My aim in this paper is to use historical analysis as a way of reflecting on the deepest philosophical assumptions of psychoanalysis. In preparing it, I have been very influenced by its venue, reflecting what I hope is an interest in the study of life, human nature, and society. I have a certain sense of occasion about the growth of interest in the history of the human sciences. In fact, it is a quarter of a century since I embarked on a doctoral dissertation in this area. It was, I don’t mind saying, lonely work, and I cannot sufficiently convey my pleasure that there now appears to be a real interest in this country in humanistic scholarship about the history of the disciplines which seek to understand our humanity. I wish it well and I will do all I can to help it on its way.
When I became a professional historian of psychology, it was considered sufficiently noteworthy that the main entrepreneur in the field, Robert I. Watson, dubbed me the ‘first person ever to receive a doctorate in the history of psychology in the Anglo-Saxon world’. (I have never known if that was true or not, but it felt nice at the time.) I have moved on more than once, but I have remained preoccupied with human nature, the constraints on it, what can be hoped for and perhaps achieved, in a variety of guises: researching, teaching, supervising, editing, agitating a bit, making films about it, writing and publishing.
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I came to Britain to look into the issues lying conceptually beneath and historically behind Freud’s metapsychology, in particular his first book On Aphasia (1891), and the philosophical assumptions conceptual confusions underlying psychoanalytic metapsychology. The doctoral dissertation I did was on the history of cerebral localization from the first empirical work, that of Gall and phrenology, to the first experimental work of Fritsch and Hitzig and of David Ferrier. Note that I make no mention of Freud whatsoever. The reason is that I was strongly advised by my doctoral supervisor not to go into psychoanalysis at all and by my department head not to mention any interest in the history of medical or psychiatric topics. The first because psychoanalysis wasn’t psychology, and the second because medicine wasn’t knowledge. Psychoanalysts were charlatans and medics were plumbers, I was told.
Neither was respectable nor was taking up an appointment in the history and philosophy of science, said my psychology supervisor, Professor Oliver Zangwill. Better to return to medicine he said. No, find something respectable in the history of science, said Gerd Buchdahl, my department head in the history and philosophy of science. So I was at an impasse. Then what about Darwin? This seemed eminently respectable, especially in Cambridge. Hence a decade’s research on the nineteenth-century debate on man’s place in nature, the fruits of which have appeared as Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture.
I am sure all this sounds rather self-preoccupied and nostalgic, but there is, if you will bear with me, a historiographic point creeping upon us. It is this: I am by now an old pro in the field that these seminars are promoting, and what I have to tell you is that objects of study are very elusive, overdetermined, subject to fashion, and above all scary if you are at all serious about historical scholarship and not merely an antiquarian or looking for cultural ornaments or whether or not A is buried in B’s grave. I have never stopped being concerned with psychoanalysis, and I have returned to Freud and psychoanalysis as my main preoccupation because I have run out of alternative bases for human hope. I will not bore you with more odyssey, though various disciplines and forms of intellectual and political practice intervened in the years I am not spelling out.
Suffice it to say that I am now editing a journal on these matters, with the subtitle Psychoanalysis, Groups, Politics, Culture, working in the Psychotherapy Unit of Britain’s oldest snake pit, St Bernard’s in London, training as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and have for some years been an analytic patient. I say this because, as will become clear, the relations between abstract theory on the one hand and personal experience and clinical practice on the other are at the heart of what I want to convey. Put in another way, I want to juxtapose scholarship with that which it is putatively in aid of. Now, for all of you who may have felt impatient with the foregoing, comes the academic part. I want to assess certain historical, historiographical, and philosophical issues concerning Freud and psychoanalysis by means of reflections on two books: Frank J. Sulloway’s Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend, and Bruno Bettelheim’s Freud and Man’s Soul. Each in its way makes an epoch. The contexts which evoked them and into which they are inserted are very different indeed from the ones I described in Cambridge in the mid-1960s.
In the United States, psychoanalysis is in rapid decline within a medical framework, while psychotherapists of various other – including instant – kinds are waxing and prospering. There were no, repeat no, candidates at the Los Angeles Psychoanalytical Institute in some recent years, or so I am told. Meanwhile, gossip about psychoanalysis fills the pages of The New Yorker, and the work of Jeffrey Masson, claiming that Freud lied throughout his mature years about what he really believed, has become a bestseller. Masson has cried foul and found a forum in the pages of Mother Jones, the main surviving radical magazine on the West Coast, and a controversy raged about these matters in the New York Review of Books. That is, the higher gossip has taken over. I happen to think gossip is the highest form of truth, but it should not stand alone. It has, however, taken over the way psychoanalysis is perceived in the United States. There is also a whole tradition of psychoanalytic hagiography and an attempt is being made by American psychoanalytic theoreticians to appropriate some British theories I shall speak about, as a way of propping up the dotage of ego psychology, which is the main American appropriation of psychoanalysis.
In Britain, by contrast, there is a real renaissance of interest in psychoanalysis and related, relatively orthodox, therapies. There are new constituencies, new practitioners, and a growing number of scholars who write about it. I am thinking, in particular, of the work of David Ingleby, Nick Isbister, John Forrester, Janet Sayers, Barry Richards, Karl Figlio. Many, if not most, members of the ‘class of ’68’ are in therapy or analysis, including many of the ex-members of the editorial board of Spare Rib and other radical and feminist periodicals. The History Workshop has mounted a series of workshops on psychoanalysis. There are also many repentant Lacanians now in the orthodox analysis. Juliet Mitchell is a psychoanalyst, and a number of feminists are psychotherapists. There are also several reputable pieces of training: British Association of Psychotherapists, London Centre for Psychotherapy, Guild of Psychotherapists, Lincoln Centre, Association for Group and Individual Psychotherapy, Philadelphia Association, Arbours Association, and others, in addition to the more orthodox centers – Institute of Psycho-Analysis, Tavistock Clinic, Hampstead Clinic.
