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.

Virginia Woolf, who came to read Freud’s account of the tablecloth compulsion because she was involved in publishing the English translation, commented: ‘We could all go on like this for hours, and yet these Germans think it proves something beside their own gull-like imbecility.’ Freud’s dealings with the tablecloth lady also raise an issue which often arises in connection with his more plausible explanations: whether he succeeds in establishing a connection between the facts or between the constituents of his tendentiously worded account of the facts. One of the points of resemblance between the compulsion and the wedding night is that just as her husband ran from his room to hers, so she runs from her room to the one with the stained tablecloth: but what were honeymooners doing sleeping in separate rooms? I have never known anyone professedly familiar with Freud’s account who was not surprised at having this question raised. And though there may be a quite innocent explanation, and the practice of segregating honeymooners may prove to be as hallowed a local custom as Wienerschnitzel or the waltz, such sequaciousness, nevertheless, argues for the special status of Freud in our culture and gives us ground for maintaining that the bulk of Freudian exegesis is still at the stage of Biblical studies before Tubingen.

Putting doubts of this kind aside, can we depend on Freud’s sense of coherence? Unlike the chap on Margate Sands, Freud can connect anything with anything. This is Freud’s explanation of why a young girl had to place all the clocks in her room, including her wrist-watch, out of earshot before she could go to sleep: ‘The ticking of a clock is comparable to the throbbing of the clitoris in sexual excitation.’ I have never known a woman who has not found this risible. And though Freud was a man of many parts a clitoris was not among them. Why should we trust his mystery when his clarity is absurd (though his equation of clocks and female genitals sheds a gynophobic light on Captain Hook’s terror – a ticking clitoris disguised as a pursuing crocodile)?

It was Freud’s sense of the coherence of his patients’ behaviour in the psychoanalytic hour with his reconstructions of their infantile mental lives which led to the seduction error. When he said that he made the seduction error through crediting his patients’ non-veridical stories of having been seduced, he wasn’t telling the truth. If we set side by side the accounts Freud gave throughout his career of the basis for his convictions as to the correctness of his reconstructions, we find it impossible to distinguish those which he gave in the original seduction papers from those which he gave thereafter. It was precisely this continuity between his pre-seduction and his post-seduction procedures which Freud’s later distorted accounts of the seduction episode are at such pains to obscure. (Anyone eager for an opportunity to refute this slander can seize it between dinner and bedtime by reading pages 148-54, 156-61 and 183-219 of Collected Papers, Volume One.)

In addition to their own assurances that all is well, the editors have delegated this task to two other contributions–Clark Glymour’s ‘Freud, Kepler and the Clinical Evidence’ and Cosin, Cosin and Freeman’s ‘Critical Empiricism Criticised’. Since its publication in 1974, Glymour’s paper has often been invoked to support the thesis that Freud was a bona fide investigator, always on the look-out for data which might cause him to revise his views as to the infantile sources of psychopathology, or that he was employing ‘a testing strategy’. Glymour argues that Freud was compelled to acknowledge the pathogenicity of infantile sexual fantasy and the dispensability of parental intimidation by the facts in the case-history of the Rat Man. Glymour is wrong on all three counts. Freud did not begin the analysis of the Rat Man committed to any specific infantile sexual history for such conditions. And if he had, the case of the Rat Man could not have compelled him to abandon this commitment. And if he had met apparent falsification by invoking infantile fantasies, this would not have indicated the use of ‘a testing strategy’.

In suggesting that the Rat Man had been punished by his father for masturbating, Freud was not evincing his prior commitment to a law. He was only repeating the Rat Man’s story of a beating, adding the suggestion that it had been for a sexual offence. The passage Glymour quotes, to the effect that Freud anticipated the beating episode was doctored (or whatever euphemism Freudians prefer) after Freud discovered that the Rat Man had been beaten as a child. Freud’s original account contains no allusion to a castigation suffered by the Rat Man, which was then confirmed by family tradition, thus furnishing proof of Freud’s uncanny prescience. Freud merely conjectures – erroneously, as it turns out – that the Rat Man had been warned as to his masturbatory practices and ‘perhaps’ threatened with castration.

The germ from which Glymour’s argument seems to have grown is the footnote in the case-history of the Rat Man in which Freud records his disappointment at learning that the offence for which the Rat Man was beaten was not sexual. Glymour argues that this left Freud with no choice but to add sexual fantasies to sexual traumas as pathogenic agents. But this is because he mistakenly credits Freud’s statement that this was the only occasion on which the Rat Man was beaten Freud forgot that the Rat Man was beaten on another occasion for what he considered a sexual activity, bed-wetting. In his rambling résumé of the Rat Man case Hopkins shows himself aware of the facts which undermine Glymour’s argument, but in an admirable display of solidarity forbears to call attention to them.

