Culture and the Freudian Ego

Part 2 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy is concerned with psychoanalytic interpretation of culture, and with Freud’s “second topography” of id, ego, and superego. Ricoeur says the first topography gave rise to a theory of culture, which in turn gave rise to the second topography, but that Freud will only achieve a unified view of culture with his late theory of the so-called death instinct. Culture will become a “battle ground” between Eros and death. At this point, Ricoeur says, psychoanalysis will turn “from science to philosophy, perhaps even to mythology” (p. 157).

Psychoanalysis is very different from transcendental reflection. “[W]hat is first for analysis is never first in reflection; the primary is not a ground. Hence we must not ask psychoanalysis to resolve questions as to root origins, either in the order of reality or in the order of value” (p. 154).

“The first topography remained tied to an economics of instinct, with instinct as the one basic concept; the division of the topography into three systems [unconscious, preconscious, conscious] was made in relation to the libido alone. The second topography is an economics of a new type: here the libido is subject to something other than itself [that manifests as culture], to a demand for renunciation that creates a new economic situation” (p. 156).

“The interpretation of culture will be the great detour that will reveal the dream model in its universal significance. Dreams will prove to be something quite other than a mere curiosity of nocturnal life or a means of getting at neurotic conflicts…. [T]hey reveal all that is nocturnal in man, the nocturnal of his waking life as well as of his sleep…. In and through man desires advance masked…. The entire drama of dreams is thus found to be generalized to the dimensions of a universal poetics…. ‘Idols as the daydreams of mankind’ — such might be the subtitle of the hermeneutics of culture” (p. 162).

Freud ends up with a “history of desire and authority. What matters in this history is the way authority affects desire” (p. 179). Beneath this and through this, Ricoeur says, a more fundamental “debate between the pleasure-unpleasure principle and the reality principle” (p. 180) will come to be presented much more clearly.

“The question of the ego, i.e. of domination, is completely different [from that of consciousness]…. The ego finds itself threatened, and in order to defend itself must dominate the situation…. [The ego is a] ‘poor creature’ menaced by three masters, reality, the libido, and conscience” (p. 182). “The value of all the psychoanalytic investigations concerning the moral phenomenon stems from the fact that man’s relation to obligation is first described in a situation of weakness, of nondomination” (p. 183).

“[W]e cannot go very far in describing the functions of the superego without appealing to the history of their constitution” (p. 184). “Will such an analysis be rejected because it views conscience not as a primal given but as something to be deciphered through the screen of the clinical? The advantage of the Freudian ‘prejudice’ is that it begins without taking anything for granted: by treating moral reality as an a posteriori reality, constituted and sedimented, Freud’s analysis avoids the laziness that is part of any appeal to the a priori” (p. 185). “Thought that begins by rejecting the primordial givenness of the ethical ego has the advantage of placing the whole focus of attention on the process of the internalization of the external” (p. 186). “[P]sychoanalysis, having made a dogmatic beginning, renders its own explanation increasingly problematic in proportion as it puts it to use” (p. 187).

Psychoanalytic Interpretation

In part 1 of book 2 of Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur begins to discuss the various stages in the development of psychoanalytic interpretation, covering the posthumously published 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology” and the “first topography” of unconscious, preconscious, and conscious “systems” from The Interpretation of Dreams and related papers. Ricoeur quotes Freud saying he hoped via the route of medicine to arrive at his “original objective, philosophy” (p. 86n).

As of the 1895 “Project”, Freud was mainly concerned to apply physical concepts of conservation of energy and inertia to neurology, but even there, Ricoeur says a concern for interpretation was not absent, and the use of physical concepts was actually metaphorical. “Nothing is more dated than the explanatory plan of the ‘Project’, and nothing more inexhaustible than its program of description” (p. 73). Everything is expressed in terms of “quantities” of energy stored in neurons (“cathexis”), but the quantities are purely intensive and qualitatively described, rather than measured or subjected to mathematical laws. Freud associates discrimination between the real and the imaginary with a kind of inhibition. Breaking with the dominance of brain anatomy, he had already criticized then-orthodox theories of the localization of psychic functions to different parts of the brain. Ricoeur says the “Project” is already a topography like Freud’s later topographies, and clinical interpretation actually takes precedence over mechanical explanation.