In the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, there is thriving tripartite sectarianism: the Freudians, the Kleinian, and the Independent or Middle Group. The Freudians are followers of Anna Freud, tend toward scientism, and are closer to American ego psychology. The followers of Melanie Klein, the Kleinian, are concerned with very primitive intrapsychic mechanisms and a novel theory of thinking. The Middle Group defines itself by not having an eponymous hero or heroine to worship. They are much more humanistic but are still stuck in a language, which I shall speak about, of so-called ‘object relations’. Sulloway and Bettelheim, I suggest, define the limits or the boundaries of this renaissance, and I should like to try and show how. Put simply – too simple, but I shall complicate the model below – Bettelheim wishes to free Freud from desiccated scientism which he attributes to the influence of medicalization, primarily in America, and to Anna Freud and (although he is not explicit about this) the orthodox Freudians, as opposed to Kleinian and Middle or Independent Groups and the perspectives of lay analysts. That is, he is opposing the orthodox Freudian tendency in the US, UK, and elsewhere.
The frame of reference which he is opposing is the one which set the terms of reference, the mental set, for the translation of the Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud edited by James Strachey, Alan Tyson, supervised by Anna Freud, etc. Bettelheim’s is a book about the terms and tenor of the twenty-four volumes of the Standard Edition and a very good book it is. It is worth adding that a completely new translation of Freud is under active discussion. In addition to the influence of Anna Freud, who moved to London in 1938, the leading lights of ego psychology in America were all German émigrés: a trio called Hartmann, Kris, and Loewenstein (which seemed to me to run together as a hyphenated single name over the years). Their main systematist was David Rapaport, a Hungarian émigré who worked collaboratively with Merton Gill.
What Bettelheim wants to do is to reclaim Freud from the adjustive, scientistic model of human nature which characterized the work of the émigrés in America as they tried to integrate psychoanalysis with biology, medicine, and sociology. What he wants to reclaim Freud for is culture, humanism, knowledge in the broader German sense as opposed to natural scientific knowledge, and (please don’t misread this word) the human soul, by which he means nothing transcendent or religious, but he also does not mean ‘the mental apparatus’. He wants to reinstate ‘the self,’ we would say in English. He is attempting this in the face of a psychoanalytic orthodoxy that has for decades been trying to gain legitimacy by tracing roots to biology especially physiological analogies – and medicine.
I shall return to Bettelheim’s case below, but I want you to note very carefully that the historical object he is fighting over is the main corpus of public work which, for by far the largest fraction of people interested in these matters, constitutes what Freud said. The Standard Edition is the empirical domain of studies in these matters. So, for anyone (practitioner, teacher, scholar) who is not utterly at home in German (and many people who work on German matters are certainly not utterly at home in the language), the empirical domain of Freudianism is at issue – what might be called by a philosopher of science the ‘neutral observation language’. At the other pole, Sulloway is claiming Freud for the history of science, and in particular for the history of biology. Here are quotations from the book jacket:
This is, quite simply, a stunning book that completely revolutionizes one’s understanding of the subject … I conclude that virtually the whole of the existing literature on Freud has been rendered obsolete. Donald Fleming, Professor of American History, Harvard University. I found … that I almost literally could not put [the book] down … It is not only fascinating as a kind of scientific detective story but an extraordinarily significant piece of work. It is easily the most important single contribution to Freudian studies since Jones’s biography, [and] an excellent complement and corrective to the latter … A work of monumental scholarship, it will at once advance its unknown author into the front ranks of intellectual historians … I am frankly envious of his achievement.
Robert R. Holt. Director, Research Center for Mental Health, New York University. Really outstanding … in the plethora of materials on Freud, Sulloway really has something new to say. He blends the history of science with real scientific insight. Edward O. Wilson. Frank B. Baird Professor of Science, Harvard University, author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis Sulloway’s aim is to bring Freud into the domain and field of the history of science. Freud is not, as it happens, currently on the agenda of historians of science in the way that Darwin, Newton, Copernicus, and Galileo are, yet these are people who could lay claim to bringing about the sort of the change in humanity’s view of itself that people attribute to Freud. I find Sulloway’s strategy for achieving his aim crass and transparent, but after 503 pages of text and another 100 of bibliography and appendices, I admit to feeling a bit worn down. Add to this the effect of the accolades quoted above. Sulloway has also had a distinguished series of appointments. He went from being a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, to a comparable institute at Berkeley to a post at University College London, where he held the most prestigious personal award there is – a McArthur Fellowship. Impressive credentials.
I found Bettelheim’s slim, elegant, eminently civilized essay a welcome respite after Sulloway’s tome. I also confess to finding Sulloway a zealot bordering on paranoia and Bettelheim agent, though a romantic one. So, we have Freud the humanist versus Freud the biologist – actually “cryptobiologist”, it turns out, since Sulloway does admit that Freud repeatedly expresses relief at ceasing to write in narrow physiological and biological terms and repeatedly explained his breaks with his own colleagues and apostates or previous followers in terms of their having been seduced by biology. If one thinks of Stekel, Adler, Reich, etc., all of whom in one way or another lay claims to something innate, Freud said he had to break with them because they had oversimplified the problem, i.e. they were indulging in some form of biological reductionism. Sulloway, of course, has to explain this away, just as Jeffrey Masson has to explain why Freud, having supposedly suppressed the seduction theory for prudential reasons, then said something equally outrageous about infantile sexuality. Odd, if Freud was trying to be a conformist and avoid opprobrium.