Glymour’s own infantile toilet difficulties make an appearance in his paper when he erroneously states that the victim of the rat torture is seated, i.e. in the posture used for defecating (in the text he is laid on his stomach). Since editors so assiduous fail to notice this, we can infer that little Wollheim and little Hopkins must have had similar difficulties – ‘we’ who ‘know how to use psychoanalytic theory’, that is.

Finally, even if Freud had had good reason for thinking that the Rat Man had never been sexually intimidated, Freud’s falling back on infantile fantasies as pathogenic factors would not have amounted to ‘a testing strategy’.

The three authors of ‘Critical Empiricism Criticised’ set out to demonstrate the genuinely scientific status of Freud’s theory, Popperian-inspired attacks notwithstanding. If being a constituent of a theory is a status, like diplomatic immunity, which exempts propositions which possess it from penalties they would otherwise suffer as mere hypotheses, it is important to know what confers such status. What makes Freud’s claim that the little boy’s sight of a female vulva is the greatest trauma of his infantile life a constituent of a larger theory? If Freud had not maintained those developmental claims which we are accustomed to consider psychoanalytic, could we derive them from the rest of ‘psychoanalytic theory’? Is not the class of psychoanalytic developmental claims constituted biographically? The objection that Freud issued what, in the light of his concepts and methods, were spurious and unwarranted claims to have confirmed his theories is not to be met by mystifications as to the bearing of observation on theory. Though the question, ‘Are there any observations which would cause you to regard your theory as falsified?’ need not be answered affirmatively by someone who merely holds the theory in question, it must be so answered, independently of what we think of Popper’s falsificationist solution to the demarcation problem, by someone who claims to have confirmed it. When Freud insisted that his speculations about infantile life had been confirmed ‘in every detail by direct observation upon children’ he was perjuring himself.

Any empiricist who has managed to escape the reign of terror must wonder in his retrograde, unregenerate way how the development of a theory is possible if it doesn’t entail observations. Cosin et al. maintain that mistaken psychoanalytic views have been replaced by more adequate ones. I know of no impersonally-resolved theoretical disputes within the larger psychoanalytic community. ‘Some say they are of Paul, others of Apollos or Cephas.’ H.J. Home has testified to ‘the tendency of discussion to run into an impasse, as for example when Kleinian comment sharply questioned the phallic interpretation of clinical material which it felt patently referred to the breast. No one has suggested a method of deciding such issues either way and so it presumably remains an open question like the pronunciation of tomato.’ Their one example of an advance while remaining within the confines of psychoanalytic methodology is the supercession of Freud’s view of female sexuality. How is it that this theory has less power to assimilate apparent discrepant observations than Freud’s other developmental claims? We can’t help but notice that it is just those of Freud’s views which have become ideologically uncongenial which mysteriously lose their immunity to falsification.

Another device by which the authors attempt to meet objections to Freud is through a glib and unthinking antithesis between ‘a faulty scientific theory and the faulty practice of individual scientists’. To see why this argument does not work consider a case where it would: Rex Mottram, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, wants to marry a Catholic girl and is receiving instruction to that end. His Jesuit instructor, who suspects his good faith, relates the following exchange:

I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope saw a cloud and said “It’s going to rain,” would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought for a moment and said, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’

It isn’t clear which immunising tactic Rex Mottram was employing – whether he was saying, ‘When the Pope says it will rain, it rains; the reports that it didn’t are erroneous,’ which is equivalent to Freud’s argument from resistance, or ‘When the Pope says it will rain, it rains in an extended sense of rainfall which captures the essence of the original in a way in which the idea that it didn’t rain because it didn’t vulgarly rain doesn’t,’ which is equivalent to Freud’s extension of the notion of libido. But had Mottram unequivocally asserted that it rained, and that reports that it hadn’t were erroneous, we would then have a case where it would be appropriate to remonstrate with someone who inferred a formal deficiency in rainfall statements because they were open to the defence employed by Rex Mottram as Cosin et al. attempt to deal with criticisms of psychoanalysis by distinguishing between a faulty practice and a faulty theory.

The situation with Freud’s libido theory is very different. The response of practitioners to apparent falsifications tells us what the content of the theory is – tells us what is meant by libido, narcissism, infantile sexuality, etc, etc. The relevant antithesis is not between the theory and the malpractice of individual practitioners but between the malpractices of individual practitioners and the responsible practices of those analysts on whose certification the warrantability of the theory rests.

