The scholars and texts we've examined so far include:
Rene Descartes (1596-1650), The Meditations (1641).
(And, one essential influence on all of them is Charles Darwin
(1809-1882) and his work Origin of the Species (1859).)
William James (1842-1910), "What is an Emotion?" (1884) and "Talks
to Teachers" (1899).
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Civilization and its Discontents
(What follows in this section is my opinion.)
How should we place Freud in the history that we've been developing?
Freud does not endorse introspectionism as a method. Like William
James, he sometimes uses it as a method, but importantly for Freud
introspection will be consistently and systematically in error because
of our own censorship mechanisms. The analyst asks the subject to
introspect, but then must uncover the deceit in the introspection. In
a sense, this does mean that introspection remains important -- the
source of data is the testimony of subjects -- but it is important in
a new way: not as a source of reliable reports but rather as a source
of data that must be interpreted and which is understood to be
One interesting question about the relation of Freud to what follows
in psychology concerns how complete our explanations of human events
Philosophers call "The Principle of Sufficient Reason" the
claim that everything (including every event) necessarily has a
reason. Physical scientists appear to have a similar notion, which we
might call "The Principle of Sufficient Cause" -- they presume
typically that every event necessarily has a cause.
Freud appears to implicitly assume a principle that we might call "The
Principle of Sufficient Meaning" -- the idea that almost every mental
act (be that act the cause of an utterance or a dream or some more
dynamic activity -- but also even illness) has a meaning. These
meanings are revealed through interpretations of the actions they
cause, and these interpretations are informed by probing (questioning)
the subject to gather additional material. (For this reason, I think
"psychoanalysis" is a misnomer -- it should have been called something
to the effect of "psycho-interpretation"; the relevant activity is not
breaking the mental action into pieces (analysis) but rather revealing
its hidden meaning in a kind of narrative (interpretation).)
Freud sets out to find the meanings of our actions. These meanings
are often obscured by us -- we censor our thoughts (that's where the
concepts of id, ego, and superego play a role) and we use symbolism.
But in historical context, it is interesting to ask what role this
kind of idea plays in later psychology. Do we still presume that
almost all human actions are meaningful? Do psychologists still
presume this as a starting point for their theories?
Some background on Civilization and Its Discontents
- This is Freud's most popular book and one of his last, published
in 1930 with an addition (the last sentence) in 1931. It comes
during the phase in his research when he turned towards what we might
call social psychology.
- Freud tends to explain social phenomena in terms of inherited or
at least very widely shared psychological features. This book does
- Freud focusses upon two "drives" in this work (some
translations wrongly use the word "instinct"): the death drive and
the sex drive (Eros). He sees these as universal human
attributes, which explain many features of human behavior and of
- Eros is broad (one might uncharitably say, vague): it means the
drive to expand and grow and reproduce, in every conceivable way. The
death drive, when Freud defends it, sounds like a kind of entropy impulse.
- Freud in part uses these notions to argue that society cannot
be perfected, that utopian projects like "communism" are doomed to
fail because, for example, changing property relations will not
eliminate aggression; rather, all humans have a death drive and
this manifests itself sometimes in aggression (and other
- Freud begins by considering a response to his own work on
religion. A colleague proposes that religion arises from a
feeling. Freud says he doesn't have this supposedly universal
feeling, and so we must instead talk about its "ideational
content" -- that is: what do people mean by this kind of talk?
- The content is a sense of being part of everything, he proposes.
- The ego, however, is constructed: we have to learn to see
ourselves as something different than other things. Page 41:
"....originally the ego includes everything, later it separates
off an external world from itself."
- Perhaps something remains of this original sense of self
and world not being separate. (Freud entertains a detour
comparing the mind to Rome and then bodies -- this is not
essential since he concludes both metaphors fail or are
inconclusive as analogies. The point is to think about how
certain mental tendencies, symbols, and other mental features
may have a long history and thus one might wish we had a kind
of archeology of mind.)
- A memory or remainder of this pre-ego state may be the
source of motivation for religion, though this is perhaps always
filtered immediately through religious dogma.
- Freud's motivation in studying religion was to explain the beliefs
that constitute it.
- Life is paintful, but we deal with it through three measures:
deflection of pain, substitutes, and intoxication.
- Human life may not have a purpose, but humans share a common goal of
being happy. Freud takes this to mean having more pleasure and less pain
(in philosophy, this is called a hedonist theory of happiness; many have
- This is the pleasure principle: each human seeks to maximize pleasure
(and minimize pain). The universe makes it impossible to much succeed at
- It's harder to maximize pleasure than to avoid pain, and many then
turn the avoidance of pain into a goal of its own.
- Freud interprets various strategies for increasing pleasure and avoiding
pain, and concludes that different people will be better suited to pursue
different (combinations of) strategies.
- Religion, however, imposes one strategy across a mass. Page 65: "Its
technique consistes in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture
of the real world in a delusional manner -- which presupposes an intimidation
of the intelligence."
- Religion tells us the pains of the world are irrelevant, and offers
illusion(s) to satisfy to some small degree the pleasure principle.
- One source of suffering, Freud observed in chapter 2, is
other people. Perhaps this is partly why some suggest that
withdrawal from civilization is the best way of life (which Freud
interprets to mean, the best way to satisfy the pleasure
principle). Other reasons may be the opposition to "worldliness"
in Christianity; the idealization of primitive (pre-technological
or pre-industrial) life; and disappointment in the failure of
great scientific progress to result in significantly greater
- This may lead us to suspect that our culture can be a source
of pain for us. We generally do not believe this, Freud says, and
instead see our society as assisting the pleasure principle. And,
presumably, we want it to do so. Freud then encourages us to ask:
is there something in us that results in our society being
imperfect in satisfying the pleasure principle? Page 68: "when we
consider how unsuccessful we ahve been in precisely this field of
prevention of suffering, a suspicion dawns on us that here, too, a
piece of unconquerable nature may lay behind -- this time a piece
of our own psychical constitution."
