What is the reward for knowing the worst?

Donald Barthelme, Snow White

When Richard Rorty​ wrote, in one of his many familiar pragmatist pronouncements, that the only way you can tell if something is true is if it helps you get the life you want, it sounded either like a provocative assertion or another advertisement, masquerading as epistemology, for consumer capitalism. How one feels about Rorty’s eloquent, deliberate and subtle brashness depends on one’s education and sensibility, on one’s cultural preferences and prejudices, and indeed on one’s politics. There may be a significant difference between getting the life I want and getting the life ‘we’ might want, between a certain kind of possessive, acquisitive individualism and a collective political project (the phrase ‘the life I want’ also implies a stability and a degree of certainty in myself; the idea of the life I want fixes the flux of myself). And there are also, by the same token, interesting difficulties in using Rorty’s pragmatist definition of truth in relation to psychoanalysis, which in a quite different way claims to have an interest in truth and in the lives people claim that they want. Rorty’s description of truth here, read in a psychoanalytic context, couldn’t easily be squared with, say, Lacan’s goal for psychoanalytic treatment, which, in the useful words of Slavoj Žižek, clearly seeks a different version of truth. Lacan’s goal for psychoanalytic treatment, Žižek writes, ‘is not the patient’s wellbeing, successful social life or personal fulfilment, but to bring the patient to confront the elementary co-ordinates and deadlocks of his or her desire’. It doesn’t sound as though helping the patient get the life he wants is among Lacan’s priorities (and ‘deadlocks’, of course, aren’t Rorty’s thing). This can’t help but make us wonder whether, or in what sense, Freud’s psychoanalysis has got anything to do with getting the life you want; and if it doesn’t, what it might be to do with. Freud does, after all, put wishing at the centre of his theory, but only to radically temper it; as if to say, what you think you want is where the problems start. And yet wanting is what, for both psychoanalysis and American pragmatism, there is, in William James’s words, ‘to be going on from’. Both Freud’s psychoanalysis and Rorty’s pragmatism tell us, in their different ways, why wanting matters, and also that wanting has become the thing we most want to know about, as though now we are simply our wants.

It is easy to forget that all accounts of the goals of psychoanalysis are prescriptions presented as descriptions. In the guise of telling us what the goal of psychoanalysis is – what the concept of cure is, what a successful treatment entails – theorists are simply giving us their own account of what they take a good life to be and what they assume a person wants (a person who walks into an analyst’s office walks into a vocabulary, and a vocabulary is always a vocabulary of wants). Psychoanalysts, to their credit, have been more than willing to tell us what the good is that we should seek; though not quite so willing to open up their proposed goods for discussion, or indeed to suggest that their proposed goods might be experiments in living and not absolute values. For Freud, the goal is recovering the capacity to love and work, or, rather more grimly, to turn hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. For Lacan it is ‘not giving ground relative to one’s desire’; for Klein it is reaching the Depressive Position; for Winnicott it is about enabling the patient to play and to surprise themselves; for Ferenczi the patient is not cured through free association, but cured when he can free associate, and so on and on and on. All the interesting psychoanalytic theorists are telling us what, in their view, constitutes a good life. Old-fashioned psychoanalysis always had a known destination.

What the Rortyan pragmatist wants us to ask is whether and in what way, say, Lacanian psychoanalysis helps us to get the life we want, understood in terms of the good we have been encouraged to seek. It does not need us to ask whether Lacanian theory and practice is in any sense true. Pragmatism wants us to ask, what is the life we want – or think we want? Whereas psychoanalysis wants us to ask, why do we not want to know what we want? (According to Michel Serres, the only modern question is: what is it you don’t want to know about yourself?) Psychoanalysis wants us to ask – against the grain of traditional philosophy – why do we obscure the good that we seek? Pragmatism takes for granted that the good we seek is what we want and asks us how we are going to go about getting it. Indeed, pragmatism tells us that we are good at knowing what we want and good at letting our wants change. In an implicit critique of, among other things, American pragmatism, Charles Taylor, in The Ethics of Authenticity, defines his notion of a moral ideal: ‘I mean a picture of what a better or higher mode of life would be where “better” and “higher” are defined not in terms of what we happen to desire or need, but offer a standard of what we ought to desire.’ Rorty’s work always runs the risk of seeming to promote a kind of capricious, impulsive egotism.