Now where are these responsible endorsers of the theory to be found? Are there analysts whose standards of coherence are less fanciful than Freud’s and who, nevertheless, have produced Freudian narratives which render a patient’s symptomatology and character structure intelligible, and which reach standards not matched by their non-Freudian rivals? And does absent-mindedness account for the failure to say where these narratives are to be found?

Adam Morton locates the novelty of Freud’s contribution to ‘vernacular psychology’ in the idea of ‘a passion with a shifting argument place’. This sounds as much like Pascal as Freud (the affinity emerges clearly at the close of the third chapter of Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Morton writes: ‘We don’t have a duality of aim and object in common sense.’ But is ‘we want the hunt and not the quarry’ a piece of esoteric psychology? Freud’s theory, Morton argues, ‘brings a new flexibility between states and their objects by introducing the idea of a state with a movable object’. And yet it was Proust from whom Sartre thought Husserl’s notion of intentionality had delivered us, and not Freud.

More distinctive than a ‘passion with a shifting argument place’ is Freud’s use of a will with a multiple locus, sometimes to a point where it begins to look like body-part animism. Yet here, too, Freud’s relation to vernacular psychology is not simply as an influence. The scene in Dr Strangelove in which the eponymous hero fights off strangulation by his prosthetic hand with his good one has a parallel in Freud’s paper on hysterical attacks in which a girl tears off her dress with one hand while modestly clutching at it with the other, but it is unlikely that it derives, even indirectly, from Freud. Not only did Montaigne observe that ‘the hand goes where we do not send it’ but there is the even earlier case of Medea begging her hand not to murder her children: so it is likely that all these are drawing from the same well. Davidson remarks on the popularity of this device as a solution to divided will (akrastic) paradoxes. Mrs Gamp attributes her husband’s ‘constancy of walk-in’ into wine vaults, and never comin’ out again till fetched by force’ to his wooden leg (‘as weak as flesh if not weaker’). Origen believed his penis was inhabited by a malignant gnome and rashly resorted to demolition rather than eviction. If this tactic becomes more wholehearted, we get a full-fledged alternative self, as with Kipling’s soldier (‘I heard a beggar squealin’ out for quarter as he ran/and I thought I knew the voice and it was me’). It is obvious, too, as both Davidson and Pears argue, that whatever is paradoxical about these concepts is intrinsic to them and not peculiar to Freud.

The major preoccupation of a third or so of the papers is with the paradoxes posed by the notion of conscious ignorance and unconscious knowledge. Sartre’s discussion from Being and Nothingness is reprinted, but not the more potent argument of the 1970 interview where the focus of his misgivings is not the incoherence of self-deception but the incoherence of Freud’s account of the manner in which the gap between deceiver and deceived is, through analysis, bridged. How, asks Sartre, could the patient ‘compare the image with his true state since that is out of reach and since he has never had any knowledge of it’, concluding that he could not, and thus ‘has no privileged position’. But the alternative possibility, ‘interpretive coherence’, has difficulties of its own. When the nervous vicar in the joke introduces Mrs Schlitt as Mrs Pliss we know the route he came. But Freud’s interpolations are normally of a complexity which doesn’t permit their assimilation to the Schlitt-Pliss case. The sequence of thoughts and associations which intervenes between the captain’s order and the Rat Man’s ‘great obsessive fear’ is too elaborate for our confidence in the correctness of Freud’s account to be warranted as our confidence in the explanation of the Pliss error is warranted. Similar considerations vitiate Wittgenstein’s argument that Freud’s interpretations are not hypotheses but are assent-settlable. This works for joke-reductions but not for dream interpretations. To adapt one of Freud’s examples, if I am amused by someone’s reference to a ‘positively Norekdal style’, then my account as to why, in which I mention the Ibsen character from whom the expression derives, is not a hypothesis. But Freud’s identical account of why this expression turned up in his dream is. The joke-work and the dream-work are epistemically dissimilar. ‘Norekdal’ doesn’t work like ‘tête-à-bête’ or ‘anecdotage’.

Other contributors locate Freud’s distinctiveness in his extension of the notion of action. We are told that ‘the central advance of Freudian theory is to see previously inexplicable behaviour, symptoms, fantasies and dreams... as explicable action, attempts to communicate thoughts, and so on ...’ (Cosin, Cosin and Freeman), and that ‘part of what is distinctively Freudian is the theory that dreams, parapraxes and neurotic symptoms are actions’ (W.D.Hart). This notion is extraordinarily remote from many of the neurotic phenomena Freud purported to explain: e.g. ‘fluctuations in his moods he cannot control, a sense of despondency by which his energy feels paralysed, nervous embarrassment among strangers, inability to work’.