- Freud sets out to examine civilization (culture) and
understand it in psychological terms. (Ultimately, he will aim to
find what might be the source of its failure to better reduce
- Freud argues that civilization began with the eros of human
males driving them to seek long term bonds with females. The
first rules were then social bonds between sons who needed to band
together to overcome the tyrannical absolute power of the father.
- (Note that Freud here does not consider the possibility of
coevolution of human motivations and human civilization -- he uses
motivations -- inherited and assumed to be static -- to explain
civilization. This differs significantly from the
- (Another editorial comment: Freud sometimes describes Eros as
"sexual (genital) love." Is it plausible that human erotic
attachment is solely or even primarily in terms of genital
- Aim-inhibited love is Eros where one has somehow inhibited
successfully the goal of genital stimulation. Friendship, but also
at the most extreme/unusual case universal love, are examples of
- Freud makes two empirical claims in passing which I think
we all might find very very dubious. (1) Women lack the capability
to subliminate (suppress and redirect) their Eros; (2) men have
a finite amount of Eros and must expend some on creating and
managing civilization and its products. I assume (1) is obviously
laughable, but also think (2) is really dubious. Do artists and
scientists and politicians and so on really go in for less sex?
- Civlization like Austrian civilization of the time of this
writing has become in a sense unjust: it tries to outlaw most
kinds of sexual enjoyment. (But not with much success: "Only
the weaklings have submitted to such extensive encroachment
upon their sexual freedom" pg95).
- Why isn't it a simple matter to subliminate (some) Eros and
make civilization fully driven by mutual love? Because, Freud
argues, we all have a kind of built-in aggressiveness which renders
this nigh impossible.
- Communism is rejected as an example of a view in which social
organization causes strife, and if we changed the social arrangement
(abolished property) we would get rid of all social problems. But
Freud says at least some of our social problems are reoccuring
aggression, not a product of a social arrangement. For example,
people will fight over sex if not over property. (There is a beautiful
prescient sentence, p 108: "One only wonders, with concern, what the
Soviets will do after they have wiped out their bourgeois.)"
- Social groups often maintain internal cohesion through aiming
their aggressiveness at external groups. See the claim page 108
- I don't know what the bit about America is about.
- But why is there reoccuring aggression? Is aggression a
drive? Freud said he's willing to allow it might be, but he
argues it is not.
- Freud begins by looking back at an earlier opposition that
he proposed: he argued for many years that we have libido drives,
and ego drives, and that these were in opposition and struggle
with each other.
- Oxford English Dictionary: Cathexis -- concentration of
mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object
(especially to an unhealthy degree). Gay says this is the
translator's creation; that Freud wanted to use a word like
- For some reason (some argue because his rival former students
propose aggression is a drive/instinct and he did not want to
agree with them), Freud argues that aggression is not a
drive/instinct but an instance of a much deeper drive/instinct
seeking to break unions apart. Like entropy, all living things
have a death drive or death instinct.
- Thus, Freud now endorses two very general and very
fundamental drives. The Eros drive, which impels us to create
ever greater and more units of coexistence; and the Death drive,
which impels us to destroy these units. Thus, a drive to create
(social) structure and a drive to destroy (social) structure.
- The death drive inclines us to aggression (so, for practical
considerations, it really acts like an aggression drive).
- Pay special attention to the last paragraph of the chapter:
it provides an important summary of Freud's views up to this point
in the work.
- Aggression does not go away ever -- this is important for
Freud: we can repress instincts but they never end up anything
more than redirected. We redirect our death-instinct aggression
towards ourselves in a civilization: the super-ego directs
aggression at the ego. We experience this superego as conscience;
the experience of this battle we call "guilt."
- Guilt may have several origins. Closely related are two
origins: fear of authority, and fear of the superego. Another source
is the internalization of the aggression of the father, and ultimately
a kind of supplanting and overthrow of the father's role.
- (See the third paragraph of chapter 8 for a summary of these
- Freud returns to psychoanalytic concerns: "When an instinctual
trend undergoes repression, its libidinal elements are turned into
symptoms, and its aggressive components into a sense of guilt."
Two Closing Thoughts about Freud
(1) Many scholars have worried about whether Freud's theory is a
scientific theory. In particular, they have worried that perhaps it
is not falsifiable. (For a review of scientific method and the
concept of falsifiability, you can see some of my epistemology notes
here.) Ask yourself, could there be any patient who comes into
Freud's office and Freud would say, "this person's behavior cannot be
directly explained with Eros and the Death instinct"? If not, then
are these concepts too general -- are they vacuously broad concepts
that appear like substantial concepts? We'll talk more about this --
it is part of the motivation of the behaviorists.
(2) Freud's view of mind is that it is largely homogenous across
humans of the same sex (most men are similar, most women are similar);
that it preceded culture in its current form; that it is homogenous
across human recorded history (we are not significantly different from
our ancestors in terms of motivations); and that it explains the form
of culture in its current form. Many other views are possible. There
could be great variations in people. Culture could shape the mind
more than inheritance -- some think culture does all the work of
shaping the mind. Another view is that culture and the mind co-evolve
together. A view that I mentioned in passing is that variations could
exist in a balance created by the social conditions (so that you have
coevolution and variation) -- I used the rock-paper-scissor game in
some species of lizard as an example (here's a popular newspaper article about
the phenomenon in some European lizards.) Consider over the semester
how people like Skinner, Vygotsky, the sociobiologists, and others
differ on these issues.