- Philosophical Essays on Freud edited by Richard Wollheim and James Hopkins
Cambridge, 314 pp, £25.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 521 24076 X
- The Legend of Freud by Samuel Weber
Minnesota, 179 pp, $25.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 8166 1128 9
Wittgenstein, whose conversations with Rush Rhees lead off these Philosophical Essays on Freud, once wrote to a friend: ‘I, too, was greatly impressed when I first read Freud. He’s extraordinary – of course he is full of fishy thinking and his charm and the charm of the subject is so great that you may easily be fooled ... so hang on to your brains.’ This is not a piece of advice that all the contributors to this volume have been willing to follow. And though this is compensated for by the distinction of many of the papers it is unfortunately true of those contributions which deal with that question which has the most general claim to interest: how has it come about that little more than a decade short of its centenary the most fundamental and distinctive claims of psychoanalysis should still be the subject of radical scepticism.
That we are entering the shabby world of psychoanalytic apologetic becomes apparent from James Hopkins’s introduction, where the argument from resistance rears its fatuous head. Hopkins thinks we find it difficult to judge the claims of psychoanalysis on their merits because psychoanalysis is ‘concerned with the representation in imagination and thought of activities involving biologically significant organs by which we pass things in and out of our bodies and exchange them with those of others ... and many people find the contemplation of such things either fascinating or repulsive or both.’ Or neither. Nobody ever fidgeted and swallowed his saliva while listening to this sort of stuff. Real reminders of our secret lives make us squirm. And what’s this about ‘organs by which we pass things in and out of our bodies and exchange them with those of others’? Is Hopkins equipped for delights denied the rest of us? Or has an inability to inhibit his word flow betrayed him into losing his grasp of what he is talking about?
‘Accurate assessment of the explanatory scope and power of a theory can be made only by those who know how to use it ... a capacity to interpret in psychoanalytic terms in a serious way must be acquired through fairly extensive work and thought, and is therefore relatively rare.’ Hopkins is rather coy as to whether he numbers himself among these rare birds: if not, he ought to have made it clear that his confidence is confidence in somebody else’s confidence. ‘The material to which the theory has its central application, moreover, is mainly outside the public domain.’ Is psychoanalysis no longer a theory of psychopathology and of infantile development then? And may anyone have a private domain, or have they all been parcelled out on a ‘first come, first served’ basis? What is this esoteric wisdom from which some of us have foolishly cut ourselves off? Hopkins illustrates (from the Rat Man case): ‘Later associations had Freud’s son eating excrement and Freud himself eating his mother’s excrement. Those familiar with psychoanalytic theory will recognise connections with the patient’s attitude towards the lady ... and to his mother who was condemned because of her money.’ No doubt it makes Hopkins feel quite grownup to go on in this way, but what is its point? Just what does the money-excrement equation explain? Ernest Jones thought it explained why Britain went on the Gold Standard. In fact he claimed to have predicted it (he also thought that the Irish problem owed its intractability to an Irishman’s unconscious equation of Ireland with a virgin and thus of the six counties with an English penis). Why should we suppose that Jones was any less idiotic when he left the public domain?
Hopkins deplores criticism like Popper’s which uses invented examples, and asks us to consider ‘such real and testing examples of behaviour as are provided by the Rat Man’. Let us do so. What Freud describes as the Rat Man’s ‘great obsessive fear’ was that a torture, in which ravenous rats are introduced into the victim’s anus, would be inflicted on his loved ones. Freud sets about explaining this apparently bizarre thought by introducing the Rat Man’s infantile misconception as to the nature of birth (that it is via the anus), which through the mechanism of reversal changes babies emerging from the anus into rats burrowing into it. But the gratuitousness of this farrago is evident when we recall that the ‘great obsessive fear’ was an exact reproduction of the torture which the Rat Man had had described to him the day before by the very man whose request to repay some money was the occasion of its first occurrence. Yet this is Hopkins’s idea of a ‘real and testing’ example.