Clearly psychoanalysis and American pragmatism are uneasy bedfellows; they fall out over the phrase ‘knowing what you want’. If you are a Kleinian, is psychoanalysis about getting the life you want, or about getting the life Melanie Klein believes you should want? Why do Lacanians want what Lacan wants for them? Clearly acculturation teaches us what to want, and how to want. And psychoanalysis, for some of us, has been part of our acculturation, as pragmatism has been for those drawn to it – though it should perhaps be noted that we come to both psychoanalysis and pragmatism quite late in the day. But to be a little clearer about all this we may, in the psychoanalytic way, have to go back to some beginnings.

If Freud’s discovery had to be summed up in a single word, Laplanche and Pontalis write in The Language of Psychoanalysis, ‘that word without doubt would have to be “unconscious”’. Freud didn’t ‘discover’ the unconscious, which had been a staple of 19th-century German philosophy and European Romanticism (the term was first used in English in 1712), but he redescribed it in what became known as psychoanalytic terms. Freud was, as it were, making the unconscious his own, formalising it to make it compatible with 19th-century science.

The unconscious described by Freud is a ‘reservoir’ (Freud’s word) of representations of instinctual life and a form of thinking that finds its most vivid exemplar and illustration in dreams. ‘The psyche,’ Laplanche and Pontalis continue,

cannot be reduced to the conscious domain and certain contents can only become accessible to consciousness once resistances have been overcome; [Freud] revealed that mental life is full of ‘active yet unconscious ideas’ and that ‘symptoms proceed from such ideas’ … [these contents] are instinctual representatives … governed by the mechanisms specific to the primary process, especially by condensation and displacement.

In this account the Freudian unconscious is at odds with consciousness and not easily accessible; the representations of instinctual life it is said to contain and sustain are disturbing and threaten the individual’s hard-won equilibrium. These active yet unconscious ideas issue in symptoms, dreams, so-called Freudian slips, and in many other disruptions of consciousness (in this story composure is a decoy). The unconscious as described by Freud is our most intimate foreign body and our most alternative way of thinking. Freud wants to stress above all its antagonistic and antagonising difference from consciousness. It is, among other things, a way of describing the enigmatic creatureliness that precedes and accompanies our acculturation, and which, in this story, requires acculturation to make it viable. For which the end point, to use one of Freud’s most famous titles, is civilisation and its discontents; our adaptation to what Freud calls ‘civilisation’ comes at considerable cost, our frustration often exceeding our satisfaction, our desire being in excess of any object’s capacity to satisfy it.

Freud’s unconscious refers to our fundamental unknownness to ourselves; to the bodily desire that drives our development; so in Freud’s story we are not suffering from original sin, but from original frustration. This biologically based unconscious is an enigmatic and insistent presence and pressure in ourselves, and in our lives. In Freud’s view, we are instinct driven but object anchored; formed and founded by innate appetites, but dependent on a facilitating environment – first the mother, then the parents and the wider culture – to make our biological inheritance work for us. But the unconscious, in Freud’s words in ‘The Ego and the Id’, ‘runs its course wholly within the context of material of which the subject remains unaware’. Its course is different from what we presume our course to be, and is something of which we are mostly unaware. Not a ghost in the machine, but a demonic force, our hidden truth, the drama going on behind the scenes. ‘Despite the controversial nature of this concept,’ the analyst Guy Thompson writes, ‘there is a pervasive agreement among analysts that whatever the unconscious is it is certainly not a form of consciousness.’ And that means that the Freudian unconscious should not be imagined as similar to, or comparable to, or even like what we call consciousness; it should be imagined as a new and strange kind of essence, or way of thinking; Freud, and psychoanalysts after him, would suggest that we are essentially unconscious creatures; all or most essentialisms, we must remember in this context, being the target of pragmatic critique. In the pragmatic story, essences are there to pre-empt the future by limiting possibilities.