The closely related thesis that ‘one of Freud’s central claims’ is the explanatory scope of the notion of ‘wish-fulfilling representations’ is advanced by Hopkins, and Wollheim talks the same way. Has either asked himself what the phrase ‘wish-fulfilling representations’ can mean when applied to depression or anxiety, the two most common neurotic symptoms? People who say that symptoms represent wishes are more interested in wishes than they are in symptoms.

Davidson refers to two irreconcilable tendencies in Freud’s methodology: ‘On the one hand he wanted to extend the range of phenomena subject to reason explanations, and on the other to treat these same phenomena as forces and states are treated in the natural sciences.’ This duality, or ambivalence, of Freud’s has not always been noticed. For example, whereas Thomas Mann saw in Freud’s ‘unmasking of happening as really doing...the innermost core of psychoanalytic theory’, T.W. Mitchell, one of Freud’s earliest British supporters, saw him as ‘dominated by the prevailing urge to find mechanistic explanations for everything in the cosmos’. This feature of Freud’s thought prompted one critic to characterise it as ‘a mechanistic system of demonology’ and another as ‘mechanico-mystical’. Thomas Nagel denies that Freud’s ‘psychodynamics are impersonal and scientific’ and that ‘the anthropomorphic terminology is only metaphorical and plays no essential theoretical role.’ What is extraordinary is how long this dispute has been going on and the reluctance to draw the natural inference from its intractability. Sandor Rado attempted to resolve it by distinguishing two phases of Freud’s intellectual career: an early bio-mechanistic one and a later, predominantly animistic one, which Rado deplored as desertion of a scientific viewpoint.

The quotations from Freud assembled in Thalberg’s paper bring out the Christmas party character of Freud’s theorising, with something for everyone. Since for Freud Jack and Jill might have been just as active in tumbling down the hill as climbing it, and there is no ultimate difference between these in any case, it is not easy to say on which side of the animistic/mechanistic divide he is finally to be found.

Stuart Hampshire’s paper ‘Disposition and Memory’ is concerned to bring out the distinctiveness of that knowledge of our present inclinations and propensities which is based on the recovery of the frustrations and satisfactions of our infantile past, and to contrast it with causal knowledge. The remarks Hampshire makes on this head are strikingly evocative of one kind of understanding of the source of our current attitudes and proclivities but its scope is narrower than he shows himself aware of. It is inadequate as Freudian exegesis because the role Freud assigns the primary process in effecting transitions from infantile desires to adult ones could never be made perspicuous to the conscious mind. Marcel’s tracing ‘the fatal decline of his will’ to his father’s indulgence of him on the night Swann came to dinner might answer to Hampshire’s account, but the case is different with the infantile experiences which Freud invokes. They do not normally render the phenomena which they are meant to explain perspicuous, and so we have a special reason for demanding inductive support in these cases. Consider the Goncourts’ account of how Mérimeé came by his ‘harsh exterior’: when a child, he responded to a scolding by blubbering, and, overhearing his parents laughing at him, resolved never again to invite ridicule by his demeanour. Resolves are just the thing to make a sequence explanatorily perspicuous. What can ‘primitive satisfactions’ give us which is as good as this? How is the infant’s satisfaction in sucking the nipple meant to render perspicuous the homosexual’s craving to suck a penis? A teat is more like a teat than a penis is and a woman has two of them. The gap between what needs explaining at one end and what is supposed to do the explaining at the other seems too wide to be bridged by infantile anamnesis. The insistence on a continuous history of the contemporary impulse from earliest infancy seems gratuitous in such cases. Narrative degenerates into mere chronicle.

Samuel Weber’s The Legend of Freud is dedicated to Jacques Derrida. Foucault’s name occurs on his first page and Lacan’s on his second. Given such auspices, one expects a certain amount of posturing and foolery, but there isn’t any, unless a weakness for puns counts as such (Fliess/fleece). While there is a certain amount of phallery, as Mr Weber might call it, this is largely confined to the preface by another hand.

Weber thinks Freud is half-way to a Der-ridaian conception of interpretation which forsakes the notion of a pre-existent meaning waiting to be elucidated. His account fails at the same point as does Wittgenstein’s, in its extension to symptoms, for there our imputed meanings must be capable of causal efficacy and must therefore, in some literal sense, predate our characterisation of them. What matters to most of us is whether Freud was entitled to maintain that his interpretations were true; what matters to Weber is that he is untrue to psychoanalysis when he says it. Nevertheless, Mr Weber is a noticer, and the considerable value of his readings does not depend, fortunately for those of us still outside the charmed circle, on the auspices under which he chooses to conduct them.