Much psychoanalytic apologetic is based on a misconception as to what suspicion of Freud’s cogency is based on. Hopkins refers to ‘the standards appropriate to physical science’, i.e. law-supported explanation, as if there could be no other source of misgiving, and invokes ‘interpretative coherence’ as an equally valid criterion. And so it is. But does Freud meet it? The argument that psychoanalytic explanation can legitimately dispense with laws was most persuasively advanced by Fritz Schmidl in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis over twenty-five years ago. Schmidl took the case of the tablecloth lady of Introductory Lecture 17 as a paradigm of the nature of psychoanalytic argumentation. The case for believing that there is a connection between her disastrous wedding night and a ritual in which she felt compelled to engage is not the production of a law linking her trauma to her symptomatology but an intuitively assessed gestalt fit between them. Her husband failed to consummate at the first attempt and kept ‘running’ from his room to hers at intervals during the night to have another go. In the morning he complained that the lack of visible evidence of defloration would disgrace him in the eyes of the bedmaker and so took a bottle of red ink, conveniently at hand, and poured some on the sheets, though in an inappropriate place. Her compulsive ritual consists in ‘running’ from her room to a room with a stained tablecloth, ringing for the maid on some pretext or other and taking care that when she comes her view of the table is unobstructed. Schmidl argues that the striking similarities between her behaviour and her husband’s justify the conclusion that the compulsion refers to the wedding night. The merits of Schmidl’s argument are, fortunately, independent of the credibility of his particular example.
Vol. 5 No. 12 · 7 July 1983
SIR: In his review of Philosophical Essays on Freud (LRB, 2 June) Frank Cioffi reacted at length to some points made rather incidentally in the course of my introduction, and then went on to treat of Freud and others. Cioffi objected to two specific remarks of mine which he quoted in part. First, that many people find the psychoanalytic contemplation of organs by which we pass things in and out of our bodies – the nipple, mouth, anus, penis and vagina – either fascinating or repulsive or both. And secondly, that understanding a theory requires knowing how to use it, and that by comparison with our natural capacity to understand one another psychologically in common-sense terms, a capacity to interpret in psychoanalytic terms is relatively rare.
Apparently not seeing that fascination can work two ways, Cioffi takes the first point as shabby apologetic. Also, he dislikes my speaking of these organs as ‘biologically significant’, and my saying that they can be used in exchange. These descriptions are, however, clearly true, even in the sort of example Cioffi later quotes, of members of a family eating one another’s excrement. Further, however much Cioffi protests, it is surely clear that many people do find such things fascinating or repulsive. (Cioffi’s own polemic, in which he asks whether I am equipped for delights denied others, speaks of Clark Glymour’s ‘infantile toilet difficulties’, and so on, suggests that he at least quite likes going on about them.) So as regards what I actually wrote, Cioffi has no genuine criticism to offer.
Again, it is clear that a capacity to interpret in psychoanalytic as opposed to common-sense terms is relatively rare. This is because psychoanalytic interpretation does not come to us naturally, but requires understanding of a theory, which in turn requires intelligent study. It is only a little less clear that genuinely understanding a theory – or indeed, the meaning of a word – requires knowing something about how to use it. Cioffi apparently objects to these plain truths because they suggest to him that some people understand psychoanalytic theory better than he does. This thought evidently annoys Cioffi, and calls forth some of his keenest invective (see, for example, his references to ‘little Hopkins and little Wollheim’ as those ‘who “know how” to use psychoanalytic theory’, and to the ‘charmed circle’ of which he is not a member). Still, such differences cannot in general be doubted. And Cioffi’s understanding of psychoanalytic theory is open to serious question.
This is shown, for example, by his rhetorical question as to whether either Wollheim or I has ever ‘asked himself what the phrase “wish-fulfilling representations” can mean when applied to depression or anxiety, the two most common neurotic symptoms’. This indicates that Cioffi is not aware of the following elementary psychoanalytic idea: that if someone has hostile wishes towards another whom he loves, and consequently forms wish-fulfilling representations in which that loved person is harmed or damaged, he may feel anxiety or depression as a result. Cioffi’s blankness on this point is particularly striking, since it was explained fairly clearly in my introduction and is illustrated repeatedly in the case which Cioffi pretends to summarise. Thus the Rat Man’s obsessive thoughts about his beloved father’s torture, which Freud tried to explain as representing the fulfilment of hostile unconscious wishes which had arisen in the past, were causes of his depression and anxiety.