‘What is novel in Freud’s view of the unconscious,’ Rorty writes in ‘Freud and Moral Reflection’, ‘is his claim that our unconscious selves are not dumb, sullen, lurching brutes, but rather the intellectual peers of our conscious selves, possible conversation partners for those selves.’ The unconscious is not, in Rorty’s provocative and unlikely account, simply formative, or disturbing, or undermining, or unknowable, or radically impersonal, or terrorising. The unconscious is sociable, even convivial. ‘The good news,’ Joseph Smith and William Kerrigan write in their commentary on Rorty’s essay, ‘is that what goes on out of awareness can also be one’s ally.’ The ‘also’ here is doing all the work. Whether or not there is something novel in Freud’s view of the unconscious, Rorty’s view of Freud’s view of the unconscious is certainly novel. Rorty speaks of ‘unconscious selves’, which Freud never does, not needing the idea of a self or selves. Rorty does not speak of unrelenting and often violent conflict, and he refers to these putative unconscious selves as ‘the intellectual peers of our conscious selves’; as though far from being crude, or primitive, or instinctual – all words Freud uses of the unconscious drives and their representations – these unconscious selves are remarkably sophisticated. Or rather, where Freud describes the unconscious as a different, alien, unlearned, instinct-driven form of thinking, Rorty describes the unconscious – what he calls in that significant sleight of hand ‘unconscious selves’ – as potentially good company, a group of selves more than able to keep our best interests in mind. These unconscious selves are not, seemingly by definition, a threat. The intrinsic and often violent, persistent conflict between consciousness and unconsciousness that Freud insists on seems to be in abeyance for Rorty, almost beside the point (for Rorty anything that distracts us from our purposes is beside the point). Where Freud has the agonistic, Rorty has the sociable. Where Freud senses trouble, Rorty finds hope and help. Where Freud talks of alienated divided subjects, Rorty talks of good company.

Promoting, as he says elsewhere, ‘speaking differently’ rather than ‘arguing well’ – the wish to improvise overriding the wish to prove or persuade – it is integral to Rorty’s pragmatic project that in reading and interpreting a text one is not trying to get something right so much as finding a way to use the text to realise and further and enhance and enliven one’s own purposes (‘the slogan “let’s get it right,”’ he writes, ‘needs to be replaced by something like “let’s try something different”’). So Rorty is doing with Freud exactly what he says he (and we) should be doing – he is shaping Freud to his own purposes; he is not clarifying or critiquing Freud; he is, in his best sense, using him. He is making the Freud he needs and wants, recruiting Freud as an ally for his vision of pragmatism. Rorty, that is to say, explicitly embraces Harold Bloom’s ideas about the creative misreading of texts, as he creatively misreads Freud’s texts for his own purposes. He is explicit that reading is ‘a matter of reinterpreting the past so as to make it more suitable for one’s own purposes’.

This is and is not an account of psychoanalytic treatment: when Freud says that an interpretation in analysis can be inaccurate but sufficient, he may be intimating something similar to Rorty, that the past is there to be usefully but not necessarily accurately reconstructed. But Freud does not describe the past as a tool we can use. It is the potential our pasts have to make, or inform, or determine a future – and, indeed, to sabotage a future – that is of significance (Freud uses the past as a kind of prediction). It’s only worth having a past if you’ve got a future. Both Freud and Rorty want the past – the personal and the cultural past – to be our best resource for making a future; it is the past as potential kidnapper of the present and the future that alarms them, and sets them to work. And in their secular and post-religious world – and in the light of two catastrophic world wars – it is only what Freud calls our instincts and Rorty calls our purposes that are going to make our lives worth living.

For Freud what gets us and keeps us going are our desires, for Rorty it is our purposes, two very different things; our purposes made up by us, our desires not quite, or not only made up by us. Once again endorsing Bloom as an ally and accomplice, Rorty tells us that ‘the point of reading a great many books is to become aware of a great number of alternative purposes, and the point of that is to become an autonomous self.’ Alternative purposes because we need to see what’s on offer, what’s available to us to transform. And for Freud the existence, let alone the ideal, of an ‘autonomous self’ was precisely what psychoanalysis put into question; the ego, Freud writes, is not the master in his own house: autonomy is a wishful fiction, our self-cure for our helplessness, our abjection and our drivenness and our dependence. Purposes, as I say, could only be for Freud derivatives and sublimations of instinctual drives, attempts at gratification and safety, our paramount and essential considerations. Freud, as Rorty knows, redescribed our ideas about autonomy and the self in ways that virtually discredited them as useful fictions; Rorty took them for granted and promoted them, in, his critics would say, ‘the American way’. It has not escaped anyone’s attention that Rorty’s ‘autonomous self’ committed to liberal democracy and the segregation of private and public lives can sound like an ambitious patriotic capitalist in a supermarket. So looking at Freud and Rorty together involves us in, among other things, wondering what (if anything) the idea of autonomy might mean.

