Monday, 24 May 2010

Freud and the case for the prosecution, part two*

So, after a stupidly long gap, I return to my old friend's questionings of the contemporary validity of the old man - Sigmund Freud.

The second of his five Ds was . . . Determination.

He wrote: 'Freud said our actions are often “over-determined” - caused by many psychic influences. So how easy is it for his model to allow for free will, choice, and therefore responsibility?'

On the surface, this is an easy question to answer. When Freud used the word 'over-determined', he was mostly concerned with the content of dreams. He was suggesting that what goes on in a dream (as judged by what we can remember of it and tell Freud about anyway) is a product of a potentially limitless set of influences.

The classic example is Freud's own dream of Irma's injection, which he recounts and deconstructs at some length in The Interpretation of Dreams. Without going into it all, the dream centres on an encounter with a patient - Irma in his telling, Emma Eckstein in real life - who had become ill because of a faulty procedure by Freud's colleague Otto (Wilhelm Fliess, in real life).

The dream and its associations involve the death of a friend from cocaine (which Freud recommended to him and therefore feels guilty about), a clean-shaven man with a limp (who looked like his brother - Freud was angry with him for rejecting a suggestion), a damaged shoulder (an echo of Freud's own rheumatic shoulder) . . . etc etc . . . right through to the question of the fact that the subject of the dream was dressed. 'Frankly, I had no desire to penetrate more deeply at this point,' writes Freud, revealingly, Freudian slippingly. Nor does he make much of the injection thing - though later commentators have.

'The dream acquitted me of the responsibility for Irma's condition by showing that it was due to other factors - it produced a whole series of reasons.' That is, an overdeterminedly overdetermined analysis.

But that doesn't answer the question of free will, does it?

That question is this, I guess: if everything is set in early life, then that's a kind of psychoanalytic version of religious predestination. And it's true that psychoanalytic thought and practice has often been represented this way. You did that because your mum did that. You are this way because your dad did this. Simple, straightforward cause and effect.

But . . . if this ever was what psychoanalysts thought, it's certainly not the case now - though it is true that American analytic papers from the 1950s and 1960s do often read like that's what the writers thought. Modern analysts prefer subtle (perhaps even over-subtle) readings of the relationship between what happened to us and how we turned out. They don't use the word multi-causality, it's not their kind of language but it's what they are getting at.

Yet, of course, science has taught us to distrust the idea of multi-causality. Not totally, of course, but, all too often things that were once seen as multi-causal turn out to be mono-causal - that a single thing is half-hidden by the collection of things. All too often, a verdict of multi-causality is the refuge of the lazy thinker. (See Occam's Razor. 'Shaves closer', claims 14th century monk.)

Which leads back to free will. The problem with the passive model of personality development is not one of causality. Rather, it's that it sees it as a process having only one actor - the parent affecting the child. Whereas, of course, it's always a dialogue. No matter how dominant the parent, the child's response (as guided, at least, by disposition - ie genetics) is the thing that matters. And, of course, the parent's response to the child's response - and the child's response to that parental response etc etc etc etc.

So? So . . . we end up back with narratives of indeterminate complexity. Overdetermined ones, you might say.

PS1 'Marriage is like water. You have to drink it. Swinging is like wine. Some people feel it's delicious the first time they try it, so they keep drinking. Some people try it and think it tastes bad, so they never drink it again.' So said Ma Yaohai, jailed in China for wife-swapping or 'crowd licentiousness' as they called it on the charge sheet. Another kind of over-determination, I guess. (His 'orgies' were held in the two-bedroom flat he shared with his mother. She had Alzheimers.)

PS2 Watch the horse on the rail.

* The first was Distance. Still to come are Denseness and Divination. Which makes four in all. Previously, I said there would be five. I suppose that fifth would therefore be (my) Dumbness.

Next up What would Freud have thought of Prime Minister's Question Time?


Lo Jardinier said...

I wonder whether another principle would be useful: an Oppo's Razor (don't try to object unless you really have to).
Yes, this overdetermination thing does come from dreams, but it's tempting to apply it everywhere, as in 'You're only saying/doing that because....' when the dots can be filled by an unlimited number of valid reasons (you're jealous/your Mum did that/unconsciously you want me to be like that etc).
Maybe it's too common-sense, too novelistic, to expect that we can be whole-hearted and genuine in our motives, and Sigmund the great cynic was right. Or maybe the goal of his therapy, after analysis of all secondary motives, is towards an unreachable (but nevertheless necessary) committed, chosen, free way of behaving: something the humanists take as normal.

Peter Silverton said...

yes, you are right that he applied overdetermination in other areas

maybe i'm a great cynic, too — i don't think we can be entirely whole-hearted and genuine in our motives — in fact, i think that is one of the great liberating insights of freudian thought — if we accept we are, in part, messy little children inside then we can have a better handle/hold on the bit of us that is not like that

many modern analysts would use exactly the phrase you used about 'a free way of behaving' — humanists, though, are less likely to acknowledge the potency of our messy childishness — for example, they are not great at explaining why adult men like, say, die hard movies and why so many adult women went to see sex and the city