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Freud’s Permanent Revolution

The Mind and Its Depths

by Richard Wollheim
Harvard University Press, 214 pp., $24.95

Great intellectual revolutionaries change the way we think. They pose new questions and devise new methods of answering them—and we cannot unlearn those forms of thought simply by discovering errors of reasoning on the part of their creators, unless we persuade ourselves that the thoughts are identical with the errors. There is something strange about recent debates over the evidence on which Freud based his theories. His influence is not like that of a physicist who claims to have discovered a previously unobserved particle by an experiment which others now think to be flawed. Whatever may be the future of psychoanalysis as a distinctive form of therapy, Freud’s influence seems to me no more likely to be expunged from modern consciousness than that of Hobbes, for example, or Descartes. Such thinkers have an effect much deeper than can be captured by a set of particular hypotheses, an effect that would not go away even if, in a wave of Europhobia, their writings should cease to be read.


The correct interpretation of Freud’s influence, and the way we should evaluate it, is a common theme of the two books under review, and The Mind and Its Depths provides in addition a leading example of that influence. It is a collection of essays on art, morality, and the mind written by Wollheim during the period when he also published The Thread of Life (1984) and Painting as an Art (1987), books whose subjects overlap with the essays. In The Mind and Its Depths we encounter one of the most psychoanalytic of contemporary thinkers. Wollheim has a strong sense of the reality and pervasive influence of the unconscious, and of the impact of infantile sexuality on the rest of mental life. His book offers an excellent introduction, in relatively brief compass, to the thought of a highly unorthodox and original philosopher.

Wollheim holds that what Freud achieved was a vast expansion of psychological insight, rooted in commonsense psychology and employing some of its concepts, but going far beyond it. Psychological insights are not unusual, since we spend our lives trying to understand ourselves and each other, but the scope and imaginative character of Freud’s methods of understanding create a special problem of interpretation and evaluation.

The problem is this. As Wollheim observes, common-sense explanations are a form of understanding “from within”; even when they provide insights into the mind of another, they depend, in part, on self-understanding, since they interpret the other person as another self. To understand someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior requires that we make sense—even if only irrational sense—of his point of view, by using our own point of view as an imaginative resource. Imagination enables us to make internal sense of beliefs, emotions, and aims that we do not share—to see how they hang together so as to render the other’s conduct intelligible. But Freud’s extension of this form of insight to unconscious thoughts, motives, and fantasies, and into the minds of infants, threatens to deprive ordinary psychological concepts, like belief, wish, and desire, of their familiar empirical support in the common experience and understandings of everyday life.

Some, like Sartre, have felt there was an outright contradiction in the idea of a thought of which one is not aware; but Freud could deal with that objection. In metaphysical outlook he was a sophisticated materialist; he believed that even conscious mental processes were also physical events in the brain, though we know almost nothing about their physical character. If that is true, then it makes sense to ask whether there may not also be other brain processes that are analogous to the conscious ones in physical structure, that have recognizably psychological causes and effects, but that are not conscious. Their reality would be physical, even though we could know about them only through their psychological manifestations, just as we can at present, with very limited exceptions, refer to conscious brain processes only in psychological terms.1 So the main problem about the unconscious is not metaphysical. The problem, rather, is whether the evidence supports such a vast extension, by analogy, of mental concepts to the unconscious, and the concomitant growth of psychological explanation.

Common-sense psychology allows us to identify the experiences or deliberations that have led to a belief, or the emotions expressed by a particular reaction, or the aims or values behind a course of conduct. Causal judgments of this kind are largely automatic; they fill our lives and our relations with others, and are heavily supported by their usefulness, although they can also lead us astray. When we interpret other people in this way by making sense of their point of view, we are not merely imagining things, as when we see animals in the clouds or ascribe malice to a defective toaster. Rather we are trying to understand, within the limits of a nonscientific psychology, what really makes people tick, and we often hope to be confirmed by the person’s own self-understanding.

Freud extended the range of such explanation to unheard-of lengths, to cover not only memory lapses and slips, but jokes, dreams, neurotic symptoms, and the substructure of erotic life and family ties—with forays into morality, politics, art, and religion. About some of these phenomena, no adequate psychological understanding was available at all; about others, he proposed to add a deeper level of understanding than that provided by conscious psychology. And he did it in many cases not by offering insights that others could easily evaluate from their own experience and observation, but by appealing to evidence gathered under the highly unusual conditions of psychoanalytic treatment, evidence that could be understood only by those familiar with the process.

Yet the entire system remained psychological in the sense Wollheim has specified. It sought to provide an understanding of human beings “from within,” so that we could put ourselves in their shoes and make sense of their symptoms and responses by attributing to them beliefs, desires, feelings, and perceptions—with the difference that these were aspects of their point of view of which they were not consciously aware. What reason is there to believe that such a vast extension of psychological interpretation is not merely a fantasy, like seeing animals in the clouds, rather than genuine knowledge?

