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30 The Freudian Revolution (1953)note

Freudianism, like Darwinism, may be called revolutionary in that it not merely introduces fresh conceptions into a particular field of inquiry but in some measure affects all our thinking, bringing about a general revaluation of ideas. It is true, of course, that, after the first shock, such influences are hard to sustain and readily collapse into vulgarisations; this is illustrated in the extent to which the catch-phrase “wishful thinking” has replaced study and understanding of the Freudian doctrine of the wish, and vulgar notions of “the struggle for existence” provide a parallel case. But one important feature of Freudianism is that it explains this very fact, that it exhibits the protection of customary views by a pretended assimilation of new ones as conforming to a regular mechanism of defence.

Vulgar notions of Freudianism as a general sexualising of human activities or as a clarion call against “repression” have some countenance in the work of Freud himself — in the doctrine of the “libido” as the single source or reservoir of mental energies and in the treatment of the repressed as the real person, the repressing factors being imposed or “introjected”. But there is much in Freud's important, early works that would caution us against such “wild” interpretations; there is a constant insistence on conflict and on the fact that the conflicting tendencies are alike parts of the person, so that solution is not to be found by mere excision.

It is characteristic of a revolution to be a revaluation — to be a revolution in ideas,note not a mere alteration of externals or change of fashion. Fashionable trends in psychology (the interest in gadgets, questionnaires, etc.) betray, as contrasted with Freudianism, a fear of fundamentals. The opposition is between systematic thinking and miscellaneous inquiries; a revolution, as against a relapse, in ideas involving the breaking down of divisions, the discovery of unsuspected connections, the establishment of continuity against a postulated discontinuity. And, in its working out of an objective view of mental life, in its attack on this stronghold of subjectivism or “separatism”, the Freudian revolution, like all other revolutions, has an essentially philosophical character. The continuity of the mental and the bodily, of thought and action, the breaking down of divisions between conscious and unconscious, between normal and abnormal — these are Freudian contributions to thought in general, and they illustrate the revolutionary character which Freudianism has in common


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with Darwinism in their rejection of what has been the greatest obstacle to vigorous and systematic inquiry, the dualism of Man and Nature.

The general revolutionary character of Freudianism, then, lies in its naturalism, in its being a contribution to the natural history of man and mind. But what is important in the specification of that character is not sexuality (in spite of the immense amount of interesting material produced by Freud and his school on the varieties and disguises of sexual impulse) but conationalism as opposed to cognitionalism, the treatment of mind as a set of drives or urges and not as an abstract cogniser, the possessor of little bits of cognised content called “ideas”.

Though Freud has played a considerable part in the replacing of associationism, the doctrine of individual ideas with their attractions and repulsions, by a doctrine of interest, of activities which attend to or turn away from various objects, he still finds an associative method, the seeking of the “mental associates” of any given content, to be the most profitable way of investigating mental processes. It may be said, indeed, that Freud's emancipation from cognitionalism, from the associationist doctrines which prevailed in the period of his early studies, was incomplete. But the point is that we take a very different view of the search for associated ideas (for “latent content”, etc.) if we regard the association as the work of active interests from that which we take if we think the association is the work of ideas themselves — and, with interests as our guiding principle, we are likely to find much relevant material that we should otherwise overlook. The notion of analysis would be pointless without the connected notion of the synthetic force of mental activity.

It is in terms of activity that the notion of disguise or substitution becomes intelligible; we are to think of a mental force as seeking outlet, encountering a barrier on its path, spreading sideways along associative lines, and then finding a way out in the general direction of its original pressure. And that these conceptions of flowing, damming, etc., are not merely figurative, that there is nothing wrong with a physical description of mental processes, is shown or at least corroborated by Freud's account of the bodily symptom — of its functioning, similarly to the “intellectual” response, as part of the language of the emotions. Nevertheless the classical form of analysis, the investigation of mental forces or drives in terms of their objects or cognised materials, has proved particularly fruitful and is not misleading so long as it is understood that the forces and what they are directed towards are not the same thing. It is certainly misleading to speak of the analysis or the interpretation of a dream or other mental phenomenon involving substitution and disguise; it has to be understood that there is no complete formula for any mental (and equally for any non-mental) situation, that, whatever of its connections are discovered in a particular investigation, others exist as well, and thus that it can have various “interpretations”. But this is nothing against the exactness of any given set of discoveries or mass of exposed material; and it is an outstanding merit of the Freudian procedure that it insists on the definiteness of connections, on mental mechanism or determinism


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in terms of which alone there can be study of human character or a human character to study.

