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Archive for December, 2011

A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Your Life Cycle Stages

The Pioneer Work of Sigmund Freud

Part III

 

Freud defines religion as an illusion, consisting of “certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external and internal reality which tell one something that one has not oneself discovered, and which claim that one should give them credence.” Religious concepts are transmitted in three ways and thereby claim our belief. “Firstly because our primal ancestors already believed them; secondly, because we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from antiquity, and thirdly because it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all.”Psychologically speaking, these beliefs present the phenomena of wish fulfillment. Wishes that are the “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” Among these are the necessity to cling to the existence of the father, the prolongation of earthly existence by a future life, and the immortality of the human soul. To differentiate between an illusion and an error, Freud lists scientific beliefs such as “Aristotle’s belief that vermin are developed out of dung” as errors, but “the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization” is an illusion, simply because of the wishing involved. Put forth more explicitly, “what is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.” He adds, however, that, “Illusions need not necessarily be false.” He gives the example of a middle-class girl having the illusion that a prince will marry her. While this is unlikely, it is not impossible. The fact that it is grounded in her wishes is what makes it an illusion.

[Summarized Excerpt] The Future of an Illusion—Sigmund Freud, 1927

Introduction

 

This Blog is the third in a series of articles on the pioneer work of Sigmund Freud. It needed three parts in order to do justice to the remarkable work of this theoretical giant of the 20th Century. In Part III I review several of Freud’s written works. For those unfamiliar with Freud’s written contributions to the study of human behavior, Sigmund Freud was a prolific writer.

Combined with all his other psychoanalytic theoretical work, and considered to be the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud was indeed an extraordinary human being. Although he passed away in 1939 his contribution lives by being unparalleled in its significance to the field of human behavior.

Planned Reviews

I had originally planned to review eleven of Freud’s most important books. If I posted all of these as summarized reviews—my Blog would be 32 pages long. In deference to just how much information most people can digest at any one time, I’ve elected to review just four (and I’ll be honest—they are my favorite Freud books) out of the eleven books originally planned for review. Most of the nitty-gritty of Freud’s psychoanalytic work was covered in Part’s I and II anyway. Consequently, I’ve elected to review those books that had a larger world view of society in general, as I think most readers would be quite interested in the intellectual and sociological impact of Freud’s writings.

Consequently, I will review for the reader: The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Civilization and Its Discontents, Future of an Illusion, and Totem and Taboo.

 

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

 

Psychopathology of everyday life (1901) is one of the key texts of Sigmund Freud, who laid the basis for the theory of psychoanalysis, along with The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1910) and Ego and the Id (1923). This little book became one of the scientific classics of the 20th century and it is very important not only for psychopathology, but also for modern linguistics, semantics and philosophy.

Studying the various deviations from the stereotypes of everyday behavior, strange defects and malfunctions, as well as seemingly random errors, the author concludes that they indicate the underlying pathology of the psyche, the symptoms of psychoneurosis.

This is how Freud introduces his book:

During the year 1898 I published a short essay On the Psychic Mechanism of Forgetfulness. I shall now repeat its contents and take it as a starting-point for further discussion. I have there undertaken a psychologic analysis of a common case of temporary forgetfulness of proper names, and from a pregnant example of my own observation I have reached the conclusion that this frequent and practically unimportant occurrence of a failure of a psychic function — of memory — admits an explanation which goes beyond the customary utilization of this phenomenon.

If an average psychologist should be asked to explain how it happens that we often fail to recall a name which we are sure we know, he would probably contend himself with the answer that proper names are more apt to be forgotten than any other content of memory. He might give plausible reasons for this “forgetting preference” for proper names, but he would not assume any deep determinant for the process.

Freud believed that various deviations from the stereotypes of everyday conduct – seemingly unintended reservation, forgetting words, random movements and actions – are a manifestation of unconscious thoughts and impulses. Explaining “wrong actions” with the help of psychoanalysis, just as the interpretation of dreams, can be effectively used for diagnosis and therapy.