The Interpretation of Dreams develops what Ricoeur calls a topographic-economic view. Anatomy is left behind once and for all, in favor of a distinctly psychological level of explanation. This time Freud starts from clinical interpretation and works toward a theory. Instead of cathected neurons, he speaks of cathected ideas. Dreams are understood through language, through a narration of their content. Dreams are said express a kind of thought, and sometimes also a kind of wishes. They show a kind of regression to an “indestructible” layer of infantile desire. Freud insists they are meaningful and not, e.g., just some kind of psychic garbage collection. Dreams illustrate the primary process of the unconscious, which includes operations of condensation and displacement of meaning. They perform what Freud calls “work” on meaning. Ricoeur says it is inverse to the analyst’s work of deciphering. He notes that Freud contrasts his own notion of interpretation as deciphering with notions of symbolic or allegorical interpretation.

The topographic-economic approach was further developed in papers from Freud’s middle period. The way we make inferences about the unconscious, Freud said, differs little from the way we make inferences about the consciousness of others. By this point, Ricoeur says, consciousness for Freud “far from being the first certitude, is a perception, and calls for a critique similar to Kant’s critique of external perception” (p. 120; emphasis in original). In this respect, I would point out, Freud also essentially recovered the perspective of Aristotle on what the moderns call consciousness.

On a more distinctly Freudian note, Ricoeur adds that “The question of consciousness has become the question of becoming conscious, and the latter, in great part, coincides with overcoming resistances” (ibid).

Ricoeur says Freud develops a “reduction” opposite to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction — a reduction of consciousness, instead of a reduction to consciousness. This approach “implies that we stop taking the ‘object’ as our guide, in the sense of the vis-à-vis of consciousness, and substitute for it the ‘aims’ of the instincts; and that we stop taking the ‘subject’ as our pole of reference, in the sense of the one to whom or for whom ‘objects’ appear. In short, we must abandon the subject-object problematic” (p. 122). “From now on the object is defined in function of the aim, and not conversely” (p. 123). “Not only are this and that object interchanged, while subserving the same aims, but also the self and the other, in the reversal from active to passive role” (p. 125). Once again, Freud seems to have unwittingly recovered an Aristotelian insight, this time concerning the priority of ends over subjects and objects in processes of constitution. “The history of the object is the history of the object function, and this history is the history of desire itself” (p. 126).

“[T]he ego itself is an aim of instinct” (p. 127). Freud is quoted as having later said that “The theory of the instincts is so to say our mythology” (p. 136). Instincts “represent or express the body to the mind” (p. 137). We are “always in the mediate, the already expressed, the already said” (pp. 140-141). “Psychoanalysis never confronts us with bare forces, but always with forces in search of meaning” (p. 151).

Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis

At the beginning of book 2 of Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur lays out the plan for the rest of the work. As I guessed, he says the final result will be a much more reconciling view, but he thinks it is important to first lay out the potential conflict between psychoanalysis and other hermeneutics in a very stark way, before successively tempering it through several layers of further considerations. The initial stark reading “governs the ascesis of that narcissism that wishes to be taken for the true Cogito. Hence this reading and its harsh schooling will not be retracted but rather preserved in the final reading” (p. 60). Nonetheless, the opposition will be greatly refined. “The whole movement of this book consists in a gradual readjusting of that initial position…. In the end it may seem that… Freud is nowhere because he is everywhere” (pp. 59-60; see also Conflicting Hermeneutics.)

Conflicting Hermeneutics

Returning to Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy, the leading conclusion of book 1 is that “the home of meaning is not consciousness but something other than consciousness” (p. 55). A bit earlier, he develops an important notion of “reflection” he sees as rooted in Fichte, and perhaps more specifically the work of the French Fichtean Jean Nabert.

Reflection, he says, requires a work of deciphering; it is not a “return to the so-called evidence of immediate consciousness…. [R]eflection is not intuition” (p. 47). The Ego Cogito of Descartes is “given neither in a psychological evidence, nor in an intellectual intuition, nor in a mystical vision…. [I]t has to be ‘mediated’ by the ideas, actions, works, institutions, and monuments that objectify it” (p. 43). “A reflective philosophy is the contrary of a philosophy of the immediate…. [A] philosophy of reflection is not a philosophy of consciousness, if by consciousness we mean immediate self-consciousness” (pp. 43-44).

