Psychoapologetics

Frank Cioffi

  • 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.

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