Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Book Reviews

What Freud Got Right

We might do a better job of living together if we believed that we are meant to do so.

Wilfred M. McClay

Freud reading a manuscript; World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo.

Few lines from the poet W.H. Auden are more familiar than his declaration, in a moving (if at times oddly sentimental) elegy called “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” that the founder of psychoanalysis was “…no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives: / Like weather he can only hinder or help….” Lovely and resounding words, full of admiration. But is it clear what Auden meant by them?

What, for example, is meant by “a whole climate”? Did Auden mean that Freud was so titanic and central an intellectual and cultural influence that absolutely everything in the culture of the world was transformed by his very existence, whether directly through his writings and practice, or indirectly through his effects on general attitudes toward sexuality, aggression, childrearing, dreams, repressed memory, and a myriad of other things? That one could henceforth divide all of time between Before Freud and After Freud?

Or did he mean something far less sweeping, far more modest: that Freud was “there” in our culture in the same way the weather is there, as a backdrop, an element in the context within which our actions take place, but very far from being the determinative force behind those actions? Like the brooding clouds that darken our mood, the rainstorm that makes our travel difficult, or the sunny sky that lifts our hearts, the weather can “hinder or help,” can make a difference on the margins, as an impediment or a support, but otherwise has a limited reach. Freud, “this doctor” (as Auden revealingly called him), was one of “those who were doing us some good, / who knew it was never enough but / hoped to improve a little by living.” This seems a much less dramatic endorsement, recalling Freud’s own statement that it was his aim to convert “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” Which is no small thing, to be sure, but not quite a climate.

And in any event, the climate does change. As the sociologist Howard L. Kaye argues in this highly intelligent and artfully compressed study of Freud, “It is now nearly eighty years since Freud’s death: a period that can be divided roughly into forty years of idealization, followed by forty years of vilification.” Few figures have excited such a wide range of passions in such a short period of time. And yet the idealized image of Freud as the solitary genius, the “conquistador” (as he sometimes fancied himself), who donned his shining helmet and bravely ventured into the exotic lands of the unconscious, where no modern man had dared venture before, that image is mostly a thing of the past. The originality of his visions, the efficacy of his therapies, the scientific validity of his assertions, the radicalism of his perspective: All of these have suffered an immense devaluation in recent years. It might even seem that we have come to a point of exhaustion in our interest in Freud and his influences, that the climate has decisively moved on.

Or perhaps it is more a matter of Minerva’s owl taking flight at dusk. Perhaps the recession of Freud’s reputation clears the way for a more rational and temperate appreciation of him, one that does not claim (or deny) too much and is not overly tainted by passion or partisanship. That would be a fair description of what Kaye’s book attempts to do. A student of Philip Rieff who shares some of his teacher’s ambivalences toward Freud, Kaye seeks neither to praise Freud inordinately nor to bury him prematurely, but instead to understand him more accurately, and make a case for his enduring importance as a social thinker. Not, he insists, as a scientist. Freud, he argues, presented himself to the world as a medical scientist as a means of “cloaking” his thoughts in a respectable white laboratory coat, and ensuring that his often quite wildly speculative ideas would benefit from, and be protected by, the deference shown to science.

But in fact, Kaye argues, Freud himself understood that he was not really a scientist, and that “social philosophy and cultural critique” were always the focal points of his deepest interests. What Freud was really after was a fresh “interpretation of culture,” one that would then lend itself to the transformation of culture. Science was valued not for its capacity to ascertain unassailable truth but for its power as a critical weapon, a cultural solvent capable of dissolving the illusory hold of such oppressive forces as religion, social hierarchy, and bourgeois morality. Freud’s youthful abandonment of law and politics in favor of science was not, as the historian Carl Schorske and other have argued, an “Epimethean” retreat, in which Freud elected to “eavesdrop” on Nature’s “eternal processes” rather than seek to change the world. It was better understood as a change in tactics in pursuit of that same end.

