The Legacy of Freud: Two Perspectives

Two writers look at the legacy of one of the twentieth century's most controversial thinkers.

multiple writers
11th May 2022
The founder of psychoanalysis would be 166 as of May 6th (Image(s): Wikimedia Commons)

There is often talk of separating the ‘spirit’ of a controversial thinker’s work from the ‘letter’ in order to preserve a unique attitude whilst undesirable conclusions found in the letter may be discarded. Freud is no stranger to this reductive treatment; we have haphazardly absorbed operative concepts into our vocabulary whilst the more problematic elements of Freud’s theory are either flat out rejected, or admitted only in the form of jokes (ironically, both textbook Freudian procedures). It is only in the spirit of Freudianism however, that we can read the letter; a rejection of the letter merely betrays a lack of the spirit. But what is the spirit of Freudianism?

According to philosopher Paul Ricœur what uniquely characterises the Freudian spirit is an ‘anti-phenomenology’. In an anti-phenomenology, the phenomena (that which appears immediately to consciousness and is therefore assumed to be best known) must become least known. The theory of repression, according to Freud ‘the cornerstone on which the whole of psychoanalysis rests’, means that consciousness is a possibility which may or may not eventuate: it does not occur unconditionally as a matter of course. When we (like good empiricists) search our own consciousness for data that would corroborate Freud’s claims we in fact exhibit an attitude towards conscious phenomena that is antithetical to the spirit of Freudianism.

The theory of repression means that consciousness does not always occur as a matter of course

Freud himself places psychoanalysis at the end of a sequence of similar ‘outrages to man’s self-love’ whereby what was best known to man became foreign. After Copernicus’ cosmological model and Darwin’s theory of evolution comes psychoanalysis, declaring that the conscious ego is not even master in its own home and must ‘remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind’

This anti-phenomenological spirit enables us overcome pop Freudianism. It is not where the letter of Freudianism is most convincing, where Freudian vocabulary has been absorbed into everyday speech, (projection, identification, meaningful dreams) but precisely where Freud is most disagreeable, (Primal phantasies, Oedipus complex, death drive) that the anti-phenomenological spirit must be employed. Any assessment of Freud that grants the possibility of repression but then rejects the Oedipus complex on grounds that no phenomenological data attests to it is akin to granting Darwin that Galápagoian turtles owe their long legs to natural selection but then insisting that humans are too clearly purposive and therefore must be the product of intelligent design. Such an assessment merely betrays a failure to accept the fundamental humiliation the letter of Darwinism necessarily entails. Indeed, acute purposiveness in humans is exactly what we would expect if the theory of evolution were true. Likewise revulsion, or simply a lack of phenomenological evidence altogether upon introspection is exactly what we should expect to encounter if certain psychoanalytical themes are true. The phenomenological scepticism and readiness for humiliation of the Freudian spirit is what allows us to properly read the letter.

Luke Copp

If your doctor announces they will take a Freudian approach, you should run. Nonetheless, I believe Sigmund Freud deserves his place as one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers. So, how can we make the charlatan and the genius of Freud concur into one man?

Ironically, the answer lies with one of Freud’s biggest critics, Hans Eysenck, saying that “he was, without doubt, a genius, not of science, but of propaganda, not of rigorous proof, but of persuasion, not of the design of experiments, but of literary art”. Freud’s lectures are fascinating to read. They’re full of anecdotes, allusions, and beautiful rhetoric. Above this, his ideas, despite their discomfiture, are convincing when heard from him. Nonetheless, his lectures lose their power when written, as lectures enchant one with a constant need for attention, whereas books allow the reader to stop and ponder “when was this proven?”. The proof of aetiology, where something is built up step by step by each cause, is frequently employed, yet each step only adds more assumptions. The proof lies in neurobiology, dormant until the CAT scans of the 1970s and MRI scans of the 1990s.

If he never proved anything, what did he contribute then? First, he arrived at roughly the same conclusions as modern psychology has in his theories of personality. His model of the mental apparatus (Id, Ego and Superego) lacked empirical grounds, yet neurobiology is edging closer and closer to a system which arrives at similar conclusions, this time with proof. In this way, he can be seen as the equivalent of Philolaus to Copernican heliocentrism.

Finally, his genius also lies outside of his science, as Eysenck suggests. His influence on art, whether directly through his criticism, or indirectly through his ideas, is immeasurable. The Pelican Freud Library have a book called 14: Art and Literature which can be found online for cheaper than a Co-op Meal Deal, collecting his major works on art, such as essays on Shakespeare, Da Vinci and perhaps his most cited idea, the ‘Unheimlich’ (uncanny). These ideas go on to spawn Freudian criticism, one of the leading schools of scholarship since its conception.

Josh Smith

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