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Self-Centered Altruism, Part II

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud writes: “under the influence of the ego’s instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle. This latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road (Aufschub) to pleasure”

Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol 18, p. 10, quoted in Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, p. 19.

I think this is a remarkable quote, to touch again on the nature of selfish altruism. Freud’s point, while not dealing with ethical norms in particular here, is that all living is for pleasure, even if it happens to be a detour. The quote comes in a section by Derrida in Margins of Philosophy that pertains to putting the authority of the consciousness into question. Derrida argues, following both Freud and Nietzsche, that consciousness is anything but presence, what we popularly privilege subjective existence to be. On the contrary, consciousness is always the effect of “byways” and “modalities” that are not proper to it (p. 17). I take this to be of significant import in regards to altruism because it expresses that we are never fully cognizant of our true motives. There is a topography of differing forces underlying what we represent as the conscious.

If atheism is an enemy, who needs friends?

In my undergraduate studies as a theology student I had a professor recount an experience he had on an Ash Wednesday while he was attending Oxford for his Doctorate in philosophical theology. As the story roughly goes, one of his classmates approached him inquiring what he was giving up for Lent. Being the bold Lutheran that he was, my professor responded: “My piety!” This strategy of internal interrogation in Christianity seems to be similar to the effort made by Merold Westphal in “Atheism for Lent” in ‘God is Dead’ and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself.

Christians understand that there are leaps of faith involved in their beliefs, otherwise it wouldn’t be a walk of faith, but they don’t consider that faith to be arbitrary or irrational. Thus the task of apologetics is to articulate the arguments of the faith that makes sense of belief. Moreover, atheists seem to make the same effort to prove their own disbelief in the existence of God. On both sides, then, we have strategies employed to convince supporters of the internal rationale for the respective positions. However, and I believe Westphal is correct in this suggestion, “psychological, social, and moral factors play a large role in both directions” (p. 67). In other words, personal experience counts much more than rational arguments when it comes down to choosing sides. Apologetics are merely a tool to shore up some lingering doubts after the decision has already been made.

With that said, Westphal takes an interesting direction in revisiting apologetics from a perspective that deals more with praxis than doxa. For Randal Rauser, another contributing author to the work, there are factors beyond persuasive theological arguments that “make Christians look comical, dangerous, innocuous, irrelevant, and generally unpleasant” (p. 135). Some prime factors that make Christians appear ridiculous include the following: church roadside signs with trite captions, pedophile priests, white-suited televangelists, Christian bumper stickers, disinterest in social justice, life coach pastors offering motivational messages, blind nationalism, kitsch art, and Bible action figures. What Christianity needs then is not more reason giving but more skepticism.

A good place to start this pruning process is with the masters of suspicion. According to these figures, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, we should be more suspicious of theistic belief because there is always something more basic to the motives and reasons than we externally give credence to. As we will see, the manifest meaning of faith can be a “lofty disguise” in which we deceive ourselves from the “actual operative motives” determining our actions (p. 70). Starting with Freud, religious beliefs work as disguised wish fulfillments. “What we would like is a God at our disposal, a powerful father figure who will take care of us, protect us from the indifference of nature’s forces, including both death and the rigid demands of society and culture” (p. 72). Therefore, according to Freud, we project our own desires onto an idol in order to justify and legitimatize our behavior. For Marx, on the other hand, it is ideology that provides this legitimizing role for society. “So moral, legal, metaphysical, and religious ideologies come onto the scene to provide theoretical justification of the political-economic system” (pp. 73-4). In brief, Marx suspects that the true function of the will of God is merely to justify the beneficiaries of exploitation and consol its victims. This ideology, after all, weakens the impetus of those exploited to rebel. Nietzsche’s suspicion of religion is different still. According to his popular “slave morality”, “slaves have no power, physical or social, with which to punish their oppressors, thereby wreaking their revenge and satisfying their resentment. So they use the only weapon available to them: language. They call their masters ‘evil’” (p. 76). Therefore, when believers speak of love and justice it is merely the “dark underside” of “resentment and revenge” (p. 76). In all three of these masters of suspicion we see the unmasking of religions that use self-deception to hide from others and themselves the true motivations of their beliefs and actions.

Where Westphal gets interesting is that he applies these hermeneutics of suspicion to Christianity itself. As moderns, we are really good at practicing critique on others, but “its proper function may be to practice it upon ourselves in a kind of Lenten self-examination” (p. 71). This is, however, not original with Westphal. Of course theologians have always been cross-examining their own tradition, but the prophets, Jesus and the apostles practiced internal investigation of their faith. To read the masters of suspicion, or atheism for that matter, for Lent is “to let ourselves, individually and collectively, be cross-examined so as to uncover the ways in which we are self-deceived about the social function of our piety” (p. 75). In the story I opened with, it seems that my professor was undertaking this precise task.