It is with reference to dreams that the various mechanisms of distortion and substitution have been most clearly and fully presented; and while the formula for the dream, “the realisation of a suppressed wish”, has been shown to apply to such varied phenomena as forgetting, error, phantasy in general and even symptom-formation, it may still be said to have its classical exemplification in dream-interpretation. It means in fact that the dream is a falsification or lie; it not merely symbolises a successful outlet for tendencies that have hitherto been held in, but it represents such success as having been gained in the past, it turns previous defeats into victories. On this understanding, the aim of analysis is precise dating, is finding just what earlier events are now being symbolically denied. The fact that a suppressed impulse will regularly, and in various ways and directions, have striven to find outlet, permits it still to be maintained that different analyses are possible — there is not one but a whole series of falsifications or spurious successes; but this does not mean that any given one of them cannot be accurately traced from the dream. The Freudian doctrine is not, of course, entirely new; Nietzsche, for example, was expressing the same position in his epigram, “I did this, says Memory, I could not have done this, says Pride, and remains inexorable. Finally, Memory yields”. But Freud is the first to have brought out with precision the character and range of the phenomena in question.

Part of the illumination given by Freudianism lies in its assimilation of diverse phenomena, its demonstration of the working of the same laws in such supposedly unconnected cases as dreams, forgetting, slips of the tongue and neurotic symptoms. But its initial impact was all the stronger from the fact that most of these things had been regarded as subject to no law whatever. Freud has illuminated human life and character by rendering intelligible what had been dismissed as accidental and unworthy of scientific consideration — and, once more, he has shown that the assumption of “meaninglessness” is itself part of the process of defence against unpalatable reality. It is, of course, the finding of significance in dreams that is the most striking example of Freud's opening up of the psychological field, and the most noteworthy point is that he has done so by emphasis on activity, by finding the working of psychical forces in what had been taken to be a mere picture unrolled on the mental screen.

Like all doctrines, Freudianism has its limitations. These are most apparent in the Freudian movement, since no school can quite rise to the inspiration of its founder. But in Freud himself the limitations are connected with the origin of the doctrine in the treatment of nervous disorders. The view that, because a theory has had a practical stimulus to its formation, it should have a practical outcome (an outcome other than understanding which is in its own way a part of human practice) is an example of that emphasis on externals against which revolutionary thinking is directed. The notion of “cure” has been one of the factors leading to the postulation of “the” interpretation of a dream or symptom,


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and in turn to the reinstatement of the division between normal and abnormal and to the ignoring of the universality of conflict. Freud himself avoids the extravagances of those of his followers who “settle” social conflicts in the manner of the consulting-room, who minister to the world as one great patient. But his later works certainly manifest a loss of philosophical force, a growth of “totalism”, a lack of recognition of the fact that the denial of discontinuity does not mean the assertion of identity. The continuity of Man and Nature still leaves a distinction between human and non-human problems, does not merge them in one great problem or imply one great solution of all riddles.

The fact remains that Freud's work has given a tremendous impetus to rigorous thinking on human affairs, to the establishment of a real psychological science. His impact on present-day students is inevitably less than that on students of a generation ago; he has come to be taken for granted, to be treated with a certain complacency as contrasted with earlier enthusiasm and denunciation. But it is not true that “we are all Freudians now”; we can be Freudians only by hard thinking, by returning to Freud as a classic for the correction of current looseness. And even if no such “back to Freud” movement takes place, the Freudian revolution will not have petered out; Freudianism will remain as one of the determinants of the outlook of all critical thinkers.

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