Posts Tagged ‘Freud’

Well, everyone knows how I like Freud.  🙂

A straightforward diagnosis

My dear Doktor Freud, you must come to my aid,
For  disequilibrium makes me quite fade.
When I fly in a plane or ride on a bike,
A bott.  of best brandy I must first tike!

Professorial knowledge, I’ve heard it well said,
Is your hallmark, dear Freud, so to you I have fled ;
Will you tell me now clear how you practise your art,
So that I, on vacation, may sober depart?


“How to use psychological principles free
From suggestions that might so happily be
Of ze greatest potential for doing some good
Is a question of seeing ze trees from ze vood.

“For particular problems pose purposive pains,
While pandemical ponderings put people on planes
In a panicky predisposition to pine
For ze pleasing and practical fruit of ze vine.

“Now ze plane and ze pine are not multiple things,
For the one comes in squadrons, while t’other has rings ;
The collection of nouns and the tension of verbs
Gives a dual condition to specialised herbs.

“But you dendritophobia is mostly a mask
For concealing profounder conditions which ask
For a more comprehensive review of your past,
So enabling my science to give healing at last.

“That you ruminate deeply while high in a tree,
And expect to find solace in swigs of brandy,
Is suggesting neurosis involving a beach ;
For, while dad was a fisherman, mum was a peach.

“If my best psychological therapy’s well,
Then the interconnections should come to gel
The traces of reason that pull in train
The idea of my fee, which will free you from pain.”

Jamie MacNab


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I have mentioned before that, while I admire Freud, I am not a Freudian.  It is quite possible to see the virtues in a person without agreeing in the least with his or her ideas ; just as it is quite possible to see the  merits of a theory or of a hypothesis without buying into it completely.  Also it is more than likely that one may form an opinion of an idea only to discover later that the idea actually has a quite different interpretation from the one first seized upon.

I once read, in passing, that Freud considered the possibility that consciousness ‘arose from the very atoms themselves’.  And there is much that arises from that idea.  But in my haste my first thought was, “But this is typical Victorian materialism ! – a product of the Great Mistake that typified that otherwise great age.”  And, if I hadn’t more recently encountered another great thinker, I should probably still hold that opinion of Freud.

The mistake I made was so common that perhaps I may be forgiven ; it was the mistake of failing to ask the right questions.  I had forgotten the advice of Aristotle.  My first question to Freud ought to have been, “What do mean by the word ‘atom’?  I had assumed that he meant ‘the smallest indivisible particle of matter’ ; hence my judgement that he was proposing a materialist notion of consciousness.  (By the way, I had also forgotten that Freud was a near contemporary of Rutherford, and would have known of him.)

But further reading and further contemplation reveals that we do not have sufficient evidence that atoms are material things at all.  It all depends on how we look at the world and how we shape our arguments about it.

It depends on whether we are ‘outward lookers’ or ‘inward lookers’ – and on whether we are able to look both ways.  It depends on what we mean by empirical science.

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Almost all science (knowledge) is concerned with abstractions.  The world is too complex for a human mind to grasp in its functioning, dynamic entirety.  So we break it down into manageable chunks ; and most of those chunks are are very small indeed – chunklets – and it is these abstracted bits of the world that we study.  It is perhaps a shame that we feel impelled to do this breaking down.

As far as we can make out, Man is the creature that has the best understanding of the world.  And to gain this understanding, we basically make  models of selected parts of the world in our memories.  It follows that our models are exactly as complex as the world we know.  Therefore Man is, collectively,  at least as complex as the entire known world or universe.

But how can we break Man himself down so as to gain a deeper understanding?  There have been any number of models of Man.  But one of the most interesting is that conceived by Sigmund Freud.

Freud is well known for his system of psychoanalysis.  But underlying that, and prior to it, is his theory of psychodynamics, or the workings of the human mind – or perhaps we should say the workings of people, for Freud did not see any essential separation of mind and body.  He was, as we might say, holistic and therefore very traditional ; one might say anciently traditional.

