The Existentialist Critique of Freud: The Crisis of Autonomy

The Existentialist Critique of Freud: The Crisis of Autonomy

by Gerald N. Izenberg


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Although largely sympathetic to Freud's clinical achievement, the existentialists criticized Freudian metapsychology as inappropriate to a truly humanistic psychology. Gerald Izenberg evaluates the critique of Freud in the work of two existential philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, and two existential psychiatrists, Ludwig Binswanger and Medard Boss.

His book interprets the relationship of psychoanalysis and existentialism and traces the history of a crisis in the European rationalist tradition. The author unveils the positivist foundations of Freud's theory of meaning and discusses the reactions it provoked in the work of Binswanger, Boss, and Sartre. Probing beneath the methodological dispute, he shows that the argument involved a challenge to the conception of the self that had dominated European thought since the Enlightenment. Existentialism, reflecting the turmoil of the inter-war and post-war years, furnished a theory of motivation better able to account for Freud's clinical data than his own rationalist metapsychology. This theory made problematic the existentialist idea of authenticity and freedom, however, and so the attempt to provide a substitute ethic and concept of mental health ended in failure, although in the process the basic questions were posed that must be answered in any modern social theory.

Originally published in 1976.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691616957
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1490
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.60(d)

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The Existentialist Critique of Freud

The Crisis of Autonomy

By Gerald N. Izenberg


Copyright © 1976 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07214-2


The Positivist Foundations of Freud's Theory of Meaning

That the existentialist critique of psychoanalysis originated in Freud's positivism can appear puzzling in the light of the generally accepted version of his achievement. It was Freud after all who definitively broke with the conventional approach of nineteenth-century psychiatry, which viewed the psychic manifestations of mental illness as meaningless and looked exclusively for physical pathology as the necessary and sufficient cause of irrational behavior. By discovering hidden intentions, emotions, and beliefs in neurotic behavior and ideation, Freud called into question, for many if not all cases, the nineteenth-century "medical model" of mental illness.

This interpretation, of course, is today considered to be somewhat oversimplified even by those who take it to be substantially true. Historians, philosophers, and analysts recognize that Freud's enduring ideal of explanation was physicalistic 1 and that his theories, derived from an outdated mechanistic brain physiology, "remained couched in positivist terms of a rather crude order." But whether it is held that "the question of the origin of the terminology and fundamental assumptions of psychoanalysis is ... of only historical interest [and] has nothing to do with the question of [their] value ... for psychoanalysis as a science"; or whether it is argued that Freud's theory of the mental apparatus was "the ghost of the nervous system sitting crowned on the grave thereof" and of no explanatory value, there is general agreement that Freud redescribed human behavior and found meaning where it had been thought that none existed.

It is, therefore, a conceptual puzzle of critical significance that Freud arrived at his theory of meaning not only without the aid of but against the direction of the contemporary philosophical upheaval that was shaking the foundations of the human sciences in Europe. Thinkers such as Brentano, the Neo-Kantians, Bergson, Dilthey, Simmel, Weber, Husserl, and Scheler were arguing that contemporary psychology ignored intention and meaning in favor of causal explanations in terms of antecedent physical or environmental conditions, and were calling for new methodological approaches to the explanation of behavior and belief.

There were certainly similarities between Freud's defense of the investigation of mental life independently from organic changes, and the efforts of Brentano and the Neo-Kantians to distinguish between mental and physical phenomena. There were perhaps even more pregnant similarities between Freud's insistence on the purposiveness of psychic processes in dreams and neurotic symptoms and the insistence of "act-" and phenomenological psychology on the fundamentally intentional, meaningful character of psychic life. Almost simultaneously, Dilthey and Freud were emphasizing the need for a genetic and historical approach to psychology, and Dilthey's claim that a hermeneutic method was the only one appropriate to a study of the historical individual found a parallel in Freud's conception of interpretation.

Yet, with the exception of Brentano, Freud was not directly acquainted with much, if any, of the work of the major figures in the attack on natural scientific psychology, and was hostile to whatever he learned about it at second hand. When he encountered it in the writings of such critics of psychoanalysis as Kronfeld, he rejected it without consideration, but he was not much more sympathetic to the efforts of Binswanger, a friend and a practicing (though theoretically increasingly heterodox) psychoanalyst, to analyze the new philosophical trends and relate psychoanalysis to them. When Freud did turn to academic and philosophical psychology, either to discover more about it as his own work led him into psychological theorizing, or for actual theoretical assistance, it was to the very men whose assumptions were the objects of the new philosophical criticism, among them Taine, Lipps and Fechner. It was not Freud but the psychiatrist Karl Jaspers who explicitly introduced to psychiatry the ideas of descriptive phenomenology and of a verstehende Psychologie, a psychology of meaningful connections, claiming in this venture to be extending the work of Dilthey, Simmel, and Weber into a new sphere. In his early work, Jaspers attempted to bring order into what he considered to be the chaotic and fragmented state of contemporary psychiatric theorizing by distinguishing between the logically different spheres of descriptive understanding and causal explanation in the analysis of psychiatric symptoms, and by attempting to work out criteria for the appropriate application of each.