Or to put it the pragmatic way, what is the idea of autonomy useful for (useful for voting, say, but not that useful for falling in love, or writing poems)? And so it needs to be stressed at the outset that Freud is notably reticent about politics in his writing, providing no sanction or preference for any kind of collective political action, whereas it is integral to the determined practicality of Rorty’s pragmatism that it is political all the way down. Rorty as a self-confessed patriot wrote a book called Achieving Our Country; Freud wrote a book called Civilisation and Its Discontents. When Rorty co-opts Freud’s unconscious it sounds at once promising, intriguing, somehow inspiring, and possibly rather misleading.

Indeed, Rorty’s redescription of Freud’s unconscious makes it sound, in his blithe and exhilarating way, rather like one of Bloom’s ‘strong poets’, using what’s there to go its own way (the strong poet, Bloom writes in The Anxiety of Influence, ‘appropriates’). And Bloom’s strong poet seems to be the ultimately autonomous figure, knowing what he wants and having the wherewithal to get it. What Bloom calls the strong poet exploits the texts of previous poets to his own advantage, using earlier poets (‘precursors’) in the pragmatic way, to facilitate his own vision, for his own purposes. That is what precursors, traditions, other people are there for, to exploit as material for making unpredictable and unpredicted futures. Commenting on Bloom’s idea of ‘strong misreading’, Rorty suggests that

the critic asks neither the author nor the text about their intentions, but simply beats the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose. He makes the text refer to whatever is relevant to that purpose … the strong misreader, like Foucault or Bloom, prides himself on the same thing, on being able to get more out of the text than its author or its intended audience could possibly have found there.

It is always worth wondering in any ‘reading’ where the censorship is, what it’s thought necessary to remove, or punish, or correct. And Bloom’s notion of creative misreading helps us with this, suggesting as it does that our reading can only be in the service of our purposes and projects; with a view to getting more from a text than it, or anyone else, intends or recognises. In this sense the text, for Bloom or Rorty, is a source to be mined. The only criterion for the interpretation of a text is whether it has been usefully used by the interpreter for his or her own purposes. Does it further and enhance what I assume I want?

Rorty is clearly determined, in his upbeat way, to dispel the picture of the Freudian unconscious as violent, driven and conflicted; Rorty’s Freudian unconscious is not what he calls a dumb, sullen, lurching brute. It is not, as Freud would go to great lengths to show, originally pre-linguistic, overwhelmingly desirous and so resentfully frustrated and enraged (in the definition of ‘brute’ in Chambers Dictionary, we have ‘irrational, stupid, rude, crude’). Indeed, Rorty is determined to dispel the picture of the Freudian unconscious as some bewildering ‘primitive’ force driving us through our lives. A predatory voraciousness is replaced by what might be a visionary company; exploitation is made a virtue; an enemy is replaced by a potential friend; where there was only antagonism – with ourselves and others – now there can be agency, co-operation and even fellow feeling. Freud, as we know all too well, was not a fan of optimism, facile or otherwise. Rorty thinks our optimism may be one of the most promising things about us, or at any rate about his fellow Americans.

What​ Freud insistently referred to as a ‘seething cauldron’, the Freudian unconscious, refers to the part of ourselves that is deemed a fundamental threat to the person we would like to be and would like to be seen to be. The unconscious in the Freudian story is the uneducated part of ourselves; and psychoanalysis sets out to show us in what sense, if any, we can be acculturated, educable creatures; and what the cost is to ourselves of being educable (we could say that psychoanalysis begins where education breaks down). Freud’s question is what, if anything, can we do with our instincts? And then, what are our instincts doing to, and with, us? Rorty’s rather different question is, what do we want to make of ourselves? In Freud, the material we have to work with, our instincts, is a biological foundation, later shaped and informed by cultural norms; in Rorty, the only things we have to work with in making something of ourselves are pre-existing cultural artefacts we happen to inherit or come across (we write the sentences we write because of the sentences we have read; we work with the cultural descriptions we happen to have encountered). Rorty assumes we are by nature, or at our best, sociable and collaborative creatures; Freud shows us what our sociability is up against, what our sociability is sabotaged or waylaid by, how our sociability can dispirit us. Freud describes us ironically as guiding the horse in the direction the horse wants to go; Rorty wants us to wonder what better alternative descriptions might there be? If the horse idea doesn’t work we must find a different and better description, a new more useful vocabulary (is riding a horse the best description of what our life is like, or of what we want it to be like? Why is it one horse and not a group of riders?). We must, Rorty suggests, find or invent the vocabulary to do what we want, the vocabulary that helps us formulate and get what we want. Freud, working in the tradition of Darwinian biology, is telling us – albeit tentatively and sceptically – who we really are. Rorty suggests, in an essay with the unlovely but interesting title ‘Philosophy as a Transitional Genre’, that we need a ‘desirable replacement of bad questions like “what is being?”, “what is really real?” and “what is man?”, with the sensible question, “does anybody have any new ideas about what we human beings might manage to make of ourselves?”’

