Saturday, April 26, 2014

John Gray - Freud: the last great Enlightenment thinker

Sigmund Freud is out of fashion. The reason? His heroic refusal to flatter humankind

Writing to Albert Einstein in the early 1930s, Sigmund Freud suggested that “man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction.” Freud went on to contrast this “instinct to destroy and kill” with one he called erotic—an instinct “to conserve and unify,” an instinct for love. Without speculating too much, Freud continued, one might suppose that these instincts function in every living being, with what he called “the death instinct”—thanatos—acting “to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter.” The death instinct provided “the biological justification for all those vile, pernicious propensities [to war] which we are now combating.”

To be sure, Freud concluded, all this talk of eros and thanatos might give Einstein the impression that psychoanalytic theory amounted to a “species of mythology, and a gloomy one at that.” But if so, Freud was unabashed, asking Einstein: “Does not every natural science lead ultimately to this—a sort of mythology? Is it otherwise today with your physical sciences?”
Today the idea that psychoanalysis is not a science is commonplace, but no part of Freud’s inheritance is more suspect than the theory of the death instinct. The very idea of instinct is viewed with suspicion. Talk of human instincts, or indeed of human nature, is dismissed as a form of intellectual atavism: human behaviour is seen as far more complex and at the same time more amenable to rational control than Freud believed or implied. Theories of human instinct only serve to block those impulses to progress and rationality that (for all the scorn that is directed against the very idea of human nature) are considered to be quintessentially human.
Freud’s ideas are today not simply rejected as false. They are repudiated as being dangerous or immoral; the “gloomy mythology” of warring instincts is condemned as a kind of slander on the species, the fundamental nobility of which it is sacrilege to deny. To be sure, righteous indignation has informed the response to Freud’s thought from the beginning. But its new strength helps explain one of the more remarkable features of intellectual life at the start of the 21st century, a time that in its own eyes is more enlightened than any other: the intense unpopularity of Freud, the last great Enlightenment thinker.
Born in Austria-Hungary in 1856 and dying in London in 1939, Freud is commonly known as the originator of the idea of the unconscious mind. However, the idea can be found in a number of earlier thinkers, notably the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. It would be more accurate to describe Freud as aiming to make the unconscious mind an object of scientific investigation—a prototypically Enlightenment project of extending the scientific method into previously unexplored regions. Many other 20th century thinkers aimed to examine and influence human life through science and reason, the common pursuit of the quarrelling family of intellectual movements, appearing from the 17th century onwards, that formed the Enlightenment. But by applying the Enlightenment project to forbidden regions of the human mind Freud, more than anyone else, revealed the project’s limits.
Starting with research into hysteria, where he concluded that hysterical symptoms often reflected the persisting influence of repressed memories, Freud developed psychoanalysis—a body of thought in which the idea that much of our mental life is repressed and inaccessible to conscious awareness was central.
The practice of psychotherapy that Freud began—the so-called “talking cure”—had the effect of promoting the idea that psychological conflict can be overcome by the sufferer gaining insight into the early experiences from which it may have originated. Later thinkers would attack Freud’s emphasis on early experience and the claims attributed to him regarding the therapeutic value of psychoanalysis. Yet several generations of intellectuals were in no doubt that he was a thinker of major importance. It is only recently that his ideas have been widely disparaged and dismissed. Initially rejected because of the central importance they gave to sexuality in the formation of personality, Freud’s ideas are rejected today because they imply that the human animal is ineradicably flawed. It is not Freud’s insistence on sexuality that is the source of scandal, but the claim that humans are afflicted by a destructive impulse.
The opprobrium that surrounds Freud is all the more intriguing given that the idea that humankind might be possessed by an impulse to destruction was never confined to him alone. Many thinkers entertained similar thoughts around the start of the last century.. 
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