Such a mediation-first perspective is rare among existential-phenomenological thinkers, and seems to me to mark a significant advance, reconnecting with a key insight of Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

Earlier, he had stipulated what to me is a very narrow meaning for “interpretation”, tied to a clarification of the notion of symbols he had used in Symbolism of Evil. (My own usage of “interpretation” is closer to Ricoeur’s “reflection”.) He wants to say that a “symbol” is a discrete thing that has a double meaning — an immediate surface one and a deeper one — and that “interpretation” is specifically directed at such symbols. He objects to Ernst Cassirer’s very general use of “symbol” for any kind of signification in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, and distances himself from the broad but shallow usage of “interpretation” in Aristotle’s treatise that bears that name, pointing out that like Cassirer’s use of “symbol”, it covers all signification. (He doesn’t mention here that Aristotle’s own deeper hermeneutics — or semantic dialectic — is to be found distributed through other works.)

I have significant reservations about a division into “immediate surface meaning” and meaning requiring interpretation. I think all meaning at least implicitly requires interpretation. For me, the relevant distinction is between cases where we rely on spontaneous, preconscious interpretation from something like the preconscious layer of Kantian synthesis, and cases that we deliberately revisit.

He devotes some pages to contrasting mathematical (“symbolic”) logic’s concern for strict univocity with the ambiguity inherent in the symbols addressed by the phenomenology of religion. Here he seems to be reaching for an understanding that reason can still be reason yet not be strictly univocal, because (I would say) reality itself “overflows”, and is not strictly univocal. At least for me, this goes far beyond a statement about symbols.

He presents psychoanalysis and the phenomenology of religion as two radically opposed kinds of hermeneutics. Here he explains the “fullness of language” referred to at the end of Symbolism of Evil by saying “The fullness consists in the fact that the second meaning somehow dwells in the first meaning” (pp. 30-31). From this perspective, there is a “truth” of symbols. Symbols have a “revealing power” (p. 31). For Ricoeur, the phenomenology of religion takes this approach, whereas psychoanalysis tells us that conscious meaning is just an illusion. Psychoanalysis for Ricoeur develops its own “semantics of desire” in opposition to what is said on the surface.

At this point, I have a serious doubt whether the specific emphasis on symbols is appropriate in talking about Freud. It does undoubtedly have a large applicability to Jung, but we are not talking about Jung here. Freud’s approach was much more global and process-oriented. The Freudian unconscious has operations of “condensation” and “displacement” that are very different from waking logic.

I think Freud’s negative attitude toward religion had less to do with any specifics of psychoanalytic interpretation than with his more general commitment to rather narrow views of scientific explanation that were especially common among medical practitioners in his time.

I also think there is a kind of “truth” of the unconscious that can even be revelatory, though not in a religious sense. Further, I don’t think Freud intended to consign all products of conscious effort to a realm of illusion; his very commitment to a form of science makes this implausible. So, in this context I don’t see the extreme opposition of revelation versus illusion that Ricoeur saw — contrast, yes, but not a polar opposition.

Moreover, the phenomenology of religion is concerned with specifically religious experience under the broad motif of “faith seeking understanding”, whereas the direct and primary concern of psychoanalysis is with the earthly doings of the human psyche. I don’t see the kind of head-on clash here that Ricoeur apparently saw. I have reservations about various details of Freud’s theories, but think his fundamental idea of the unconscious and its different way of processing things is very important. Ricoeur’s own remarks about consciousness that I began with seem to me to allow space for this.

At the end of book 1, he asks, “Can the dispossession of consciousness to the profit of another home of meaning be understood as an act of reflection, as the first gesture of reappropriation?” (p. 55). “For the moment our perplexity is great. What is offered to us is a three-term relation… reflection, interpretation understood as restoration of meaning, interpretation understood as reduction of illusion” (p. 56). I think both “restoration” and “reduction of illusion” are overly blunt formulations here, but suspect he will refine this later on. (See also Hermeneutics and Psychoanalysis; Ricoeur on Freud; Masters of Suspicion?; Kerygma; Myth.)

Kerygma

The term “kerygma”, used by Ricoeur in discussing hermeneutics, was a Greek New Testament word. The influential 20th century theologians Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth — both referred to by Ricoeur — used it for the message of the Gospels, which Bultmann considered as addressed not to theoretical reason but to “the hearer as a self”. This sort of language resonates with the perspectives of Ricoeur’s mentor Gabriel Marcel.

Bultmann applied a kind of Heideggerian hermeneutics to the New Testament, and developed a sort of Christian existentialism. He contrasted kerygma with myth, and argued for a “demythologizing” view. I don’t know his work well, but have issues with his apparent opposition to an emphasis on ethics and to historical research.

