Ricoeur on Psychoanalysis

The concluding book of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy aims at a reconciliation of two contrasting approaches in hermeneutics — demystifying and kerygmatic — that would be not merely eclectic but genuinely dialectical. He suggests on the one hand that faith ought to be entirely compatible with a sharp critique of idols, and on the other that Freud never adequately considered how his late concept of Eros and its sublimations could be legitimately reconnected with notions of spiritual love.

He develops a bit further his earlier contrast between a “philosophy of consciousness” and a “philosophy of reflection”. A philosophy of consciousness grounds a false Cogito on the immediacy of consciousness. A philosophy of reflection on the other hand pays attention to the always mediated character of experience, and to subjectivity as something that is constituted as well as constitutive. It therefore decenters subjectivity. Ricoeur argues that Husserl as much as Freud considered subjectivity as something constituted.

At the same time, Ricoeur in this work still wants to speak of a true Cogito of reflection, and in this context wants to distinguish between immediate consciousness and the “living self-presence” to which Husserl appealed. Although Ricoeur does not say it, it seems to me that Husserl’s living self-presence is supposed to be precisely a kind of non-empirical (i.e., transcendental) immediate consciousness. I think on the contrary that the transcendental is all mediation, and hold what I take to be a Kantian position that feelings of living presence or self-presence belong on the side of introspective appearance that is ultimately empirical rather than transcendental.

Ricoeur notes that for Freud, it is more a question of “it speaks” rather than “I think”.

He thinks there is an ambiguity in Freud between primitive, sub-linguistic and transcendental, supra-linguistic concerns, so that symbolic meaning expressing poetic or spiritual truth is not clearly separated from something like word play. This goes back to his earlier concern with the phenomenology of religious symbols. I actually think that word play can serve as an indirect expression of poetic or spiritual truth, but then I also think spiritual truth is inherently “poetic”.

In spite of criticizing (the old stereotype of) Hegel for claiming a sort of omniscience, Ricoeur suggests that Hegel’s phenomenology, with its distinction between Consciousness and Spirit and its discussions of the relation between Spirit and desire, provides a “teleology” complementary and inverse to Freud’s “archeology” of subjectivity. For this to be a truly dialectical relation, he says, each must contain a moment approximating the other, and he thinks that in fact they do.

He also connects Freud’s work with Spinoza’s critique of consciousness and free will; Leibniz’s theories of unconscious perception; and Kant’s simultaneous assertion of a transcendental idealism and an empirical realism. Freud’s “topographies” are associated with a kind of realism in this Kantian sense.

For Ricoeur’s Freud, life and desire always have an unsurpassable character. Because of this, a relation to reality is always a task, not a possession. What ultimately distinguishes psychoanalysis, Ricoeur says, is not just the idea that we have motives of which we are ignorant, but Freud’s account of the resistance of an always somewhat narcissistic ego and the corresponding extended work of overcoming it. This relates directly to the idea of reality as a task. “We did not regard this realism as a relapse into naturalism, but as a dispossession of immediate certitude, a withdrawal from and humiliation of our narcissism” (p. 432). “It is one and the same enterprise to understand Freudianism as a discourse about the subject and to discover that the subject is never the subject one thinks it is” (p. 420).

“I consider the Freudian metapsychology an extraordinary discipline of reflection: like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but in the opposite direction, it achieves a decentering of the home of significations, a displacement of the birthplace of meaning. By this displacement, immediate consciousness finds itself dispossessed to the advantage of another agency of meaning — the transcendence of speech or the emergence of desire…. We must really lose hold of consciousness and its pretension of ruling over meaning, in order to save reflection” (p. 422). What Ricoeur called reflection and will, I give the more classical name of Reason.

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.)

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.