The Rat Man himself, indeed, made this tolerably clear. He remembered thinking in childhood that he would like to see little girls naked, but that his father’s death might result; and a more explicitly hostile thought had come to him on the occasion of his first intercourse: ‘This is a glorious feeling! One might do anything for this – murder one’s father, for instance.’ Moreover, and directly to the point, he said explicitly and repeatedly that his thoughts about his father’s death made him depressed, guilty, and so forth. Freud supplied the interpretations in terms of Oedipal rivalry and wish-fulfilling representations: but the connection of these with depression and anxiety is explicit and obvious here, as in the case of his obsession with his father’s torture. All this and more, however, is lost on Cioffi.
Failure of understanding again seems evident in Cioffi’s remarkable claim that Freud had no need to look to the past to explain the Rat Man’s obsession with the torture, since the torture itself was ‘described to him the day before’. Here, astonishingly, Cioffi apparently fails to see that what requires explanation, and what Freud is seeking to explain, is not how the Rat Man first got the idea of torture, but rather why the idea of that torture being applied to those he loved became a disabling obsession with him. If Cioffi really thinks as he writes, he must be among the very few – a charmed circle – to have failed to see this.
Cioffi’s treatment of the case of the Rat Man illustrates another feature of his approach. Cioffi is dealing with theories based upon the interpretation of, and supported by their coherence with, a detailed and extensive surrounding context of behaviour, thought and feeling. These surroundings, of course, are not all recorded, nor could they be. But even where they are, Cioffi omits reference to them where by doing so he is likely to make Freud’s judgments look foolish. Then he claims that Freudian judgments cannot be supported by reference to contextual interpretation. Thus as Professor Peter Alexander wrote, when considering other cases in which Cioffi has complained that Freud’s judgments could not be supported by reference to the surrounding context, we find that Cioffi ‘has removed the surroundings’. (Cosin, Freeman and Freeman, in the book Cioffi was reviewing, also remark on this.) It is not easy to see how this is to be explained, as it suggests that Cioffi both understands and does not understand the importance of clinical detail. Like Freud’s censor, it seems, he understands only what to leave out.
Cioffi has written a number of articles and reviews like this one, most of them repeating the same assertions about Freud. Such claims as he has made in an academic context have been subjected to searching and disabling criticism. B.A. Farrell, no partisan of Freud, has observed that analysts would regard Cioffi’s as work as that ‘of a man who does not understand what they are doing’. The effect of Cioffi’s anti-Freudian campaign is not, I think, what he intends. His repetitive and apparently uncomprehending polemics seem a sort of lived Freudian slip, in which his own animus involuntarily demonstrates the power of Freud’s ideas – at least to obsess and enthral – more vividly than the work of any academic advocate. For reading Cioffi on Freud, especially with some knowledge of Freud, one’s attention turns to Cioffi rather than Freud. One begins to ask: how far is he willing to go to try to discredit Freud? And why? I do not know the answer to these questions, but on the evidence it does not seem to lie in the badness of Freud’s contribution to thought. Perhaps the most straightforward and scholarly treatment of Cioffi’s representation of Freud is that by V.J. Jupp in the journal Philosophy for 1977.
King’s College, London
Vol. 5 No. 14 · 4 August 1983
SIR: One would hope that James Hopkins’s straightforward and scholarly response (Letters, 7 July) to Frank Cioffi’s ill-mannered and tendentious review would put an end to the latter’s anti-Freudian campaign. Particularly telling was Hopkins’s: ‘reading Cioffi on Freud, one’s attention turns to Cioffi rather than Freud. One begins to ask: how far is he willing to go …? And why?’ Quite. No doubt Cioffi will respond with his by now tediously familiar evasive reference to ‘the argument from resistance’. Isn’t it about time he came clean about his infantile toilet difficulties.
Institute of Criminology, Sydney University Law School