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The Scientific Psychology of Sigmund Freud

Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays

edited by Richard Wollheim
Doubleday, 416 pp., $4.95 (paper)


Cause &

From the first, Freud hoped to place his psychology on a firm scientific footing. If we were not like a water-works, perhaps we were complex electrical systems or places for the barter and exchange of heat; but he was not really aware of how little or how much the science of his day was truly empirical or to what degree the commitments of Herbart and Helmholtz to materialism were acts of faith, how far the principles of motion or the laws of thermodynamics exceeded the evidence.

It was distinctly in a cautious speculative spirit that in the fall of 1895 Freud began the “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” because in the area of neurophysiology, at least, he knew very well how little was known; nevertheless, with extraordinary daring and considerable elegance, since caution excludes neither, and with his almost genetic gift for guessing right, he set out to provide us with a purely physical account of the operations of the mind. Except perhaps for Ivan Sechenov’s beautiful little essay Reflexes of the Brain,1 which was written in 1863 and falls short of Freud in numerous ways, there is nothing like it in the entire history of philosophy.

Although Freud’s own clinical practice defined his problem, it was left to physics to suggest those first fine few general principles (laws of heat and motion) from which a solution might be drawn, and to neurology to provide the pieces (neurones) which would play the game. Freud’s own basic assumptions (that reality is entirely material; that matter is best described in quantitative terms; that it is governed by the principles of conservation; that it operates through cause and can only be understood through reason) are hardly empirical generalizations. Once securely afloat, however, and the consequences of his “laws” derived, Freud descends on the facts from above the way the fisherman descends on his fish, and of course there is always the danger that the theory will seine too efficiently and only capture the kinds it wants. It is at this point that one must ask whether the explanation is satisfactory: whether all the data has been economically, even elegantly, interrelated; whether new material can be correctly anticipated; and whether surprises can be ungrudgingly welcomed and made to feel at home.

So let us imagine for a moment the simplest organism in the animosities of its environment and ask ourselves about the value of its sensitivity. Wouldn’t every cell be better off as sand, and isn’t any animal easier in the management of itself than a man? Then why accept messages? Let the dah-dits drone into wirelessed space, send the bellboy away when he knocks, ignore both the frothy tumult of events and the dull settle of sofas on their springs, put out all eyes in order to endure, hold tight—that’s it—hang on, sink out of sight in blank and silent depths—the oyster has the secret—stay, remain, survive…though staying, as Rilke wrote, is nowhere; still, staying is all we want. It is that equilibrium or balance which Spinoza once proposed to us as the innermost law of our nature, even as Leonardo earlier observed, “every body has a weight in the direction of its movement,” and Galileo, too, unsweetened Platonist, by measuring mass with inertia, revoked the ancient privileges of heaven and made the moon a stone; for which no thanks were given to him, or Hobbes, or finally Freud, who worked against the most presidential of our mental friends: Received Opinion.

The old stories tell us how Matter struggled, pointlessly or not, to become Mind. They weave a wondrous tale, rather reminiscent of the rabbit who tried to tie down the sun with string. Furthermore, these same myths relate how man escaped from his cave to club his skinless way to culture—most moving, most brave; still others describe his history and his fate, a pageant only Providence has so far found the funds for or had the fortitude to watch, while in addition Bergson’s given all of us a Rotarian’s upward fizz. What more could we possibly want?

In the face of such persistent flattery it is natural for us to think of evolution as a kind of growth, and growth as a kind of groping for sun and air in one direction, food and water in another, an open and honest reaching out, healthy and English as mountain climbing, full of fresh air and German joy, the happy rush of life into every nook and cranny like the scatter of roaches from a sudden light. But suppose that another rule prevails, the one that in logic is called Identity, in physics, Inertia, and among living beings, Self-Preservation; suppose that the instincts invariably seek to reinstate a previous condition, that the essence of things lies in the profoundest reluctance, in Widerstand, resistance; and suppose that in the same way that we go paradoxically to war to preserve the peace, we send out emissaries and take in guests—in order, ultimately, only to be alone. What of the inner impulse, then? the upward strive? the Life Force and the biological hurrah?2

I do not believe in the existence of such an inner impulse,” Freud said, “and I see no way of preserving this pleasing illusion.” If Galileo required that the heavens turn on the same cogs as the earth, and Darwin found one law alike for every species, Freud would make a similar demand concerning the mind and consciousness of man. If it is to sustain itself as a discipline, psychology must manage to be but physics and physiology respelled. Freud’s earliest commitment was to a regulative rule for reason which commanded him to seek a uniform order of explanation and a unity in science. It was a faith as Viennese as sacher torte and strong coffee, and it implied that the concepts of every special area of investigation were logically coherent; that there was, thus, one language for science as well as one set of laws. Psychic processes had to be regarded as quantitatively determined states of specifiable material particles.3

As his work went on Freud found it increasingly difficult to retain his quantitative materialism in undiluted form, but I should like to suggest that, although he weaseled and he waffled, although dualisms bent him and mentalisms encouraged another language, at least every other heartbeat was for the work he set aside and never published, the “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” and that his later romance with destruction and death is a disguised return to the old and drier flame. In his resourceful and devious way, Freud was as constant and resistant to change as his central principle.

