Friday, June 28, 2019

Psychoanalysis, Philosophy, and Religion: a triangle of hostility?


In an essay, “A Triangle of Hostility?—Psychoanalysis, Philosophy and Religion,” John Cottingham1 writes: “as a generalization, it appears that contemporary philosophical thought is on the whole inimical to psychoanalytic ideas. (I am speaking here of the analytic branch of philosophy: among so-called ‘continental’ philosophers, psychoanalytic modes of thought have been extremely influential).” While published over ten years ago, this assertion, with the appropriate exceptions, remains largely true. 

Generally speaking, anglophone academic analytic philosophy accuses Freud’s theories “of being unscientific, over-sweeping, and, by some critics, virtually incoherent: since the defining characteristic of the mind is consciousness (so runs the objection), doesn’t the concept of unconscious mentation verge on the absurd? There are admittedly staunch philosophical defenders of Freud to be found,2 but I think it is fair to say the prevailing reaction of analytic philosophy towards psychoanalytic ideas is either oddly indifferent or markedly hostile.”

Cottingham proceeds to address the relation between philosophy and religion: 

“[A]gain, as a broad generalization, it seems that the dominant position in the modern analytic academy [Cottingham is himself rightly identified as a member of same, although he represents a dissenting or peripheral position] is one of hostility towards religion, the traditional arguments of God’s existence are widely supposed not to work, while the arguments against his existence (most notably various forms of the problem of evil [the theodicy question]) here taken to be pretty decisive.3 The general temper of contemporary analytic thought is, moreover, broadly scientistic [This claim is often not well understood, as it in no way suggests or is indicative of an ‘anti-science’ attitude or even a strong skepticism about scientific knowledge, rather, it is about the imperialist pretensions on behalf scientific knowledge or, put differently, it acknowledges various kinds of ‘knowing’ within distinguishable domains of intellectual or humanist inquiry and praxis, thus it attempts to circumscribe science such that it does not represent the absolute pinnacle of the quest for knowledge, however indispensable it remains to that quest.], or at least rationalistic, in its methodology and outlook. The model to which most or at least a very large number of modern anglophone philosophers aspire is that of the rational, precise, and cautious thinker, with a skeptical (with a small ‘s’) and no-nonsense outlook; and this means that, speaking generally, they tend to have little truck with the idea of the supernatural [i.e., anything that cannot be described in purely naturalist, physicalist or materialist terms; although it might be said that some conceptions of naturalism border on the supra-natural or at least allow for that possibility]. In short, atheism appears to be the default position at least in the anglophone philosophic academy.”

I will not here share Cottingham’s treatment of Freud’s psychoanalytic critique of religion (which is primarily based on the latter’s –at times intimate—understanding of only two religious traditions, Judaism and Christianity, as his knowledge of religious worldviews outside that orbit was rather weak, at least no way comparable to his acquaintance with these two of the three ‘Abrahamic’ traditions), which is fairly well known, so suffice to say for now that Cottingham can grant Freud provides insight into the beliefs and praxis of Judaism and Christianity on the ground, as it were, and thus there is some truth to be gleaned from his critique, however reductionist and crude in its approach and conclusions. In a future post I plan to delve more deeply into Cottingham’s views on this score. Of course not all contemporary psychoanalysts share Freud’s views on “religion,” if only because analysts are not out to change, let alone abolish, the overarching cultural beliefs and values or worldviews (religious or not) of their patients (or clients or analysands…). Still, it is fair to say, at least historically and theoretically, that traditional psychoanalysis (to the extent that it is defined as primarily ‘Freudian’) is hostile to a religious outlook. 

Which brings us to the heart of Cottingham’s argument: there is more or less a “triangle of hostility” in which (i) psychoanalysis opposes religion; (ii) religion is opposed by philosophy; and (iii) philosophy opposes psychoanalysis. I wholeheartedly agree with Cottingham’s  contention that, “in so far as such antagonisms do in fact obtain, they ought not to; for properly understood, there is no good reason why any of these three respective modes of thought [of course they are modes of praxis as well, which Cottingham evidences robust appreciation of elsewhere] should be taken to be in [intrinsic] tension.” In brief, he concludes that “the psychoanalytic project is … closely related to the religious quest [cf. ‘therapies of desire,’ individuation, self-examination, etc.]; and an enlightened philosophical outlook can find room to acknowledge the value of both.” Hear, hear! 

  1. Please see Louise Braddock and Michael Lacewing, eds., The Academic Face of Psychoanalysis: Papers in Philosophy, the Humanities and the British Clinical Tradition (Routledge, 2007): 92-110. From his Wikipedia entry: “John Cottingham (born 1943) is an English philosopher. The focus of his research has been early-modern philosophy (especially Descartes), the philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading, Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College, University of London, and Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. He is also a current Visiting Professor to the Philosophy Department at King's College, London. Cottingham has served as editor of the journal Ratio, president of the Aristotelian Society, of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, of the Mind Association and as Chairman of the British Society for the History of Philosophy. A Festschrift with responses by Cottingham, The Moral Life, was published by Palgrave in 2008.”
  2. I listed many if not most of these philosophers in my post at Ratio Juris (cross-posted at Religious Left Law) from June 7th (2019), “Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.”
  3. As Cotthingham writes in the Preface to The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (2005): “Current attitudes to religion among philosophers are highly polarized, some impatient to see it buried, others insisting on its defensibility. But as long as the debate is conducted at the level of abstract argumentation alone, what is really important about our allegiance to, or rejection of, religion is likely to elude us. There is, to be sure, a cognitive core to religious belief [for a brilliant analysis of what this does and might entail, please see James Kellenberger’s The Cognitivity of Religion: Three Perspectives (University of California Press, 1985)], a central set of truth-claims to which the religious adherent is committed; but it can be extremely unproductive to try to evaluate these in isolation. There are rich and complex connections that link religious belief with ethical commitment and individual self-awareness, with the attempt to understand the cosmos and the struggle to find meaning in our lives; and only when these connections are revealed, only when we come to have a broader sense of the ‘spiritual dimension’ within which religion lives and moves, can we begin to see fully what is involved in accepting or rejecting a religious view of reality.” Later in the book, Cottingham’s conception of spirituality is defined so as to embrace the possibility of non-religious spirituality: “[A]t the richer end of the spectrum [of spirituality], we find the term used in connection with activities and attitudes which command widespread appeal, irrespective of metaphysical commitment or doctrinal allegiance. Even the most convinced atheist may be prepared to avow an interest in the ‘spiritual’ dimension of human existence, if that dimension is taken to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and to the natural world.”
A few of the many books by Cottingham (chosen because I’ve read them and they speak more or less to topics broached above):
  • Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • On the Meaning of Life (Routledge, 2003)
  • The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  • Philosophy of Religion: Towards A More Humane Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2014)


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