It is a familiar fact that people can be unaware of their true motives, and that we often understand others better than they understand themselves. (Anyone knows this who has listened with embarrassment to a flagrant name-dropper making what he think is just amiable conversation.) But Freud carried this idea so far that he could not defend it just by appealing to common sense. He insisted on the scientific character of his findings and their support by clinical observation—meaning not controlled experiments, but the data that emerge in the analytic process. The analyst’s sustained and unique interaction with the neurotic patient supplies him with much more extensive and systematic evidence for interpretation than is available to someone who merely observes the patient’s symptoms—even someone who knows the patient well in the ordinary way.

Freud’s confidence can best be understood, I think, as the belief that exposure in a great many cases to the various extremely detailed accounts of experience that emerge in analysis enabled him to see a deeper psychological coherence in phenomena that, taken in isolation, seem meaningless and inexplicable. No doubt such coherence can be misleading. One can imagine, for example, that a drug-induced mental disorder might produce elaborate patterns of thought and feeling that seem to point to a psychological, not a chemical, cause. In general, it is important to keep in mind the real possibility that a syndrome which makes psychological “sense” may nevertheless have a purely physiological explanation. But that means only that psychoanalytic evidence, like most evidence, is not conclusive.

Richard Wollheim’s most direct comments on this matter appear in an essay called “Desire, Belief, and Professor Grünbaum’s Freud.” It is a response to Adolf Grünbaum’s The Foundations of Psychoanalysis,2 a book that takes the scientific claims of psychoanalysis seriously but interprets them in a curiously external way, neglecting the distinctively inner character of psychological insight. Toward the end of the essay Wollheim remarks tellingly,

If…psychoanalytic theory is an extension of commonsense psychology, perhaps we should begin by asking, How is commonsense psychology tested?

I take it the answer is that the evidence for common-sense psychology, instead of being the result of controlled experiments, is complex and widely dispersed. Wollheim charges Grünbaum with having an impoverished conception of how psychological explanation works, and with neglecting the essential role of psychological structure—i.e., the need to use psychological categories of some kind—in both psychoanalytic and common-sense understanding.

If what the patient says or does is to be brought to bear upon the hypothesis under consideration so that it, the hypothesis, can then be said to have been tested on the couch, the patient’s material will in most circumstances have to be subsumed under categories deriving from psychoanalysis…. In saying or doing what he does, the patient has to be identified as, say, presenting anal material on a massive scale; resorting to phantasies of omnipotence; assaulting, or fragmenting, or idealizing, the analyst’s interpretation; acting out; and so on. In other words, the patient’s material must be subsumed under transference categories: that is, categories which capture what the person is doing vis-à-vis the analytic situation as he phantasizes it.

Each of these categories, or hypotheses explaining the patient’s behavior, has to find its empirical support in countless other applications to other patients in other settings. In other words, psychoanalysis makes use of a complex network of interpretations, just as common-sense psychology does when it allows us to understand someone’s reactions by referring to an interconnected network of desires, beliefs, emotions, memories, obsessions, inhibitions, values, and identifications. And Wollheim observes that even where Grünbaum proposes a more or less common-sense alternative to psychoanalytic explanation, namely that the apparent clinical evidence for psychoanalysis is the result of suggestion by the analyst, he sees no need to make the dynamics of such suggestion psychologically comprehensible or to explain the mental processes through which it operates. The hypothesis of “suggestion,” after all, is an alternative psychological explanation, and has to be evaluated by the same standards as the explanations it is called on to refute.

How do we know whether a psychological explanation is correct? Although statistical analysis is not needed to prove that someone put on a sweater because he felt cold, one could easily imagine an idiotic psychological experiment statistically confirming the likelihood of a causal link in such cases. But the more interesting the case, the harder it is to reproduce it. What experimental evidence, for example, would help us to answer the question why Mikhail Gorbachev began the dismantling of the Soviet empire? Anything we can say about this will have to depend on the application of a variety of forms of human understanding to the unique circumstances of the case.

  1. 1

    This theme appears at various points in Freud’s writings, including the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895), “The Unconscious” (1915), and the Outline of Psychoanalysis (1938).

  2. 2

    University of California Press, 1984. Grünbaum argues that Freud rests his case for the theory of repression on the superior therapeutic effectiveness of psychoanalysis in treating neuroses, and that such evidence is not available. His reading of Freud, and of the evidence, clinical and extraclinical, has been extensively criticized, notably by David Sachs, “In Fairness to Freud,” Philosophical Review, Vol. 98, No. 3 (July 1989), and by various commentators in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 9 (June 1986). More recently he has published Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis (International Universities Press, 1993), a further discussion of these issues, which includes both new material and versions of previously published essays, some predating The Foundations of Psychoanalysis.

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