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Arnold Davidson

Arnold Davidson an assistant professor of philosophy at Stanford University, is working on a study of 19th-century psychiatry and its epistemology.

The spirit in which things are said

Arnold Davidson, 20 December 1984

Since the publication of Must we mean what we say? in 1969, it has been said that Stanley Cavell’s books are unreviewable, a remark that will no doubt again be applied to his latest work. This remark has been repeated too often, by too many distinguished and distinctive philosophers, to be simply false, but neither should it be taken as flatly true. His work is explicitly meant to raise the question of what philosophical thought and writing is, and hence the question of what it is to review such thought. It is true enough that the essays in this book do not yield to standard philosophical review, which consists in the statement of an essay’s thesis with the arguments used to establish and support this thesis, and the elaboration of counter-examples intended to force a modification in the initial thesis. Cavell’s essays do not employ arguments in the service of theses designed to solve philosophical problems, and the use of counter-examples inspired by such argumentation, a dominant technique of contemporary analytical philosophy, seems irrelevant as a form of critique of his claims. Cavell’s awareness of his differences from the practices of current Anglo-American professional philosophy causes him more than once to attempt a characterisation of what he wishes philosophy to be. In the first essay of this book, in the context of addressing the claim that philosophy and film share no common border, he says that he understands philosophy as a ‘willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about, or anyway cannot help having occur to them, sometimes in fantasy, sometimes as a flash across a landscape… Such thoughts are instances of that characteristic human willingness to allow questions for itself which it cannot answer with satisfaction. Cynics about philosophy, and perhaps about humanity, will find that questions without answers are empty; dogmatists will claim to have arrived at answers; philosphers after my heart will rather wish to convey the thought that while there may be no satisfying answers to such questions in certain forms, there are, so to speak, directions to answers, ways to think, that are worth the time of your life to discover.’

Assault on Freud

Arnold Davidson, 5 July 1984

A great deal of publicity has surrounded Jeffrey Masson and his book, some good, some bad, but all of it enveloped by an atmosphere which has helped to obscure the important historical issues about the origins of psychoanalysis that his book raises. Yet Masson himself is partially responsible for submerging these issues. The rhetorical structure of his book is an extended ad hominem argument: Freud and later psychoanalysts were liars and hypocrites, lacking in courage, and therefore psychoanalytic theory is useless. It is as if Masson had rehabilitated and adapted the old argument that since Luther had notorious difficulties with his toilet habits, his Commentary on Romans is worthless.

On the Englishing of Freud

Arnold Davidson, 3 November 1983

It is difficult to know how Bruno Bettelheim would wish this book to be read. Part memoir, part popular introduction to psychoanalysis, and part scholarly interpretation and vindication of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, it raises many questions that are crucial to our understanding of Freud’s work. Bettelheim wants to undermine the scientific reading of Freud in favour of a humanistic reading. He proceeds largely by criticising the English translations of Freud’s work, especially as embodied in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. He believes that these translations are ‘seriously defective in important respects and have led to erroneous conclusions, not only about Freud the man but also about psychoanalysis’. Their overarching defect is to encourage us to read Freud’s work as if it aspired to scientific status, thus blunting, and sometimes completely covering up, its true humanistic importance. The book concentrates on correcting ‘the mistranslations of some of the most important psychoanalytic concepts’ and showing ‘how deeply humane a person Freud was, that he was a humanist in the best sense of the word.’ Even though (or precisely because) there is little agreement as to what a humanistic reading of Freud would look like, and not much more agreement about what it is to read Freud scientifically, the problem of the status of psychoanalysis remains a central one to our appropriation of Freud’s texts. Resolving this problem does not seem to me best approached through a criticism of the English translations, but even if this approach proved to be the most useful one, Freud and Man’s Soul would leave us with resolutions that are far from satisfying.

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