Freud's aloofness from these developments is not difficult to explain, even discounting such factors as his professed hostility to academic philosophy or his preoccupation with the concrete clinical problems of the neuroses. (Neither of these, as has been suggested, prevented him from looking into the current literature of philosophical psychology when he felt the need for it.) The case of Brentano is the most obvious. In distinguishing psychic from physical phenomena, Brentano had equated the psychic with consciousness. He did not specifically mean by consciousness reflective self-awareness articulated verbally. His primary concern had been to sort out the confusion between physiology and psychology, and he did this by arguing that psychic phenomena differed from physical ones in their character as acts, in their always being directed at a specific content or having reference to an object. They were, therefore, not amenable to measurement as physiological responses were. Contemporary quantitative experimental psychology was thus misconceived; it was not psychology but physiology. Part of Brentano's argument held that, as acts of a self, psychic phenomena were necessarily accessible in principle to direct knowledge by the self. On these grounds he rejected the idea of unconscious psychological phenomena as self-contradictory and fictitious. Here again the object of his attack was the kind of psychology that confusedly referred to the physiological processes underlying mental life as unconscious mental processes. But for Freud, who defined consciousness in terms of awareness and verbalization, and whose clinical observations of the unavowed and unverbalized meanings in behavior demanded some notion of unconscious mental processes, Brentano's equation of the psychic with consciousness seemed to be an insuperable obstacle to any fruitful encounter with the idea of intentionality and hence later with phenomenology. Freud's critical comment on contemporary philosophical psychology in the Interpretation of Dreams thus seems to have been aimed directly at Brentano:

"So long as psychology dealt with this problem (i.e., the unconscious) by a verbal explanation to the effect that 'psychical' meant 'conscious' and that to speak of 'unconscious psychical processes' was palpable nonsense, any psychological evaluation of the observations made by physicians upon abnormal mental states was out of the question. The physician and philosopher can only come together if they both recognize that the term 'unconscious psychical processes' is the appropriate and justified expression of a solidly established fact."

As far as contact with verstehende psychology is concerned, the important documents in its development were for the most part either coterminous with the development of Freud's own ideas, or appeared after his basic theories were already formulated and under attack. This chronological argument does not, of course, explain why Freud did not later evince any interest in a methodological approach that, it could plausibly be contended, might have at least furnished some support for his own insistence on the meaningfulness of all mental phenomena. Here too conceptual issues are important in understanding why this was not and could not be the case.

Freud was not philosophically prepared to recognize the distinction between Geisteswissenschaft and Naturwissenschaft, out of which the concept Verstehen and its contrast with causal explanation had developed. Accepting fully the explanatory model of mid-nineteenth-century natural science, he arrived at his very conception of meaningfulness through a priori assumptions about the mechanical functioning of the nervous system. As we shall see, even the clinical, ostensibly purely descriptive, language of psychoanalysis combined description and theoretical causal analysis. Freud's definition of interpretation indicated how divergent was his conception of the meaningfulness of psychic phenomena from that contained in the idea of Verstehen: "'[Interpreting' a dream implies assigning a 'meaning' to it — that is, replacing it by something which fits into the chain of our mental acts as a link having a validity and importance equal to the rest." The element to be interpreted was not to have its meaning drawn out of itself in terms of manifest contextual significance, but was to be replaced by another element, itself meaningful, whose relationship to the first was a causal one, and in fact mechanically causal. Whatever the variations in the concepts of Verstehen advanced by Dilthey, Simmel, Weber, and Jaspers, they all rested on the idea of meaning as immanent in, not causally related to, the expression to be interpreted. The Freudian theory of meaning was a unique synthesis on the boundary of two conceptual worlds.

Further analysis of the two conceptions of meaningfulness suggests the important underlying ground for the differences between them — indeed for their incompatibility. Freud's theory of meaning grew out of his clinical judgment of the symptomatic, that is to say irrational, character of neurotic behavior. Thus it was initially predicated upon a specific conception of rationality. Just what this conception involved has to be examined in some detail — it included norms and values as well as principles of logic and empirical reasoning — but it was an exclusionary criterion that divided behavior into one class that, as rational, required no further explanation and one that did. Insofar as Freud held the latter class of behavior to be "meaningful," it was, and could only be so to the extent that it conformed to the original criteria of rationality. Paradoxical as this statement appears, it is just what Freud meant in the passage quoted from the Interpretation of Dreams, in which he spoke of replacing the irrational by something that fit into the chain of our mental acts as a link "having a validity and importance equal to the rest." Freud's positivistically grounded theory of meaning functioned to preserve a concept of rationality in its very demonstration that irrationality was meaningful.