In my view, Sulloway does not succeed. At the end of his book, there is a section called ‘Catalogue of Major Freud Myths’. That is probably where the term paranoia crept into my sense of his approach since about twenty-three of the myths are said to have the function of ‘nihilating’ the role of biological assumptions in psychoanalysis. If I had written a book that destroyed twenty-six myths, twenty-three of which had the function of denying something, I would begin to wonder about my thesis. Again and again, there is ‘nihilation of the biological processes,’ a way of avoiding facing the evolutionary basis as a way of. . .’ The myth says that psychoanalysis is X, and the function of the myth almost always turns out to be denying what Sulloway is asserting. His thesis is, therefore, to put it mildly, counter-inductive. His list of myths becomes very shrill. Most seem designed to avoid acknowledging the role of biology, without giving us any ideas why it should occur to anybody to have avoided biology and to have kept silent about this matter. It begins to feel a little bit like a conspiracy to hide things for Sulloway.
Having said that, I now want to revert to my main argument. What is going on? How can we move to a less simplistic picture? Having mentioned the barest co-ordinates, I should like to put some terms of reference on this map of the sociology of psychoanalytic knowledge – some other cities, as it were. I shall quote the conclusion to a paper on ‘The points of view and assumptions of metapsychology’ in which David Rapaport and Merton Gill attempt a succinct expression – which Rapaport considerably extended in a longer essay (Rapaport, 1960) – of the natural scientific heritage in psychoanalysis. The five points of view are partially overlapping and are spelled out in such a way as to achieve maximum resonance with physics, chemistry, and biology: In this paper, we have stated and discussed the points of view which guide metapsychological analysis and the assumptions which constitute metapsychology proper. We repeat the definitions and assumptions herein in synoptic form. The dynamic point of view demands that the psychoanalytic explanation of any psychological phenomenon include propositions concerning the psychological forces involved in the phenomenon.
- There are psychological forces.
- Psychological forces are defined by their direction and magnitude.
- The effect of simultaneously acting psychological forces may be the simple resultant of the work of each of these forces.
- The effect of simultaneously acting psychological forces may not be the simple resultant of the work of each of these forces.
The economic point of view demands that the psychoanalytic explanation of any psychological phenomenon include propositions concerning the psychological energy involved in the phenomenon.
- There are psychological energies.
- Psychological energies follow a law of conservation.
- Psychological energies are subject to a law of entropy.
- Psychological energies are subject to transformations, which increase or decrease their entropic tendency.
The structural point of view demands that the psychoanalytic explanation of any psychological phenomenon include propositions concerning the abiding psychological configurations (structures) involved in the phenomenon.
- There are psychological structures.
- Structures are configurations of a slow rate of change.
- Structures are configurations within which, between which, and by means of which mental processes take place.
- Structures are hierarchically ordered.
The genetic point of view demands that the psychoanalytic explanation of any psychological phenomenon include propositions concerning its psychological origin and development.
- All psychological phenomena have a psychological origin and development.
- All psychological phenomena originate in innate givens, which mature according to an epigenetic ground plan.
- The earlier forms of a psychological phenomenon, though superseded by later forms, remain potentially active.
- At each point of psychological history, the totality of potentially active earlier forms co-determines all subsequent psychological phenomena.
The adaptive point of view demands that the psychoanalytic explanation of any psychological phenomenon include propositions concerning its relationship to the environment.
- There exist psychological states of adaptedness and processes of adaptation at every point of life.
- The processes of (autoplastic and/or alloplastic) adaptation maintain, restore, and improve the existing states of adaptedness and thereby ensure survival.
- Man adapts to his society – both to the physical and human environments which are its products.
- Adaptation relationships are mutual: man and environment adapt to each other …
The future development of psychoanalysis as a systematic science may well depend on such continuing efforts to establish the assumptions on which psychoanalytic theory rests. (Rapaport and Gill, 1959, pp. 8-9). There are a number of scientific terms in use in this formulation which are derived from the tradition in which Freud worked as a student, i.e., physicalist physiology – the so-called Helmholtz School of Physiology, involving Brücke, du Bois-Reymond, and others. It is completely uncontroversial in Freud’s scholarship that Freud studied and did physiological research in this framework for many years. He stopped doing it only because he had to earn a living. Most of his metapsychological concepts are seen to have derived indirectly or metaphorically from their physicalist approach to how the body works. This is the origin of the use of physical concepts of force, energy, structure.
The nineteenth-century physicalists were a crusading group with a commitment to the proposition that no forces other than those physical and chemical ones studied by physics and chemistry are at work in humans or other organisms: no vital forces. Their research was dedicated to interpreting the nervous system in these terms. When Freud turned to the mind in On Aphasia and in the “Project for a scientific psychology” (1895), he strove to express mental phenomena in neurological terms and postulated metaphorical neurology-like concepts where the strictly neurophysiological concepts were – as they patently were – inadequate. As is well known, the ‘project’ proved too much for him, and he moved from metaphorical physiology to a fully psychological way of writing about human nature and human distress. This is not surprising. The problem about the mind, of course, is that since a part of its Cartesian definition is that it is ‘that which does not pertain to matter’, it is defined negatively by contrast to physics.
