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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 12.4 (2005) 325-329

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Psychoanalysis as Natural Philosophy

evolution, psychopathology, ethics, unconscious phantasy

Andreas De Block has offered us a most fascinating paper. We do not have to agree with all his points to be profoundly stimulated by them. His core proposition is that Freud pathologizes ordinary psychology and personalities, as well as the abnormal. There has been a perennial debate about whether, psychoanalytically speaking, there is a continuum from pathology to normality or if there is a discontinuity at some point between the two. Freud's famous quote—"much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness" (Breuer and Freud 1895, 305)—is ambiguous. Interestingly, De Block takes a hard stand on this; he not only assumes a continuum, but further he reads Freud as saying that all normality is neurotic. This is not a usual reading of Freud. De Block then expands this into a philosophical position. It is, he says, Freud's philosophy on the nature of mind.

Freud himself was not interested in philosophy, and thought it largely irrelevant to psychoanalysis. In fact, he mused about the traffic being inevitably in the opposite direction—that philosophy might come to psychoanalysis. In discussing the work of a philosophically inclined analyst, he remarked,

The decisive reason for the rejection of Putnam's proposals was the doubt as to which of the countless philosophical systems should be accepted, since they all seem to rest on an equally insecure basis. . . . It seemed more prudent to wait, and to discover whether a particular attitude towards life might be forced upon us with all the weight of necessity by analytical investigation itself.
(Freud 1921, 270)

Psychoanalysis, Freud thought, might be the very substance from which a philosophical system could emerge. De Block has followed that route; he has gone to Freud's writing to discovery a weltanshaung on which we might develop a philosophy of life. He has come back from his intellectual expedition with Freud's fascinating paper, published only in 1987 (discovered in 1983), "A Phylogenetic Phantasy." This was actually written in 1914, but Freud never published it and in fact destroyed his own copy of the draft. The paper has been called a "metabiology" (Gubrich-Simitis 1987), and deals with Freud's speculation on how a threatened species during the ice age developed certain biological and biopsychological traits1 necessary to survive the harsh environmental conditions. These traxits, which included the repression of libido, had significant side effects, namely, the pathologies arising from repression: the neuroses, perversions and psychoses. Moreover, today the environmental conditions no longer apply, so we are left with the side effects of traits that are no longer biologically useful. [End Page 325]

So, De Block indicates at least the possibility of an evolutionary theory of the nature of mind. Even if Freud's Lamarckianism makes his particular speculative metabiology implausible, it is a way of thinking that suggests that a theory of mind can arise from biological understanding of its evolutionary development. However, De Block goes further. As a corollary, because Freud's view of the evolution of mind is to involve the evolutionary nature of psychopathology, then Freud's psychoanalysis can suggest an evolutionary psychiatry—that is to say, psychiatry can look for distant causes of mental disturbance in the vagaries of evolutionary influence.

This way of approaching philosophy is interesting because it starts with the outcome of a scientific investigation of the human mind, just as Freud suggested in the passage quoted (Freud 1921, 270). The prospect is for a natural philosophy of mind, just as the physics of fundamental particles and the "big bang" prompt us toward a kind of natural ontology of the universe and its contents, arising from empirically tested facts.

However, De Block is on rather uncertain ground with the evidence for his argument; he commits Freud to this biological speculation on the basis of a paper that Freud did not in fact publish and tore up.2 Even if Freud's reading of the evolutionary origins of man...


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