Man is a trinity : Id : Ego : Superego.  Strange names.  But strange for a reason.  One senses that Freud was determined to break away from the fatal Cartesian dualism concerning mind and body.  He was also determined not to become trapped in the fatal materialistic tendency in biology ( he was primarily a neurologist, so saw the traps here).  But nor did he wish to revert to traditional terminology, for spirit of his age was against it.  So he constructed his own lexicon – his own metaphors.  Many say that his ideas read much better in German, and that the English translations have not served him well.

The Id ; roughly Life, or the life principle or the vegetative principle.  The Ego ; roughly the self, especially the conscious, rational self.  The Superego ; roughly the conscience or the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.

So Freud’s theory is concerned with the interactive dynamics of these three principles ; the principles that make us what we are – human.

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What is a one-year-old grandchild but an elaborate little machine for turning damson porridge into smiles?  I suspect this to be true, because once or twice I have enjoyed a Royal Visit from the young lady and gentleman in question.  I have the damson stains on my shirt ; I have the memory of the little sticky kisses… I know it to be true.

But it was not always like this.  For when a child’s age is to be reckoned in mere weeks, instead of months, we are dealing with a very different creature.  The newborn child is so deficient of the experience of living in the world that it really is like a little machine ; a machine that is governed entirely by selfish desires ; a machine that that is almost entirely emotional ; indeed, a machine that displays only four states of existence :  unconsciousness : indifference : bliss : and rage.  It is unconscious when asleep ; it is indifferent when awake but not aware of any discomfort ; in bliss when recently fed and comforted ; and in a rage when its discomfort is ignored.

It is the rage that we tend to notice, for it becomes extreme in a remarkably short time.  The hungry infant is a terror to behold, with its red-to-purple face, its bawling mouth, its nearly-closed hard eyes, its clenching fists.  As the very observant Freud remarked, if an adult were to behave in this way then, unless you could outrun it, you would have no choice but to shoot it.  For otherwise it would certainly kill you. Small wonder that Freud shocked our Victorian forebears, with their idealized notions of childhood.

And yet, Freud did no more than remind us of an ancient truth ; that man is born steeped in sin.  He didn’t put it quite like that, of course, but  that is what he meant.  We are selfish, pleasure-seeking and aggressive in our very natures.  And it is that selfishness, that pleasure-seeking, and that aggressiveness which good parenting seeks to control and sublimate to more noble ends.

But, when you’re just a little Granddaughter or Grandson, who can’t even say, “I’m twelve munce old,”  ( let alone spell it) you don’t know any of this.  But you are very, very  busy putting your infantilism behind you – and fast learning how to be a lil machine for turning porridge into smiles.

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Although I am not an enthusiast for psychoanalysis, I do admire Freud’s general theory of psychology.  It has ‘the ring of truth’ about it.

One of Freud’s major arguments is that people will avoid doing difficult things, if they can, and do something easier instead.  We always tend towards what he calls the ‘pleasure principle’ and avoid ‘unpleasure’.  So, for example, if one knows that one has to do something unpleasant, like telling the boss some home-truths, one tends to put it off for as long as possible ‘because one is too busy’ ; in other words one finds other things to do instead.

Well, we all know this ‘putting-off’ from our own experience.  But Freud’s insight was to observe that people also do this putting-off quite unconsciously.  In other words, there are things we ought to do but are not aware that we ought to do them ; and we fill our time doing quite unnecessary things instead.  Freud called these unnecessary activities ‘displacement activities’.  The necessary activity has been displaced by an unnecessary one.  By this means, we achieve peace of mind, by not being bothered by unpleasant thoughts about something that we really must do one day.

It’s interesting to see ‘displacement activities’ being used apart from the close and sometimes rather dreary context of Freudian psycho-dynamic theory.  The neurosis of everyday life, as it were.

Christopher Howse seems to suggest that all people are seeking some kind of religious faith, but that they find it difficult to find the psychological courage to maintain their quest. Therefore they do something else as an easier substitute.  As Freud might say, they displace the aim of their search for faith away from religion and on to other aims which, they hope, will give them the same satisfaction. And, of course, all this is performed unconsciously.

This theory is probably true. How else to explain why so many modern people do a lot of “time-filling – television, shopping, driving, passive music-listening, browsing on food, surfing the internet, leafing over magazine pages, following soaps, living vicariously through celebrities” – much of which is apparently pointless?