Therefore modern philosophy and science are really stuck for a language in which to speak about it, and people come up with all sorts of languages, some of which I will be considering below. If you are going to talk about the mind as mind, you need to borrow a vocabulary from somewhere. The above concepts are important if one wants to think at all about psychoanalysis as a scholar or as a student of scientific theories. But it is very easy to be taken over by all this and to get oneself engaged in the activity of searching out where these concepts come from, their intellectual and historical roots, and how the five points of view interrelate. Freud never really put one model aside in favor of a later model. They all continue to be used. Thinking and writing about these concepts and their interrelations implies that we are engaged in an exercise rather like working out a new periodic table of elements or fundamental particles on the model of physics and chemistry.
It has that feel about it, and not accidentally: that is the kind of respectability one tradition in psychoanalysis has been looking for. I do not wish to be thought to be seeking to ignore this aspect of Freud’s thinking: it is there. Yet, as I have said, it is very easy to get taken over by all this unless one listens for the silences or has an antidote, in this case, Bettelheim. He wants to heave all this language overboard or wear it very lightly, and to point out how evocative Freud’s own prose was and how it resonates with the dialectic of experience. The list of concepts you get from Bettelheim is very short and not all that hard to remember: metaphor, symbol, ambiguity, contradiction, dream, and myth, perhaps myth above all. Even Freud, when he thought about the science of dreams, finally said that we really cannot have a science of dreams, since each process of symbolization is unique, and the only person who knows the meaning of a dream is the person who has it (aided by his or her analyst).
Once alerted to this contrast, one begins to wonder why such a one-sided story is being told by Sulloway. For example, Sulloway stresses ontogeny and phylogeny. Ontogeny is the development of the individual; phylogeny is the development or evolution of the species. There is a very, very partial truth (Stephen Gould has written a book on how partial truth it is) that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the race, of the species and its precursors. I am sure you have all seen pictures of human embryos. At one stage, an embryo looks a little bit like a fish. Sulloway stresses ontogeny and phylogeny and other biological concepts, but he is practically silent about Freud’s most pervasive use of the classics – the Bible, literature, prehistory, archaeology (there were some classical and preclassical figurines on his desk that were so precious to him that he was not prepared to leave Vienna even after the German occupation until he was assured that he could take them with him).
His trips to see Italian churches and museums, and the problems he had getting to Rome, are well known. If you think about what he wrote about totemism and Michelangelo and Moses and taboos and jokes and civilization and dreams and myths and the vicissitudes of everyday life and, above all, Oedipus, you begin to wonder how on earth we can put this Freud together with Sulloway’s Freud. We have two very, very different accounts. One way would be to distinguish the early from the late. Bettelheim does a little of that when he writes: The English translations cleave to an early stage of Freud’s thought, in which he inclined toward science and medicine, and disregard the mature Freud, whose orientation was humanistic, and who was concerned mostly with broadly conceived cultural and human problems and with matters of the soul. Freud himself stated that he considered the cultural and human significance of psychoanalysis more important than its medical significance. (p. 32)
What it is about is the human essence. Now, Bettelheim actually will not settle for that. He wants to claim much more – than the humanism is of the essence of psychoanalysis. He writes about this very well: How Freud conceived of psychology can be seen from the way he spoke about it in The Question of Lay Analysis: ‘In psychology, we can describe only with the help of comparisons. This is nothing special, it is the same elsewhere. But we are forced to change these comparisons over and over again, for none of them can serve us for any length of time.’ There are several reasons for Freud’s frequent use of metaphors in explaining the nature of psychoanalysis. One is that psychoanalysis, though it is confronted with hard, objective facts, does not deal with them as such but devotes itself to the imaginative interpretation and explanation of hidden causes, which can only be inferred.
The metaphors that Freud used were intended to bridge the rift that exists between the hard facts to which psychoanalysis refers and the imaginative manner in which it explains them. A second reason is even more closely related to the nature of psychoanalysis. Because of repression, or the influence of censorship, the unconscious reveals itself in symbols or metaphors, and psychoanalysis, in its concern with the unconscious, tries to speak about it in its own metaphoric language. Finally, metaphors are more likely than a purely intellectual statement to touch a human chord and arouse our emotions, and thus give us a feeling for what is meant. True comprehension of psychoanalysis requires not only an intellectual realization but a simultaneous emotional response; neither alone will do. A well-chosen metaphor will permit both. (pp. 37-8)
The examples he goes into most persuasively show what happened in the Strachey translation. They are the concepts of id, ego, and superego which, he points out, are very classicized terms. In fact, it is the ‘it’, the kind of primitive ‘it-ness ‘ of infantility; it is ‘I,’ not ego; and it is that which is over I – over me – superego. If you actually read Freud’s prose in that way, it feels very different from Id, Ego, and Superego. It is less arcane and touches one more. One can get in the habit of having some sense of these matters. The other issue Bettelheim goes into concerns the levels of subtlety and the resonances of the Oedipus complex. The meaning of the term ‘Oedipus complex’ is symbolic. Like all the metaphors Freud used in his writings, this term is valuable primarily for its suggestiveness and referential richness. It is a metaphor operating on many levels since it alludes to other metaphors by its overt and covert references to the myth and the drama. Freud chose it to illumine and vivify a concept that defies more concise expression … (p. 2 1)
Oedipus, in fleeing Corinth, paid no attention to the admonitory temple inscription ‘Know thyself’. The inscription implicitly warned that anyone who did not know himself would misunderstand the sayings of the oracle. Because Oedipus was unaware of his innermost feelings, he fulfilled the prophecy. Because he was unknowing of himself, he believed that he could murder the father who had raised him well and marry the mother who loved him as a son. Oedipus acted out his metaphorical blindness – his blindness to what the oracle had meant, based on his lack of knowledge of himself – by depriving himself of his eyesight. In doing so, he may have been inspired by the example of Teiresias, the blind seer who reveals to Oedipus the truth about Laius’s murder. We encounter in Teiresias the idea that having one’s sight turned away from the external world and directed inward – toward the inner nature of things – gives true knowledge and permits an understanding of what is hidden and needs to be known. (pp. 23-4)
I want to stop at Teiresias, return to Sulloway’s assumptions and focus on the concept of language and the languages in which we speak about inner life. What Bettelheim alludes to as metaphors, symbols and myths are avowedly metaphors, symbols, and myths. All would agree about this, but Sulloway wishes to take Freud’s use of ontogeny, phylogeny, Lamarckianism, sexuality and treat them not as resonant metaphors to help illuminate human biographies, but as scientific laws on the model of Physico-chemical sciences. The titles of his sections are a dead giveaway in this respect. For example, Part Two is entitled ‘Psychoanalysis: the Birth of a Genetic Psychobiology’. Sulloway’s overall strategy has three moments. The first is to build up Freud’s interlocutor in his most creative years, Wilhelm Fliess, whom most people dismiss as a man beneath Freud.