Considering the numerous cases of such deviations, he concludes that the boundary between the normal and abnormal human psyche is unstable and that we are all a bit neurotic. Such symptoms are able to disrupt eating, sexual relations, regular work, and communication with others.

This is the conclusion Freud makes at the end of the book:

The unconscious, at all events, knows no time limit. The most important as well as the most peculiar character of psychic fixation consists in the fact that all impressions are on the one hand retained in the same form as they were received, and also in the forms that they have assumed in their further development. This state of affairs cannot be elucidated by any comparison from any other sphere. By virtue of this theory every former state of the memory content may thus be restored, even though all original relations have long been replaced by newer ones.

 

 

Civilization and its Discontents

Civilization and Its Discontents Summary

In the introductory paragraphs, Freud attempts to understand the spiritual phenomenon of a so-called “oceanic” feeling – ‹the sense of boundlessness and oneness felt between the ego and the outside world. This feeling is “a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith.” It does not betoken an allegiance to a specific religion, but instead points to the source of religious sentiment in human beings. Churches and religious institutions are adept at channeling this sentiment into particular belief systems, but they do not themselves create it.

In general, the ego perceives itself as maintaining “sharp and clear lines of demarcation” with the outside world. This distinction between inside and outside is a crucial part of the process of psychological development, allowing the ego to recognize a “reality” separate from itself. After summarizing his previous research, Freud returns to the question of “oceanic” feeling, finding it unconvincing as an explanation of the source of religious sentiment in human beings. Instead, according to Freud, it is a longing for paternal protection in childhood that continues into adult life as a sustained “fear of the superior power of Fate.”

In Future of an Illusion, Freud lamented the common man’s preoccupation with the “enormously exalted father” embodied by God. The idea of placating a supposedly higher being for future recompense seems utterly infantile and absurd. The reality is, however, that masses of men persist in this illusion for the duration of their lives. According to Freud, men exhibit three main coping mechanisms to counter their experience of suffering in the world: 1) deflection of pain and disappointment (through planned distractions); 2) substitutive satisfactions (mainly through the replacement of reality by art); 3) intoxicating substances. Freud concludes that religion cannot be clearly categorized within this schema.

What does man wish for and aim to achieve in life? Religious belief hinges on this central question. Most immediately, men strive to be happy, and their behavior in the outside world is determined by this “pleasure principle.” But the possibilities for happiness and pleasure are limited, and more often we experience unhappiness from the following three sources: 1) our body; 2) the external world; and 3) our relations to other men. We employ various strategies to avoid displeasure: by isolating ourselves voluntarily, becoming a member of the human community (i.e. contributing to a common endeavor), or influencing our own organism. Religion dictates a simple path to happiness. It thereby spares the masses of their individual neuroses, but Freud sees few other benefits in religion. (For those of you who are curious, see how Freud’s ideas here compare to Eric Hoffer’s work in his seminal book—The True Believer.)

After looking specifically at religion, Freud broadens his inquiry into the relationship between civilization and misery. One of his main contentions is that civilization is responsible for our misery: we organize ourselves into civilized society to escape suffering, only to inflict it back upon ourselves.

Freud identifies three key historical events that produced this disillusionment with human civilization: 1) the victory of Christendom over pagan religions (and consequently the low value placed on earthly life in Christian doctrine); 2) the discovery and conquest of primitive tribes and peoples, who appeared to Europeans to be living more happily in a state of nature; and 3) scientific identification of the mechanism of neuroses, which are caused by the frustrating demands put on the individual by modern society. An antagonism toward civilization developed when people concluded that only a reduction of those demands – ‹in other words, withdrawal from the society that imposed them‹ – would lead to greater happiness [Think about the Hippie movement of the 1960’s].

Freud defines civilization as the whole sum of human achievements and regulations intended to protect men against nature and “adjust their mutual relations.” A “decisive step” toward civilization lies in the replacement of the individual’s power by that of the community. This substitution henceforth restricts the possibilities of individual satisfaction in the collective interests of law and order. Here Freud draws an analogy between the evolution of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual, identifying three parallel stages in which each occurs: 1) character-formation (acquisition of an identity); 2) sublimation (channeling of primal energy into other physical or psychological activities); 3) non-satisfaction/renunciation of instincts (burying of aggressive impulses in the individual; imposition of the rule of law in society).

