by these inner conflicts, i.e., psychic determinism. · Unconscious Leaks Into Conscious Awareness via dreams, slips of the tongue, psychosomatic symptoms, and so on: The unconscious is dynamic, and the psychic energy must go somewhere, plus there is psychic determinism. In other words, whilst the unconscious conflicts may be largely kept from conscious awareness, they still significantly influence behaviours, psychosomatics, plus leak into the preconscious.· Therapeutic Relief Can be Achieved Through Insight into the Unconscious: Therapeutic relief can be effected by helping a person to bring underlying conflicts, often related to past negative learning experiences during critical psychosexual stages. To the extent that insight and understanding can be achieved, and a person can resolve many psychological problems.  

Impact on Philosophy

From listening to the basic theories of Freud, one can see how this may be of use to philosophy. If Philosophy is the study of what it means to be human, then psychoanalysis is part of the map to how we are human. Because of this connection and at the same time non-connection, Psychoanalysis and Philosophy have had a passionate and stormy relationship.

The year after Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” came out, the Surrealists embraced the notion of the unconscious to such an extent that they almost completely rejected the conscious mind, as if it were largely irrelevant. They preformed all kinds of social experiments to tap into the unconscious, eventually arriving at the idea of madness as a form of lucidity. It’s worth noting that Freud thought they misinterpreted his point. (Personally I like the surrealist’s position on the unconscious).

Psychoanalysis did something radical when it questioned the conscious mind. Descartes notion of “I think therefore I am” was radically called into question. The concept of rationality was radically called into question. Impulses were seen to form experiences earlier in life, and the conscious mind became almost less reliable than the unconscious.

But more importantly, other branches of philosophy were interested in psychoanalysis. And why wouldn’t they be? Philosophy had been asking similar questions for years.

For example, the existentialists. For Fichte (1794),the father of German Idealism, the absolute self-positing self was a pure assertion—I! Schopenhauer (1818) was so enamored with the I that he believed it was the foundation for that which is both determined and that which is determining, thus The World as Will and Representation—the fundamental realty is will, a will that suffers. And Hegel (1807, 1817) meticulously argues that Geist is a self-articulated process of becoming: essence must appear in order for anything to exist, hence to be made actual (see 1807, p. 89; 1817, p. 199). What does this all have to do with psychoanalysis? Everything! Anxiety and death, alienation and responsibility, meaning and possibility—the very ontological conditions that inform human subjectivity as both normative and pathological. For Kierkegaard, we live in extreme anxiety and trembling over death and dread, and despair over who we are, the very thing that defines our being, the very thing that orients us toward our future, hence our possibilities; and for Kierkegaard, that meant the ethical and spiritual life of man. Nietzsche also could not tolerate the herd mentality, where truth was far from being found in “the crowd;” but unlike Kierkegaard, he saw life as meaningless and in need of nihilistic revolt, of the transvaluation (supremacy) of values—to create oneself afresh—though a will to power. But the single most unremitting question for our existential man is the nature of freedom. Sartre was an extremist: human subjectivity was radical freedom, the unabated obligation to choose how one is to be. For Sartre (1943), we are condemned to freedom—we cannot not choose, or else we plummet into self-deception or bad faith (mauvaise foi). The human being is not a thing, but a process of transcendence that must seize upon its freedom in order to become and define itself via its authentic choices. Psychopathology is a failure to seize upon one’s freedom. Sartre’s magnus opus (Being and Nothingness) is a treatise on existential analysis, and in many ways shares affinities with psychoanalysis, but he had one beef: Sartre could not accept nor tolerate the idea of an unconscious mind because it fractured his very thesis that we are all unconditionally self determining. How could we be free if choice was governed by alien forces from within? Despite enjoying wide popularity, perhaps for this single attack on Freud, Sartre was not destined to find many followers among psychoanalysts of his day. It was with Heidegger (1927) that existential analysis began to find a broader voice, and this was largely due to the dissemination of his thought by Swiss psychiatrists, Binswanger and Boss. Heidegger’s influential work, Being and Time, one of the most celebrated texts of the 20th century, is essentially about the throws of human existence, what he refers to as Dasein—the concretely existing human being who is there in the world.

Dasein has a relationship with itself, others, and its environment, which is constitutive of its facticity (refers to the contingent yet intractable conditions of human existence)—as a being thrown into a preexisting social ontology. This idea eased the gap between existentialism and psychoanalysis and paved the way in the future for post modernism.

Today we see the impact of Psychoanalysis in post modernism, deconstruction and other Continentalist philosophies. The work of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Helen Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michele Foucault, Michel Onfray just to name a few have been profoundly affected by the notions of psychoanalysis.

As an aside, one of the criticisms of Psychoanalysis by Foucault, and Deluze, is the noted fact that Psychoanalysis has become a centre of power, with its confessional techniques being the same as the Christian tradition. It’s an interesting thought.

Derrida and deconstruction is bound completely to Freud and Psychoanalysis. They exist in a dance, each resisting the other, and each working back and forth in a spiralling journey toward a purity of knowledge.

The relation to the unconscious which psychoanalysis brings into play always remains both foreign and familiar. Like the Analysand, there is no relation to the unconscious, which is not a tensed relation, one of resistance. But resistance is neither forgetting nor negation. The unconscious can be approached only through resistance, as resistance is to psychoanalysis what air is to Kant’s dove. It is impossible to fly without the resistance of air.

Derrida argues that psychoanalysis has shown us that we can’t really rely on ourselves, or rather trust ourselves, to see or come up with the universal or even with the truth. He thanks Psychoanalysis for this observation, even as he criticises psychoanalysis for it’s ideas and methodology.

But, Psychoanalysis has told us that our theories can’t be trusted, and that includes the theory of psychoanalysis itself. Which, as we have seen from tonight, is something of a duality that psychoanalysis suffers from in establishing its own legitimacy. It deconstructs itself as it goes along.

Derrida sees the move in recent years toward ‘reason’ and away from the uncomfortable resistances that psychoanalysis creates as a negative, and even worse, as a denial of thought and cutting edge understanding.

As Psychoanalysis is about the work of what happens to the mind in the business of being human, philosophy is about the business of what it is to be human Even though Derrida retains a healthy distance from Psychoanalysis (he once declared that Freud had genius for getting very close to the truth and then wilfully missing it) he saw the movement away from Psychoanalysis as a problem for philosophy. I will read the following passage because it is beautiful and an excellent example of deconstructionist literature from Derrida.

What has happened, in the philosophical climate of opinion, if I may take the risk of characterizing it grossly and macroscopically, is that after a moment of intimidated anxiety, some philosophers have got a grip on themselves again. And today, in the climate of opinion, people are starting to behave as though it was nothing at all, as though nothing had happened, as though taking into account the event of psychoanalysis, a logic of the unconscious, of "unconscious concepts," even, were no longer de rigueur, no longer even had a place in something like a history of reason: as if one could calmly continue the good old discourse of the Enlightenment, return to Kant, call us back to the ethical or juridical or political responsibility or the subject by restoring the authority of consciousness, of the ego, of the reflexive cogito, of an "I think" without pain or paradox; as if, in this moment of philosophical restoration that is in the air—for what is on the agenda, the agenda's moral agenda, is a sort of shameful, botched restoration—as if it were a matter of flattening the supposed demands of reason into a discourse that is purely communicative, informational, smooth; as though, finally, it were again legitimate to accuse of obscurity or irrationalism anyone who complicates things a little by wondering about the reason of reason, about the history of the principle of reason or about the event—perhaps a traumatic one—constituted by something like psychoanalysis in reason's relation to itself (Ibid.).

For Derrida, to demand that things be simplified is to ignore the truth. He things we refuse psychoanalysis at our peril, even if all it has done is show us that we can’t really trust ourselves any longer.


1) If we know that we can’t trust our ‘rational’ mind, is it right to appeal to it? Do we know we can’t trust it? Can we get rid of Freudian notions and go back to the concrete ideas of ‘reality’.

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