What was the core of this new social philosophy? At the center was a certain conception of human nature, toward which Freud had approached incrementally, sometimes stumblingly. But his ultimate direction became clear from the moment that he rejected the “seduction theory”—which had located the source of neurosis in childhood experiences of actual sexual abuse—in favor of a theory positing that it was the management of the enduring wishes, fantasies, and impulses associated with childhood that constituted the fundamental problem behind the formation of neuroses. It was the projection outward of the individual’s wild and woolly internal life, including infantile sexuality, rather than the internalization of external experience, that became Freud’s starting place. As Kaye expresses it, “political and moral animals we may in time become, but more fundamentally, we are phantasizing and aestheticizing animals.”

Thus we arrive at the Freudian philosophy of human nature, a view of our nature that placed wish and fantasy at the center of human mental life. As Kaye adds, it was the universal patterning of those wishes and fantasies, grounded in our biological endowment—namely, the Oedipus complex, among many other examples—that determined the agenda of social thought. Which is to say that there were certain fixities in human nature—a “certain intractable content,” as Kaye says—specific content to the term “human nature,” a content that could be cruel, selfish, brutal, even unspeakable in its perversity, but that could not be willed or conditioned away. It was the job of social philosophy to create an optimal balance between the intractable elements in human nature and the requirements of life lived together in an advanced and organized society. That this balance might be, as Freud expressed it so memorably in Civilization and Its Discontents, a rather tenuous and uneasy thing, was something that could not be helped.

Here, interestingly, Kaye is in open rebellion against one of the core tendencies of his own discipline of sociology: its tendency to embrace an “oversocialized” conception of man, in which humans are defined as “natureless beings” who can be made over into anything that a given social order requires. Or, in Richard Rorty’s words, beings who can “make ourselves into whatever we are clever enough and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.” Such a statement almost sounds like the conventional wisdom of our time, in a slightly more respectable form than the usual psychobabble from Hollywood therapists and Madison Avenue hucksters. Freud’s spirit, with its insistence on the fixities of human nature, has always stood in resolute opposition to such things. Indeed, it was precisely this aspect of Freud, as an antidote to the all-consuming power of culture, that drew thinkers like Lionel Trilling to him.

As good as this book is, it could have been made even better by two things. First, Kaye could have spelled out, in greater detail than he does, the specific ways that Freud’s social thought remains of enduring value to us, even though the scientific basis for his claims has been demolished. This is an important consideration because if Freud’s social theory was grounded in a view of the individual that is not supported by the current state of scientific understanding, then how can extrapolations from that view result in a social theory that is of more than historical interest (which Kaye strongly suggests is the case)?

Kaye thinks that they can, which brings me to a second, and related, concern, one that proceeds from one of the book’s greatest virtues. Kaye’s treatment of Freud recalls, in many ways, the great age of sociological writing, when sociology was philosophical inquiry of the highest order, and its practitioners—Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Simmel, Tönnies, among others—belonged in a long and illustrious intellectual succession tracing back to Tocqueville, Hume, Hobbes (to whom Kaye compares Freud), and all the way to the ancients. But what makes that succession so illustrious is the fact that every thinker in it is still, in some sense, available to us. Not in every respect, of course, but far more than many imagine. For example, our rejection of most aspects of Aristotle’s science of nature, and his assertion of doctrines like natural slavery, do not exhaust his interest for us. We have every reason to be interested in a thinker who understands individual humans as being, in some sense, made for life in community together, rather than seeing them as made for the isolate gratification of instinctual desires, and made sociable only by a hard and coercive discipline of socialization.

Kaye, however, draws a hard line between ancient and modern social thought, and while I think he characterizes the difference accurately—the ancients understanding “nature” as an expression of the fullest and best human development, taking place within a social context, and the moderns understanding “nature” as those drives and impulses that motivate us without reference to society—he does not provide a reason for favoring the latter over the former. Given the paucity of evidence for Freudian claims in favor of the latter, not to mention the lack of evidence that anything like a Hobbesian state of nature ever existed—something that would be very hard for the kind of mammals that we are—it might not be a bad time to reconsider. We might do a better job of living together if we believed that we are meant to do so.