Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Sigmund Freud's theory and sociology

Freud differs sharply from thinkers in sociology by beginning solely with the individual mind.  The question then is how does his psychoanalytic theory of the mind lead to a theory of society?  Or how does a notion of society become necessary for his psychoanalytic theory of the mind?

Freud's theory of the mind did not arise all at once.  It developed slowly over more than three decades, from the earliest studies of hysteria in the 1890s to Freud's ruminations on the life and death instincts in the 1920s.  We will step into this intellectual stream at two points: (1) The discussion of dreams in the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, a set of lectures given in 1915, which accurately presents Freudian theory as it was at that moment. (2) The New lntroductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), which summarize the central changes in Freudian theory since the earlier lectures, especially the development of the notions of the superego, ego, and id (as replacements for the conscious and unconscious) and the emergence of eros and thanatos, his final concepts of the instincts.
Our initial goal is to grasp the central notions of Freud's theory--the
Unconscious, repression, psychic conflict, and instinctual drives.  Freudian theory is compelling because of the power of these basic ideas and because Freud is a wonderfully systematic and careful thinker, pursuing difficult questions from book to book.  This is not to lionize Freud.  Quite to the contrary:  Recent scholarship has raked him over the coals, often for good reasons.  Many of his ideas are either untestable or inconsistent with important evidence.  His case studies are often highly contrived, with Freud suggesting the "right" interpretations to his patients while ignoring everything else.  Psychoanalysis itself is largely regarded as a failure as therapy.  Yet even if all this is true, Freud is still worth reading, and I hope to show why.

Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

The lectures on dreams (#6, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 14) are important because they show Freud applying his theory of mind to a phenomenon that is concrete and "normal" (i.e., something we all do).  Freud develops his analysis in a straightforward, logical way.  Each chapter adds something, and Freud tells you exactly what in his title and usually toward the end of the chapter.  Notice, above all, how the general concepts of Freudian theory creep in--conscious, unconscious, repression, instinctual drives. 

New lntroductory Lectures

Lectures 31 and 32 discuss how Freud overhauled his theories in a series of books in the 1920s (e.g., Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and The Id, The Problem of Anxiety).  Lecture 31 rejects the division of the mind into conscious and unconscious, opting instead for a division between superego, ego, and id.  Lecture 32 replaces the distinction between sexual and ego instincts from Freud’s earlier work with the distinction between eros and thanatos (life and death instincts).

Lecture #33 is Freud's effort to understand gender.  That is, it is Freud's answer to the question of how boys grow up to be men and girls grow up to be women.  So, what does he say?  Note that he asserts that up to a certain point the development of boys and girls is similar: They both have a primary relationship with the mother; they both move through the first few sexual stages in similar ways. 

Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

In this book,  Freud addresses the question of what holds individuals together in society.  Recall that Durkheim argued that self-interest is not enough to hold society together.   Some sense of solidarity, some moral or emotional bond, is necessary.  Weber argued that organized power rarely relies solely on coercion.  It seeks legitimation, acceptance on the part of those being ruled.  Freud in effect addresses both these issues from a psychoanalytic perspective in this book.   He wants to know what psychological processes go into belonging to a group and obeying a leader.  He argues that a libidinal tie of some kind is necessary to group life—i.e., an erotic drive that has been redirected from its primary objects and desexualized.

Future of an Illusion

Future of an Illusion is Freud's most important work on religion and its role in society.  According to Freud, why does society need religion?  Could there be a society without religion?  Freud says religion is an "illusion," but that it is not necessarily false. (p. 39) What does he mean?  What does psychoanalysis have to tell us about why religion has such a powerful hold on people?  Finally, Freud says that "religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." (P. 55) What does he mean?  Can one call a culture neurotic?  What are the implications of doing so?

Summaries of additional important works by Freud:

Sigmund Freud - The Interpretation of Dreams
Sigmund Freud - Civilization and Its Discontents