Philosophy

The Enduring Legacy of Sigmund Freud, Radical

Famous psychiatry professors Suzanne Moore’s enthusiasm for the ideas of the father of psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud in his study, 1937. Photograph: Princess Marie Bonaparte/Everett Collection/Rex Freud’s theory, which he formulated in the 1890s and revised repeatedly, was both comprehensive and radical. Its bottom line is that we do not know ourselves. In his formulation, the mind constantly generates powerful wishes that are repressed — shut down
by our own internal censors before we even become aware of them. Much of what we do, and think is shaped by these unconscious impulses, unbeknownst to us. Dreams, slips of the tongue and psychiatric symptoms are the result of desires distorted by the mental censors. In the “talking cure” — the practice of psychoanalysis — the therapist helps the patient notice these mental lapses, interpret the unconscious struggles they reflect and bring them into the light of self-awareness. After Freud, psychoanalysis fractured into many schools of thought, but the idea of an inner world of unconscious conflict, and the notion that subjective experiences are meaningful and important, remain at the core of this view of human nature. Meanwhile, neurobiology — the scientific study of the physical brain — evolved in the other direction. Neuroscience focused
on the nuts and bolts of the brain: how nerve cells communicate with electrical and chemical pulses, how brains learn and calculate and remember. But neuroscience avoided subjective experiences, sticking to what it could measure and observe.

By the end of the 20th century, the two disciplines, psychoanalysis and neuroscience, did not even seem to be talking about the same thing. Psychoanalysis was hostile to the idea of testing hypotheses through experiments. Neuroscience claimed to explain the brain but ignored its
finest product: the dazzling, intimate sensations of human consciousness.
That is both a shame and an amazing intellectual opportunity, says the South African neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst Mark Solms, co-chair of the International Neuropsychoanalysis Society. Neuropsychoanalysis is his life’s project, and more than any other single person, this is his party tonight. He roams about the room, kissing women on both cheeks, bear-hugging old friends. If he seems a bit like an evangelist on the hunt for converts, it’s for good reason. Solms is convinced that reconnecting psychoanalysis and neuroscience is absolutely essential — the only way we will ever truly understand the brain.

Now, Suzanne Moore describes

Sigmund Freud as “revolutionary” and says that he is now more relevant than Marx (Forget Marx. Freud is the radical we need, 26 December). Moore is right: Freud was right and so, for that matter, was Marx, at least on certain points. But Freud really was “properly radical”, not only reclaiming dreams as “psychical phenomena of complete validity” but also, as Moore points out, hearing the voice of Dora, a patient who “refused to be an object of exchange between powerful men” (most notably, perhaps, by terminating her treatment with Freud after just 11 weeks).

Freud also decoded “the psychopathology of everyday life”, illuminating the meaning beneath apparent errors and describing such essential human habits as “motivated forgetting”. Today, when public life can seem like an infinite vortex of collective pathology and endless dysfunction, Freud is, perhaps, our surest guide, reassuring us that – at some deeper level – all of this makes sense. Here’s hoping he is right.
Source: Brendan Kelly Professor of psychiatry, Trinity College Dublin Oxford
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