On Freud's so-called "naturalism", or how to refute psychoanalysis without reading Die Traumdeutung
It is customary, when facing an English-speaking audience, to start the reading of a difficult paper with a witty remark. Unfortunately, if you remember, Freud's first example of "humor" tells the story of a rogue on his way to execution. He asks for a scarf to protect his bare neck from catching a cold (1). I come from a place where many people are putting together, if not a scaffold, at least all what is needed to eliminate psychoanalysis from the scientific scene. And I would not like to offer but a scarf.
Had Sulloway's book on Freud not been recently republished in France (2), I would not have seized the opportunity to say much about it. But the book came the last in a series of exegetic and conceptual self-proclaimed "refutations" of Freud which called the attention of the media, and, in a way, started a mild avatar of the Freud Wars. All of them were imported from this side of the pond, as Paul Auster puts it. All of them were aimed, in a concerted way, to sweep away the mystical aura in which psychoanalysis seems to float above the ground, in France, as if it were a theory immune from any rational examination, and as if psychoanalysis was stubbornely trying to escape the hard historical facts the exposition of which would ruin its clinical basis. In this context, I have no doubt that there is a link between Sulloway's endorsement of Grünbaum's critique and the new fortune of his Freud, biologist of the mind. For the only new piece of information provided by the last edition of this book is, precisely, this endorsement, justified at length in its 1992 prefatory notes.
But here, I would argue, a circle closes smoothly on itself.
For Sulloway's options, as a historian, are clearly naturalistic: to him, historical facts, even those woven into a theorical framework, must be evaluated in terms of psychosociological causality. He intends to built a "natural history of history itself", applying this methodology to the study of psychoanalysis. Actually, psychaoanalysis, Sulloway says quite laudably, cannot be the first "scientific theory" to impose upon the skeptics the history of its origin. So there certainly is a definite interest in unravelling how Freud and his followers reconstructed the past in order to mould it into patterns more compliant with their personal strategies, both in the cultural and the medical fields. According to Sulloway (it is the major thesis in his book), it led to magnifying the psychological side of psychoanalysis. Its true biological roots were deeply buried, with the odd result, always in Sulloway's view, that Freud's work turned into a dishonest form of "cryptobiology". However, cryptobiology remains biology, and, when not stolen to forgotten scientists of his time, Freud's biology is wrong. Freud, among other sins, held fast to the hereditary transmission of psychological contents (Sulloway calls it Freud's "psycholamarckism") which is a scientific folly. Hence, the psychologization of psychoanalysis, so to speak, ran into an epistemological dead-end.
But how did Freud become a traitor to the naturalistic worldview which had been his point of departure? This needs a psychosocial explanation, in Sulloway's eyes. You know in what contempt he holds literary accounts of the Freudian discovery. This contempt epitomizes the way he considers the purely cultural (and unscientific) fascination which gained so many followers to Freud. I will not elaborate on this point today.
For now comes the connection with Grünbaum's critique: any literary use of Freud's theory must first come to acknowledge that Freud was, first of all, a naturalist thinker. What else could have he been? So all what he said which does not follow this template is mere rhetorical effect. And the peculiar psychological idiom of psychoanalysis must be evaluated in the light of a naturalistic theory of mental causality. True, naturalism is not biologism: the former word, in contemporary philosophy of science only implies that the methods of natural sciences (biology being one) form, taken together, a canon for anything pretending to the status of objective knowledge. But, as Grünbaum reminds us, even if he dropped at some point the idea of grounding his discovery into biology, Freud never abandonned the ideal of a naturalistic explanation of psychopathologies built upon the model of biological explanations. With utter relish, Grünbaum then undertakes to dismantle the many non sequitur which mars Freud's clinical inductions.
So Grünbaum helps Sulloway to stretch out his sociohistorical vision of Freud into the demystification of a ill-founded therapy. By the same token, naturalistically-oriented readings of Freud (Sulloway's, Morris Eagle's, etc.) offers to Grünbaum the exegetic background needed to show out that Freud failed to abide by his own epistemological standards.
On a very simple instance, let me show how these mutually helpful naturalistic biases both disfigure Freud's argument on dreams and obfuscate its historical context.
Grünbaum's understanding of Freud's theory of dreams relies upon an important assumption: dreams are objective mental states, and Freud, in order to comply with its epistemological premises, must produce a standard causal explanation not only of their factual existence, but of their specific imagery as well. Moreover, the thematic content of the dream (with all its reasons, motives, or underlying plausible intentions) must be produced by the same desire which causes the dream to effectively occur in our sleep.
