فصل 30

دوره: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / درس 30

فصل 30

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chapter 30

Thoughts in Disguise

Sigmund Freud

Can you really know yourself? The Ancient philosophers believed that you could. But what if they were wrong? What if there are parts of your mind that you can never reach directly, like rooms that are permanently locked so that you can never enter them?

Appearances can be deceptive. When you watch the sun in the early morning it seems to come up from beyond the horizon. During the day it moves across the sky and then finally sets. It is tempting to think that it travels around the earth. For many centuries people were convinced it did. But it doesn’t. In the sixteenth century the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus realized this, though other astronomers had their suspicions before that. The Copernican revolution, the idea that our planet was not at the heart of the solar system, came as a shock.

The mid-nineteenth century brought another surprise, as we have seen (Chapter 25). Until then it had seemed likely that human beings were completely different from animals and had been designed by God. But Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection showed that human beings share common ancestors with apes and that there was no need to suppose that God had designed us. An impersonal process was responsible. Darwin’s theory explained how we had descended from ape-like creatures and how close we were to them. The effects of the Darwinian revolution are still being felt.

According to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the third great revolution in human thought was brought about by his own discovery: the unconscious. He realized that much of what we do is driven by wishes that are hidden from us. We can’t get at them directly. But that doesn’t stop them affecting what we do. There are things that we want to do that we don’t realize we want to do. These unconscious desires have a deep influence on all our lives and on the way we organize society. They are the source of the best and worst aspects of human civilization. Freud was responsible for this discovery, though a similar idea can be found in some of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing.

Freud, a psychiatrist who had begun his career as a neurologist, lived in Vienna when Austria was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The son of a middle-class Jewish father, he was typical of many well-educated and established young men in this cosmopolitan city at the end of the nineteenth century. His work with several young patients, however, drew his attention increasingly to the parts of the psyche that he believed were governing their behaviour, creating their problems through mechanisms of which they were unaware. He was fascinated by hysteria and other types of neurosis. These hysterical patients, who were mostly women, often walked in their sleep, hallucinated, and even developed paralysis. Yet it wasn’t known what was causing all this. Doctors couldn’t find a physical cause for these symptoms. Through careful attention to the patients’ descriptions of their problems and knowledge of their personal histories, Freud came up with the idea that the real source of these people’s problems was some kind of disturbing memory or desire. This memory or desire was unconscious and they had no idea that they had it.

Freud would get his patients to lie on a couch and talk about whatever came into their head, and often this made them feel much better as it let their ideas escape. This ‘free association’, allowing the ideas to flow, produced surprising results, making what was previously unconscious conscious. He also asked patients to recount their dreams. Somehow this ‘talking cure’ unlocked their troublesome thoughts and removed some of the symptoms. It was as if the act of talking released pressure caused by the ideas they did not want to confront. This was the birth of psychoanalysis.

But it isn’t just neurotic and hysterical patients who have unconscious wishes and memories. According to Freud, we all do. That is how life in society is possible. We hide from ourselves what we really feel and want to do. Some of these thoughts are violent and many are sexual. They are too dangerous to let out. The mind represses them, keeps them down in the unconscious. Many are formed when we are small children. Very early events in a child’s life can re-emerge in adulthood. For example, Freud believed that men all have an unconscious wish to kill their father and have sex with their mother. This is the famous Oedipus complex, named after Oedipus who in Greek mythology fulfilled the prophecy that he would murder his father and marry his mother (without being aware in either case that he was doing so). For some people, this early awkward desire completely shapes their life without them even realizing it. Something in the mind stops these darker thoughts getting through in a recognizable form. But whatever it is in us that stops this, and other unconscious desires, from becoming conscious isn’t completely successful. The thoughts still manage to escape, but in disguise. They emerge in dreams, for example.

