A Timeline

The scholars and texts we've examined so far include:
Rene Descartes (1596-1650), The Meditations (1641).

William James (1842-1910), "What is an Emotion?" (1884) and "Talks to Teachers" (1899).

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Civilization and its Discontents (1930).
(And, one essential influence on all of them is Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his work Origin of the Species (1859).)

Some context

(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 systematically deceptive.

One interesting question about the relation of Freud to what follows in psychology concerns how complete our explanations of human events must be.

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
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8



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 and 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.