I regard “theoretical” reason merely as a valuable tool used or usable by our everyday ethical reason, which I don’t quite regard as a self, but rather as associated with what we care about and how we act on that. There is, however, only a short distance from this to Ricoeur’s idea of a Self as an ethical aim rather than an actuality. I read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel among others as identifying Reason in general first and foremost with the much broader and more “human” or spiritual ethical reason, rather than the narrow “theoretical” reason, which I see as closer to technical reason and formal logic. With this emphasis on ethical reason, it seems to me Bultmann’s dichotomy is superseded. In my view, hermeneutics applies not just to a sacred text, but first and foremost to our understanding of life and ourselves. I also take it to include a good deal of questioning.

Masters of Suspicion?

In his work on Freud, Ricoeur famously identified Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud as the three great “masters of suspicion”. Many others have picked up on this phrase, often using it in a dismissive way. While Ricoeur certainly had significant criticisms of all three of these figures, in the Freud book he also credits them with pioneering a valuable alternative approach to hermeneutics. This seems worthy of a longer than usual quotation.

“According to the one pole, hermeneutics is understood as the manifestation and restoration of a meaning addressed to me in the manner of a message, a proclamation, or as is sometimes said, a kerygma; according to the other pole, it is understood as a demystification, as a reduction of illusion…. From the beginning we must consider this double possibility: this tension, this extreme polarity, is the truest expression of our ‘modernity’. The situation in which language today finds itself comprises this double possibility, this double solicitation and urgency: on the one hand, purify discourse of its excrescences, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all; on the other hand, use the most ‘nihilistic’, destructive, iconoclastic movement so as to let speak what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared anew, when meaning was at its fullest. Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience. In our time we have not finished doing away with idols and we have barely begun to listen to symbols. It may be that this situation, in its apparent distress, is instructive: it may be that extreme iconoclasm belongs to the restoration of meaning” (Freud and Philosophy, p. 27).

Ricoeur on Freud

Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation is based on 1961 lectures given at Yale. It takes up “the problem left unresolved at the end of my Symbolism of Evil, namely the relationship between a hermeneutics of symbols and a philosophy of concrete reflection” (p. xii). The phrasing suggests that he at this time viewed hermeneutics as a “regional” endeavor and not yet as a general philosophical approach, but the current work goes a long way toward generalizing it.

In respect to Freud, it is both a critique and a positive engagement, philosophical rather than psychological. He will read Freud as a “monument of our culture”. Psychoanalysis, says Ricoeur, is an interpretation of culture, but he reads it as conflicting with every other interpretation. This work will inquire into the nature of psychoanalytic interpretation, the self-understanding that emerges from it, and “what self is it which thus comes to self-understanding” (ibid).

Ricoeur says that language is the meeting ground of contemporary philosophical concerns. Sixty years later, this is still largely true. “The present study in no way pretends to offer the comprehensive philosophy of language we are waiting for. I doubt moreover that such a philosophy could be elaborated by any one man. A modern Leibniz with the ambition and capacity to achieve it would have to be an accomplished mathematician, a universal exegete, a critic versed in several of the arts, and a good psychoanalyst.. While we are awaiting that philosopher of integral language, perhaps it is possible for us to explore some of the key connections” (p. 4). Since then, I think Brandom has made phenomenal strides toward that comprehensive account.

Psychoanalysis should be “a leading participant in any general discussion about language…. The fluctuation in Freud’s writings between medical investigation and a theory of culture bears witness to the scope of the Freudian project” (ibid). Though Ricoeur limits his focus to the works of Freud himself, right at this time Jacques Lacan was becoming very famous in France for promoting a strongly language-centered reading of Freud.

Myth

This is to conclude the sequence on Ricoeur’s Symbolism of Evil, and also the larger one on his multi-volume philosophy of will, continued from Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man. The last three-fifths of the current book is devoted to a study of selected topics related to Near Eastern creation myths, Greek tragedy, the myth of the Fall, and Orphic myths of the exiled soul. While any or all of these are potentially interesting, I don’t find much to say about the particular details covered. This work does have the merit of combining a sort of phenomenology-of-religion style discourse with a broad ethical concern. After the brilliance of Fallible Man, though, it seems anticlimactic.

At the end, he reaches the somewhat lacklustre conclusion that “symbols give rise to thought”, and very briefly expands on this. “[T]he task of the philosopher guided by symbols would be to break out of the enchanted enclosure of consciousness of oneself, to end the prerogative of self-reflection. The symbol gives reason to think that the Cogito is within being, not vice versa” (p. 356; emphasis in original). Except for the part about symbols, these are familiar Ricoeurian ideas, but they do not play much of a role in the main body of the current work.

