Thursday, March 29, 2018

Some thoughts on Freudian psychoanalysis from the philosopher John Wisdom (1904-1993)

We know that the notion of an unconscious mind or mental states predates Freud, and in fact is found, more or less, in both Eastern and Western thought, even if there is little or no systematic reflection and examination of this idea in conceptual terms concerned at once with its philosophical and psychological facets and clarification. Thus, we typically don’t say Freud “discovered” the unconscious but when we think of the unconscious, Freud’s name leaps to mind, if not his provocative and groundbreaking thoughts on “the unconscious.”

More often, it is said that Newton “discovered” gravity, but in one very important sense, he did no such thing, any more than Freud discovered the unconscious part of our minds. So, what was it that both Newton and Freud did in their respective fields of inquiry?

“After all we didn’t need Newton to tell us that apples fall. The well-taught child replies ‘He explained why apples fall. He said they fall because of gravity.’ But wasn’t this explanation like the doctor’s when we tell him how we feel and he tells us that we are run down. For what is gravity but the fall of apples and the like—in short, all these incidents we pretend to explain by gravity. ‘Ah’ the clever child replies, ‘gravity is much more than the fall of apples. It is the fall of apples and the like.’ And this is true. With the word ‘gravity,’ or the word ‘attraction,’ used in a modified way, Newton connected apples in an orchard with stars in heaven, a mammoth in a pitfall with waves high on the beach. Till he spoke we had no word connecting every incident in nature by thin lines of likeness, thin as the lines of force but stronger than steel.

Unlike one who uses a pattern ready made for him Newton had to cut out a pattern in order to show the connections in a whole which no one had ever apprehended as a whole. We now are given the conceptions of gravity and of energy. Newton developed the conception of attraction and presented it with the power of the distant. Freud developed the conception of the unconscious and with it presented the power of the past. Each introduced a word and from it bred a notation which encourages us towards new experience and also enables us to co-ordinate old experience.”

Like poets, both “philosophical scientists” and “metaphysical philosophers” writes John Wisdom, “mould the use of language to their needs,” and the casts produced by these molds can be a bit unsettling or startling, at least upon first sight. Yet poets, philosophers, and scientists are at their best when moving back and forth, to and fro, from the concrete to the general, from the general to the concrete (or from order to chaos or paradox…), from molds to casts, and thus new molds to new casts. Freudian psychoanalysis, insofar as it is a “battle with illusion, disillusion, and despair is something more personal than this,” that is, it is more personal than the movement back and forth between the general and the concrete, between order and chaos:

“ …[I]t is notorious … that it is hard to see oneself as others see one, and this implies that it is hard to see oneself as one can see others, that the advice ‘Know yourself’ is not easy to follow. In psychoanalysis a determined attempt is made to do this with someone else’s help. Concrete detail after concrete detail is assembled and slowly, very slowly, the bewildering chaos comes into order and the shifting shadows begin to have shape. But there are strong forces opposing this.

It is not only that the incidents one needs to recall are half forgotten. Added to this and bound up with it is the fact that there exists already a way of telling the story which selects, emphasizes and assembles things in certain constellations. For instance, the story is told in terms of loving certain people and hating others. You loved your kind mother and your good father and your little sister, who was weaker than yourself. You hated the people next door who poisoned the cat, and you despised Uncle Jack who disgraced the family name by selling on prodigious scale, bogus shares. You despised him of course although he drove so magnificent a motor car. You loved your sister. Of course there were occasions when you lost your temper with her, but these were temporary aberrations when perhaps she broke your best soldiers or tore your best book. So far so good. It is only later, perhaps, that the adequacy of this picture begins to be suspected. You love your wife. You are of course sometimes angry with her. And here you are sorry to say you are sometimes extraordinarily angry with her, unreasonably angry, much angrier than you would be with someone else who had done what she did. Perhaps of course she has done the same thing before. But sometimes she has not. And anyway why were you so angry with her from the first? You might be tempted to say sometimes that you detest your wife if it were not that you love her and love her very much. And now you come to think of it, though sometimes your sister was very provoking it is also true that you were sometimes angry with her about very little, and no less when grown-ups in a certain tone of voice again said that she was smaller and weaker than you. Did you really detest her for the love she won so easily?

The suggestion is preposterous. But is it pointless? Isn’t it in fact extremely pointed? The suggestion that a hat is a monument, that legal discussion is verbal, that knowledge of other minds isn’t really knowledge [these are examples discussed earlier in the essay] are all preposterous. But they are not pointless. They force us to recognize things familiar but unrecognized. Psychological suggestions also, preposterous as they sometimes are, reveal to our dismay and our relief things we had felt creeping in the shadows and now must see in light. [….]

Psycho-analysts in order to reveal to us things about ourselves modify and sophisticate our conceptions of love, hate, jealously, envy, sympathy, sense of responsibility. They use familiar words not with a disregard to established usage but not in bondage to it. [….] The psychoanalyst also tries [i.e., like the ‘metaphysician’] to bring to light models which dominate our thought, our talk, our feelings, our actions, in short our lives. And of course it is not the professional psychoanalyst only who does this—anyone who reflects upon people and tries to come at the truth does in some degree the same thing. [And this is one reason why Marcia Cavell can write: “I think it is true that Freudian interpretation depends generally on the everyday reason-explanation model—sometimes called ‘folk psychology’—which it then expands in various ways, and that precisely this is one of its strengths.”] [….]

The psycho-analyst seeks to bring into the light those models from the past which for good and evil so powerfully influence our lives in the present, so powerfully distort reality and so powerfully illuminate it. For, of course, these models don’t only distort. By no means. No doubt the lover see what we see isn’t there. But doesn’t he also see what we can’t see? Unquestionably Miss E. Brown is not Aphrodite nor Diana. But then maybe she isn’t the Miss Brown we think we know. Hate may blind, but hate, even neurotic hate, also reveals.”— John Wisdom, from the essay, “Philosophy, Metaphysics and Psycho-Analysis,” in his book, Philosophy and Psycho-Analysis (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1957 [1953]).

Of course the entire essay is best read in toto, thus I hope this extract provides sufficient enticement toward that end.

A bibliography on Freudian and Post-Freudian psychology is here.


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