So Grünbaum holds two thesis (3).
Regarding the first thesis, Grünbaum dwells upon the first of the six counter-examples to the doctrine of dream as wishfulfillment at the end of Die Traumdeutung's chapter 4. Grünbaum ventures to say that "it would hard put to find any other few sentences in the writings of a comparably influential thinker that contain so high a density of fallacies as his ensuing passage" (5). Indeed, it is an exciting challenge to show that few writings of a thinker of Grünbaum's breadth of scope pile up in so few sentences so astounding a series of false readings and utter misconceptions.
Here is Freud's example. "One of his wittiest (witzigst) patient" dreams that she is travelling down to the country with her mother-in-law (something she had managed so far not to happen) the day after Freud had explained to her that dreams are wishfulfillments (6). To Grünbaum, on Freud's side, this amounts to saying:
All three premises do not obtain.
Nevertheless, let me reply to Grünbaum.
Refutation 1. It has two components. In Freud's view, wishes are ambivalent. So nothing logically precludes that the manifest content of the patient's dream satisfies another wish to accompany her mother-in-law. Nothing indicates such a wish in the background, but why not? More to the point, Freud fells a victim to an obvious amphibology. On one hand, the manifest dream "shows" to her patient (i.e. "represents in her own eyes") her wish that Freud should be wrong; on the other hand, the same dream "shows" to Freud (i.e. "justifies his inference") that the wish causally responsible for it is precisely the wish that he should be wrong. But the two are mutually exclusive, Grünbaum says. For one cannot consider as the result of an inference about the dream what is already present in the dream and understood as such in the patient's narrative.
Reply 1. Grünbaum's conjectures are dubious: where does he find that the theory of dreams as wisfulfilment exposed the day before ever cited the notion of ambivalence? Moreover, ambivalence is an affective state, and it is crucial to observe, in this particular case, that we have no affect. The dream is not an anxiety dream (a case dealt with later on in the book). Now, to the second point. True, the dream is exposed by the dreamer herself as an instance of a counterwish dream. But, like in all dreams of Die Traumdeutung, Freud never interprets the manifest content of the dream alone: he always pays attention to what the dreamer says about the manifest content, that is, to the spontaneous and first-hand interpretation the dreamer produces all by herself. There is nothing like a plain manifest image, upon which the dreamer would arbitrarily comment. The delineation of what is "manifest" results only from what the dreamer assumes to be so. Grünbaum totally neglects Freud's technical device, made clear in the long and decisive footnote on Artemidorus in the chapter 2 (7). Freud always declines to interpret the dreamer's narrative, lest the dreamer provide him with his or her own interpretation of the dream. So Freud's amphibology on what the dream "shows" never existed. Freud interprets not the manifest dream per se, but the signification attributed to the manifest dream by the dreamer (in the general course of the therapy): her witty way to be more than a match to him, in interpreting her dream as a lie given to Freud. What the dreams "shows" to Freud, henceforth, is something much more general, and related to his manner of interpreting her neurotic symptoms. As he says, her patient's wish is to give the lie to Freud's interpretative proneness as a whole, because she did not want to accept a disagreeable explanation of her disease he had previously offered. Writing off the context, Grünbaum radically distorts the clinical situation.
Refutation 2. Obviously, it sounds aberrant to Grünbaum that Freud might accept an inference in the form: "The dreams showed that I was wrong", hence "the patient's wish was that I should be wrong", even if the dream would actually show Freud's mistake. Here, and only here, Grünbaum mentions the rest of the dream and the painful interpretation of her symptoms the patient was not quite willing to acknowledge. But it turns out to be even more detrimental to Freud's argument, in Grünbaum's view. For as long as the cited inference is absurd, Freud is in a dire need of this supplementary repressed wish, just because he does not feel secure that the sole wish he should be wrong is enough to causally motivate his patient's vacation dream.
