Freud, the Reluctant Philosopher

Freud, the Reluctant Philosopher
Alfred Tauber
Princeton University Press, 336pp, £16.95

Alfred I Tauber's judgement, with which I wholeheartedly concur, is that Freud is the great architect of 20th-century moral sensibility. Tauber, a leading professor of philosophy and medicine in Boston, wants to rescue Freud from the narrow-minded scientism of the past few decades, "because he tapped in to the deepest sources of western identity and re-expressed its key tenets in terms that we might effectively apply to ourselves". Tauber's humanising mission could not come soon enough.

Freud's star began to wane in the 1970s when an emphasis on his poor science undermined the credibility of psychoanalysis. The almost graceful irony of the famed New Yorker jokes and the early Woody Allen films was eclipsed by a clunking rejection of Freud as a purveyor of nonsense, a fraud even.

Typically of a fuming new breed of academic thinker, Frederick C Crews, in his 1995 book The Memory Wars, blamed Freud for a corrupt therapeutic industry that persuaded adult patients to "remember" that they had been sexually abused by their parents. When the history of late-20th-century opposition to Freud is written, it will feature men like Crews, a former Freudian who felt betrayed and wanted science to compensate him. It will link also to the rise of neuroscience, to philosophers wanting to be cognitive scientists; and it will stress the perennial sexual anxiety generated by Freud's theory of the unconscious, which makes so many commentators angry. It may also stress that Freud was middle-class and from fin-de-siècle Vienna, and that he conditionally defended a bourgeois world.

Tauber, however, sees him as a "reluctant philosopher" who updated for the 20th century the Enlightenment ideal of self-knowledge as the key to a happier life and better social relations. A timeless figure, in short.

Freud was in one way his own worst enemy. A student of philosophy as well as medicine, he felt acutely "the anxiety of influence" and dissociated himself from the philosophers. He told the world and convinced himself that he was doing science. In practice, he was indebted to the Austrian philosopher Franz Brentano for getting him interested in the notion of consciousness. Consciousness was thinking, and thinking always had an object of desire, even if that object was a fantasy. Freud subsequently imagined a great intentional machine of un­conscious desires whirring away inside us - a construct that he thought could further self-knowledge if we could identify what those desires were.

Another writer-philosopher had already imagined something similar. Arthur Schopenhauer's World As Will and Representation, published in 1819, pictured human beings dominated by the animal Will to exist. This Will effortlessly co-joined individuals to the rest of creation, but left them struggling for intellectual distance and respite.

Schopenhauer's Will became Freud's Id, repository and source of all those deep needs rooted in childhood which, if we do not identify and master them, interfere with our later emotional and social success. Freud pinned his civilising project on modifying Schopenhauer's grim fatalism. He said that every personality had three components - Id, Ego and Superego - and that the last two did the corrective work. The Superego represented social expectation. In Freud's Vienna, the high level of social and sexual hypocrisy made many people mentally ill, hence the need for therapeutic practice. The true civilisation that Freud sought, however, depended on the Ego, which performed the work of Enlightenment self-scrutiny and helped individuals free themselves from social pressures.

Tauber's patient exposition of Freud's suppressed philosophical heritage becomes a tour de force when he turns back beyond Schopenhauer to Kant, surely the greatest modern philosopher of all. Supremo of the German Enlightenment, Kant believed that, physically, we are prisoners in a world whose reality we share but cannot properly know. Only morally are we free, as creators of ourselves.

Philosophers have a problem with Kant's "amphibian" view of humanity. They consider the idea that we should be part determined and part free to be sheer metaphysical invention. But isn't this just what reflective individual existence feels like? We would forfeit our humanity if we believed we could not intervene in our physical destiny. Arguably, all the reluctance to accept Freud comes down to his similarly dual view of the human condition.

The section on Nietzsche and Freud in this book is the least successful. Nietzsche demands poetic treatment, not categorisation as a "biologicist". In the concertina of names that Tauber would otherwise have extended, had he but world enough and time, Hegel and Feuerbach also stand out for more than just listing. They are the source of a reality that Freud so well understood, comprising "you and me", and stretching from its beginnings in Socrates, as Tauber does mention, to the analysand's relationship with her Freudian analyst. Nonetheless, this book is a welcome act of revisionism, and, if we are lucky, its effects will begin to trickle down once a writer comes along capable of relating its message with more brio.

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "The Secret Artist: a Close Reading of Sigmund Freud" (Quartet, £12.50) and "Nietzsche in Turin: the End of the Future" (Quartet, £10)

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza