Freud's Philosophical Challenges

08 January 2019

Last month, I started a new series of essays on Freud as a philosopher. This month, I want to lay out some of the perplexing philosophical issues that Freud and his intellectual community were confronted with towards the end of the nineteenth century, and how they grappled with them. You simply can’t properly understand Freudian theory, or appreciate Freud’s philosophical originality, without knowing what these issues were and how Freud addressed them.

One of the most central of these was the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem is one of the traditional topics in the branch of philosophy known as philosophy of mind. Unlike many philosophical problems, it’s an easy one to describe. All of us have bodies, and all of us have minds. But what’s the relation between these two things? A bit more precisely, what’s the relation between states of our bodies—in particular, that bodily organ called the brain—and the states of our minds?

For most philosophers, thinking about the mind-body problem is little more than an engaging pastime, but for nineteenth century scientists of the mind there was a lot hanging on solving it. They were trying to figure out just what role brain processes played in explaining our experiences and behavior. They were, on the whole, philosophically sophisticated researchers (much more sophisticated, alas, that most scientists are today). They understood that doing philosophy is an inextricable part of doing science.

Most introductory texts on the philosophy of mind begin with the mind-body problem, because it’s been so important historically. In fact, they usually begin with a chapter on the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes. Descartes is important in this connection because he’s closely associated with a take on the mind-body problem known as substance dualism. Substance dualism is the view that there are two kinds of things in the universe, physical things and non-physical things. If you were a dualist and were taking inventory of every kind of thing in the universe, you might divide your list into two columns—one labelled “physical” and the other labelled “non-physical”—lots of everyday objects such as carrots, rocks, cars, and human bodies would fall under the first column. But the second column wouldn’t be blank. It might contain things like God, angels, ghosts and, importantly, human minds.

Descartes thought that people are compounds of bodies and minds, and that bodies and minds interacted with each other to produce experiences and behaviors. He didn’t invent dualism, but he formulated it clearly and argued for it in ways that seemed quite persuasive at the time.

Descartes’ brand of dualism had a lot of problems, but to very many people dualism seemed to be the only game in town. The world of subjective experience—of consciousness, feeling, and thought—just seemed so overwhelmingly different from physical states of a physical brain that it seemed crazy to deny that they take place in radically different metaphysical realms.

However, by the middle of the 19th century, dualism was coming under a lot of pressure from developments in the sciences. In particular, the emergence of the new discipline neuroscience seemed to challenge the assumption that the human brain and the human mind were two different (albeit interrelated) things. The challenge was especially acute in the sub-field of aphasiology, which investigated disturbances of language production or comprehension caused by damage to the brain.Ever since Descartes, our capacity for language had been held up as proof that the human mind just can’t be some part of the material world. But the 19th century aphasiologists were discovering that the language capacity is, at the very least, intimately bound up with that squishy globe of nerve tissue between our ears.

Even though scientific progress (not just in neurology, but also in biology and physics) was casting more and more doubt on the dualist assumption, most philosophers and scientists clung onto it for dear life. The alternative—that human minds just are human brains--seemed unthinkable. How could a purely physical thing, a living piece of meat, have hopes and dreams and thoughts and fears?  

By the closing decades of the century, aphasiology had become a vibrant interdisciplinary nexus, comparable to cognitive science in the late twentieth century. It was, in the words of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “the intellectual and practical center of neurology but also the focus for scientists and philosophers interested in the field that was to become psychology.” 

This is where Sigmund Freud entered the picture. Freud was trained as a neurologist, and included aphasiology among his particular research interests. As a young researcher, he even wrote a book about aphasia (his very first book), which was published in 1891 and was highly regarded well into the twentieth century. Freud had almost certainly encountered the mind-body problem in the philosophy classes and readings from his university days, but the study of aphasia put it front and center for him.