Reply 2. A reason logically implied by the meaning of the patient's refusal to accept Freud's interpretation (she dislikes the light thrown by Freud on the meaning of her symptoms) is now transformed into a second causal factor which must strenghten a weak first one! Not only she dislikes Freud's theory of dreams, but, so to speak, she also dislikes his theory of hysteria. Let me clarify what is at stake, for here we have a vivid example of Grünbaum's concept of the motivational causality of desire. Grünbaum assumes that there should exist, in Freud's mind, a causal link between two logically independent events (the manifest dream showing Freud being mistaken, and the wish that Freud be wrong). Unfortunately, Freud does not need to make any kind of causal inference: he only understands that if such a dream is told to him with such an explicit intention (the patient does say she had a dream contradicting Freud's theory), the very same intention not only justifies the signification the patient attributes to her dream, but suggests as well more general dispositions towards Freud as a person and a doctor dealing with neurosis the way he does. I am truly puzzled to see a logical and intentional connection between the meaning of an utterance and its dispositional context being dismembered into a causal connection eluding its very intelligibility. Is there anything so extraordinary when one takes into account not only what somebody says, but the fact that it is being said (at such and such moment)? Clearly, we have to deduce something from its role in some underlying interpersonal strategy. That is why, far from being distinct entities, the wish that Freud be wrong about dreams and the wish he should be wrong about the causes of the patient's hysteria, are the two faces of a unique intentional defensive pattern - in one word, the logically dependant facets of one "intention of repression" (Verdrängungsabsicht).
Refutation 3. Of course, that is exactly what Grünbaum abhors. The goal of all his polemic papers has always been to pound some sense into the hermeneuts' heads, so that they realize that intentionality in any form will not help, and will even destroy what they wish to preserve.
Freud, Grünbaum insists, did not intend to explain the sole content of dreams, but the fact that there are dreams (and, accordingly, the fact that they have a content). So when one motivates and rationalizes the semantic content of a dream with a wish, obviously, one explains what the images of the night meant. But it does not account for the existence of these images as such. So whence Freud draws it, that the wish he should be wrong should generate not only a dream the global meaning of which is that he should be wrong, but exactly that specific imagery of a journey to the country with his patient's dreaded mother-in-law? Worse. Why any repressed wish defined only in intentional terms would not cause a symptom, a parapraxis, or whatever, instead of this dream? You foresee here, slowly merging from the shadows in the background, the grace-stroke psychoanalysis is to be ministered with. If wishes are what we need only to explain the semantic content of psychopathological facts, not these psychopathological facts themselves, then, recovery, in psychoanalysis, is but buying a cheap way to redescribe painful mental states which may very well remain unaltered during the process of the treatment. It is a situation ripe with comic possibilities: "Before, I was sick with all my symptoms. They are still there, but now, I see them in a really new way, you know?" To admit to such naked self-deception, one would ask for some Sullowayan psychosocial etiology, to be sure. Freud being serious, we have to rule this out. But how, Grünbaum underscores, when Freud is pathetically unable to muster a single argument in defense of his wish causality? At least, he should have cited statistics about masochistic dreamers who hope to remain ill, or even (only Grünbaum's suggestion), asked whether apes have more counterwish dreams than the opponents to psychoanalysis. Finding nothing of it in Freud, Grünbaum concludes that he should not have written Die Traumdeutung the way he did: how such a well-bred naturalist like him could indulge into such a careless phrasing of his hypothesis?
Reply 3. Actually, this last refutation impieges upon Grünbaum's second thesis: for if dreams in Freud are objective mental events caused by repressed wishes, there must exist a genetic explanation going from these wishes down to the actual images in sleep; conversely, according to the dictum, sublata causa, tollitur effectus, removing the repressed wishes must lead to the suppression of dreams. Keep away from the couch, or you'll lose them all! However, having carefully selected the passages he dwells upon in order to remove all traces of the Freudian intentional idiom, Grünbaum rebuilds Freud so that he fully coincides with the official portrait of the naturalist thinker he should be. Hence his goal was not to justify an interpretative strategy of the meaning of dreams, with wishes as their raisons d'être, but to explain the factual existence of dreams endowded, God knows why, with the disturbing property of making sense under certain circumstances. But what on earth does Grünbaum read? Not a single dream in Die Traumdeutung can be severed from the dreamer's associations, nor, above all, could make sense without taking into account that it is addressed to Freud himself. I said why, let me restate it, so that Grünbaum's argument about the causal inertia of intentionality will no longer be that sanctum of invulnerability in which he seeks refuge against all odds. Freud does not interpret a dream but a dream along with its first-hand interpretation by the dreamer. It goes so far that Freud includes into the thoughts of the dream even ideas that pop out in the sole course of late free-association (i.e. thoughts coming up on the couch, not collected from the bed). To put it in a nutshell, Freudian interpretation is always an interpretation upon an interpretation. Freud's was even reluctant to accept Wilhelm Stekel's symbolic interpretation of dreams, insofar as it raised the possibility to devaluate the dreamer's associations. But it all the more demonstrates that Freud is interested in the dreamer's dispositions: the very same dispositions are being re-enacted in the process of free-association. And the are also implied in the symptom-formation process, or in the patient's typical wit, a.s.o., so that the community of meaning between these psychic formations is a sound clinical index of what takes place in the neurotic mind. As such these dispositions may not be pathological. Contrary to Grünbaum's constant mistake, dreams are not symptoms. If they turn into symptoms (such as anxiety dreams), it is for economical reasons.
