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Alasdair MacIntyre on Freud: A More-than-Scientific Unification of Concepts

As a follow-up to Ernest Gellner’s attack on psychoanalysis, here is Alasdair MacIntyre with a more charitable critique of Freud.

Up until the time of After Virtue (still a fascinating book), MacIntyre was a fairly keen observer of ethics and social philosophy, as well as an enviably clear writer. I suppose he still is, but since the time of his conversion to Catholicism in the 1980s, his increasing focus on religion and increasingly tendentious positions have had much less to offer me.

But here he is on Freud, speaking like Gellner (but more sympathetically) of how Freud threaded the needle of modernity:

Psychoanalysis need not become the self-enclosed system which it so often is. But how do we avoid this?

Part of the answer is surely obtained by considerting the strain within Freud’s own writings between observation and explanation, between the material he amasses and the theoretical forms into which he cast his presentation of the material. The comparison with Newton misled not only his expositors but Freud himself. What Freud showed us were hitherto unnoticed facts, hitherto unrevealed motives, hitherto unrelated facets of our life. And in doing so his achievement broke all preconceived conceptual schemes–including his own. As a discoverer he perhaps resembles a Prsout or a Tolstoy rather than a Dalton or a  Pasteur. We could have learnt this from reading Freud himself; but the division among his heirs also reveals the fact clearly.

Yet both sets of heirs are legitimate. The sterility and perversity are as Freudian as the perceptive fertility of a Bettelheim or an Erikson. Freud, too, was a victim of the need to explain, of the need to be a Newton. The paradox of the history of psychoanalysis is that it is those analysts most intent on presenting their subject as a theoretical science who have transformed it into a religion, those most concerned with actual religious phenomena, such as Bettelheim and Erikson, who have preserved it as science. The achievement of Bettelheim and Erikson has been to extend our subjection to the phenomena themselves. But in so doing they have not diminished but increased its complexity.

Alasdair MacIntyre, “Psychoanalysis: The Future of an Illusion?” in Against the Self-Images of the Age (1971)

Well, this may be too kind to Bettelheim anad even Erikson, but MacIntyre certainly presents the kernel of Freud’s theory of the unconscious in a theoretically compelling fashion, as well as the problems it means to address.

What problems are these? They are problems of self-knowledge, or rather of lack of self-knowledge, of the nature of desire, and of the relationship of both to our actions. One of Freud’s insights, and here he had been anticipated by both Plato and Augustine, was that these problems are inseparable, that there is no adequate solution to any of them that does not involve a solution to the others.

Alasdair MacIntyre, The Unconscious (1958)

His 1958 critique of the unconscious holds up quite well 50 years on. He gives this pithy summation of the lack of explanatory power Freud gives us, as well as the inevitability of that lack of explanatory power in any understanding of the human. (Here he is clearly alluding to the scientific explanation vs. human understanding dichotomy proposed by Dilthey).

My thesis then is that in so far as Freud uses the concept of the unconscious as an explanatory concept, he fails, if not to justify it, at least to make clear its justification. He gives us causal explanations, certainly; but these can and apparently must stand or fall on their own feet without reference to it. He has a legitimate concept of unconscious mental activity, certainly; but this he uses to describe behaviour, not to explain it. This thesis, that Freud’s genius is notable in his descriptive work is not of course original. G. E. Moore has told us how Wittgenstein advanced it in his lectures in 1931–3. But it is important to understand how much of Freud’s work it affects….

But the grounds on which we ought to be dubious of speaking of the collective unconscious are ones which ought to make us dubious about speaking of the unconscious at all, except perhaps as a piece of metaphysics, an attempt at a more-than-scientific unification of concepts.

This suggestion, that in speaking of ‘the’ unconscious, we have left science for metaphysics is one that should not surprise us. At the beginning we saw that the attraction of the concept was that it seemed to promise a general formula by means of which a theoretical unification might be achieved in the study of human behaviour. It is now time to ask whether such a unification is in fact possible. The model for this project is drawn from physics which as the most advanced of the sciences tends also to be taken as the type to which others should approximate. To explain what human beings are and do in terms of a general theory is no doubt in some sense possible: the neurophysiologists will one day give us their full account, which will itself be reducible to a set of chemical and finally of physical explanations.