Rorty makes clear that replacing bad questions with what he calls ‘sensible questions’ is something that any of us might do. Indeed it is part of his project to promote the self-making that might issue in someone finding their own questions, sensible or not. (Sensible here means more broadly of interest and intelligible to more people; or simply, useful and usable.) What matters, Rorty writes, is ‘what one thinks important or interesting. There is not now, and there never will be, a method for settling disputes about what is interesting and important.’ Psychoanalysis, at its best, is a method for enabling a person to find and refind what is important and interesting to them (though psychoanalysis always already knows what is interesting and important to everybody). You can only be a Rortyan pragmatist if you know what is important or interesting to you, or rather, whether you are willing to find out. Education – like psychoanalysis – should be in the service of helping people find what is interesting and important to them, without intimidation. Freud is there for Rorty, and for us, describing our essence – our purposes and desires; the satisfactions we seek, and the satisfactions we evade – in sentences that we can refashion according to what we want to do with them. If we become Freudians, we have, Rorty intimates, betrayed ourselves, handed ourselves over to the authorities.

To attend to this issue, the issue of getting the life we want, and so also the issue of whether Freud’s psychoanalysis and Rorty’s pragmatism are mutually clarifying – antagonists that might enable one another and get us what we want – we need to ask, how do we get from Freud’s seething cauldron of instinctual life to Rorty’s good conversational partner that feeds us our best lines? How do we get from the unconscious as our great elemental and contentious opponent to Rorty’s rather more genial and inspiring collaborative double act; how do we get from what Laplanche calls ‘the attack of the drives on the ego’ to what Rorty calls ‘a plurality of sets of beliefs and desires’ that is his preferred account of the Freudian unconscious? How do we, in short, get from a persecutory, or at least disturbing, unconscious to a collaborative one? And the answer is very simple if you are a Rortyan pragmatist: you get there simply by redescription. If a description doesn’t suit you – doesn’t enhance your purposes, get you the life you think you want or actually sabotages the life you want – you come up with a better one (there isn’t an old-style Freudian unconscious here making things difficult). This assumes – or prefers the description of – language as a toolkit (to use Wittgenstein’s famous analogy) rather than a bully, or a saboteur, or a dictator, or a seducer. You redescribe the Freudian unconscious in a way better suited to your purposes, to the life you want. For Rorty this means pursuing the project of liberal democracy, which involves, in his view, creating the conditions for the most inclusive conversation possible that will further and proliferate our purposes and increase our sense of autonomy, our sense of ourselves as self-fashioning, collaborative creatures, and not the victims of impersonal forces, religions or political regimes. From Rorty’s point of view, we can have both Freud’s account of the unconscious and Rorty’s version of Freud’s account, using each as it suits us. From Freud’s point of view we can’t.

For Rorty all essences, even the unconscious itself, are what he calls ‘God terms’. He treats as versions of bad faith the myriad ways in which we delegate and outsource our purposes, imagination and intelligence to something beyond ourselves – this appeal to non-human authorities being a way of rhetorically enforcing and shoring up and delegating our wants and beliefs and opinions. Rorty thinks that the only resources we have are one another and there can be no appeal to anything higher, or impersonal, or to anything beyond us or within us. ‘Even if a non-human authority tells you something,’ he writes, ‘the only way to figure out whether what you have been told is true is to see whether it gets you the sort of life you want.’ We need to increase the range and scope of our conversations in order to find out what sort of life we want and how to get it (when we treat people, Rorty writes, as ‘irredeemably crazy, stupid, base or sinful’ we fail to see these people as ‘possible conversation partners’; so Rorty encourages us to notice our temptation to invalidate or discredit others). This positions Rorty as, among many other things, the heir of the psychoanalytically informed anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Rorty’s often stated wish for the most inclusive cultural conversation possible – one of the founding tenets of modern democracy – prevents the racism and sexism that redescription might seem sometimes to favour (if anything can be redescribed anything can be justified). For Rorty, ‘an accurate report of experience is a matter of what a community will let you get away with.’ An accurate report of experience has in this view nothing to do with reality, or objective truth, or with truth at all; it is something consensually confirmed, or just about allowed, by the group you live in, your community. And of course, in Rortyan terms, we can always aim to change the taste of our community by a change of vocabulary; a change of vocabulary entailing a change of purpose. The question is, how to change the criteria of acceptability of a community? What makes vocabularies evolve?