Even if one of the main purposes of civilization is to bind each man’s libidinal impulses to those of others, love and civilization eventually come into conflict with one another. Freud identifies several different reasons for this later antagonism. For one, family units tend to isolate themselves and prevent individuals from detaching and maturing on their own. Civilization also saps sexual energy by diverting it into cultural endeavors. It also restricts love object choices and mutilates our erotic lives. Taboos (namely, against incest), laws, and customs impose further restrictions. Freud reasons that civilization’s antagonism toward sexuality arises from the necessity to build a communal bond based on relations of friendship. If the activity of the libido were allowed to run rampant, it would likely destroy the monogamous love-relationship of the couple that society has endorsed as the most stable.

Freud next objects to the commandment “Love thy neighbor” because, contrary to Biblical teaching, he has come to see human beings as primarily aggressive rather than loving. He first identified this instinctual aggressiveness in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and though his proposed “death drive” was initially met with skepticism, he maintains and develops the thesis here. Civilization is continually threatened with disintegration because of this inclination to aggression. It invests great energy in restraining these death instincts, and achieves this goal by installing within the individual a sort of watchdog agency, which Freud calls the super-ego, to master our desire for aggression. For Freud, the entire evolution of civilization can be summed up as a struggle between Eros and the death drive, overseen by the super-ego.

With the establishment of the super-ego comes a sense of bad conscience. Because it is internalized, the super-ego omnisciently regulates both our thoughts and deeds, whereas prior to its installation, individuals only had to submit themselves to a higher authority for punishment (such as parents) in the case of fully accomplished acts. There are two sources of guilt: 1) fear of authority and 2) fear of the super-ego. In the latter case, instinct renunciation no longer liberates the individual from the sense of internal guilt that the super-ego continues to perpetuate. By extension, civilization reinforces the sense of guilt to regulate and accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of relationships between men. It becomes a more repressive force that individuals find increasingly difficult to tolerate. Freud considers this increasing sense of guilt to be “most important problem in the development of civilization,” since it takes an enormous toll on the happiness of individuals.

In the last chapter, Freud clarifies his usage of seemingly interchangeable terms: the “super-ego” is an internal agency whose existence has been inferred; “conscience” is one of the functions ascribed to the super-ego, to keep watch over the intentions and actions of the ego; “sense of guilt” designates the perception that the ego has of being surveyed and arises from the tension between its own strivings and the (often overly severe) demands of the super-ego. It can be felt prior to the execution of the guilty act, whereas “remorse” refers exclusively to the reaction after the act of aggression has been carried out. Finally, Freud re-emphasizes the instinct of aggression and self-destruction as the single greatest problem facing civilization, as manifested in “the present time.” He ends by asking which force‹ – “eternal Eros” or his potent adversary‹ – will prevail.

The Future of an Illusion

The Future of an Illusion (Die Zukunft einer Illusion) is a book written by Sigmund Freud in 1927. It describes his interpretation of religion’s origins, development, psychoanalysis, and its future. Freud viewed religion as a false belief system.

Religion as an Instinct Restrainer

Freud attempts to turn our attention to the future that awaits human culture. In the process of developing his thought, he finds it necessary to deal with the origin and purpose of human culture as such. By human culture Freud means all those respects in which human life has lifted itself above the animal condition and in which it differs from the life of the beast.

Human culture includes, on the one hand, all the knowledge and power that men have accumulated in order to master the forces of nature, and on the other all the necessary arrangements whereby men’s relations to each other may be regulated. These two conditions for culture are not separable from one another because the existing resources and the measure by which they satisfy the desires of our instincts, are deeply intertwined. Although man forms culture, he is, at the same time, subject to it because it tames his raw instincts and makes him behave in a socially acceptable way. Thus Freud writes: “It seems more probable that every culture must be built upon . . coercion and instinct renunciation.”