Fliess is known for his theories of periodicity based on the numbers 28 and 23, his conceptions of human bisexuality, and, in particular, his ideas about the nose and olfactory sensations (which, ironically, are very fashionable at the moment because of the role of die so-called nose-brain or rhinencephalon in emotional functions and the discovery of pheromones, subliminal smells which we convey to one another and which have important sexual functions). What Sulloway does is to build Fliess up, far beyond what any other biographer or historian has said about him, and to call Fliess’s concepts about human sexuality ‘human biology’. There are some quite extreme claims made on Fliess’s behalf: He was, in fact, a largely unrecognized source of inspiration for much of Sigmund Freud’s whole psychosexual perspective on human development. (p. 235)
Above all, a belief in Fliess’s scientific vision required rationalization of his various theories in terms of their largely unspoken, but nonetheless manifestly evolutionary, perspective on human sexuality. Nose and sex, vital periodicity, bisexuality, and the existence of a childhood sexual instinct – all these subjects had their logical roots deep in late-nineteenth-century evolutionary doctrine. In other words, Fliess played his Helmholtzian and bioenergetic tunes to a largely Darwinian score. In this sense, the long-misunderstood role of Fliess in Freud’s intellectual life reflects, in microcosm, the cryptobiological nature of Freud’s entire psychoanalytic legacy to the twentieth century, (p. 237) The second moment of Sulloway’s strategy is to build up the significance of evolutionary thinking, including the pervasiveness of Darwin, seeing psychology and sexology in this disciplinary matrix. Psychology and sexuality were certainly being thought of within an overall evolutionary framework. This is why they became so important in the late nineteenth century. Sulloway says:
It is certainly fitting that the influence of Charles Darwin, the man whose evolutionary writings did so much to encourage young Freud in the study of biology and medicine (Chapter 1), should have been so instrumental in turning psychoanalysis into a dynamic, and especially a genetic, psychobiology of mind. Indeed, perhaps nowhere was the impact of Darwin, direct and indirect, more exemplary or fruitful outside of biology proper than within Freudian psychoanalysis. (p. 275) Biology absolutely solves everything. By this point, you may think I am caricaturing, so I will quote the title of Chapter Ten: ‘Evolutionary Biology Resolves Freud’s Three Psychoanalytic Problems (1905-39)’. (There is rather a lot of ‘two problems solved’, ‘three mysteries’, and ‘four misunderstandings’ in this book.) The three problems were the nature of repression, sexuality, and the choice of neurosis. In effect, the Oedipus myth then becomes ‘biologicized’, which is the polar opposite of the approach in the passage about the Oedipus myth I quoted from Bettelheim. In Bettelheim, the Oedipus myth is a rich source of understanding of layers of interrelations among persons. Here it is made much less subtle; it is fixed:
It is therefore no accident that Freud, in his mature years (1905-39), wrote four separate books and the major part of a fifth on the intimate and antagonistic relationship that he perceived between civilization and sexual life. (p. 391) Sexual life is biology; therefore, Freud is a biologist. Sulloway then turns to why Freud was a ‘cryptobiologist ‘. This leads to the third moment of his strategy: to denigrate Freud’s originality. I found this aspect of the book most informative, in a curious sort of way, but not at all enlightening. That is, it taught me a lot about contemporary sexology, contemporary dream theory, and the reception of Freud. Sulloway counts the reviews and tells us the number of words in each. He reviews the priority disputes and shows how isolated and embattled Freud was (e.g., Was he or was he not persecuted for being a Jew?).
But this prodigious effort of research in the citation – and it is very impressive – seems to be beside the point. The point is that everything has been said by somebody who did not discover it. And the question is what deeper emphasis Freud brings to the human heart, not whether you can take each and every element and dissolve it into its prior mentions. Anybody who knows anything about the history of ideas knows that this is what third-, fourth-, and fifth-rate historians do for a living. We get a steady drip, drip, including the insertion of the words ‘biological’ or ‘evolutionary’ in square brackets in any place where it might be implicit and we might be likely to miss it (I could cite 30-40 examples of that), lest we fail to hear the litany.