But will such an account give us what we want? It will state all the necessary conditions of human behaviour, but it will mention nothing of the specifically human. For this we need a different kind of account, the kind of portrayal that the novelist rather than the scientist gives us. In other words to portray the specifically human as human, and not as nervous system plus muscles, or as chain molecules, or as fundamental particles, is not to explain at all. Or at least it is to explain as Proust explains or as Tolstoy explains. Freud was certainly a scientist: but to remember this is to expand one’s conception of science. For his chief virtue resided in his power to see and to write so that we can see too. Or can we? He sowed also this doubt in our minds.

Alasdair MacIntyre, The Unconscious

In short, we are speaking of a metaphor (and of literature in general) far more than we are of a science.


  1. Absolutely. Psychoanalysis has far closer links to the study of literature than the study of science, and Freud was more than ready to acknowledge that. Just as literature says much more than it ostensibly intends in every sentence, so we say more and mean more in our words and actions. The excess in both cases is what I would understand the unconscious to be. Adam Phillips says much the same thing as MacIntyre about ‘Enlightenment Freud’, the idea as he expresses it, that we may be unacceptable to ourselves but we are not unintelligible. The main shift in psychoanalysis has been to focus on how very unconscious the unconscious is – we ARE unintelligible to ourselves, and the idea now is to figure out how to accept that make peace with it in viable, tolerable ways.

  2. I would be very wary of deploying the concept “science” in speaking about the merits of Freud. Not only is this concept extraordinarily “fuzzy” and potentially disunified, but it’s also a bit of a non-sequitur. What matters, obviously, is how human beings should think of themselves in order to achieve practical (note: not purely theoretical) self understanding, and in order to live better lives. If your concept of “science” excludes any principled investigation into how we can understand ourselves then sure, Freud wasn’t a scientist, and to hell with science.

  3. David Auerbach

    5 October 2011 at 15:33

    Litlove: And yet it *was* promoted and treated as a science for decades, and Gellner seems to be at his maximal point of anger when he cites Freud dismissing any and all doubts about his model’s veracity (even as his model was changing). As I said in the last entry, I am positive that this was a necessary bootstrapping effort in order to get psychoanalysis taken “seriously”–if Freud had not made such scientific claims that were later debunked, no one would have paid attention in the first place. And I credit Gellner with making that point. And I think that there was collateral damage from this point, which should not be overlooked, no matter what Freud’s massive cultural contribution, which I think MacIntyre (and Ricoeur, and Gay, and others) rightly quantify as huge.

    Nick: I use the term “science” in the same way that Freud deployed it.

  4. MacIntyre’s analysis of Hegel’s critique of phrenology is also applicable (Essays on Hegel), and one could argue that his more obscure comments related to his position on Frege are at the root of his general criticism of most modern social theories, especially of the behavioral persuasion. They aim too much at action, or the coarsely observable, without a sense of intentionality, or even intelligibility. The use of vacuous concepts like id and ego (why not gnomes or fairies?) are a species of pseudo-science, similar to the ethical Jiminy Cricket “conscience” (as he refers to Section 335 of the Gay Science), Rights are much the same, as he would say, to witches for the same reasons. Show me one. They are conceptual phantoms of fancy, not pieces of discernable thoughts, or even mental activity per se, but little fairies that dance in our heads. Ultimiately, it is the heurisic of employing such notions in explanation that are at the root of his debunking of Freud, not Freud’s interest in understanding the mind. One might wave wands over a car engine, but it won’t fix one. We need to talk of pistons, and crankshafts for that.

  5. Although I try to keep it under control, I dislike the post-debunk attempts to redeem Freud and Freudians on the grounds of literary value, and suspect a Subconscious Urge to keep up the market value of pre-debunk career training. On the other hand, in the broad historical context of medical and psychological science, Freud doesn’t deserve the singling out he tends to get — he did less damage than the doctors who prescribed immobilization for hysteria and issued bulletins on spermatorrhea, and he may end up looking pretty clean next to the age of profitably addictive pharmaceuticals.

  6. I wrote that comment before reading your next post — apologies!

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