Freud maintains that the essence of culture does not lie in man’s conquest of nature for the means of supporting life, but in the psychological realm, in every man’s curbing his predatory instincts. One of the instinct restrainers that man has devised to perpetuate his culture is religion. The unique aspect of religion as reflecting moral conscience was recognized by Freud as he writes of one of its functions is attempting, “. . . to correct the so painfully felt imperfections of culture.”

Religion as an Illusion

Freud defines religion as an illusion, consisting of “certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external and internal reality which tell one something that one has not oneself discovered, and which claim that one should give them credence.”

Religious concepts are transmitted in three ways and thereby claim our belief. “Firstly because our primal ancestors already believed them; secondly, because we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from antiquity, and thirdly because it is forbidden to raise the question of their authenticity at all.”

Psychologically speaking, these beliefs present the phenomena of wish fulfillment. Wishes that are the “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” Among these are the necessity to cling to the existence of the father, the prolongation of earthly existence by a future life, and the immortality of the human soul.

To differentiate between an illusion and an error, Freud lists scientific beliefs such as “Aristotle’s belief that vermin are developed out of dung” as errors, but “the assertion made by certain nationalists that the Indo-Germanic race is the only one capable of civilization” is an illusion, simply because of the wishing involved. Put forth more explicitly, “what is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.” He adds, however, that, “Illusions need not necessarily be false.” He gives the example of a middle-class girl having the illusion that a prince will marry her. While this is unlikely, it is not impossible. The fact that it is grounded in her wishes is what makes it an illusion.

Origins and Development of Religion

Freud begins by explaining religion in a similar term to that of totemism. The individual is essentially an enemy of society and has instinctual urges that must be restrained to help society function. “Among these instinctual wishes are those of incest, cannibalism, and lust for killing.” His view of human nature is that it is anti-social, rebellious, and has high sexual and destructive tendencies. The destructive nature of humans sets a pre-inclination for disaster when humans must interact with others in society. “For masses are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the individuals composing them support one another in giving free rein to their indiscipline.” So destructive is human nature, he claims, that “it is only through the influence of individuals who can set an example and whom masses recognize as their leaders that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends.” All this sets a terribly hostile society that could implode if it were not for civilizing forces and developing government.

He elaborates further on the development of religion, as the emphasis on acquisition of wealth and the satisfaction of instinctual drives (sex, wealth, glory, happiness, immortality) moves from “the material to the mental.” As compensation for good behaviors, religion promises a reward.

The topic is resumed in the beginning of Freud’s subsequent book, Civilization and Its Discontents:

“One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded–as it were, ‘oceanic’. This feeling, he adds is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.

The views expressed by the friend whom I so much honour, and who himself once praised the magic of illusion in a poem caused me no small difficulty…. From my own experience I could not convince myself of the primary nature of such a feeling. But this gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people. The only question is whether it is being correctly interpreted and whether it ought to be regarded as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion.”

Today, some scholars see the arguments set forth in The Future of an Illusion as a manifestation of the genetic fallacy, in which a belief is considered false or inverifiable based on its origin. Scholars still dispute this claim.

Psychoanalysis of Religion

Religion is an outshoot of the Oedipus complex, and represents man’s helplessness in the world, having to face the ultimate fate of death, the struggle of civilization, and the forces of nature.

He views god as a manifestation of a child-like “longing for [a] father.”  In his words “The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate [parenthetically, it is akin to the religious expression—“God works in mysterious ways], particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them.”

 

Totem and Taboo

Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics is a book by Sigmund Freud published in German in 1913 under the title Totem und Tabu: Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker.

It is a collection of four essays first published in the journal Imago (1912–13) employing the application of psychoanalysis to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. The four essays are entitled: The Horror of Incest; Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence; Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts; and The Return of Totemism in Childhood.

The Horror of Incest

The first and shortest of the four essays concerns incest taboos adopted by societies believing in totemism.