For example, biology gives us the dream theory – not the other way round: In short, the discovery of the id, and the impact of that discovery upon the theories of neurosis and psychosexual development, largely made possible Freud’s mature theory of dreaming, not vice versa, as is so often erroneously maintained. (p. 329)Yet there are many, many quotations (which Sulloway provides) where Freud says to Adler or Jung that he will no longer work with him because he was treating things in biological, not psychological, terms. Curiously, Wilhelm Reich is not discussed, although he is the most striking example of someone who attributed to biological forces everything which he wanted to be innate in humanity.
Now, what is all this in aid of? I have read reviews, and a rebuttal by Sulloway in the paperback edition, that links criticisms of his thesis to political and historiographic axes that people might grind. I believe there is something in this, and I believe it from my own experience as a Darwin scholar. The book is dedicated to Ernst Mayr, and the influence of Ernst Mayr on the history of biology is one of the more baleful episodes in the last decades. He has had an admirable effect on a number of Ph.D. biologists and has inspired them to become historians. Some have become extremely diligent scholars, but they are very busy disconnecting Darwin and Darwinism from culture, history, ideology, etc. I am very glad to report that there has been a big debate about this among historians of science in which the Mayr faction has lost out.
That is, there were senior scientists, in particular Sir Gavin de Beer and Mayr, who wanted to disconnect Darwin from other issues, especially politics and political economy in the nineteenth century. Their commendable interest in the history of science is vitiated by their approaching the past of science in a narrow, positivist spirit – to keep it pure and worthy of our esteem. They seek to guard it against pollution by ideology. This is simply not on. Sulloway’s book is dedicated to Mayr; Mayr is alluded to as an intellectual mentor, as is Edward O. Wilson. Wilson has recently been beaten up by humanists and enlightened scientists for founding sociobiology and including in it the attempt to hand ethics and sociology over to biology, at least for a period. This went down very badly. Wilson had published his book, Sociobiology when Sulloway’s came out, but the controversy over Wilson’s excessive biological reductionism had not got going. Sulloway got caught with his mentors showing.
The aim being pursued by Sulloway et al. to take the history of biology out of political, cultural, and ideological contexts is worrying. It diverts our gaze so that we will not ask what forces in a society evoke a theory and into what cultural, political, and ideological debate these scientific theories enter and what role they play. Anyone who lives in Thatcher’s Britain or Reagan’s America must know that this is a live issue. One of the things that Sulloway is doing – however tacitly – is taking degrees of freedom, hope, flexibility, and biologizing these matters. One wakes up and realizes that all the experience and individuality and individual biographies disappear – they are no longer seen as efficacious. Biological analogies have been rampant at Harvard, and especially in the Harvard Society of Fellows, for decades. The Harvard Pareto Circle increased the role of functionalism and biological analogies and organismic thinking in American social theory. Sulloway’s research is a part of that tradition, a profoundly conservative and antihumanistic one.
That completes my critique. I now want to offer a grain of hope. I think that Sulloway’s book is wrong-headed in more interesting ways than having so far emerged from the polemical way I have addressed it. In fact, I agree with Solloway that evolutionary thinking is extremely important in Freud. I would even use some of the quotations he uses but in a very different and, I hope, more searching way. In his book On Aphasia Freud draws all sorts of concepts from neurology – from the neurology of John Hughlings Jackson which, in turn, is based on the thinking of the evolutionary psychologist Herbert Spencer. He learns to think functionally through this influence, which led Freud away from the sort of thinking he did in his neuroanatomical work, where everything was related to structures in a rather narrow physiological sense. He learns to think in metaphorically functional ways even though he is still doing so in rather somatic terms. He also adopts a doctrine that plays practically no part in Sulloway’s book, and this is where I think it is wrong-headed at a scholarly level.
If you work in a period long enough, you have a sense of the conceptual spaces occupied by certain concepts. (This is the analogy in scholarship to the fruits of long ‘clinical experience’ in the work of a therapist.) You have a sense of the resonances of concepts and terms. In the late nineteenth century, the terms ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ have certain resonances which cannot be conflated with biology in this period. lt just was not like that. There is a chapter on the brain in The Descent of Man, but Darwin did not have the faintest idea of what to write and got T. H. Huxley to write it for him. He did not think about the brain in biological terms in the way that we would now do. (Huxley did, by the way. One of his most famous controversies was about this: see his Man’s Place in Nature.) Mind and brain were not important to Darwin’s mature work, although they loomed quite large in one of his early notebooks and in some of his speculations. In another area of psychology, some of his child observation was certainly evolutionary.
There is a sleight of hand going on in Sulloway’s book whereby the category of biology is used as a solvent in a way that is appropriate to the present but was not current when Darwin and Freud wrote. On the other hand, the category of the brain does not loom for Sulloway, whereas it loomed quite large for people other than Darwin who thought hard about psychology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What I am trying to convey – and it would take a long argument to spell out (although I am certain of it) – is that Sulloway’s book is wrong-headed about the nuances of the meanings of the terms ‘mind’, ‘brain, and ‘biology’.
Freud thought about these matters in rather special and precise terms. He was a convinced psychophysical parallelist. This may seem an abstruse thing to be, but what it means is that he believed that you could speak about the mind (psycho), you could speak about the brain (physical), you could say that they worked in parallel, but you had no obligation to explain the relationship between the two. You could go through your whole life without speaking of anything but parallels. I could cite quotations through all Freud’s major works in which he says this, one way or another, from the earliest book and papers to An Outline of Psychoanalysis, published posthumously in 1940.
