Freud (Psych. 304) The disease called “man” There is one word in which to understand Freud’s thought: repression. The whole edifice of Freud’s work can be thought in terms of repression. In this sense Freud radicalized theories of human nature and society. Society is repression of the individual, and the essence of the individual is repression of him/herself.
What led Freud to the hypothesis/concept of repression?
It was the discovery of the meaningfulness of a set of phenomena that were usually thought of meaningless: (1) madness/neurosis, (2) dreams, and (3) psychopathology of everyday life, slips of the tongue, errors, and random thoughts.
When Freud claims that these phenomena are meaningful he means of course that they can be determined by causal explanation. He insists on the principle of psychic determinism (a little like Wundt) but of course psychic determinism would not be sufficient to grant these customary meaningless phenomena meaning. Giving these phenomena meaning implies that they have purpose or “intention”. Neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors are caused but they also have purpose and meaning. Since the purpose of neurotic symptoms, dreams and errors are unknown to the person whose purposes they express Freud is driven to embrace the paradox that human beings have purposes of which they know nothing or that they have involuntary purposes (“unconscious ideas”). From this point of view a whole new world of psychic reality is opened up about which we are totally ignorant. In the same way that we are ignorant of the external world except in term so what the senses tell us, Freud claims that we are also ignorant of the inner world and hence what neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors mean must be discovered. This is psychoanalysis: the discovery of the unconscious in mental life. But Freud did not simply add the unconscious to the conscious life.
He also maintained that some of the unconscious is incapable to becoming conscious in the usual way (through reflection) because it is disowned and resisted by the conscious self. Thus, psychoanalysis assumes that the reason we are not conscious of the meaning of neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors that we actively resist knowing their meaning. Thus, the relation between the conscious and the unconscious self is one of conflict - psychoanalysis is from top to bottom one of psychic conflict.
The unconscious is established in the individual when s/he refuses to admit into consciousness a desire/purpose which then goes underground and exists as a “psychic force” that opposes conscious ideas/reason. This rejection of desires/purposes which nevertheless remain active in the unconscious as psychic forces is called repression. Repression keeps (part of) oneself, the reality/meaning of one’s desires/purposes, out of consciousness. The fact that the desire/purpose that is repressed nevertheless remains or belongs to the individual (as part of the unconscious) beocmes evident in neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors which are all irruptions of the unconscious into consciousness in a manner that constitutes a compromise between two conflicting systems (unconscious and consciousness) and hence these phenomena exhibit the reality of the psychic conflict.
The unconscious remains enigmatic so long as we have no theory of repression. Thus, a theory of repression produces a theory of the unconscious (part of the self). Or as Freud said, the unconscious is the “dynamically repressed unconscious”. Freud alludes to this dynamically repressed unconscious in a series of metaphors analogous to social phenomena: e.g. war, civil war, police action between conscious and unconscious – i.e., inner conflict.
Now it seems like a long step from neuroses, dreams, and errors to a theory of human nature. Yet Freud argued that he was entitled to apply his hypothesis of repression broadly (and he argued that this was justified because traditional theories of human nature said nothing about neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors because science deemed these to be peripheral to human life). But the question is whether madness, dreams, and errors really peripheral? In fact, Freud argued that to extend the hypothesis of repression from neuroses, dreams, and errors to the rest of human nature is no great extension at all. One reason is that if the hypothesis holds up for madness, dreams, and errors, then repression is universal.
Perhaps! But we could doubt for example that madness is universal. But surely not dreams. Dreams are “normal” phenomena showing not only the working of the unconscious but also the dynamics of the unconscious (in e.g, “dream censorship”). But since the same dynamics of repression explain neurotic symptoms, and since the dreams of neurotics (which are a clue to the meaning of their symptoms) differ not at all from the content of dreams of normal people the conclusion is that dream are themselves neurotic.Hence, Freud concluded that we are all neurotic. What dream show is that the difference between neurotics and normal people prevails only during the day (at night we all dream). Moreover, since the psychopathology of everyday life (errors) exhibits the same dynamics, even the waking life of normal or healthy people is pervaded by numerous symptom formations. Between normality and abnormality there is no qualitative difference, except to note the practical question of whether our neurosis is seriously enough to incapacitate us for work/productivity or loving/being loved (the two criteria of “health”).
Or another more paradoxical way of stating the same thing is to claim that the difference between normal and abnormal is that the normal have a socially acceptable form of neurosis whereas the abnormal do not have socially acceptable forms of neurosis (note abnormality is socially-culturally defined). Or a more cautious way of stating the same thing is that the study of dreams suggests that the neurotic makes use of normal psychic mechanisms – and hence neurosis does not imply a newly created morbid disturbance of the psyche.
Hence, Freud’s first paradox namely of the repressed unconscious implies a second paradox namely that human nature is neurotic.
Thus, neurosis is not an occasional aberration; it is in all of us all the time. For example, Freud discovered the Oedipus complex first of all in himself – in his self-analysis (Interpretation of dreams). This discovery resembles Socrates’ “know thyself”, or we can also say that the claim concerning the universal neurosis of humankind is the psychoanalytical analogue of the theological doctrine of original sin [Adam’s motivation in eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was the (unconscious) motivation to be like God].
The crucial point in Freud’s basic hypothesis is the existence of psychic conflict and we must specify just what that conflict consists in. Freud does this at various different levels and from various points of view. I want to just indicate some common core to these.