Historians of psychology often say that early on, before inventing psychoanalysis, Freud adhered the mainstream view known as materialism, but later on rejected this in favor of the view that minds are distinct from brains. This couldn’t be more incorrect. A careful, philosophically nuanced reading of late nineteenth century neuropsychological writings shows that, far from being hard-nosed materialists, most of Freud’s intellectual community were dualists. And a careful reading of Freud’s early neuroscientific works shows that Freud fell in with this orthodox position.

The writings of the important British neuroscientist John Hughlings Jackson—who was a major influence on Freud—are instructive. Like most scientists of his generation, Jackson was philosophically educated (sadly, that’s no longer the case for most scientists), and was alert to the philosophical implications of scientific discoveries. He recognized that Descartes version of dualism was inconsistent with the Law of the Conservation of Energy in physics—the principle that the quantity of energy in the universe remains constant—and therefore that Descartes’ theory had to be rejected. But like many other scientists of the day, he simply traded it in for a different version of substance dualism. Jackson opted for the theory known as “psychophysical parallelism”—the thesis, derived from the seventeenth century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. It’s the weird idea that physical brains and non-physical minds don’t interact but merely run in parallel, precisely coordinated like two synchronized clocks. Jackson and others resorted to notions like this because the materialist alternative was just too challenging to seriously entertain.

There was another part of Descartes’ legacy that was giving the neuroscientists and psychologists trouble during this period: the idea that the human mind is transparent to itself. This is basically the notion that the human mind is all conscious, and therefore that we can investigate human psychology by introspection. If true, this would place psychology in a category that’s different from all the other sciences. Generally, in science, one tries to draw conclusions that are objectively true. This is only possible if there is intersubjective agreement—which is a fancy way of saying that the thing that’s being observed can be accessed by more than one person. For example, if I’m performing a chemical experiment, other people can repeat and observe what’s being done and what the result of the experiment is. They can validate my observations or hold my feet to the fire by challenging what I claim to have observed. But all of that seems impossible for a subjective method like introspection. And this raises questions about whether it’s even possible to have a science of psychology.

During the nineteenth century, evidence was piling up that the idea that human minds are transparent to themselves was just wrong. Methods of experimental psychology that relied on exposing subjects to stimuli and then having report on their experiences produced wildly inconsistent results, and observations of mental illness and the effects of brain damage demonstrated quite clearly that we don’t have access to a lot of what’s going on inside our own minds. Finally, studies of hypnotic suggestion demonstrated that our behavior can be powerfully influenced by ideas of which we are completely unaware.

Still, the idea that all cognition is conscious was hard for scientists to let go of. To do so required a paradigm-shift of major proportions. In his early years as a neuroscientist, Freud fell in with the conventional view. He believed that mind and brain were two distinct things and that all mental processes are conscious. This all changed in 1895, when he jettisoned the whole Cartesian package and moved to the view that all mental processes are processes in the brain, that all cognitive processes take place outside of consciousness, and that introspection does not give us access to what’s going on in our own minds. This was an extraordinarily radical move, and it coincided with the birth of psychoanalysis. Next month, we’ll dig into some of the details.

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, January 9, 2019 -- 9:37 AM

Wilfrid Sellars said it

Wilfrid Sellars said it pretty well, even if his comment sounds elementary. He (purportedly) said something like: philosophy is about seeing how THINGS in the largest sense of the word, HANG TOGETHER, in the largest sense of the word(s). I used to contend that Freud was a psychoanalyst and only a psychoanalyst (albeit, the father of such). But, I was being closed-minded with that view. When we consider advances in neuroscience by the likes of such as Gerald Edelman and company and the(apparently) inextricable relationships between the physiological and the psychological, we seem to have a large commonality between those sciences. William James also comes to mind as a pioneering influence. The brain is a marvelous thing, which hangs together extremely well. So, yes. The domains of psychology and philosophy also appear to have much in common, though, at times, they may seem to be at odds with one another. Ah, professional jealousy---it can do so much and accomplish so little.