Tuesday, July 18, 2017

From Aristotelian moral psychology to Freud … and from Socratic to Psychoanalytic Midwifery

There is so much material worthy of detailed discussion and further elaboration in Jonathan Lear’s latest book, Wisdom Won from Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Harvard University Press, 2017), one hardly knows—as we say—where to begin. And I say this before having finished the book! For now permit me to share one snippet selected from an essay on why Lear believes Freud provides us with the means whereby we can continue the “unfinished” project of Aristotle’s moral psychology. As Lear reminds us, Bernard Williams describes a distinctively moral psychology as an enterprise that employs “the categories of meaning, reason and value, but leaves it open, or even problematical what way moral reasons and ethical values fit with other motives and desires, how far they express those other motives and how far they are in conflict with them.”
One could certainly argue that contemporary moral philosophy and ethics is fairly impoverished when it comes to providing plausible, let alone compelling pictures of moral psychology (as with all such generalizations, there are exceptions), a state of affairs in part due to the academic division of intellectual labor as well as the comparatively few number of philosophers who do work in ethics or moral philosophy while simultaneously possessing an abiding and sympathetic interest in Freudian and post-Freudian psychology. With virtue and care ethics, moral psychology has begun to carve out some space within professional philosophy, but that is largely due to considerations of character as well as our emotional life, “and our emotions tend to be conscious experiences.”
Unlike Williams however, Lear finds much of value in the ancient psychology of Plato and Aristotle with regard to the nonrational part of the soul, describing the latter’s endeavors as “unfinished,” with Freudian psychoanalysis providing us with “valuable insight into the communicative relations between the rational and nonrational parts of the soul” or psyche. In particular, the “nonrational soul has a significant unconscious dimension and … it proceeds according to its own form,” in other words, “unconscious mental activity has a distinctive nature:”
“The unconscious, Freud teachers, proceeds according to the loose associations and condensations of primary process mental activity. It works in a mode that is exempt from contradiction and in temporality of timelessness; it substitutes psychical reality for external reality. By coming to understand this alternative form of mental activity, we can work out in significant detail the voice of the nonrational soul. It also emerges from Freud’s case studies that the nonrational soul—the part he called the ‘unconscious’—is typically engage in a basic project: trying to address a problem of human existence, albeit in a nonrational and childish way. [….] And psychoanalysis, the praxis, is the attempt to facilitate communication [or, put differently, harmonic integration] between the nonrational and the rational soul.”
Lear suggests, however, that there has been in common circulation a “misconception of what psychoanalysis is,” and this misconception is not limited to the layperson, but found in contemporary philosophy as well, namely, “the idea of the psychoanalyst as an expert on what is hidden in another person’s unconscious mind.” One might intuitively appreciate how such a claim might rankle us to the extent that we resent the notion that another individual might be capable of knowing us much better than we know ourselves (although it is certainly true that others, especially those quite close to us, may have knowledge about ourselves that we, for whatever reason, conspicuously lack), particularly that part of us which is, so to speak, hidden within and yet is capable of having a considerable impact on our mental states, our character, our agency in the world. After providing specific examples from philosophers who invoke this picture of psychoanalytic expertise, Lear sketches the basic contours of this misconceived model, one in which  
“the psychoanalyst is an expert at taking an empirical stance with respect to the analysand, perhaps picking up unusual bits of available evidence and then making an inference to what must be going on in the analysand’s unconscious mind. The analyst might also be good at encouraging the analysand to take just such an empirical stance with respect to herself.
Of course, in popular culture there are the familiar images of the analyst as someone relentlessly searching for repressed memories, or the analyst who somehow has the keys to unlock the psychic basement and a special light to shine under the cobwebbed stairs.”
According to Lear, these pictures or models are based in some measure on things Freud himself once said or did at the beginning of his career: “Freud was on the hunt for repressed memories, and he was willing to make so-called deep interpretations of what was purportedly going on in the analysand’s mind. An interpretation is considered ‘deep’ if it is not easily available to the analysand’s own self-conscious experience.”
Yet the “mature form” of knowledge in psychoanalysis informs us that
“Freud fairly quickly realized that simply telling a person the contents of her unconscious not only had no positive therapeutic effect, but it also regularly provoked irritation and resistance; on occasion it led to the analysand breaking off treatment. In effect, he recognized that simply telling another person the truth about himself was not a therapeutic method. …[T]he more Freud thought about therapeutic efficacy the more he was led to abandon deep interpretations or the search for the historic truth about a moment in the past, and concentrate instead on facilitating the analysand’s own associations. On this conception, the psychoanalyst is not an expert about the hidden contents of another’s mind. Rather, the analyst is a facilitator of the free thought and free speech of another. The emphasis now is on the analyst facilitating a process through which the analysand himself or herself will come to be able to speak its meaning. In this sense, psychoanalysis stands in a tradition of Socratic midwifery.”
My bibliography for Freudian and Post-Freudian Psychology is here. Readers may also be interested in this transdisciplinary compilation for the emotions.

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