Saturday, December 15, 2018

Freud’s conception of happiness as eudaimonia or human fulfillment

It is philosophers who have the task of exploring what matters to us most—what is freedom? What is it genuinely for us to be happy? What is worth valuing and why?—but it is psychoanalysis that teaches us how we regularly get in the way of our own freedom, systematically make ourselves unhappy and use values for covert and malign purposes. Philosophy cannot live up to its task unless it takes these psychoanalytic challenges seriously. — Jonathan Lear

“The parts of Freud’s writings that suggest some level of causal determination in fact coexist with his explicit view that one of the chief goals of psychoanalysis is to increase the patient’s ‘freedom’ (Freiheit), ‘autonomy’ (Selbstandigkeit), and ‘initiative’ (Initiative). Thus the aim of psychoanalysis is to ‘free’ (befrein) the patient from intrapsychic ‘chains’ (die Fesseln), which normally increases the patient’s ‘self-control’ (Selbstbeherrschung) and gives ‘the patient’s ego freedom to decide one way or the other’ between conflicting motives. For Freud, it is the mark of a relatively healthy ego to be able to deliberate and exercise self-control and willpower in choosing and pursuing goals. [….]

Freud’s claim that the developed ego is guided by qualitative hedonism helps to bring out just how in his late writings ‘the programme of the pleasure principle’ is compatible with non-egoistic, and hence, moral behavior. This compatibility is largely a consequence of the fact that happiness as Freud uses the term for the goal of life is a different kind of end then the quantitative one of maximizing a single kind of agreeable feeling. ‘Happiness’ in life is an ‘inclusive end’ rather than a single ‘dominant end.’ That is to say, the activities through which it is sought are not means in an instrumental or neutral sense, but parts of a whole. To pursue happiness as an inclusive goal through such activities as artistic creativity, intellectual work, sensuality, love, and aesthetic appreciation is to enjoy each of these activities as contributing something qualitatively unique to a life plan. Insofar as these activities are means, it is in the sense of being constitutive of the comprehensive end of happiness in life as a whole. It is only through such activities that genuine happiness in the sense of ‘positive fulfillment’ is possible [Here we see Freud’s conception of ‘happiness’ is close if not identical to the classical Greek concept of eudaimonia, or at least several well-known conceptions thereof and which we might translate in the best sense to mean or imply the possibility of human fulfillment, the triune nature of which arguably entails, minimally and broadly speaking, freedom (as self-determination), human community, and self-realization. The converse of such human fulfillment could be said to found in the several senses in which Marx employs the concept of alienation throughout his writings.*] [....] Freud does not construe narrowly, then, the happiness at which the ego aims as always involving a self-interested goal. To the contrary, persons are observed to find pleasure in a whole range of activities, including fulfilling the needs of others, and even in moral conscientiousness. For there is ‘satisfaction’ to be obtained in acting benevolently in accordance with one’s ‘ego ideal’ and ‘a feeling of triumph when something in the ego coincides with the ego ideal.’”—Ernest Wallwork, Psychoanalysis and Ethics (Yale University Press, 1991)

* The notion of alienation (there are three terms in German for this which range from the descriptive to the evaluative) is one of the fundamental concepts in Marx’s work, expressly in the early writings and more implicitly or assumed in his later, systematic critique of capitalism. I want here merely to highlight two books in which I’ve found the discussion of Marx’s conception of alienation (used in several different senses) quite helpful, indeed, indispensable: Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx (1985) and R.G. Peffer’s Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (1990). For now, let me express wholehearted agreement with the following from Peffer:

“The moral content of the various forms of alienation Marx describes in the Manuscripts [i.e., the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844], the moral grounds upon which he condemns these forms of alienation [e.g., the historical and general alienation suffered by the majority of human beings from the ‘objects and products of material and intellectual production,’ as well as alienation from ‘the process of production, other persons, nature, and [our] own selves], i.e., “human life,” or [our] own “species-being,” [this last is similar if not identical to later existentialist construals of fundamental alienation or estrangement as part and parcel of the human condition, as intrinsic to a philosophical anthropology or as a metaphysical proposition] can, I think, be reduced to three primary moral principles to which he implicitly subscribes in the Manuscripts and throughout the rest of his writings. These principles are freedom (as self-determination), human community, and self-realization.”

I would like to note in closing that we need not assume freedom need imply “maximally unbounded and unburdened choice” in keeping with the classical Liberal belief that “people tend to fare best when they possess, more or less, the greatest possible freedom to live as they wish,” what Daniel N. Haybron views as central to “liberal optimism” or what I would term, perhaps more precisely, “libertarian optimism,” which is found among left-liberals as well. Please see Haybron’s The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford University Press, 2008). For a taste of rather different understandings of what freedom might or should entail, in other words, that does not presuppose or assume the unconditional value of “maximally unbounded and unburdened choice,” see Jon Elster’s Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraints (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and the essays collected in Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle, eds., Philosophy as Therapeia (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 66) (Cambridge University Press, 2010). On how this more modest (realistic?) conception of what freedom ideally entails is compatible with Marxist conceptions of self-realization and human fulfillment, see Elster’s article, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds., Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989).


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