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Psychoanalysis as a Hybrid of Religion and Science
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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 12.4 (2005) 335-342

Quinton Deeley

Freud, psychoanalysis, religion, science, evolution


De Block's paper, "Freud as an Evolutionary Psychiatrist," discusses Freud's writ-ings—including a recently discovered paper on the evolution of psychopathology—to establish the Freudian "philosophy of man" that human beings are "ill to the core" (i.e., that mental illness is an inevitable byproduct of human psychological processes). This perspective is then used as a basis for proposing a way in which psychoanalysis can be integrated with contemporary evolutionary psychology. However, this undertaking raises fundamental questions about psychoanalysis itself, which are addressed in this commentary. First, to what extent is a systematic theoretical unity imposed on, rather than discovered in, Freud's writings? Also, has De Block succeeded in grounding the Freudian philosophy of man in evolutionary theory, and how is this ambition affected by general questions about the scientific status and evidence for psychoanalytic conceptions? Further, if there is only limited experimental evidence for psychoanalytic concepts, how are claims to knowledge justified in psychoanalytic discourse, and how does this relate to the forms of epistemic justification found in religion and science? Finally, is psychoanalysis closer to religious or scientific discourse, and if it combines features of both, what kind of activity is it?

The Exposition of the Freudian Philosophical Project

The key claim of De Block's paper is that any evolutionary psychology faithful to Freud's account of human nature must be constrained by a fundamental premise: the psychological organization of human beings is such that "there is a quantitative, but not a structural, difference between psychiatric patients and so-called healthy or normal individuals" (2005, 323). From De Block's perspective, this reflects the Freudian perspective that the normal operation of psychological processes inevitably results in some degree of mental distress: "every repression produces symptoms, every defense mechanism produces more suffering than is strictly necessary" (2005, 321). As a result, "when Freud writes that there is only a gradual difference between neurotics and normals, he does not mean the normals are non-neurotic, but only that they suffer less under their neurosis" (2005, 318). This Freudian perspective is variously summarized throughout the paper; for example, "we think there is only one underlying motive of Freud's research, which could also function as a cornerstone of a 'Freudian' philosophy. This underlying motive is the intuition that there is no substantial difference between the so-called normal human being and the mentally insane" (2005, 315).

De Block's exposition of the Freudian account of human nature also emphasizes the doctrine of psychosexuality: "the Freudian philosophy of man presumes primarily that every human being has to react in some way of another to sexual problems" (2005, 317). One of the problems confronting any expositor of Freud is the fact that his voluminous writings show considerable development in his thought. This heterogeneity raises the question of the extent to which the coherence of Freudian theory as a systematic whole is imposed by expositors, rather than lying in the corpus itself. De Block's approach to this heterogeneity is to extract different kinds of relations between sexuality and psychopathology from Freud's writings (e.g., neurosis and the Oedipal instincts, psychosis and narcissism), and then to argue that they explain Freud's interest in less obviously sexual aspects of mind, behavior, and society. As De Block comments after his exegesis of different connections between sexuality and psychopathology:

but probably, he [Freud] only meant that in neurosis, people wrestle first and foremost with love, in perversion with sex and violence, and in psychosis with identity and issues related to identity, such as death and "the meaning of life." At least, such an interpretation can explain why Freud—in some of his works—recognized the importance of problems like aggression, love, and death for the human psyche and human psychopathology . . .; he nevertheless refused to modify the primacy of sexuality in psychopathology.
(2005, X)

Whether all of Freud's explanations of psychological phenomena involve sexuality is debatable. Thus, the emphasis on psychosexuality was somewhat qualified in his later writings by recognition of the psychic effects of the fear of death, such that, for example...

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