Freud uses examples mostly from the Australian Aborigines, gathered and discussed by anthropologist James George Frazer. He points out, with some surprise, that although the Aborigines do not seem to have any sexual restrictions, there’s an elaborate social organization whose sole purpose is to prevent incestuous sexual relations.

Freud discusses various ways in which the exogamy of the totem system prevents incest not only among the nuclear family, but among extended families as well. In addition, the totem system prevents ‘incest’ among members of the same totem clan who are not related by blood and considers as incest relations between clan members which could not produce children. He explains that the existence of marriage restrictions between the members of the same tribes probably goes back to when group marriages were allowed (but not ‘incest’ within a group family).

He concludes the essay with a discussion of the mother-in-law taboo, and concludes that the incestuous wishes which are repressed to the unconscious among civilized peoples are still a conscious peril to the uncivilized people in Frazer’s studies.

Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence

In this essay, Freud considers the relationship of taboos to totemism. Freud uses his concepts ‘projection’ and ‘ambivalence’ he developed during his work with neurotic patients in Vienna to discuss the relationship between taboo and totemism.

Like neurotics, ‘primitive’ peoples feel ambivalent about most people in their lives, but will not admit this consciously to themselves. They will not admit that as much as they love their mother, there are things about her they hate. The suppressed part of this ambivalence (the hate parts) are projected onto others. In the case of natives, the hateful parts are projected onto the totem. As in: ‘I did not want my mother to die, the totem wanted her to die.’

Freud expands this idea of ambivalence to include the relationship of citizens to their ruler. In ceremonies surrounding kings, which are often quite violent, – such as the king starving himself in the woods for a few weeks – he considers two levels that are functioning to be the “ostensible” (i.e., the king is being honored) and the “actual” (i.e., the king is being tortured).

Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thought

The third essay examines the animism and narcissistic phase associated with a primitive understanding of the universe and early libidinal development. A belief in magic and sorcery derives from an overvaluation of psychical acts whereby the structural conditions of mind are transposed onto the world: this overvaluation survives in both primitive men and neurotics. The animistic mode of thinking is governed by an “omnipotence of thoughts”, a projection of inner mental life onto the external world. This imaginary construction of reality is also discernible in obsessive thinking, delusional disorders and phobias.

Freud comments that the omnipotence of thoughts has been retained in the magical realm of art. The last part of the essay concludes the relationship between magic,paranormal, superstition and taboo, arguing that the practices of animistic system are scree behind which lies instinctual repression.

The Return of Totemism in Childhood

In the final essay, Freud argues that combining one of Charles Darwin’s more speculative theories about the arrangements of early human societies (a single alpha-male surrounded by a harem of females, similar to the arrangement of gorilla groupings) with the theory of the sacrifice ritual taken from William Robertson Smith located the origins of totemism in a singular event, whereby a band of prehistoric brothers expelled from the alpha-male group returned to kill their father, whom they both feared and respected. In this respect, Freud located the beginnings of the Oedipus complex at the origins of human society, and postulated that all religion was in effect an extended and collective form of guilt and ambivalence to cope with the killing of the father figure (which he saw as the true original sin).

Conclusions

 

This concludes the three-part series on Sigmund Freud. In Part III I reviewed some of the written works of this giant of the 20th Century.

I believe his work relating psychoanalysis to the larger characteristics of society to have been rather brilliant. If I remember in the years ahead very few details of Freud’s written works, I have nevertheless come away with a deeper understanding of human behavior. That is, I now realize (from his essay on Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence) that we are always ambivalent in our feelings toward other people—including those we love and are closest with.

We all project our own feelings onto others. In the modern era perhaps seeing the world in shades of gray [rather than black or white] allows us a kind of freedom not normally found among the true believers in society. It takes courage to see the world as complex, devoid of simplistic, sometimes delusional thinking patterns.

Ambivalence may be one of the prices we pay for being couragious. The reward however, in having such courage in the way we see the world in shades of gray— is mental maturity. And, mental maturity just might allow us the freedom to maintain healthy relationships for a lifetime with other people. And, as Detective Sergeant Rick Hunter used to say in the TV series Hunter (1984-1991), “It Works for Me.”

 

 

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