Sunday, September 11, 2011

An Incipient Science of Subjectivity: Folk-Psychology and the Power of Psychoanalysis


“Psychoanalysis is arguably the single most important intellectual development of the twentieth century. Comparable to the theory of evolution in the controversy it has caused and continues to cause, psychoanalysis informs part of our daily discourse in a way that evolution has never done. Terms such as unconscious, repressed, ego, ambivalent, complex, projection, denial, and double-bind enter into our every walk of life whenever people talk about mental states and the reasons for human actions. Psychoanalytic language and concepts have been integrated into Western culture through novels, poetry, drama and film, literary and film criticism. [….]

After more than a century of work, psychoanalysis emerged with the richest systematic description of inner experience that the Western world has produced. Its theories spanned such fundamental matters as sex, love, and death; childhood, parenting, and family; cruelty, fear, jealousy, envy, and hate; identity, conscience, and character; desire and mourning. In addition, a new social space has been created for the in-depth examination of mental life through use of methods that might mitigate psychic suffering. And, yet, these ideas were not timeless truths, immune to social flux. Psychoanalysis took root in western and central Europe, and that culture permeated its logic and assumptions. Once transplanted to foreign lands, it was inevitable that this body of knowledge would in part be remade.”—Joseph Schwartz, Cassandra’s Daughter: A History of Psychoanalysis (1999)

“So far our opposition to the claim that psychology can be a science on the order of physics, or even biology, has turned on the nature of folk-psychological explanation. So now that claim might shift ground, contending that folk psychology is just, as Freud thought, a temporary expedient which can be gotten rid of without loss someday. Loss of what, to whom? The obvious answer is: of everything that interests us as persons, as members of a world in which marrying, feeling guilty, promising, disavowing and repressing, committing murder, joining the baseball team, believing that the earth is round, and so on, have the importance they do. These are things we want to understand about our enemies and friends; and such a project necessarily invokes mental states like beliefs, desires, and intentions. [….] Of actions it is both explanatory and constitutive. If our interest is in what Oedipus meant to us, or what Maisie knew, or what Little Hans saw, then nothing but the language of mind will satisfy. Reductionists refer disparagingly to reason-explanations as ‘folk-psychology.’ But if reduction isn’t possible, then folk psychology is the best we can do, and good enough. [….]

So long as psychoanalysis hopes to understand human actions, it will always be, and must be, an interpretive discipline. It will attempt to find out what we have meant by what we have said, and what obscure desires, what strange beliefs—yet beliefs and desires for all that—give both cause and sense, or reason for, our more-or-less intentional doings. The so-called hermeneuticists are wrong in saying that interpretations do not uncover links that are causal in nature; but they are right in insisting our explanations of actions are interpretations, and that as such they can be incorporated only in a ‘softer’ science than physics.

One of the things that psychoanalysis means in calling itself a science is that analyst and patient may make genuine discoveries about how the patient sees things, what she wants, phantasizes, believes, remembers, and so on, consciously and unconsciously. [….] [T]he very possibility of one person’s interpreting another rests on the fact that they share norms, many beliefs and desires, and a material world in common. Interpretation is not ‘subjective’ in a sense that leaves truth up for grabs, or that makes it merely a matter of one person’s opinion, or that potentially places all narratives on an equal footing. If ‘objectivity’ describes what is in the public domain and intelligible according to norms that are also public, then human thought and behavior can be understood only on the assumption that they, together with our interpretations of them, are objective in this sense. [….]

…[E]ven when [Freud] was wrong, he was unfailingly interesting, as a philosopher as well as a psychologist.”—Marcia Cavell, The Psychoanalytic Mind: From Freud to Philosophy (1993)

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