But, if many non-religious people may be said to seek a faith in what are essentially material comforts – or rather in the comfort that material things can bring – then the same may be said of many modern people who vaguely think of themselves as being religious.

It seems to me that people today are shifting the definition of religion away from a set of definite and difficult doctrines and towards a flexible set of vague humanistic values which are designed to bring emotional comfort to the believer. Religion is becoming a kind of therapy in much the same way as ‘retail’ is a kind of therapy.

But I’m doubtful whether merely learning to feel good about oneself can provide a firm footing for faith. If faith brings peace of mind, and if peace of mind brings an essentially serene temperament then, judging by the levels of unrest in our self-indulgent society, perhaps my doubts are justified

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Sigmund Freud was a remarkable man.  Most people know that he was Jewish and born in Central Europe in the late nineteenth century.  The most productive part of his life was spent in Vienna.   He served in the German Army in WW1 and died in London just before WW2.  The socialists seem to have hated him ; both the Communists and the Nazis burned his books.  But it was the Nazis who gave him his biggest problem, because they were so close to his home.  At least twice the SS turned his house over in an attempt to drive him from Austria.  But he refused to leave.  In the end, when it was clear that his life was in a greater danger than before, his protectors (who included British and American diplomats as well as the Archbishop of Vienna) persuaded him to go to England.  His older sisters, who were too frail to travel, subsequently perished in the cleaning-out of religion in Austria.

There is not much in the life of an individual that is particularly interesting to the wider world.  What does interest us is what a person makes of his or her life ; the evolution of the soul.  And that evolution is conditioned by experiences – of other people, of places, of ideas and of the person’s own activity in the world.  Without the right kinds of  experiences, a person of the brightest potential may turn out dull and achieve little of note.

Freud was a most determined man.  Was he born that way?  or did his experiences make him so?  We can only discuss his experiences and, even then, only so far as we know them ; for experience is not only made of ordinary events but also of the private mental responses to those events – which then become events in their own right.  As a brilliant young neurological researcher at university, Freud was informed by his supervisor that he had no prospects of advancement ; no Jew had a chance.  Did he give up?  No, he qualified as a medical doctor so as to ensure an income, and then he studied psychology, which is where his main interest lay.  We recall how the Nazis tried to drive him out of Vienna and how he resisted right to the end, and how it took the strongest persuasion of his friends to get him out.  For the last eighteen or so years of his life he endured cancer of his jaw ; but he just worked harder – right up to a few days before his death from that affliction.  And almost always, his good humour and humanity shone through.  He did, however, reserve considerable irritation for those who disagreed with his psychology.

We see signs of this determination in his writing.  No detail in an argument was too small.  No causation was too far back to be left unattended ; no consequence was too slight to be overlooked.  He seems to have had intense powers of concentration as well as deep and broad knowledge of human nature as commonly understood.

Although a Jew, Freud seems not to have been at all religious.  The socialists made much of his Jewishness and circulated the idea that his psychology was nothing more then ‘Jewish psychology’ ; as if only the Jew were possessed of an Id, an Ego and a Superego ; as if the interaction of these aspects of personality had no application to Gentiles.  But Freud brushed all this nonsense aside and was always  at pains to mention that ‘his’ psychology applied to all mankind.

But he was traditional in his sources of inspiration.  Mere mention of Freud has the name Oedipus mutely attached.  He quite rightly saw that, whatever we might think of the classic myths, they were nevertheless the products of human intelligence ; and they have long endured in the minds of people ; so therefore they both reflected our one-time understanding of the world and also conditioned our evolving understanding of it.  He was also sceptical of our ability ever to comprehend reality.  Our state of knowledge is always provisional.  Always.  And, although Freud never said so (as far as I know)  this of course is a religious insight.

In view of his scepticism and in view of his trust in human intelligence, he was quite at ease when saying that yesterday’s science is today’s myth ; and today’s science will be tomorrow’s myth.  He even referred to his own theories as “My Myth”  – which implies, of course, that one day they will be overwritten. For him, all our knowledge is but a palimpsest, but a most stupendous one, in which not much is actually lost (though it might become feint) and much is recoverable by careful examination.   So, as well as a profound determination, Freud also had a humility that went even deeper.

It might be remembered, too, that Freud’s ideas probably did most to ensure the demise of the Victorian lunatic asylums.

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