In my characterization of repression I used the word purpose to designate what was repressed in the unconscious. This vague word conceals something fundamental in Freud’s theory. That is, the conflict generated in neuroses, dreams and errors are not intellectual conflicts but conflicts between repressed wishes, desires, purposes and their conscious expression. Freud uses the phrase “unconscious ideas” but this phrase can be misleading. For as Freud writes if we stay at the surface (at the level of consciousness) we find only ideas and memories. But Freud maintains that the only important/valuable things in psychic life are emotions/feelings (not ideas/reason). Psychic life gains significance only in its aptitude to evoke emotions/feelings. Ideas are repressed only because they are bound up with the release of emotions. Repression acts on emotions because, to say it the other way around, emotions are caught up with ideas. Dreams are in essence wish-fulfillments, expressions of repressed unconscious wishes, and so are neuroses and errors.
So if we use the word “desire” for all “unconscious ideas”, Freud’s axiom is that human beings consist not in thinking but in desiring. Unlike the Enlightenment/modernity focus on the intellect/thinking/contemplation, Freud’s axiom dates back to Plato’s conception (in the dialogues of Symposium and Phaedrus) of the psyche as Eros – the fundamental aim of human beings to find a satisfactory love object. However there was in Plato a profound ambiguity between this fundamental concept of Eros which seeks a satisfactory love object and his theory of contemplation as the ultimate good - an ambiguity we also find in Spinoza and Hegel in our modern period. The turnabout comes after Hegel, with Feuerbach and Marx, who call for the abandonment of contemplation (as the highest good) in favor of practical-sensuous activity (note the influence of Idealism). It was especially Schopenhauer in his notion of the primacy of the will that is the great landmark demarcation in Western thought between contemplation as the supreme good (which is really insane/neurotic!) and Freud’s claim that only the wish/desire can set the mind/psyche in motion. [Thinking alone cannot “move” the mind/person; only thinking as bound up with feeling/emotion can do so.]
This notion of desire as the essence of human nature is Freud’s claim that desire is energy directed toward the procurement of pleasure and avoidance of pain (pleasure principle). Or, sated otherwise, it is simply the pleasure principle which is the basis of life’s purpose. Freud did not have in mind some complicated hedonic theory (e.g., as to the source of pleasure); it is simply a commonsense assumption (in the same way that Aristotle claims that all men seek happiness). The goal of the pleasure principle is individual happiness.
Now Freud’s claim is that the pleasure principle is at odds, in conflict with, the whole world. The reality of the whole world means the renunciation of pleasure; reality frustrates desire. That is, the pleasure principle is in conflict with the reality principle. It is this conflict that causes repression. Under conditions of repression, the pleasure principle operates only at the level of the unconscious. But the phenomena of dreams, neuroses, and errors show that the frustrations of reality cannot destroy our desires which are the essence of our being; that is, the unconscious/pleasure principle is the unsubdued and indestructible element in the human soul. The whole world of reality may act against desire but desire is too deeply rooted in its passionate striving for positive fulfillment of happiness to succumb entirely to reality.
On the other hand, the conscious self refuses to admit unconscious desire into the consciousness and hence consciousness institutes a process of repression. That is, the conscious in being the interface mediating between the inner real being of desire and reality represses desire (pushing into the unconscious). The conscious self is the part of the mind that interacts with the real world and especially through speech makes the conscious self accessible to education and acculturation. (Education is aimed wholly at educating the conscious self.) Thus, the conscious self is the organ of adaptation to the environment and culture – meaning the conscious self is governed by the reality principle – adjusting to reality (i.e., the social-cultural world and its relation to mastering that world in science-technology).
From this perspective the phenomena of dreams, neuroses, and errors, which as I said were the result of conflict between the conscious and unconscious, can be also seen as conflict between the pleasure and reality principles. Thus, dreams, neuroses, and all manifestation of the unconscious such as fantasy, daydreaming, etc., represent a flight (or alienation) from reality which is found to be unbearable. But dreams, neuroses etc., also represent a return to the pleasure principle – they are substitute phenomena for the pleasures denied by reality. These phenomena are what Freud calls “compromise formations”between conscious and unconscious, pleasure and reality, wherein desired pleasure is expressed in a distorted or reduced way, or even transformed into it opposite pain (pain can be pleasurable although in a distorted manner). That is, pleasure becomes, under repression, a “symptom” (compromised pleasure by the repressive force of reality/consciousness).
Of course, to assert that reality causes repression merely defines the problem but does not solve it. Freud sometimes identifies the reality principle with the “struggle for existence” as if repression could be explained by an “objective economic reality to work” (Marxist). But this is not Freud’s meaning. The reason is that we as human beings create our own reality (“compulsions” to work, perhaps) through various social and cultural media of language and institutions such as law. Therefore we should say that society imposes repression (does not simply cause it) and, in his later theory of anxiety, Freud maintains that human beings are animals that repress themselves and then create culture and society in order to repress themselves. Yet the claim that society imposes repression does serve to tie the universal neurosis of humankind to our social organization. Human beings are social animals and in virtue of being social animals they are also neurotic animals. That is, Freud’s claim is that the superiority of humankind over other animals resides in their capacity for neurosis, and our capacity for neurosis is simply the obverse of our capacity for cultural and social development.
Freud arrives at the same conclusion as Nietzsche (the “disease called man”): neurosis is an essential consequence of civilization (human “making”). We must not only psychoanalyze foreign cultures/societies, the ones we dislike or disagree with, but we must also analyze our own.