Saturday, April 15, 2017

Freud and Nietzsche: Psychiatry between Existentialism and Scientism

Art by Andrew Baines
In The Denial of Death, the anthropologist Ernest Becker defends and broadens Otto Rank’s view of psychotherapy. Rank was one of Freud’s colleagues who broke with Freud, like Jung. Jung and Rank both interpreted psychological problems in spiritual and philosophical terms, whereas Freud clung to a narrower, sexual theory of mental dynamics. For Rank, the human mind is torn between opposite tendencies, towards separation and greater individuation, on the one hand, and towards union with a collectivity, on the other. This is an absurd, dangerous foundation for personal growth, because it threatens the person with the fate of being forever internally conflicted and with the anxiety of oscillating blindly back and forth between the poles. For example, a person might demonstrate her ego’s distinctiveness with displays of conspicuous consumption, while pretending to worship a deity that demands humility and submission to its greater power. The opportunity for what Becker called “heroism” is found in creative solutions to this existential predicament of having an unstable mental structure, stemming from the trauma of separation at birth, and of being propelled by the fear of the final separation at death. Art, love, and a mystical hope for cosmic reunion with a divine being that somehow encompasses all natural things are Rank’s recommendations for avoiding the stalemate of neurosis, of failing to learn how to unlearn past experience or to find a balance between the desire to stand out and to fit into a greater whole.

Freud from Nietzsche

Becker’s presentation of this theory emphasizes its existential aspect, and indeed Rank’s ideas are much more plausibly universal than Freud’s positing of infantile sexuality. But Becker’s criticism of Freud neglects Freud’s direct connection with existentialism. Freud, after all, was aware of Nietzsche’s writings, although he professed to having avoided reading them in depth, even while Freud’s work betrays his familiarity with several Nietzschean themes (as well as with Darwinism). As a relevant Wikipedia article says, “in the 1890s, Freud, whose education at the University of Vienna in the 1870s had included a strong relationship with Franz Brentano, his teacher in philosophy, from whom he had acquired an enthusiasm for Aristotle and Ludwig Feuerbach, was acutely aware of the possibility of convergence of his own ideas with those of Nietzsche and doggedly refused to read the philosopher as a result.” However this may be, Nietzsche must have rubbed off on Freud. This study, for example, summarizes what the two approaches share:
(a) the concept of the unconscious mind; (b) the idea that repression pushes unacceptable feelings and thoughts into the unconscious and thus makes the individual emotionally more comfortable and effective; (c) the conception that repressed emotions and instinctual drives later are expressed in disguised ways (for example, hostile feelings and ideas may be expressed as altruistic sentiments and acts); (d) the concept of dreams as complex, symbolic "illusions of illusions" and dreaming itself as a cathartic process which has healthy properties; and (e) the suggestion that the projection of hostile, unconscious feelings onto others, who are then perceived as persecutors of the individual, is the basis of paranoid thinking. Some of Freud's basic terms are identical to those used by Nietzsche.
The Christian psyche famously provided Nietzsche with his case study in repression and paranoia, just as Nietzsche demonstrated his “genealogical” form of explanation in his account of master-slave morality. Instead of dictating principles or arguing systematically, Nietzsche sought to undermine various philosophies and perspectives by purporting to trace their psychological causes back to either “noble” virtues or to unheroic, “weak” acts of self-deception. For example, instead of celebrating the will to power, a Christian might passive-aggressively cloak her predatory instincts with a show of false humility. Logicians typically regard Nietzsche’s whole approach as resting on the genetic fallacy. Moreover, his philosophy seems self-contradictory, since he presupposes the universal truth of his metaphysics of power, even while he maintains that knowledge depends on perspective and that all truth-claims are surreptitious attempts to overpower others. All living things are beasts, for Nietzsche, and beasts have no sound basis for believing they’re in touch with objective, nonpragmatically-construed reality. Reasoning is a sham, and displays of power are the only demonstrations that matter in that they testify to the greatness of heroic individuals who distinguish themselves from the prosaicness of the herd mentality.

