Learning from Freud

Freud. Just say his name and people snicker, roll their eyes, and tune out of the conversation. The whole of my education on Freud till beginning study at the U of C could be summed up in a teacher’s comment from high school that “Freud was a product of Victorian morays being blamed for every conceivable psychological deviation.” The experience of actually reading Freud suggests that perhaps the best thing that an education can do is give old thinkers a fresh hearing.

I have been surprised at how cogent Freud’s Three Essays are to many discussions in modern philosophy and contemporary psychiatry. However, more importantly, I have been surprised at how guarded–with the exception of the possibilities of hypnotism–Freud actually is with his own conclusions. Freud frequently demurs when he could draw a dramatic conclusion and occasionally even gives up–allowing that psychiatry of his day simply does not know enough to address some issue.

I’m thinking I could learn at least that much from a disgraced master.

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4 comments on “Learning from Freud

  1. Robert Minto says:

    Indeed, Freud is deeply underrated — even just as an important historical figure that one ought to encounter first hand, which is the status a lot of the mainstream would relegate him to. At The Alma Mater I once brought Freud up in conversation with a psych major, who responded by saying: “but nothing he says matters to me because he wasn’t properly scientific in his research.” As if methodology exhausted value.

    What — in summary — did you find in Freud that spoke to in contemporary philosophy? (I assume you mean in some sense other than as a vestigial influence through the likes of Lacan, etc.)

    • maphman says:

      In Transformations of Puberty, Freud writes that sexual excitation is not only physical but includes a mental representation of physical pleasure which he calls the ego-libido. Later he argues that the ego-libido becomes visible to analytic study when it is catthecting a sexual object–when it has become the object-libido. When the object libido lacks an outside aim or partner Freud suggests that it retracts becoming the ego-libido once more. Now, I’m probably stretching Freud’s model a bit further than he would, but what if the subject is thought of in a similar way: as a mental representation the ego-subject is at rest and is unified in its aims (its pleasure seeking), but it is transformed into something else, an object-libido as it confronts and cathects another subject. In this process of pouring its energies into another–coming into relationship with the other–it becomes something at tension with itself. It remains a mental representation–a subject–and not the object of its own inquiry–an object–but this tension suggests that the ego is not longer in complete unity with whatever form of the subject it has become by investing in the other. This more-plastic understanding “I” seems to be applicable to a wide variety of phenomenological conversations that have seen subject/object identity as being related but ultimately binary. Its just something that occurred to me in passing.

  2. Robert Minto says:

    And by the way I envy you your classic U of C experience of being re-focused on “the classics.” There’s a bit of that at BC via the emphasis on ancient philosophy and the requirements of the masters comps, but in general we are awash without a sense of core or common orientation…

    • maphman says:

      I am of two minds on the Core component. On one hand they have selected a broad enough topic–self-identity and erotic desire–that any one from any division of the humanities can find something to interest them. This allows for an element of community as we all work on feeling-up our portion of the elephant and later compare notes. However, on the other hand, I feel very isolated from the Profs themselves as there is no continuity from day to day–each takes a turn during colloquium period–and because of the size of the class–over ninety students. I am craving in-class discussion as there are only so many hours of lecture one can take passively. From what you have written I am envious of your experience at BC in that you have been able to just get on with it–in contrast the Core class during this early two-week colloquium period feels very introductory and somewhat “lowest common denominator.”

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