He says philosophy cannot do without presuppositions. I agree we can’t doubt everything all at once. He says it should start from the “fullness of language”, seek a “second immediacy” and a “second naivete”. I do see ethical value in a degree of deliberate “naivete” that deliberately chooses to give the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, I think immediacy is divided into mere appearance of things that are actually mediated; a trivial quality of appearance qua appearance; and a sort of obscure insistence or resistance that may point out something wrong with our thinking. Fullness of language is just an isolated phrase here; I believe it was discussed a bit in one of the earlier volumes, but can’t find the passage right now. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?; Fallible Humanity; Self, Infinity; Symbolism of Evil?; Fear and Suffering; Guilt.)

Guilt

Ricoeur says the notion of sin is first of all the violation of a personal bond that involves “not essence but presence”. This is “from beginning to end… a religious dimension and not a moral one” (p. 52). His gloss of guilt as a consciousness of sin (p. 81) suggests that guilt is also not a moral concept and not related to essence. I think of guilt as a legal concept rather than an ethical one; Ricoeur’s train of thought suggests it is also ultimately religious. It seems to me what goes beyond positive law should be love and forgiveness, but Ricoeur briefly shows an overly diplomatic deference to what I would call the unholy idea of a supra-essential and supra-ethical command.

I’m also a bit nervous about a privileging of presence over essence, and about the work that presence is supposed to be doing.

Essence has often been denigrated, and some very shallow notions of it have been propounded. But insofar as we use that word to translate Plato and Aristotle, I treat their works as the gold standard for what it ought to mean. Problems arise when in opposition to Plato and Aristotle, so-called essences are assumed to be simply known, and thus taken for granted. Husserl had a different, thinner, perhaps even overly precise, almost mathematical notion of essence, adapted to a different context, aiming to be as abstract as possible, whereas I think even Plato and especially Aristotle aimed much more at the concrete.

Ricoeur speaks of a “realism of sin” (pp. 81ff) in the sense that sin is not fully captured by the consciousness of even the repentant sinner. This seems sound, but I’d still rather talk about justice and love than sin and guilt.

“There is no question of denying that the personal imputation of fault marks an advance over the scandalous collective responsibility that permits someone other than the guilty person to be punished. But it must be understood that the price of this advance is the loss of the unity of the human species…. The pseudo-concept of original sin is only the rationalization at the third degree, through the Adamic myth, of that enigmatic bond which is acknowledged rather than understood in the ‘we’ of the confession of sins” (p. 84). Now we seem to have divine blessing of a social bond among all of us talking animals rather than a supra-intelligible command, and I am happy again.

Fault should not be reduced to guilt (p. 100). We are “responsible and captive” (p. 101; emphasis in original). “[M]an had the consciousness of responsibility before having the consciousness of being cause, agent, author” (p. 102). This may begin to anticipate the need for something like the expanded notion of responsibility that Brandom has developed in his work on Hegel. Ricoeur says the recognition of individual responsibility and of degrees of guilt were decisive steps forward.

He stresses a paradoxical character of the “servile will” that is both free and in bondage. I don’t see any paradox in this. The reality just is that we have meaningful freedom, but it is far from total. Aristotle already pointed the way, and Ricoeur himself explained it very well in Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man.

Fear and Suffering

This is a response to a few more pages of Ricoeur’s The Symbolism of Evil. I was initially greatly troubled by the statement, “Man enters into the ethical world through fear and not through love” (p. 30). I prefer the spirit of Augustine’s “Love, and do as you will”, and really dislike that fear and trembling stuff. A few pages later, though, Ricoeur already begins to sublimate the emphasis on fear.

Historically, there have been tendencies to confuse unintelligible suffering with personal punishment by God. (Less diplomatically than Ricoeur, I would associate these with superstitious, unethical forms of religion.) The lesson of Job was a separation of “the ethical world of sin from the physical world of suffering” (p. 32). “[S]uffering has had to become absurd and scandalous in order that sin might acquire its strictly spiritual meaning. At this terrible price, the fear that was attached to it could become the fear of not loving enough and could be dissociated from the fear of suffering and failure” (ibid).

Ricoeur goes on to say that the lingering symbolism of defilement “furnishes the imaginative model” (p. 34) for a transposition from a ritual purification or catharsis into a philosophical one. “It is not the immediate abolition but the mediate sublimation of fear… which is the soul of all true education.” (p. 44; emphasis in original). I still prefer to emphasize seeking the good, but the argument now seems headed in a better direction.