freudclarkCan You Find Freud in This Photo?

Preamble: In 1909 Sigmund Freud visited the United States for the first and only time. He did so at the invitation of G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University, in connection with the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of America's original graduate student only research institution. Speaking in German to a who's who of psychologists and other social scientists (many of whom would have been multilingual in those days) Freud delivered a series of now famous lectures on psychoanalysis. One hundred years later, on October 3, 2009, Clark University commemorated one of the most significant events in its history with a series of Freud centennial keynote addresses, answering the general question "Does the Mind Still Matter?" My own lecture has appeared in Psychology Today in three parts - a blog trilogy under the general title "Freud's Friends and Enemies One Hundred Years Later." Part 1 (Did Freud Go Too Far? How Far Would You Go?) was published on February 2, 2010. Part 2 (Freud's Enemies List) was published on February 3, 2010. Part 3 (Freud and the cleansing of souls) appears below.

Freud had a broad view of what makes for human happiness. Given his practical dualism (see Part 1) he looked beyond neurology and biomedicine to the mind. Deploying the language of consciousness rather than the language of biochemistry or physics, he developed his tripartite picture of the human personality. He portrayed the inherent intra-psychic conflicts between hedonistic desire (the id), the claims of conscience, morality or the Good (the super-ego) and the creative initiatives of a free but rational will (the ego). He taught that to be happy a person must develop sustainable compromise solutions to various irreconcilable and contradictory claims within her soul. This is a view reminiscent of Pascal's image of human beings as suspended between the angels and the beasts. Such a picture naturally connects Freud to philosophy, theology and cultural studies.

I will conclude this blog trilogy, somewhat speculatively and provocatively. Freud's legacy and his primary concern with the fate and (what he described as) the cleansing of the soul I suggest will continue to live on outside of academic biomedicine and the cognitive neurosciences. When one investigates the concept of health on a world wide scale (and across ethnic groups in a multicultural society such as the United States) one comes to realize that the world-view associated with psychoanalysis is in several ways continuous with the way ordinary folk around the world explain the causes of their own mental and physical suffering. In popular or folk consciousness health is not just a concept focused on the biochemical causes of pain or incapacity. Health is also a moral and theological concept that readily inclines to the view that suffering is a kind of affliction, whose significance reaches beyond the world of biomedicine per se. Indeed, when one looks on a world-wide scale one discovers a "big three" set of explanations for the experience of disvalued and unwanted states of mind, body and spirit.

I am definitely not suggesting that biomedicine is a Western invention. Anthropologists know that everywhere one looks on the globe there is some type of local biomedical tradition of explanation, which explains suffering by reference to fluids, juices, fibers, and organs of the body; and then engages in therapeutic practices focused on the ingestion of special substances (roots and shoots, chemical compounds, hormones, vitamins, etc) and on the direct and indirect repair or removal of damaged fibers and organs (for example, via surgery). Biomedicine is, and always has been, everywhere to be found among human populations. It is one of the "big three." Nevertheless biomedicine is by no means the most common or frequent way the folk of the world understand and deal with their mental and physical suffering. In the small-scale societies studied by anthropologists, death, for example, typically invites explanations that go far beyond biomedical causes.

Far and away the most common tradition of explanation for suffering on a world wide scale is the interpersonal tradition of explanation. This tradition is notable for its references to sorcery, bewitchment, evil eye, black magic, and ancestral spirit attack. It is a tradition of diagnosis and cure associated with the idea that you can be made ill by the ill-will, hostility, envy, or even just the disapproval of others (especially of relatives, friends, neighbors, schoolmates or colleagues who for one reason or another, sometimes morally justified and sometimes not, want you to suffer, fail or become dysfunctional). The therapeutic practices of this tradition focus on protective devices such as talismans, strategies for aggressive counter-attack and most importantly on the repair or normalization of ones interpersonal relationships (with relatives, friends, colleagues, and ancestral spirits).

Also quite common on a world-wide scale is a deeply moral tradition of diagnosis and cure, whose visibility is quite high these days due to the "clean living" efforts of the health behavior movement (just say no to fast food, alcohol, salt, cigarettes, and promiscuous sex). This tradition is notable for its focus on transgressions of obligation, omissions of duty, and ethical lapses of all kinds. On a world-wide scale the types of ethical lapses that seem hot and pre-potent for promoting a sense of guilt and are readily associated in the human mind with subsequent suffering are those related to the violation of sexual taboos, food taboos and respect for authority. If you blaspheme a god or physically abuse your mother and then go blind six months later you don't fail to wonder whether the blindness was payback for the transgression; ditto for violations of sexual norms and food taboos.

There are several basic ideas behind this moral approach to the explanation and mitigation of suffering: sickness is the result of one's own actions and intentions; outcomes in life (e.g., venereal disease or lung cancer) are proportionate to actions (promiscuous sex and cigarette smoking); and a loss of self-control and sense of personal responsibility for ones actions are preludes to misfortune and suffering. The therapeutic practices of this tradition focus on confession, purification (including austere denials to the self and even self-mortification), reparation, and the adoption of right practices, so as to remove spiritual or moral debts.

From that comparative perspective psychoanalysis, as developed by Freud, might be viewed as a contemporary local version of those last two traditions of diagnosis and healing - the interpersonal and the moral. Its enthusiasts have in significant measure been self-consciously irreligious "enlightened" or "Hellenized" secularists who welcomed Freud's Nietzschean declarations about the death of the gods yet also continued to feel plagued by demons, even in a disenchanted world. Their demons, just like everyone's demons, included the so-called functional illnesses, which are all the ubiquitous forms of suffering (skin rashes, for example) that are not fully explainable in biochemical terms but lend themselves to interpretation in spiritual or theological terms (in terms of transgression, frustrated desire, envy, pollution, and guilt). Moreover even in their secularized world they continued to feel the need to address some of the deeper meanings and existential dilemmas of life, including the non-natural (meaning non-material) sources of human suffering, the inherent conflicts between morality and hedonic desire, between caring for oneself and being cared for, between egoism and altruism, between the male and the female aspects of human nature. Such existential conflicts exist for everyone. They are experienced and grappled with in all cultures as the most basic self-involving challenges of human consciousness. They are the types of challenges often addressed in schools of theology, in departments of philosophy, in novels, on Broadway, and by Sigmund Freud.

But Freud also did something more. He offered us a form of confession - moving it from the confessional booth to the psychoanalytic couch. He invited us to attend to ancestral spirits (and other intimate spooks) as real and powerful forces from out of our biographical past. He knew quite well that those spirits and spooks, whether real or imagined, are quite capable of making us suffer. To be sure Freud secularized ancestral spirit attack and put the spirits inside the person in his or her own unconscious mind, represented by parental images from early childhood. And he secularized the moral transgressions as well, turning them into struggles with guilt and shame over ones own unconscious desires and impulses rather than as sinful transgressions of a divinely guarded sacred order of things.

Nevertheless the very idea of a "talking cure" seems well-designed for those of us who, on the one hand (and precisely because we are children of the Enlightenment) mistakenly think theology is a thing of the past, yet on the other hand (precisely because we are human) continue to be haunted by ghosts.

Who's Who in the group photograph?


You are reading

Cultural Commentary

Cubs Suck: Relax and Enjoy It!

The Psychology of a Chicago Cubs Fan

How Hanukkah Led Me to Cultural Anthropology

What’s on your un-American cultural activities list?