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December 24, 2005



In the Beginning

Yes, this blog is about psychoanalysis. Each post, indeed the very sequence of posts, has been a discussion about psychoanalysis. Some readers might say that the commentaries really don't seem to be about psychoanalysis. Actually, this is because the practice of contemporary psychonalysis is completely different today, and quite unlike the public perception and presentation of psychoanalysis.

Thinking about psychoanalysis, one might begin with a discussion of the attacks upon Freud, which really are assaults upon the concept of being human. The attacks upon Freud, however, are made by those who are afraid of him. Those who are not afraid of him are free to think about what parts of his theories still apply today, and which do not. Further, when not influenced by the power of the fear of Freud, it becomes possible to think about how the transformation of some of his ideas (i.e., within the context of todays world) might make them quite useful in psychoanalysis, as well as in everyday life.

The following discussion about the attacks upon Freud is drawn from an article that I published,entitled "The Human Toll of Scientism":

Scientistic thinking would have us believe that we can achieve truth about our conscious selves and experiences, where in reality there are some human things which are indeed factual, but many other important human things which are more ambiguous and indeterminate.

The emergence of today's profusion of rapid-repair home remedies geared to temporary narcissistic rejuvenation may be seen as a response to the refusal to recognize the mysterious and sometimes tragic dimensions of life, which are in turn anchored in the ambiguities of both unconscious and conscious dimensions of human experience.

It is this broader rejection of ambiguity and uncertainly in our everyday lives which fosters the illusory hopes offered by the present-day explosion of self-help books about diet programs, exercise plans, techniques for finding the right romantic partner, practical schemes promising the quick accumulation of financial wealth, and various homespun remedies for the alleviation of specific neurotic symptoms.

Each of these practical strategic programs promises shortcuts to a particular version of human happiness, claiming to have exclusive knowledge about what the elusive nature of that happiness really is. The tunnel-visioned conviction that there are such shortcuts to human perfection signals a culture which is all too eager to ignore the deep, complex, and often darker dimensions of human existence.

But the driven cultural repudiation of Freud, and by implication of psychoanalysis and most forms of verbal psychotherapy, is not just a repudiation of the deep and unconscious dimensions of human experience, but it really involves the more broad-ranging attempt to avoid the more troubling questions about both unconscious and conscious human motivation and what makes life meaningful for an individual.

There are, of course, specific political implications of the scientistically-based cultural view that ignores the ambiguity of much of human motivation. The short-sighted approach to meaning as valid only to the extent that it is revealed by the straightforward application of reason results in a particular opinion about what citizens are like in our democratic society.

This view depicts humans largely as preference-expressing political atoms measured by political polls, or as consumer units reflected by the fluctuations of daily stock-exchange reports. In both cases, society becomes an aggregate of these atoms, and the only irrationality recognized in their existence is the failure of these preference-expressing units to conform to the rules of behavioral, learning, or rational-choice theories.

In contradistinction, the claim of psychoanalysis is that the world is not entirely rational, and the techniques of psychoanalysis are partly an attempt to take the ambiguities of both unconscious and conscious motivations into account in ways that makes them less likely to disrupt human life in confusing and sometimes destructive ways.

The attack upon Freud then becomes less an assault upon the father of psychoanalysis as upon the idea of indeterminacy in life, an attack upon the belief that that we are free agents in determining the courses of our lives, but also that as free agents there is no final resolution of indeterminacy through ever-more careful attention to ourselves in the efforts to determine our "true" aims and to decide which compromises in life are ultimately "best."

With the acceptance of this kind of indeterminacy, there is an awareness that ambiguity is not temporary, but rather that ultimately ambiguity is irreducible. Human choice always involves choosing one course of action, while abandoning others, some of which may be in some respects equally preferable.

The attempt to restrict the foundation of human choices to empirical rules obscures the ambiguity inherent in many of our important decisions by creating the myth that there are some good ways and some bad ways, and that ultimately we can always come to "know" the differences between those paths.

But in many important decisions to do something, there is no linear, temporal relationship between thought and action. In those cases, our choices emerge largely as an expression of an indefinite number of both formulated and unformulated influences within the individual's experiences.

The scientistic assault represents an evasion of the belief that humans are in the painful condition of having the potential to make more meanings than we can knowingly grasp, an evasion through the flight into the illusion of scientific certainty and the wish that human choices could ultimately be technologically rational.

But in fact, since there are many things which cannot be found out by the methods of natural science and practical reason, the conviction spreads within our culture that we do not need to find out about these things. And then, since we do not need to find out about certain things, in a sense we come to live in the fantasy that somehow we already know about all of the things that really matter. This illusory equation of science with certainty as leading to a culture of "knowingness."

With the glorification of the rational mind, pure reason becomes associated with the belief that only it can solve any problem, an association which is made possible by the fact that it cannot or refuses to acknowledge the kinds of existential problems it cannot methodically solve. The claim to "already know" distorts any real attempts to discover or find out about dimensions of meaning and life which do not conform to the belief that practical reason can solve every problem.

This is the true essence of the attacks upon Freud and psychoanalysis, the advancement of a dangerous belief that if psychoanalytic ways of thinking can be empirically discounted, there will no longer be any need to either recognize or account for the fact that ultimately the world of human motivation and meaning is ambiguous.

In other words, killing Freud ultimately stands for a reaffirmation of the scientistic self-assurance that all real human problems can be both formulated and resolved solely through the readily apparent, methodical application of practical, scientistic reason.

Unfortunately, it also stands to some degree as a renunciation of the uniquely human freedom we each exercise in ultimately being responsible for choosing our own particular courses of action in life.

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