An Essay Evolves / Freud as Icon
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Freud as Icon

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 4 months ago

In my session with Maria the other day, she suggested that it would be interesting to hear something about why Freud deserves his status as psychological icon. As the essay is short, I am trying somehow to work an appreciation of this into the essay's fabric rather than devote an extra section to it. So here I go!



Why is Freud an iconic figure in psychology?

In talking about personality it seems helpful to first agree on what is meant by the term. Attractive, popular individuals are sometimes said to have a lot of personality or a good personality. This points to personality as being some kind of socially adaptive attribute. Indeed, the term ‘personality’ is derived from per sonare, a sound-hole in the mask worn by players in classical theatre. Yet Freud was apparently interested in more than this consensual façade. By ignoring the term ‘personality’ in favour of the expression ‘character’, he showed that he was directing his explorations at something more fundamental, namely the existence of an ultimate, unvarnished motive force powering human action. At the same time, through his ongoing concern with developing effective therapeutic interventions, he demonstrated an awareness of the need for a person to be a useful member of society. Famously, he defined the optimum state of health as being that where the individual could love and work, with neither abuse nor abdication of power.  
Love and work seem to be high functions indeed, signs of humankind at its best. Through the course of his lifetime, Freud repeatedly dared to remove successively layered masks of civilization, suggesting ultimately that, “Persons are partitioned systems powered by biological energies.” No more than that. More specifically, he hypothesized that what drives humankind is the dualistic motivation of sexual and aggressive energy (eros and thanatos). Through Freud, the cultured artist and rational scientist alike are revealed as a seething morass of near-unbearable antediluvian desires. These ‘partitioned systems’ are concerned with the gratification of their desires, through this the discharge of tension, and ultimately with attaining the permanent equilibrium associated with death. Art, science, sport, love, work and play are fringe benefits; the products of a mature, functional personality able to transmute the primitive into the high. This is what Freud termed sublimation. Furthermore, much of this alchemic personality operates in a place outside conscious awareness.
Like Leonardo da Vinci, his best known autobiographical subject, Freud was a cultural outsider. Even today his work, though extraordinarily influential, is not regarded as exactly mainstream and is even viewed with a certain amount of hostility. Perhaps the suggestion that man’s true nature is base rather than inherently sublime accounts for some of this – there’s a certain temptation to shoot the messenger. Also, the notion that behaviour is less than wholly rational in motivation is for some unpalatable, although unconscious cognition was not a novel idea even in Freud’s early career. Helmholtz, as far back as 18XX, acknowledged an unconscious component in visual perception. Freud’s unique contribution was to take the concept of unconscious processing and develop it into the theory of a dynamic unconscious, whose nature is determined by drives, wishes and ideas removed from conscious awareness (through the psychological defences of denial and repression, the essence of the partitions referred to earlier). This unconscious is not passive, but rather an active determinant of everyday motivation. Freud likened it to the hidden bulk of a large iceberg, ready to disrupt the smooth voyage of quotidian behaviour. This pessimistic view of unconscious processing is undoubtedly sinister and alienating, although understandably so given that it is derived from the observation of psychologically unhealthy patients. Had Freud lived in the late 20th century, he might have been inspired to a more cheerful account by the counter-example of jet fighter pilots who demonstrate that the unconscious can enhance as well as disturb conscious functioning.
Contemporary critics of Freud have suggested that his view of human nature may be due to this kind of socio-cultural artefact and is therefore invalid. This may be so. Freud himself, though, would probably have enjoyed the suggestion that people and society then may well have been like that, but nowadays everything is certainly different. However, news reports of inexplicable violence, or a trip to a buffet restaurant where well-nourished affluent consumers frantically pile plates with food they won’t finish indicate the persistent need for a psychological explanation of the irrational. Freud’s account endures because of its comprehensive nature and because he based it on real, observable phenomena, some of which still exist in modern society. Ironically, it also endures because of what is often viewed as its single most significant flaw; its apparent failure to generate predictions which are falsifiable by scientific experimentation. This shields it from definitive rejection, but has also to an extent preserved it in aspic. Though popular in the arts and humanities, Freudian theory has been viewed by scientists as moribund.


It seems rather harsh to single out psychoanalysis for this kind of criticism when the lack of a solid evidential base has long been a characteristic of medicine as a whole. Although the concept of evidence-based medical practice has existed for centuries, it has only recently become the gold standard. “Evidence-based medicine/healthcare is looked upon as a new paradigm, replacing the traditional medical paradigm which is based on authority.Medicine is an evolving discipline, and under the influence of the evidence based paradigm is moving from art to science. Freud likewise developed his theory in the hope that future scientific innovation would validate it. It can't legitimately be said that a theory is unfalsifiable and unscientific if nobody has seriously taken the trouble to assess it in this way. The next section of the essay will examine the extent to which this has been the case with psychoanalysis.


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