For Freud, dreams were ‘the royal road to the unconscious’, one of the best ways of finding out about hidden thoughts. The things we see and experience in dreams aren’t what they seem. There is the surface content, what appears to be going on. But the latent content is the real meaning of the dream. That is what the psychoanalyst tries to understand. The things we encounter in dreams are symbols. They stand for the wishes that lurk in our unconscious minds. So, for example, a dream that involves a snake or an umbrella or a sword is usually a disguised sexual dream. The snake, umbrella and sword are classic ‘Freudian symbols’ – they stand for a penis. Similarly in a dream the image of a purse or a cave represents a vagina. If you find this idea shocking and absurd, Freud would probably tell you that that is because your mind is protecting you from recognizing such sexual thoughts within yourself.

Another way in which we get glimpses of unconscious wishes is in slips of the tongue, so-called Freudian slips, where we accidentally reveal wishes that we don’t realize we have. Many television newsreaders have stumbled over a name or phrase, accidentally speaking an obscenity. A Freudian would say this happens too often for it simply to be a matter of chance.

Not all unconscious wishes are sexual or violent. Some reveal a fundamental conflict. On a conscious level we may want one thing that on an unconscious level we do not want. Imagine you have an important examination that you have to pass in order to go to university. Consciously you do everything in your power to prepare for it. You go through the relevant past examination papers, prepare the answers to the questions in outline form and make sure you set your alarm clock early to get to the examination room on time. Everything seems to be going well. You wake up on time, eat breakfast, catch the bus, and realize you will arrive with time to spare. At this point you doze off contentedly on the bus. But when you awake you find, to your horror, that you have misread the number on the bus and are now in completely the wrong part of town with no chance of getting to the right part in time to sit the examination. Your fear of the consequences of passing the examination seem to have overruled your conscious efforts. At a deep level you didn’t want to succeed. It would be too frightening to admit this to yourself, but your unconscious revealed it to you.

Freud applied his theory not just to individuals acting neurotically, but also to common cultural beliefs. In particular he gave a psychoanalytic account of why people are so drawn to religion. You might believe in God. Perhaps you feel God’s presence in your life. But Freud had an explanation for where your belief in God comes from. You might think you believe in God because God exists, but Freud thought that you believe in God because you still feel the need for protection that you felt as a very small child. In Freud’s view whole civilizations have been based on this illusion – the illusion that there is a strong father-figure out there somewhere who will meet your unmet needs for protection. This is wishful thinking – believing that such a God really exists because you have a great desire in your heart that he should. It all stems from the unconscious desire to be protected and cared for that arises in early childhood. The idea of God is comforting for adults who still have these feelings left over from childhood, even though they don’t usually realize where the feelings came from and actively repress the idea that their religion comes entirely from a deeply felt and unmet psychological need rather than from the existence of God.

From a philosophical point of view, Freud’s work brought into question many assumptions that thinkers such as René Descartes had made about the mind. Descartes believed that the mind was transparent to itself. He believed that if you have a thought you must be able to be aware of that thought. After Freud the possibility of unconscious mental activity had to be acknowledged.

But the basis of Freud’s ideas aren’t accepted by all philosophers, though many accept that he was right about the possibility of unconscious thought. Some have claimed that Freud’s theories are unscientific. Most famously, Karl Popper (whose ideas are more fully discussed in Chapter 36) described many of the ideas of psychoanalysis as ‘unfalsifiable’. This wasn’t a compliment, but a criticism. For Popper, the essence of scientific research was that it could be tested; that is, there could be some possible observation that would show that it was false. In Popper’s example, the actions of a man who pushed a child into a river, and a man who dived in to save a drowning child were, like all human behaviour, equally open to Freudian explanation. Whether someone tried to drown or save a child, Freud’s theory could explain it. He would probably say that the first man was repressing some aspect of his Oedipal conflict, and that led to his violent behaviour, whereas the second man had ‘sublimated’ his unconscious desires, that is, managed to steer them into socially useful actions. If every possible observation is taken as further evidence that the theory is true, whatever that observation is, and no imaginable evidence could show that it was false, Popper believed, the theory couldn’t be scientific at all. Freud, on the other hand, might have argued that Popper had some kind of repressed desire that made him so aggressive towards psychoanalysis.

Bertrand Russell, a very different style of thinker from Freud, shared his distaste for religion, believing that it was a major source of human unhappiness.

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