The concept of Verstehen developed in a very different context — in a sense, the opposite context. The purpose of its advocates was to defend the rationality of certain beliefs and goals against the kind of reductive analysis that stripped them of their autonomy and made them nothing but disguises for other beliefs and goals or mere effects of antecedent causes. In its origins, Verstehen was associated with the Romantic and conservative tradition in German historiography, which interpreted individual behavior and creative production as manifesting the "spirit" of a larger historical whole; the individual was definable only as an embodiment of the "organic" cultural and spiritual norms that governed his behavior. To understand the individual was to enter into the objective spirit of the whole. This position was aimed at the atomistic individualism and universalist rationalism of the Enlightenment, which in the view of the Romantics ignored history, the social nature of the individual, and his emotional and religious needs; it was used to defend existing hierarchical, social, and political institutions and religious beliefs.

Dilthey had demystified the concept of "objective spirit" by making it nothing but the sum total of those cultural artifacts and institutions embodying the shared norms of a society. Weber had gone even further, to insist that the individual was the basic unit of action, the sole carrier of meaningful conduct, and that Verstehen was the method for interpreting individual intentions and beliefs. Nevertheless, Weber's concept of Verstehen still preserved the emphasis on making intelligible, and hence "rational," those absolute values — moral and religious beliefs and needs — that were under attack from positivism, Darwinism, and economic determinism. He had argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that "A thing is never irrational in itself, but only from a particular rational point of view," that is, that rationality was not predicated of individual ends in themselves but only of the relationship among ends. On these grounds Weber had introduced the category of Wertrationalitat — activity oriented to the attainment of absolute moral and religious goals, and had insisted on accepting such goals in the interpretation of historical action as irreducible givens.

Applied to psychology, this general attitude meant viewing all modes of human behavior as, in the Rankean phrase actually used by Binswanger, "immediate to God." In other words, no judgmental attitude was to be taken towards them from a privileged position of rationality; behavior was simply to be described in its own terms, as seen from the perspective of the agent and using his own criteria.

This permissiveness towards experience as given in the consciousness of the subject was also the main thrust of Husserl's phenomenology, which from a somewhat different point of view was concerned with the defense of ideal values and timeless concepts. The primary purpose of his early Logical Investigations was to attack psychologism, the doctrine that the concepts of logic were reducible to empirical generalizations about mental operations, and so to defend the autonomy of logic. This approach was later extended to concepts or universal in general. These, Husserl argued, were given in experience as "essences," fixed unities that were hypostatizations of all possible temporal and spatial perspectives on an object. Concepts were not experienced as the products of such mental operations as abstraction and generalization from particulars, or as the syntheses of historical experiences in the life of the individual or society always in principle subject to change. The phenomenological emphasis on the theoretically unprejudiced examination of the immediate givens of consciousness in search of such essences culminated in the concept of the phenomenological "reduction," the philosophical operation that "bracketed" or suspended the question of the existence in reality of the data of consciousness in favor of a purely descriptive analysis of their contents.

Aside from his repugnance for the ideological ambience of the idealist revival, which stemmed both from its sharp separation between Geist and body, and from his opposition to religion, Freud's clinical orientation alone precluded the verstehende or phenomenological neutrality toward behavior and belief, neither of which allowed for or was concerned with judgments of irrationality or pathology. But the issue went deeper than the clinician's need for normative concepts of health. Freud's concept of rationality included a theoretical presupposition about human autonomy, a presupposition that flew in the face of his clinical discoveries about human unfreedom. Conversely, the neo-idealist defense of subjectivity and freedom, as manifested in belief in ideal values and universal concepts, undermined the idea of authenticity insofar as it subjected the self to norms and concepts held to be objectively valid, necessary and binding, or emotionally compelling. Weber was one of the few figures in this tradition who realized this. He showed his discomfort at the equation of true human spontaneity with adherence to absolute values and charismatic leadership when he contradicted his own insistence that rationality was not logically attributable to ends in themselves by classifying ends in a hierarchy of rationality defined by the criterion of autonomy. According to this classification, affectively determined behavior, and behavior governed by absolute values, were less rational than the self-interest behavior of the utilitarian model.

The difference in attitude to autonomy was as yet only implicit in the differences between psychoanalysis and idealism. It suggests, however, why it was that Freud's theory of meaning had to emerge from a different source than Verstehen or phenomenology. We must examine this source before we can understand the basis of the existentialist critique; but this examination will also be the basis for going beyond that critique to place existentialism in perspective as well.


Excerpted from The Existentialist Critique of Freud by Gerald N. Izenberg. Copyright © 1976 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Table of Contents, pg. xi
  • Introduction. The Crisis of Autonomy, pg. 1
  • Chapter One. The Positivist Foundation of Freud's Theory of Meaning, pg. 13
  • Chapter Two. The Background of the Existential Critique, pg. 70
  • Chapter Three. The Existential Critique of Psychoanalytic Theory, pg. 108
  • Chapter Four. The Historical Significance of the Existential Critique, pg. 166
  • Chapter Five. The Existentialist Concept of the Self, pg. 218
  • Chapter Six. Authenticity as an Ethic and as a Concept of Health, pg. 250
  • Chapter Seven. Ideology and Social Theory in Psychoanalysis and Existentialism, pg. 290
  • Bibliography, pg. 336
  • Index, pg. 347

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