In any case, Freud does add much to the structure of Nietzschean thought: whereas Nietzsche’s arch concept is power, Freud’s is sex. But while Nietzsche’s corresponding image of people as animals led him to write only aphoristic or literary appraisals, Freud’s single-minded interpretations were in the service of his drive to pioneer a science of the mind. Freud reduced every desire or impulse, every conscious or unconscious image, every mental or social event to a sexual cause originating in the Oedipal or castration complex. Whereas power is vague and can take myriad forms, sex is concrete and objective. The Id or unconscious may be irrational, but if it desires sex with the mother, expressions of that desire can theoretically be confirmed, because the sex act provides a benchmark for comparisons. Thus, in a dream a cigar might unconsciously symbolize a penis. Likewise, had Nietzsche identified a particular powerful act as all-important in human relations, as Freud had done in Chapter Four of Totem and Taboo (a prehistoric killing of a father figure, or alpha male), Nietzsche’s thought might have taken on the power of a science. However, like the phony spirituality of Christian religion, psychoanalysis is only pseudoscientific in the Popperian sense of being unfalsifiable. You can posit an infantile, unconscious sexual urge to explain any action, but the merit of that explanation isn’t tested in practice. Indeed, in so far as the applications of psychoanalysis testify to its power, the theory fails the test of being technoscientific, because the analyst-analysand relationship is typically endless. The talking never ends, because the imagination can always conjure new sexual fantasies and interpretations of events in the person’s formative years. Moreover, the theory is awkwardly implausible: sexual impulses are hormonal and the relevant hormones are released in puberty; thus, children have no sexual desires. 

Becker’s existential psychology would likewise be unfalsifiable, since you could just as easily trace any decision or action to a response to some universal fear, such as the fear of death or of standing out as an independent individual. However, existential psychology has the merit of being more plausible than psychoanalysis. Children do learn about death at an early age and they certainly are frustrated by obstacles to their attempts to further their bloated self-interest. The existential condition of being condemned to realize that we’re mortal and fragile creatures with the potential for creative transcendence does plausibly distinguish human mentality from most other animal forms.

Nietzsche against Freud

Ernest Becker
Meanwhile, psychoanalysis can be criticized on Nietzschean grounds. Psychoanalysts may pretend to be interested only in instrumental, value-neutral evaluations of their success or failure in technoscientific, medical terms. Their ostensible goal is to allow the patient to vent unconscious longings, while preserving enough of the ego’s illusions to help sustain a profoundly dishonest society that reflects the absurdity of our mental foundations in our infantile urges. But psychoanalysis is little better than a cult of personality, like the cult that pervades North Korea. Although psychoanalysts don’t necessarily worship Freud, their theory of the mind is just the handiwork of that amoral genius who strove first of all not for truth but for power, going as far as to steal some of Nietzsche’s methods while ignoring the existential insights that would undermine psychoanalysis if they were more widely known. Becker likewise shows that Freud was ruthless in serving his “personal immortality project,” as Freud attempted to outlive his biological death by creating an institution that would survive him while bearing the marks of his preoccupations. More importantly, the pretense that psychoanalysis is scientific is itself an exercise in self-deception and thus fails the existentialist’s test of demonstrating the primary virtue of personal integrity. For Freud, the mind is always at odds with itself, because the social forces informing the Superego are bound to clash with the infantile urges of the unconscious Id. Thus, there will always be work for the psychoanalyst and Freud’s immortality is secure. Freud’s pessimism is thus a subterfuge, covering for his animal urge to overpower others by imposing his peculiar reconciliation with the prevailing Victorian mores onto patient and therapist alike, not to mention on wider Western culture which has absorbed Freud’s scientistic version of Nietzsche’s thought.

While existentialists, too, are often pessimistic, they hold out simple honesty and responsibility as practical ideals, and it’s relatively easy to distinguish between those who know and are true to themselves, and those who lie compulsively to others and to themselves. To be sure, psychoanalysis admits of a difference between mental normality and pathology or neurosis. But the absurd foundation of the human psyche, the idea of which psychoanalysis inherits from existential philosophy via Freud’s engagement with Nietzsche’s writings, conflicts with the therapeutic goal of curing the patient. This is evident from Becker’s discussion of the existential undertones of Freudianism, in which the point emerges that there is no firm line between mental health and disorder. So-called mental normality is already the beginning of neurosis. We’re all trapped by the existential paradox in which we try to immortalize ourselves, to preserve our ego by one illusion or another while simultaneously wishing to merge with a greater totality such as a god or a culture. For Becker, neurotics are merely failed artists, lacking the genius to transcend their greater awareness of life’s absurdity, which enhanced understanding prevents them from automating their social interactions. Thus, for example, the neurotic will be incapable of fulfilling his sexual function as a member of our species, but will cling to perversions to lessen the resulting anxiety.