It is because his basic metaphysical position was psychophysical parallelism that he did not think organismicahy and did draw, throughout his life, on a physicalist vocabulary when speaking of mind. The reason is that he had no language of persons for his metapsychology. He had a language of mind and a language of the brain, but he had no theoretical language of persons at the most abstract level of his thought. Nor did he have a sense of the concept of a human being considered fully biologically. He wrote many, many humanistic things about literature and biography and mythology and clothed his writings in a rich metaphorical language. But there was no conceptual space in psychoanalytic ontology for persons or persons as organisms. This is true for reasons I gave earlier and is based on Descartes’s definition of mind as having no language of its own: it is that which does not pertain to matter. For Descartes mind is the realm of free will, the sphere of soul, of the Church. There were a lot of philosophical and theological – i.e. cultural – reasons in the seventeenth century why it was defined in that way.
In Individuals P. F. Strawson shows, I think utterly persuasively, that you can think about minds only in a language that connects material objects to persons. Strawson maintains that we cannot individuate individuals in terms of ‘consciousness as such, and that ‘nothing can be a subject of predicates implying consciousness, unless it is, in that sense of the word which implies also the possession of corporeal attributes, a person, or at least a former person’ (p. 121). According to Strawson’s analysis, the concept of person comes first; it is ontologically prior to the concept of mind or of the human body. The relevance of this is that neither Darwin nor Freud thought in such terms. Theirs was a dualistic world. One might consider, as Darwin did, reducing mind to matter or the mental to the biologically innate. Or one might, as Freud did, keep the two categories – the mental and the physical – in tension and hold to a doctrine of concomitance.
As Alfred North Whitehead has so eloquently argued, this framework was and has remained disastrous. It was developed in the seventeenth century for certain philosophical and mathematical purposes, but it left us no way of speaking about people who could integrate the material aspects with feelings. As Whitehead says: Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter and those who put matter. inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century. (1925, p. 82)
A student of the history of psychology would find in the work of the pioneer of psychological associationism, David Hartley (1749), an attempt to speak in terms of particles and vibrations and what he called ‘ vibratuncles ‘. His was a physicist’s language spoken of in mental terms. That approach to psychology was the most influential one in the empiricist tradition up to the work of Alexander Bain, whose The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and The Emotions and the Will (1859) were the standard pre-evolutionary texts. One attempt to shoehorn personal concepts into bodily language was phrenology, which combined faculty psychology of personal attributes and traits (love of offspring, various kinds of memory, acquisitiveness, etc.) with particular portions of the brain. The result was a one-to-one correlation between mental terms and portions of the brain.
I mention these two examples because Freud’s first book, On Aphasia, was in this tradition of mind-brain correlation (one which I have examined at length elsewhere), just as psychoanalysis remained fundamental associationist psychology. I think it is extremely important to see Freud within this philosophical framework. He wrote as a humanist, and he wrote as a physiologist. He was also importantly influenced by biology. However, he nowhere integrated his ways of writing about people and their minds with biology. The ontological gap between mind and body remained. His stopgap measure was psychophysical parallelism. Sulloway seems blissfully unaware of this set of constraints on how Freud thought. He fails to see the most basic ontological assumptions on which Freud based his thinking, whether in physiology, neurology, or psychoanalysis.
In the ontological gap between mind and body, Sulloway is a would-be ideological conquistador on behalf of twentieth-century biological reductionism, which brings with it cultural and political fatalism. Speaking as a historian of biology, psychology, and neurology in this period, I claim that his analysis does not resonate with the terms of reference of the debates of the period, much less with the terms of reference of Freud’s world-view. Just as significantly, I find that his way of writing about Freud has no resonances in my experience of clinical work as an analysand or as a psychotherapist. There is no space at all for experience in his presentation of Freud. There are only categories in the history of ideas. Far from being biological, however, in real life and in real psychoanalysis everything is relentlessly biographical. Therefore, without wishing to withhold due historical homage to the role of the Helmholtz school, physicalist physiology, and neurology in Freud’s thinking, it is worth recalling again that having written the “Project for a scientific psychology”, Freud put it aside and wanted it to be destroyed.
It is true that he continued to use – in a metaphorical sense – some of the terms of neurology, physiology, and physics in his writings, for example in the model of the mind in Chapter 7 of The Interpretation of Dreams. But I think that it is too radical a reduction to try to capture Freud for the history of biology in the way Sulloway has. In summary, I would make two points – one about Bettelheim and the Strachey translation, the other about Sulloway’s approach. When Freud is writing as a humanist – the moving passages about Oedipus, for example – he escapes the impoverishment of the Cartesian ontology and communicates in personally evocative and resonant ways. But, pace Sulloway, even when he is writing as a scientist within his psychophysical parallelist version of Cartesian dualism, he is not a reductionist. His metapsychological language is richer than the translators convey – I rather than ego, it rather than the id. Beyond that, his language is far richer than it would be if we saw it through the lens of Sulloway’s conception of biology.
Like his mentors, Mayr and Wilson, Sulloway would contextualize Freud in twentieth-century reductionist terms, remove him from the contemporary sense of Spencer and Jackson on the concomitance of mind and body and parachute him (anachronistically) into biology rooted in genetics, sociobiology, pure materialism. Freud was a humanist with his soul and a dualist with his mind; never organismic, much less a modern desiccated biologist. Therefore, I incline to Bettelheim’s rendition. The lesson to be learned here is, of course, that psychoanalytic metapsychology should begin to address itself to the metaphysical problem as presented by Freud and as exemplified by Sulloway’s failure to understand the philosophical terms of reference of Freud’s thinking. What are we to put in place of what one student of psychosomatic phenomena called the Mysterious Leap from the Mind to the Body? (see Deutsch, 1959). What can we do to think organismic and personal terms so that we are not stuck with such barbaric phrases as ‘somatic compliance’?