Incidentally, I would just point at the following fact. Not only Freud interprets the dreamer's interpretation of her dream, but his concept of "secondary elaboration" (the fourth moment of the dream work) states that there is a defensive unconscious interpretation of the dream internal to the dream itself which makes it more likely according to the standards of common reality. Onwards and backwards, the doubling of interpretation then appears to be the crucial scheme of the interpretability of dreams. Lacan's idea of the signifyer understood as the sign of a sign, with its constant openness onto an uncomplete Other, tries to take hold of this basic intuition in formal terms. It makes transference the frame and the seal of Freud's unconscious.
No, to go back to Grünbaum's worries about the actual mental event which the dream is, it boils down to know what stuff dreams are made on. But there is a clear answer in Die Traumdeutung: they are built up with external or internal excitations in sleep, with memories from the day before, and maybe from traumatic remembrances harking back (in a disguised form) to the dreamer's childhood. No endogenous causal mechanism determines their content in a psychoanalytically relevant way. And the dreamer's disposition will manifest itself in the transference-loaded expression of what the dream means to her, seizing any opportunity in the remaining images of the night. It is not an acceptable objection to say that this understanding of Freud deprives dreams of their psychic import. For example, my opponent could say, we might very well be able to express our inner dispositions in front of a crystal ball, or a flowery heap of cowdung. So such stuff dreams are made on actually counts. But no more that to the extent it is my concern, what awakes me sexually aroused or wet with anguish. We cannot help to be deeply questionned by our dreams, whilst we can refrain from giving sense to flashes on a gypsy ball. Even so, such stuff our dreams are made on is a limit of what is psychoanalytically tractable: I have for myself my inner crystal ball or my dungheap, and the rest is silence.
Grünbaum's idiosyncratic notion of "thematic content" creates the illusion that there could be some stable descriptions of the dream image logically independent from the aspects of this image. But it annihilates the dreamer's subjectivity. The dissociation between dreams as mental objects and their meaning in the dream narrative, dissociation which is the leading thread of Grünbaum's thesis, is an exegetic fiction logically dependent on his obsession with Freud's causal vocabulary. I keep wondering at the nightmarish virtuosity with which Grünbaum handles the censor's scissors, mutilating Freud's texts from all indications contradicting his point of view: farewell to Zielvorstellungen, transference, Verdrängungsabsicht, all the legal normative idiom of Die Traumdeuntung, conveniently disposed of as a bundle of awkward metaphors. The intentionalist and teleological framework of the Dream book becomes the odd object of a negative hallucination. Having spent so many years to discard Popper's reading of Freud, Grünbaum never realizes that he traps himself into a form of reasoning in which the starting point of his critique is formulated in such a way that nothing in Freud's text or in the pratice it describes can ever give the lie to it, because pointing at the discrepancies is but showing that you do not understand the kind of causality required in sound psychotherapy, on one hand, and on the other hand, because it would endanger the immense honour made here to Freud: to have the same naturalistic conception of science than Grünbaum himself.
Let me, in my conclusive remarks, make a plea for a new twist of the historian's wish to know.
It is time, methinks, to shift for good from a chapter 7-oriented reading of the Dream book. Because this chapter evokes the famous unpublished Entwurf, in which Freud pursues an explicit naturalization of mental processes, it is read as if it would epitomize Freud's deeper intent. Six chapters of hermeneutics left us in the lurch, let us go back to the naturalist rock-bottom of his thought. Hence the stunning psychic apparatus upon which Freud speculates is more or less taken as a mean to resolve his hermeneutic ambiguities, but these ambiguities are never understood as the necessary clues for a fruitful clinical use of this apparatus.