We should remember in all this talk about conversation that Freud gave us a new version of a conversation partner, a psychoanalyst, and indeed a new version of conversation, psychoanalytic treatment. Rorty, as we can see, has in his own terms beaten the Freudian texts into a shape that will serve his purposes. If you beat a person into shape you are bullying them; if you beat metal into shape you are making something. Is Rorty’s pragmatism coercive or inspired and inspiring? Are these two things sometimes inextricable? Is Bloom’s strong poet a kind of bully, forcing and foisting a new vocabulary on us? Is triumphalism the aim or the lurking problem? For both Bloom and Rorty, Freud is a version of the strong poet and his description of the unconscious is one of his powerful enabling modern fictions. Freud provides at least some of us with an irresistible vocabulary, a picture of ourselves that we are bewitched by. And it is in this vocabulary that Freud wonders how we might live as desiring creatures who don’t want to know what we want. Rorty wonders more simply – and his ordinary language and straightforwardness are of a piece with his commitments – how we might speak and write in a way that will get us lives we want and can value, assuming, unlike Freud, that wanting is something we can do more or less well. So Rorty can also ask of Freud and his followers, does the language game, the profession of psychoanalysis, help them get the life they want; and we can add, what are the good reasons they have for wanting this form of life? How does including the unconscious or Freud’s account of sexuality or the Oedipus Complex in your image of yourself make your life better – and better in what sense? Any idea of the life we want is inextricable from the question of who it is we want to be judged by.

There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves.

Richard Rorty, ‘Consequences of Pragmatism’

The deep down​ inside us which we have put there ourselves is language, our life lived in language. And that means, if we are not religious, that we have ourselves put the authorities deep down inside us. With the invention of the psychoanalyst, Freud was inventing a new kind of authority, a new kind of judge, a new kind of conversation partner whom Lacan called ‘the subject who is supposed to know’. The subject of psychoanalysis, considered through the patient’s transference to the analyst, is how and why the patient treats the analyst – and by implication anyone else – as an authority with a view to understanding the way his life would be better, more his own, if he stopped doing this, or did it differently, or less fixedly. For the Rortyan pragmatist the only authority worth having is the authority that inspires you to do your own thing. Which means that the only authority worth having is one that requires neither compliance, nor submission, nor discipleship; and that therefore doesn’t require intimidation (one of the central and informing paradoxes of psychoanalysis is that Freud invented a treatment that had the potential to dissolve the desire for discipleship – the desire to be controlled – while himself intently creating disciples). Rortyan pragmatists seem to have rather laid-back Freudian superegos, and manipulable and co-operative ids. So to be a follower of pragmatism is quite different from being a follower of psychoanalysis. Becoming a pragmatist tells you nothing about what you will then become. Becoming a psychoanalyst can tell you too much about what you will and won’t become (and indeed about why you became a psychoanalyst in the first place). Put together, that is to say, pragmatism and psychoanalysis, in the best sense, can expose and renew each other.