Becker attempts to divide mental health from disorder in a revealing way, saying clumsily at one point, “But somewhere we have to draw the line between creativity and failure, and nowhere is this line more clear than in fetishism” (240). Thus, he criticizes Rank for being
so intent on accenting the positive, the ideal side of perversion that he almost obscured the overall picture…Routine perversions are protests out of weakness rather than strength; they represent the bankruptcy of talent rather than the quintessence of it…In fact, we might say that the pervert represents a striving for individuality precisely because he does not feel individual at all and has little power to sustain an identity….If, as Rank says, perversions are a striving for freedom, we must add that they usually represent such a striving by those least equipped to be able to stand freedom. They flee the species slavery not out of strength but out of weakness, an inability to support the purely animal side of their nature. (232-3)
This is supposedly because perverts or fetishists were deprived of a certain upbringing which might have established a secure sense of their body, “firm identification with the father, strong ego control”, and “dependable interpersonal skills.”

Art by Albert Carel
Of course, there are differences between normal and abnormal sexual behaviour, although Becker’s analysis here is rendered dubious by his inclusion of homosexuality as a perversion that supposedly has ingenious or somehow inferior “motives” (232); instead, this abnormal sexuality is likely in part genetic. In any case, what Becker doesn’t justify is his value judgment. Even if fetishists were weak in being unable to carry out their species role of sexually reproducing with routine indifference rather than with creative flourishes, why should that weakness necessarily call for a cure? This is like saying that normal people lack the “strength” to murder without being burdened by a conscience. Whether our species ought to continue is an empirical question, not one with a self-evident answer. So the average sexual reproducer’s “strength,” fostered by a certain upbringing shouldn’t necessarily be encouraged. At least, Becker only presupposes that the weakness in question represents a failure. If it turns out that our species eventually destroys the planet’s capacity to sustain life, the “failure” of the perverts who resist normal sexuality would have to be reinterpreted as tragically heroic rather than ignominious since the value assignments would be reversed.

Whatever the merits of Becker’s discussion of this particular point, psychiatry is notorious for being unable to sustain its distinction between mental health and disorder, without resorting to spurious appeals to mass opinion. In fact, there are two sources of this difficulty. One is, as I said, the universality of the existential condition which renders us all clueless puppets in the big picture, an assumption Freud takes over from Nietzsche. The other source is the scientism which Freud adds to Nietzsche. Psychiatrists in general must be instrumentalists rather than righteous in their evaluations if they’re to retain the esteem that’s due to practitioners of a science. Engineers are interested only in doing what works, given some presupposed goal, not in figuring out which goals are right in the first place. Thus, if psychiatrists are medical doctors curing the mind rather than the body, they must likewise presuppose the social functions that enable them to target deviations as requiring their professional attention.

In so far as psychiatry is still informed by Freudianism, the discipline is caught between existentialism and scientism, between recognizing the absurdity of our situation, which calls for an artistic or a religious response, and feeling compelled to fit into a power hierarchy and seeing technoscience as the best instrument to secure the therapist’s elevated status and to establish a certain social order. Nietzsche’s revenge against psychiatry is that he has the resources to heal the doctor, to diagnose the phony neutrality of a pseudoscience as a disguise for a power play, and to recognize the source of the absurdity of that play in the existential condition which calls for decidedly nonscientific solutions.


  1. How do you feel about the people who claim that gender is entirely a social construct, and that hormones and evolution play no real part in gender?

    1. There's obviously a biological difference between the sexes, but in so far as gender is the set of attitudes and behaviours that define masculinity and femininity, gender is indeed socially constructed, since it depends on how we're raised and on the culture's roles and ideals for men and women. Evolution also plays a part, since there are physiological differences other than the sex organs.

      I don't see how anyone could think gender is entirely a cultural fiction, though, unless they took the postmodern view that all truth is anyway subjective.


  2. I realize you're not making an argument against this observation, but it does seem that psychoanalysis in one of it's forms may be one of the few avenues for a non-religious person to engage in existential conversations. Just engaging in this sort of narrative therapy is likely to seem like nothing else in life to someone who 'suffers' from existential anxiety but has no artistic or other outlet. How orthodox or Freudian the therapist is likely determines the judgements implied, how absurdly sexual each memory or thought is painted. But I don't think orthodox Freudians are likely even the majority of practicing psychoanalysts these days.

    Contrast that experience with cognitive therapies of various sorts as approved by modern insurance or pushed in the workplace or to parents. Maybe they are effective for learning small thinking habits that lessen everyday suffering, but they are geared toward compliance in a consumerist culture at the fastest possible pace. It's hard to think of an arena where technoscientific rubber hits the road faster than conventional therapy as practiced in schools, workplace, prisons, even churches.

    Talking in circles about some subjects is occasionally the best orbit you can hope for.