However, and Westphal ends with this caution, suspicion can easily become an end-in-itself which leads to cynicism, despair, and hate. Doubtless, religiosity has had a historical knack for putting divine stamps of approval on atrocities, but it has also played a significant role in resisting injustice. “Religion, it would appear, is Janus-faced. It can be used to do the devil’s work, and it can function as a prophetic critique of social sin” (p. 74).

The Inherent Cultural Criticism of Psychoanalysis

It is often assumed that psychoanalysis or clinical psychiatry is in the business of “curing” individuals. Their main function is to restore those who are “sick” to normalcy and reintegrate them back into society. In this sense they are in service of the state by keeping its citizens in line with preestablished standards of normalcy. But while psychology certainly does function in this capacity it also extends beyond this limited framework.

What Freud undertook, and psychoanalysis after him, was to interpret civilization and culture as a whole. In doing so he was not going beyond the limits of psychoanalysis but, on the contrary, was manifesting its ultimate intention to be a general hermeneutics of culture. In other words, psychoanalysis is not only a therapeutic branch of psychiatry but also seeks to analyze how culture makes us ill. This is particularly acute in our (post-) industrial society in which there seems to be many factors that make us sick. The analyst is not only working to interpret and change his/her patient but to also transform the world by interpreting it. What makes the viewpoint of psychoanalysis unique however is that it interprets humanity as a whole from a narrow yet rigorous topographical model of the unconscious. By doing so it touches on the essentials of existence as a result of its single pont of view. Let me explain.

Freud grasped the whole phenomenon of culture as a means to exorcise us of our internal and external conflicts. Interpreted by Ricoeur reading Freud, “Culture is indeed made up of all the procedures by which man escapes in the imaginary mode from the unresolvable situation where desires can be neither suppressed nor satisfied.” The most famous example is that culture creates gods to sublimate our suffering and substitute it with divine and hopeful illusions. Of course this does not completely provide a refuge from the cruel world but merely covers it up. This does not matter much to civilization because it has easily appropriated it for utilitarian use in taming aggressiveness and reinforcing feelings of guilt when our “anticulture” instincts manifest themselves. By “curing” us of our natural “illness” professional psychology is most decidedly in league and in service of the established order of society. This is precisely why Deleuze and Guattari are Anti-Oedipus!

The other option, as mentioned above, is to think of psychoanalysis less as a technique in therapeutics leading to a cure and more as a nontechnique that is after truth. In our technical world of domination, manipulation, and control classical psychiatry would hope to tame and direct our desires. Psychoanalysis as antitechnique on the other hand is a “public iconoclasm”, a method of veracity and not of technology. “What is at stake in analysis is access to true discourse, and that is quite different from adaptation, the tactic by which the scandal of psychoanalysis has been hastily undermined and rendered socially acceptable.” For Ricoeur, who is quoted above, psychoanalysis can do better but he can not yet see how its full consequences might be played out. He simply knows that its sociopolitical implications are lurking there—something Žižek has popularized today. At the very least for Ricoeur it belongs to the enterprise of self-knowledge and concerns the loss of humanity’s most cherished pretensions.

Freud on Religion and Illusion

For many people Freud, together with Marx and a few others, is the scarecrow of religion. But at closer scrutiny he is more a friend than foe. Ricoeur here passes on to us the wisdom of Freud. The psychoanalyst

is neither a theologian nor an antitheologian. As an analyst he is an agnostic, i.e., incompetent. As a psychoanalyst he cannot say whether God is merely a phantasm of god, but he can help his patient surpass the infantile and neurotic forms of religious belief and decide, or recognize, whether or not his religion is only an infantile and neurotic belief whose true mainspring the psychoanalyst has discovered. If the patient’s belief does not survive this critical process, the only reason can be that it was not worthy to survive. But in that case nothing has been said either for or against faith in God. In another language I might say that, if faith must differ from religion, then religion must die in order that faith may be born

Freud is not speaking about the death of God here but overcoming the gods of humanity. For him these religions were illusions in the precise sense of the word: they were representations that did not correspond to reality. The faltering of religious commitment in the lives of college students (even at private Christian universities) mirrors this same process. There is much ado that a secular education dissuades incumbent classes from religion and that these students in turn lose their faith, but it seems more accurate to say that these students are losing a faith they never had. In other words, they are maturing and losing infantile beliefs that were never worth holding. What is often missed in these same schools (and what Freud fails to grasp as well) is the function of mythopoetic imagination (see here) in understanding and explaining existence which cannot be verified by mathematical or experimental methods. Perhaps this is why we aren’t seeing more faiths survive critical trials.


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