Freud, of course, implies that we change ourselves by redescribing ourselves. And yet it is clear that what Rorty calls redescription Freud might call, at least sometimes, omniscient, wishful denial of reality; pragmatic redescription as secular alchemy. Freud is keen to show us how adept we are at disguising our suffering from ourselves, sometimes, for example, by transforming suffering into pleasure, redescribing it to ourselves as pleasure (what Freud called masochism); and keen to show us that redescription might be another word for defensiveness. Indeed it would be possible to redescribe most suffering as the thing that doesn’t suit our purposes, or get us the life we want. This, one might say, would be the Freudian ironisation of Rorty’s necessary idea of redescription. So both Rorty and Freud privilege wishing, but in opposite ways; Rorty wants us to take our wishes seriously and see if we can find a way of putting at least some of them into practice; Freud wants us to treat our wishes as wishful. For Freud, being able to tell the difference between wish and reality is the fundamental developmental achievement; Rorty warns us that this too-assured distinction between wish and reality can sometimes be overly omniscient and impoverishing, unduly limiting of possibility (Rorty would again be sceptical of Freud’s knowing what reality really was). The question for Rorty is, are our wishes useful for getting the lives we want? Freud’s sense is that wishing – though it can be a way of formulating unconscious desire – is above all a refuge from reality and the potential tyranny of the internal and external worlds, and therefore often debilitating. Indeed, we might think of Rorty’s pragmatism as a kind of tribute to wishing; whenever we wish we are describing the life we want.

In his critique of liberalism – and implicitly of liberalisms somewhat akin to Rorty’s – John Gray writes in his New Leviathans that ‘the hyper-liberal project is to emancipate human beings from identities that have been inherited from the past. Human beings must be free to make of themselves whatever they wish … Stripped of these contingencies, they can be whatever they wish.’ Rorty’s vision is by definition individualistic; it is not about needing to make other people into what you want to make of yourself. And yet Gray’s point tempers, if it needs tempering, Rorty’s enthusiasm. For Gray, not unlike Freud, the intractable nature of trans-generational histories, and the identities they have produced, is the salient fact about human beings. Indeed Gray’s critique of people believing they can be whatever they wish – and so make other people what they want them to be – is informed by the attempts of 20th-century fascists and communists to create new men and women; it is the unrelenting cruelty of these projects that Gray wants us to remember as we celebrate and embrace the liberalisms on offer and their inviting freedoms. Gray is warning us away from idealising our all too conscious projects for ourselves and others. It is clearly as misleading to idealise consciousness as to idealise the unconscious.

For Freud, ‘the life you want’ would be something you are by definition unconscious of – you have worked very hard not to know what the life you want is – while the life you claim to want could only be wishful and transgressive. The life you want is a disguised formulation of unconscious desire; the life you want needs to be interpreted – contained by psychoanalytic redescription – before it is pursued. And in describing the life you want you may be merely the ventriloquist’s dummy of your culture. Describing the life we want can sometimes be the most compliant – i.e. defensive – thing we ever do.

But of course, if we take Rorty’s pragmatic approach, we can ask: what was the material Freud was beating into shape? What were Freud’s purposes and wishes in the invention of psychoanalysis, in the ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, in the privileging of sexuality – and in what sense did psychoanalysis get Freud what he wanted, and get the psychoanalysts that followed him what they wanted? How could this thing they wanted be described? Rorty’s useful pragmatic question is, does whatever you are doing help you get the life you want? And if not, why are you doing it? To which Freud, and the psychoanalysts after him, would stress that we are by definition mostly unconscious of what we want (so having psychoanalysis may be the precondition for being a good pragmatist). And not only are we unconscious of what we want and plagued by wishfulness, but that there is a powerful force inside us, which Freud would eventually call the Death Instinct, that both wants us not to want, and that wants us to harm ourselves and others; that wants the life we don’t want.

Freudian psychoanalysis can make Rorty’s pragmatism sound naively wishful, implausible and unduly optimistic; what Freud would have called a flight from reality (and Rorty of course would have been the first to point out that there was no way that Freud, or anyone else, could possibly know what reality is and therefore whether anybody was fleeing from it). From a Freudian point of view, Rorty’s pragmatism might cover, and cover up, a multitude of sins (pragmatism as the self-cure for unconsciousness). But Rorty’s pragmatism can also make Freud’s psychoanalysis sound restrictively, omnisciently essentialist, telling us what a person is rather than what a person could be. Freud is wary of undue optimism because he is obsessed by determinism, and essentially the determinism of the past, and of course biological determinism; Rorty is obsessed by determinism as bad faith (because essentialist) – as flight from possibility and potential – and much more interested in future possibility than past trauma, in individual choice and preference, not any kind of determinism, however scientifically sanctioned and endorsed, and proven.

