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).

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 Structuralism

Commenting on the work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in a 1963 lecture “Structure and Hermeneutics”, Paul Ricoeur averred that “Structuralism is a part of science, and I do not at present see any more rigorous or fruitful approach than the structuralist method at the level of comprehension which is its own” (The Conflict of Interpretations, p. 30). It can help lead the “philosophical discipline” and “meditating thought” of hermeneutics “through the discipline of objectivity, from a naive to a mature comprehension” (ibid). He nonetheless argued that in The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss generalized too far and set up false oppositions.

The structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, on which Lévi-Strauss based his methodology, investigated systems of “mutual determination, [in which] what counts are not the terms, considered individually, but the differential variations” (ibid). Saussure is quoted as saying that “in language there are only differences” (p. 32). (As a teenager in the 1970s, I was enthralled with this sort of thing, and it still influences my thought. Lévi-Strauss was my actual entry point, but fairly soon I moved on to Foucault and others, who applied a much more broadly based, less formal “difference first” outlook in historiography and philosophy. See also Difference.)

Ricoeur points out that emphasis on a purely differential concept of meaning ends up privileging what Saussure called the synchronic (“contemporaneous in time”) over what he called the diachronic (change “through time”). I would point out that if there is such a privileging, it is at the level of the determination of meaning in context, not that of the forward-moving determination of change. Saussure’s model says nothing about how change to the system of determination of differential meaning actually occurs, only that it occurs.

Ricoeur then asks how far such a model “leads us to a clear understanding of the historicity of symbols” (ibid). To me, any such understanding is rooted in the notion of context. Each historical context is tied to a time, so there is nothing at all wrong with approaching it synchronically. Such a synchronic context has many more layers than just a formal Saussurean combinatoric, but that is a different issue. Also, any singular time synchronically contains sedimentation from many different past times, as well as potential for diverse futures.

He points out that differential determination of linguistic meaning operates on an unconscious level, “more a Kantian than a Freudian unconscious, a categorial, combinative unconscious” (p. 33). So far, so good. But this “establishes between the observer and the system a relationship which is itself nonhistorical. Understanding is not seen here as the recovery of meaning” (p. 34).

I think unconscious cultural formations are as historical as anything else, and have no idea why meaning would not be involved at this level. That is by no means to claim that synchronic analysis that is also purely formal in the modern sense gives the whole story of meaning — though if well applied, it can tell us a lot.

In my current view, meaning has to do fundamentally with (embodied) form in the Aristotelian sense and all its nuances and ramifications, not with a mental state. (See also Intentionality.) I think Aristotelian form is also differentially constituted, but in a much more complex way than in the examples studied by Lévi-Strauss. I also find a difference-first perspective to be entirely compatible with Brandom’s inferentialism, which allows for far richer constructs, and explicitly focuses on meaningful content rather than purely formal combinatorics. If there is a limitation to structural analysis, it is due mainly to the purely formal character of that method, not to the fact that it looks at one historical context at a time, since any purely formal analysis can be expressed in synchronic terms.

Ricoeur correctly notes that the relation between synchronic and diachronic may be different for different kinds of discourse, but again, for better or worse, no particular relation between the synchronic and the diachronic was ever specified. Saussure simply presented them as a pair. This seems like good, principled Aristotelian minimalism or underspecification to me. Again, it is true that structural linguistics has little to say about the diachronic — about change — except that it occurs. Change is what is not explained by synchronic structure. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality; The Importance of Potentiality.)

He correctly notes that there is a large difference between interpreting something like a totemic system, and interpreting something like the Old Testament, which has many more layers of meaning. Since I associate meaning with differentiation, I also think he is right to question the value of undifferentiated talk about “the” savage mind. Lévi-Strauss’ point, though, in contrast to, e.g., Lévy-Bruhl’s theory of “primitive mentality”, was that people in tribal societies have the same basic capability for logic as modern people. The differences are in the cultural contents they have to think with, not mental capacity. This also seems right.

I eventually became disappointed myself with the rather minimal amount of meaning exhibited in Lévi-Strauss’ analyses. I agree that structural analysis is a technical tool, and not philosophy; but then, according to Aristotle, the same is true of logic, and that does not mean logic has no philosophical interest. Structural “ism” is highly polymorphous, and this label’s use has been highly disputed. The kind addressed here, closely based on structural linguistics, is probably the least philosophical. But even at that, the basic idea of a “differential” outlook is important, and the preconscious layers of Kantian synthesis are important.


In New Essays on the Human Understanding, which was a sort of very long Platonic dialogue critically discussing Locke’s landmark Essay, Leibniz took a fascinating and extremely unexpected approach to defending what he took to be the old doctrine of innate ideas that Locke had begun by rejecting. In so doing, he completely transformed its meaning.

Leibniz describes us as inhabiting (or perhaps floating on the surface of) an immense sea of tiny perceptions below the level of conscious awareness. He says that these microperceptions are always ongoing, even in sleep.

This seems to be the first major anticipation of later notions of the unconscious. Perhaps microperceptions might more accurately be called preconscious, as one might say about the Kantian synthesis of intuition, which could be considered to use Leibnizian microperceptions as part of its material. On the other hand, even the Freudian unconscious has been reinterpreted in an expansive way no longer tied to metaphors of depth and containment, which seems to mitigate the difference. (See also Kantian Intuition.)

One may imagine how unconscious microperception might be explained in terms of Leibniz’s monadology, as always-ongoing perceptions of tiny monads included by our larger monad, in his famous image of monads within monads in series without end.

Microperception in the New Essays seems to be attributed to us as natural beings. This is different from what he says about high-level apperception, which was mainly developed in the very different context of his work Principles of Nature and Grace. There, he attributed apperception to participants in what he distinguished from the realm of nature as the community of spirits subject to grace. In terms of the development being pursued here, that would mean that we have apperception as ethical beings directly concerned with normativity, whereas the hypothesis of microperceptions would belong to biological and psychological explanation that is only normative at a methodological level.

Unconscious Intellect?

If intellect in a broadly Aristotelian sense is at least partly nonpsychological and has a significant linguistic/cultural/social/historical aspect, how does the nonpsychological aspect relate to the psychological aspect?

Many 20th century authors, from Frege and Husserl to Lacan, sharply rejected the idea that thought should be approached primarily in psychological terms. Also, we should not consider the individual psyche to be like an island with unambiguous boundaries. Aristotle uses the single word ethos (the main subject matter of “ethics” in his view) both for individual acquired character and for culture. Character is a sort of micro-culture. Plato already famously compared the soul to a city.

Beatrice Longuenesse, who previously wrote a marvelous book on the Kantian transcendental deduction, recently suggested an unexpected connection between Kantian transcendental considerations and Freudian metapsychology. Meanwhile, at the end of the day, Kant ends up relatively closer to Aristotelian ethics than it would first appear. (Many scholars have debated the fine points of this, and Nancy Sherman wrote a whole book on it.) So what about an Aristotelian metapsychology?

Actually, it seems to me that Aristotle is more interested in metapsychology than in what we call psychology, and that his views on thought are better considered in this light. Frege and Husserl might part company with us here, but logically oriented criticisms of psychologism do not rule out all uses of metapsychology (or even psychology, for that matter).