The importance of “Project” is now generally recognized and appropriately stressed.4 One of the best essays in Richard Wollheim’s anthology, Robert Solomon’s “Freud’s Neurological Theory of Mind,” is devoted to it. Solomon quotes Karl Pribram, one of the world’s leading neuropsychologists, to the effect that “the Project contains a detailed neurological model which is, by today’s standards, sophisticated…. The Project is very much alive and not just of historical importance.” Solomon also notes that Thomas Kuhn calls the “Project” a paradigm of psychoanalytic theory; reminds us that the editors of the Standard Edition describe it as a ghost which “haunts the whole series of Freud’s theoretical writings to the very end”; and himself concludes that “as in so many other instances, a work of this outstanding genius of our century has been abused for ‘naïveté’ only because it was too radical to be appreciated in its own time.”

If the first, second, and final act of every constituted system is to maintain itself, as Freud’s project assumed, then it will only be for the sake of such commonplace salvation that some systems will find a use for the sensitivity which genetic chance and circumstance have conferred upon them. Still, every system will seek to limit this sensitivity as far as possible, responding simply to what seems necessary to sustain it in any situation at the lowest possible level of stimulation. The boundary of a body will be built up principally as a barrier, so we shall soon have a hide to hide in, legs to flee, eyes with which we can preserve our blindness. Energies which penetrate the organism must be passed through as harmlessly as possible, conducted like lightning to the ground. “This process of discharge,” Freud wrote, “is the primary function of neuronic systems.” What we cannot shit out in a clear stream, what we cannot harden ourselves to, what we cannot flee from, is our own continuous demand for energy, since all our acts require supplies we must appropriate from somewhere.

The “Project” treats us as rather callous Cartesians, satisfied we understand things only when we can actually imagine how they might be fabricated, and since we make things of discrete and harmonious units, according to clear directions and specifiable rules, in successive steps through definable stages, the “Project” assumes that we shall feel we understand the human mind when we finally figure out how to manufacture one.

Freud naturally supposed that the nervous system was composed of a network of neurons through which electrochemical energies rushed at roughly ninety feet per second, although that was only the speed of life through a frog’s leg, as Helmholtz had measured it. The neuron had only recently been established as the basic unit of neurological activity. Freud asks us to imagine them as containers that discharge their contents the very instant they are filled, in an elegant and economical response which uses the occupying energy, just as judo does, to trigger its own release. Nothing leaks or spills, but suddenly the restraining walls unglue. Whereupon, neuronasm over, the cell returns, intact and unaffected, to its normal flaccid state.

There are occasions when remaining limp requires both will and effort. Out of what is the neuron itself composed? what prevents it from melting like a custard? and isn’t it true that even dissolution takes time and is a bloody nuisance? The system must be able to store up stimulation as well as simply discharge it. Nor is every source of stimulation of the same kind. We can permit a hot plate to fall from our threatened fingers, but hunger can be only momentarily stilled. It persists and recurs and pursues us however we turn, the way Oedipus was pursued by his fate. With the greatest reluctance we are driven to recognize and act upon the world in order to serve the Minotaur within. In fact, our basic sense of out and in, even that of self and other, emerges from these hard conditions.

We can accumulate energy and prevent embarrassing prematurity (the frog’s reflexive kick, for instance, or our own knee’s jerk) by sharing the incoming flow among a number of neurons so that the initial cell doesn’t immediately flood and spend. In this way the barriers between neurons are gently reduced because excited cells direct the flow of energy toward themselves and the paths between cells are facilitated through use.

  1. 1

    English translation, MIT Press, 1965. This work was kindly called to my attention by a colleague, Professor Richard Watson.

  2. 2

    What I want to point out here is that in Freud the rule prevails. There is of course a great deal of opposition to it. See Margaret Boden’s paper in Richard Wollheim’s collection: “…drive-reduction or purely homeostatic theories of motivation are clearly inadequate to the psychophysiological reality.” She cites a number of opponents. Unfortunately, most of the objections to the constancy principle fail to understand its a priori postulational status, which I’ve just suggested it has, and approach it as if it were an empirical conclusion of some kind. That’s a little like asking about the evidence for the rules of chess.

  3. 3

    From the opening sentence of the “Project,” in The Origins of Psychoanalysis (Basic Books, 1954) p. 355.

  4. 4

    By Richard Wollheim, for example, in his fine introduction to Freud in the Modern Masters series, Sigmund Freud (Viking, 1967), and there is an excellent exposition of the main ideas in this closely reasoned and sometimes difficult work in Raymond Fancher’s Psychoanalytic Psychology (Norton, 1973). The arc reflex model of the mind is considered one of the three basic models Freud employed by John Gedo and Arnold Goldberg in their Models of the Mind (University of Chicago, 1973). The other two are called “topographic” and “tripartite.” Paul Ricoeur (in Freud and Philosophy, Yale, 1970), who wishes to budge Freud from the “Project” ‘s broadly positivist base, admits nevertheless that “…in any event Freud will never disavow its fundamental convictions.” But in Ricoeur’s judgment “nothing is more dated than the explanatory plan of the ‘Project,’ and nothing more inexhaustible than its program of description” (pp. 72-73). Like Aristotle’s Metaphysics, the “Project” has an editor’s title.

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