Why are we reduced to the writing of the most intimate personal phenomena in terms of ‘object relations’, thereby repeating the traditional subject-object distinction which has been bequeathed to us by Western epistemology as the twin bugbear with ‘mind-body’ dualism? The language of object relations is an advance on physicalist concepts but remains a scientistic rendering of human intimacy. Why must we continue to write in terms of object relations, mental apparatuses, the anatomy of the mental personality? My, own inclination is to return to Teiresias, a person who was blind to the external object world but who saw deeply within. What happens in psychoanalysis is that people tell stories with meanings, metaphors, and symbols. They tell them again and again, in search of insight, and they are helped to achieve this by someone who is also listening very carefully to what is heard and what is evoked in himself or herself.
It seems to me that psychology is prose, that human nature is personal and that it is historical. As Marx said, ‘we know only one science, the science of history. From this point of view, theory should be worn lightly, and theoretical concepts should be seen as heuristic devices. Of course one should attempt to explore the relations between concepts, but one should not try to do so on the model of a theory of the periodic table of elements or fundamental physical particles. It should be possible to think about the container and the contained, the psychic skin, paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, projective identification, alpha and beta elements, envy, hope, splitting, transitional objects and phenomena, and a number of other useful theoretical insights – without having to reduce them to too much order. These need not be elements in a would-be periodic table of mental elements. Rather, they should be seen as useful tools for a craft, lying loosely in a bag of insights available to the people who try to help others become themselves.
The key is in the method and the process, in the transference and, above an, its relation with the countertransference – i.e., the human dialectic. I am sure that many of the terms I have just listed will not be familiar to a non-specialist audience, although they would be to psychoanalysts or psychoanalytic psychotherapists. In giving this paper to a group of human scientists I feel hopeful since the name of the group itself breaks away from various reductionisms implied in ‘behavioral science,’ ‘social science’, and other question-begging designations about how we think about people. I would argue that the basic discipline for truly human science is a biography and that Freud has given us the best insight there is into the understanding of biography. I hope you will not think I am making very heavy weather of Freud. Philip Rieff has called his work ‘the most important body of thought committed to paper in the twentieth century. Peter Medawar (to whom we owe much alleviation of human suffering in burn therapy and transplant surgery) has said the opposite:
The opinion is gaining ground that doctrinaire psychoanalytic theory is the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century: and a terminal product as well – something akin to a dinosaur or a zeppelin in the history of ideas, a vast structure of the radically unsound design and with no posterity. (quoted in Sulloway, p. 499) In the face of this modern scientistic bigotry, it is gratifying that Medawar’s daughter is a clinical psychologist, training to become a psychoanalyst. Freud is cited more often in introductory psychology texts than anyone else in Britain, Canada, and the United States, according to Bettelheim (p. 19n). What is made of him is therefore of more than passing interest. It is also important to note that it is inescapable that something will be made of him. Throughout my years of research as a philosopher and historian of science, one of the things which has become most powerfully borne in upon me is that there is no neutral observation language in science or history, or therapy. There is no such thing as Freud. There are, of course, important constraints on what we can say about him if we are being serious and attempting to tell the truth as best we can.
In case you are wondering what I would like you to take away from all this, it is that psychoanalysis just is not like that – it is not like a theory in natural or biological science. The ontology within which Freud lived was one of mind and brain, with a ‘holding action’ theory of their relations in psychophysical parallelism or the doctrine of concomitance. ‘Biology’ was not brained, nor was it a category that filled the Cartesian space. Least of all did it connect with the psychology of persons – of persons, selves, and souls. Into the Cartesian space Freud and his followers, apostates, and current sectarians have poured a variety of languages and concepts, beginning with those borrowed from physicalist physiology and extending to ego psychology, cybernetics, systems theory, and Wilfred Bion’s principled use of empty categories.
I am suggesting that we take stock and move from objects to persons, not only wearing theory lightly but treating it heuristically, wearing system lightly; and, above all, that we should stop trying to assimilate psychoanalysis to other disciplines – especially neurophysiology, biology, ethology, and sociobiology. In attempting to be the broker of such a wedding, Sulloway is still clinging to natural science as the paradigm discourse for ontologically and epistemologically insecure human science. But he is doing this at a time when philosophers and philosophers of science are turning away from that idealization, partly because natural science, shorn of purposes and values, has turned out to be a false guide and partly because it is a will-o’-the-wisp – a fruitless, barren marriage.
Can we not let go of the urge which leads us to seek to have human projects and human understanding underwritten by nonhuman authority? If we could let go of the naturalization of value systems, perhaps we could explore and contest the competing value systems on offer as potential ego ideals for our cultural – including our psychoanalytic – visions. If we could once accept psychoanalysis as a full-blooded humanism, we could then begin to challenge the false neutrality and scientificity of its practices and institutions and ask ourselves what kind of humanity we wish to create, in full knowledge of the biological and ideological constraints on our visions and our attempts to make them real. Only then, it seems to me, can we safely begin to build a theory and practice of human nature which brings together the concepts of organism and person, shorn of the reductionism which the former usually brings in tow and the idealism associated with the latter. That is, we must try for a human nature that is not in danger of falling back into the extremes of impoverished body and disembodied mind bequeathed by Cartesian dualism.