Philosophical Freud

06 December 2018

Last month, a great philosopher passed away at the age of 95. Adolf Grünbaum was something of a living legend. Perhaps the finest philosopher of science of his generation, and recipient of accolades the world over, Grünbaum was founding director of the world-renowned Center for the History Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, where he remained for nearly sixty years.

One of Grünbaum’s many outstanding achievements was his critical interrogation of psychoanalysis from the perspective of the philosophy of science. It was in this context that I first met him. I was at the time a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and Freud scholar who was transitioning into a new identity as a philosopher, and I had great respect for Adolf’s deep and broad understanding of Freud’s thinking, which was far more profound than that of many Freudians. We became good philosophical friends, and he even invited me—then a philosophical neophyte—to come to his Center in Pittsburgh, which was, regrettably, a practical impossibility.

Because of the important role that Adolf played in my development, his death came as a shock, and focused my mind on the interests that we had in common. In his honor, this is the first of a series of blog postings about the interface between philosophy and psychoanalysis.

Every once in a while, a student or a colleague asks me who my favorite philosopher is. I tell them that I have two answers to this question: the name of my favorite living philosopher and the name of my favorite dead philosopher. My favorite living philosopher is Ruth Millikan. That’s no surprise. Although she’s not widely known outside the philosophy profession, Ruth is very well-known and influential within it. Next, when I start to utter the words “And my favorite dead philosopher is…,” they’re almost always expecting the name of one of the canonical big shots—Aristotle, or Descartes, or Kant, or maybe Frege, or even Heidegger. But instead I complete the sentence with the name “Sigmund Freud.”


Most people both inside and outside the philosophosphere think of Freud as a psychologist rather than as a philosopher. And worse, they often think of his work as achingly passé and of the man as a pseudo-scientist at best and a charlatan at worst. But I think that Freud was a great philosopher who still has a lot to teach us about ourselves. And I want to spend some time explaining to you why I think so.

Let’s start with some history.

Although Freud studied philosophy in University, taking five courses with Franz Brentano, and even seriously considered doing a joint PhD in philosophy and zoology, he never identified as a philosopher. This was not, as some writers claim, because he was hostile to philosophy (he wasn’t). It was because the kinds of questions that Freud asked, and his style of theorizing about them, weren’t considered as properly philosophical during his lifetime. Freud’s thinking about these issues was hammered out in the days before philosophy took a more naturalistic turn. Nowadays, things are different. A lot of what’s now mainstream philosophy walks arm in arm with science, and Freud’s kind of theorizing would fit in perfectly well with a lot of what goes on in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, ethics, and epistemology.

This transformation of the philosophical landscape was largely due to the efforts of Freud’s Viennese contemporaries, the logical positivists. The logical positivists or “Vienna Circle” were a group of philosophically astute scientists and scientifically literate philosophers who met regularly at the University of Vienna (just a few minutes’ walk from Freud’s apartment) to discuss the relationship between philosophy and science. They saw their mission as implementing a sort of intellectual hygiene. They wanted to cleanse philosophy of the grandiose, head-in-the clouds speculations and to make it a stalwart ally of science.

Freud was already in his seventies, and suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill him, when these young Turks first began to meet in 1924. Several of their leading lights—including Rudolf Carnap and Moritz Schlick—were interested in and influenced by Freud’s thinking (as were some of the Berlin philosophers who were affiliated with them). Several members of the Circle underwent psychoanalytic treatment, and younger members of the psychoanalytic scene interacted with them. However, there’s no evidence that I know of suggesting that Freud was aware of the Vienna Circle, much less that he had an interest in it.

That being said, there’s a sense in which Freud and the Vienna Circle philosophers were fighting the same battle. Both were dedicated enemies of the sort of armchair philosophy that produced rationalistic systems of thought that seemed incredibly abstruse and profound, but were entirely out of touch with such pedestrian considerations as observation and verification. The positivists considered all such philosophy semantic gobbledygook, and lumped it under the umbrella of what they called “metaphysics”—which they regarded as a deeply pejorative term. Freud had a strikingly similar attitude. One of the best examples of this is a passage from a letter that he wrote in 1927 to the psychologist Werner Achelis.

Other defects in my nature have certainly distressed me and made me feel humble; with metaphysics it is different—I not only have no talent for it but no respect for it, either. In secret—one cannot say such things aloud—I believe that one day metaphysics will be condemned as a nuisance as an abuse of thinking, as a survival from the period of the religious weltanschauung. I know well to what extent this way of thinking estranges me from German cultural life.

As far as philosophical influences on Freud go, many commentators bring up Nietzsche—even going as far as saying that Freud “borrowed” (or, less charitably, “stole”) his main ideas from the German philosopher. There are certainly some striking parallels between their ideas.  And Freud was exposed to Nietzsche’s thinking—which he greatly admired—during his student years. Although he owned two sets of Nietzsche’s Collected Works, but there’s no evidence that he ever studied them. He never cited Nietzsche in his writings, and he commented in 1925 that he avoided reading the philosopher’s writings because their thinking dovetailed so closely. Not so with other philosophers. For instance, Freud often cited Kant, and his personal copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is chock-full of his scribbled marginalia. Schopenhauer was another favorite, and Plato also makes a few appearances in Freud’s corpus. In addition to his admired teacher Franz Brentano, the young Freud was especially stimulated by a philosopher who has passed into obscurity: a man named Theodor Lipps.

This essay gives you a little historical context for thinking about the philosophical Freud. Next month we’ll have a look at his take on a substantive philosophical issue: the relation between mind and body. I think you’ll be surprised and I hope pleased to discover how far ahead of his time and how philosophically on the ball Freud really was.


Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, December 6, 2018 -- 1:16 PM

Freud must have been part

Freud must have been part philosopher, as was the eminent William James. I think it 'goes with the territory': anyone who plumbs the depths of mind as a psychologist tends to think, in part, like a philosopher. And, the vice is versa. These disciplines, in treating the art of thinking, necessarily have overlap, both ways. Both ask questions about how and why we think about the things we think about, combining epistemology with that other thing (the official label for which escapes me right now...). These distinctions may offend some in both camps, but rest assured, both are valid in their own ways. I mean no disrespect.

igromanov's picture


Sunday, December 23, 2018 -- 12:48 PM

The problem is that Freud

The problem is that Freud cited Nietzsche - as minimum in Beyond the pleasure principle. And very accurately... Next point - Freud had to now about Viennese positivists as minimum because his patient, Roger Money-Kyrle, was Moritz Schlick's pupil... And Freud's view of science, religion, philosophy and weltanschauung was very close to them. So I agree that many of Feud's questions and answers were philosophical ones. But Adolf Grunbaum was more known as critic of scientific significance of psychoanalysis. And I think he didn't understand the nature of psychoanalytic evidence what was shown by R. Wallheim and some others.