    1. Guthrie, I agree completely that psychoanalysis is closer to existentialism than is cognitive behavioural therapy. Indeed, given CBT's avoidance of the underlying issues and its focus on strategies for solving specific problems related to a disorder's symptoms, CBT is like sanctioned drugs such as caffeine and nicotine, which keep the workflow going without challenging the worldview or upsetting the capitalistic apple cart (as do psychedelic or entheogenic drugs, for example).

      According to CBT's wikipedia page, the goal is to alter "thought distortions," which are "exaggerated or irrational thought patterns." Of course, I'm sure extreme ways of thinking can be harmful to oneself and to others, but this certainly leaves untouched the cosmicist point that _all_ human thinking is distorted, by definition. All our thoughts are generalizations or models which have pragmatic, largely instinctive justifications (as Hume and Nietzsche pointed out). We're all much less rational than we think we are. And all normal ways of thinking per culture are viewed as practically insane by future generations.

      Anyway, the main point I wanted to make in this article is that it's a shame that psychiatry as a whole isn't as informed by existentialism as it should have been, given its Freudian-Nietzschean pedigree. You're right again that Freud isn't central even to current psychoanalysis, let alone to psychiatry as a whole. But I agree with Becker that postindustrial mental problems that aren't straightforwardly physiological in nature likely stem from deep existential fears, which art and religion rather than science need to address.

    2. Guthrie, by coincidence an interesting article just came out that takes up this question of a more scientistic, efficiency-based kind of therapy than psychoanalysis.

    3. Thank you, that was interesting. Aeon publishes some good stuff, they usually have at least one article that pulls me in from their summary newsletter I subscribed to.

      My takeaway is that the author feels the science portrays the unconscious as being an enabler of automatic actions, like the ability to multitask without applied attention. It makes me think of the common experience of driving somewhere without incident but having no memory of doing so because you were focused on something in the foreground. They mention William James which who is a near contemporary of Freud's but often reads as the father of cognitive therapy to me. At the same time, he was well aware and wrote some intriguing passages about his own struggles with anxieties that were clearly born of the sort of concerns that you call cosmicist.

      Orthodox Freudianism reads cultish to me. They talk about some of the progeny of their views in popular culture like L Ron Hubbard. At the same time, Freud's ability to untangle motivations and illustrate them, especially when he talks of cultural matters have really fascinated me for a long time.

      It seems pretty widely acknowledged now that he was both aware and avoidant of speaking about how conversant he was with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer (the latter really deserves a lot of 'credit' for his views).

    4. There was a split in recent psychology between the cognitivists and the connectionists, between those who posit mental representations, to stick closer to our intuitions about ourselves and our identity as having a mind made up of beliefs and desires, and those who identify more with the brain and thus posit parallel-processing learning systems. The latter derive from behaviourists and from the folks in that Aeon article who mocked Freud for being unscientific. The former derive from Chomsky's demolition of behaviourism and from the rise of computationalism (the use of the computer as a model of the mind-brain).

      Connectionists consider themselves scientists because they stay close to the physiology, whereas the cognitivists can consider themselves scientific because they take into account the data of consciousness and the rest of the "manifest image" (freewill, reason, etc). But actually, cognitivists are closer to philosophy than to science. The Aeon article shows this split went back to Freud's day. Freud's talk of the superego and the ego were intuitive compared to the work of the much more reductive theorists and proto-behaviourists.

      There's a similar split in physics between string theorists and the rebels (like Lee Smolin) calling for more attention to data rather than to math. String theorists have math rather than intuition, but math is likely a kind of fiction, as Smolin argues, so once again string theorists are closer to philosophy than to data-based science.

  3. Religion is all lies.

  4. Great explanation, thanks. I've not heard of the connectionist term, though I think get the distinction.

    Do you have any reading suggestions when it comes to modern physics?

    1. Well, I wouldn't pretend to be an expert on physics. I certainly don't understand the math. Penrose's The Road to Reality shows well how the math builds on itself. Kline's Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty shows the shakiness of math's foundations, which must somehow fit with Smolin's conjecture that math is essentially fictional.

      My knowledge of physics is confined to some of the popularizations: Paul Davies, Lee Smolin, Suskind, Brian Greene. I remember liking Quantum Reality, by Nick Herbert, for showing the variety of philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics, but that's an old book now. And I like reading Smolin's outsider perspective on the prevailing theory in physics, on string theory. His recent book with his co-author, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time is interesting. It includes his take on mathematics, which connects well with Harari's view of the fictional nature of culture in general. That's all I try to do, really, with regard to physics, which is to weave some ideas in physics into a larger philosophical picture. I'm more interested in the philosophy and the sociology of science.

      Regarding Aeon, I agree it has many articles worth reading. I pitched an article there once but they didn't go for it. Now they don't take submissions.