But Rorty and Freud both believe that it is only through conversation that we have a chance of getting the life we want, however wrong we may be, or turn out to be, about what we think we want; and indeed psychoanalysis is a conversation in which someone might be able to find out, or at least explore and experiment with what they might want. And in that ironic or paradoxical sense, as I say, psychoanalytic treatment might help people become better Rortyan pragmatists, more conscious of the life they want and the conflicts it might entail; psychoanalysis as the necessary preparation for strong pragmatism: while a pragmatic psychoanalysis might sometimes seem a contradiction in terms. Freud, of course, believes he knows what the most useful conversation is to understand our wanting – psychoanalytic conversation – and that we are going to work very hard to not know what we want, and we need to know how we go about doing this (what will be called the analysis of defences); Rorty believes you can’t always know beforehand what will turn out to be the most useful conversation, and that nobody is ever in a position to tell us what we really want; other, that is, than ourselves, and those others we have recognised and chosen as helpful and inspiring. Indeed, Rorty encourages us to drop the word ‘really’ altogether.

Both​ Rorty and Freud, as modern secular people, want us to be curious about our uses of authority, what we use authority to become and to stop ourselves becoming. Whatever else they are, pragmatism and psychoanalysis are both descriptions and explanations of the way we use authority and what we use it to do. Freud we need to remember was a doctor and a writer; Rorty was a teacher (of philosophy and literature) and a writer. And yet, for both of them, in quite different ways, wanting is the heart of the matter. In Freud’s account of so-called human nature, people can and are always trying to get the lives they want – or think they want – but they are divided against themselves, frightened of the lives they want and trying very hard not to find out what they really want, trying hard to get the lives they want and trying hard not to. For Rorty nothing else is worth doing but trying to get the life we want. Rorty’s own essentialism permits something without predicting anything; Freud’s essentialisms – as essences are supposed to – predict a great deal. Rorty’s pragmatism encourages what John Stuart Mill called ‘experiments in living’; Freud might be all too conscious of the limits, the wishfulness of such projects.

Both Freud and Rorty were wondering what the phrase ‘the life you want’ could possibly mean at a time when it was beginning to become possible to think about your life as something you could want and not want. Life, for more and more people, could increasingly be chosen, rather than assigned, wanted rather than endured, and people themselves could be understood as seemingly the only animals that might, at least occasionally, think of themselves, or describe themselves, as choosing their lives; of knowing and describing what they want as opposed to just wanting. Choosing a life, and knowing who we are and what to do, is something you can only do in language.

If you are not religious, Freud and Rorty both implicitly ask, what keeps you going? What makes you think your life is worth the frustration and disappointment and dismay and injustice that modern lives entail? Or to put it another way, what good reasons, or justifications, or explanations do we have for our suffering in a secular world (the fact that there can be such intense pleasures in life can make their absence unbearable). For Rorty, we need to come up with good sustaining purposes with as many good conversational partners as we can find; for Freud, whom no one can accuse of being upbeat, we have to see what we can do with our instinctual life to make it sufficiently satisfying and therefore sustaining, while observing what our inevitable frustration turns us into.

Psychoanalysis without pragmatism, one might say, becomes another pre-emptive coercive moralism, telling us in no uncertain terms who we are and therefore of what we are capable. And like all too definitive accounts of so-called human nature it implies and presumes an appropriate morality and normality to manage this putative human nature. By privileging the past over the future, determinism over freedom (not a psychoanalytic term) and unconscious causality over choice, it radically circumscribes human possibility. But Rorty’s pragmatism without psychoanalysis can sound wilfully naive about the difficulties, the conflicts of wanting; it has no compelling account of what wanting may be up against, of the very real difficulties of wanting (the torment of conflicting desires is not something one associates with Rorty’s writing). With no obvious need for the Freudian unconscious it tends to idealise both autonomy and the self; to privilege our capacity for making choices over whatever it is about ourselves that we are unaware of. It privileges experiments in living over the need for safety. Psychoanalysis with pragmatism, and pragmatism with psychoanalysis, however, seem unusually promising for helping you get the life you want. Unless, of course, there is something you want more than the life you want.

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Vol. 46 No. 14 · 18 July 2024

Adam Phillips notes that the word ‘unconscious’ was first used in English in 1712 (LRB, 20 June). Not quite true: a translation from the Latin of Thomas Hobbes used it in 1678. But as the noun ‘the unconscious’ it appeared first in 1818, the author being Samuel Taylor Coleridge, making notes for a lecture on 10 March: ‘As in every work of Art the Conscious – is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it.’

John Worthen
Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany

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