As I have just said, Grünbaum calls Freud a "naturalist" on his own terms. These terms are clear: Freud should abide by the empirical and deductive justifications which entail nomological generalizations in the Hempelian style. But that is the kind of claim which leaves the historian aghast. "Naturalism" in 1900 Vienna could not mean what it would mean some thirty years mater, as the neo-positivist tide was about to sweep away less formal conceptions of science. Naturalism in 1900 German-speaking countries is a word still imbued with its Goethean flavor. Self was a part of Nature without the anti-introspectionnist rationale and the deliberate erasure of its moral setting which were to prevail later on (8). Of course, this reminder is not an escape to the fallacies one might actually spot in Freud. But had Grünbaum read with his usal stamina the first chapter of the Dream book, he would have identified what sort of materialistic explanations Freud rules out from the beginning, and why: they do not comprehend the reasons of the self in the definition of the explicandum. Immorality in dreams, for example, totally outreaches their scope. Once again, it is not enough to secure the truth of his doctrine. But it would extend the boundaries of the philosophical Kampfplatz: instead of a jejune "refutation" of Freud according to "his own" scientific claims, we would face a more controversial issue: is "our" naturalism a suitable frame to theorize what is at stake in Freud? And what does it reveal concerning our wishes, hopes or fears about what science might be?
Immoral dreams were not cited by chance. In the first chapter, they clearly are pivotal in Freud's argument. They resurface at the other end of Die Traumdeutung when Freud draws the ethical conclusions of his work. Do these dreams reveal a "disposition" (Anlage) of the dreamer? Freud clearly accepts this classical question. His one and only point of disagreement is that he discards the usual answer which attributes the emergence of immoral dreams to some "psychological automatism", in Maury's words (9). His argument is worth mentioning. If any mental mechanism were to account for the dreaming of immoral dream, how the immoral wishes we are blaming ourselves for could just be the logical opposite of what we want when awake? Actually, if we have immoral dreams, it is only because we feel and recognize their immorality as ours. So one good way to identify what our true wishes are is to identify what we do not want to happen. Wish, in its Freudian sense, is but counterwill. This conscious will-hidden wishes dynamics is grounded into a specific form of association: the "association par contraste" of French psychophilosophers. Freud echoes it in a great variety of concepts, such as "kontrastierenden Vorstellungen", "Kontrastgedanken", "Gegenwill" a.s.o., all of them being of course unvoluntarily representations ("ungevollte Vorstellungen"). Like the Verdrängungsabsicht aforementioned, they are unescapably intentional concepts. For what makes parapraxes so painful is the fact that they realize the very state of affairs we try to avoid. Freud's patient dreams precisely of what she intended not to happen, having even rented rooms in some distant resort to flee from her mother-in-law's company. So contrast associations are not the kind of naturalist neo-Humian associations Grünbaum expects Freud to be faithful to. They account for the fact that neurotics face their symptoms as if they were contradicting them on purpose. Even if this à-propos remains a conundrum for the conscious self, it harms it.
Let me then briefly introduce the names of Frédéric Paulhan (the promoter of contrast associations in French psychopathology) and Joseph Delboeuf, the renowned hypnotist who first intuited that the one thing you may well induce somebody to do under the influence of suggestion, is what he wishes, his or her dreams being a clue to what it is. I will not say much about them (10). But I want to contrast this effort of embedding the Dream book in its intellectual context with how Sulloway proceeds. He cites a list of names from Ellenberger's book, he does not raise a single question about the concepts those authors put forth, and he uses them all as a tool to discredit the common assumption that Freud drew the content of his theory of dreams solely from his self-analysis (11). Is it because the section of the first chapter 1 I dwell upon is replete with French quotes? Actually, these French authors may have helped Freud to distanciate himself from the German-speaking biologists Sulloway constantly cites as his cryptic sources. But as long as we have not closely read them, it is mere hermeneutic arrogance to reduce Freud's theory to Sulloway's schedule: that Freud had an personal inclination to look for the meaning of his dreams, and that he just gave it a scientific caution.
The exploration of these new historical and philosophical data is still in front of us. I reckon it will be fruitful if and only if the naturalist prejudices prevailing in actual epistemological critiques of Freud are finally confronted to their exegetic and conceptual flaws. Hopefully, it will lead to a new vision of Freud, a very different one from Grünbaum's and Sulloway's. It will detach Freud from its obvious naturalist background in neurophysiology and sexology, and link him to psychological and ethical doctrines more akin to the living flesh of psychoanalytic clinical experience.