Freud and Psychoanalysis: The Middle Ground


My aim in this paper is to say something general about Freud and his relation to the work he called psychoanalysis. The issue I want to discuss is whether his views about the human psyche in its various individual and cultural manifestations are reductionist. I do not believe that they are, though I acknowledge that they have since they were first promulgated given the appearance of being so. The question is why they have seemed so even to those who were not aware of the explicitly reductionist model Freud pursued in the Project with its neuro-anatomical concepts of different kinds of neurones, neuronal energy, facilitations, etc. Perhaps it is because, as many have suggested, though he abandoned the physiological aspect of the model he did not really abandon the model itself. There is some truth in this but I do not believe it is this kind of reductionism that has bothered people. Such reductionism is the familiar one we find in the history and philosophy of science; it is the attempt to give a theoretical description of the nature and function of the human mind and cognition in physical or bio-physical terms. It is no more shocking or disturbing now in, say, various theories in cognitive science than it was when it first appeared in the 19th century, when the ‘sciences of life’ took off with enormous élan. No, the emotional reactions to Freud and his work, emotions that range from downright derision, to suspicion, to fear, to aggressive dismissal, and, most importantly, to a systematic avoidance of reading his text, or of reading it carefully, suggest that the “reductionism” in question is of a different kind. What elicits such emotions is the sense that the effect of Freud’s emphasis on psycho-sexual development, on the primacy of the infant’s relations to parental figures in the Oedipus Complex, on the mechanisms of repression, resistance, denial, projection and identification, etc., in accounting for a wide range of characteristics in our mental and cultural life, is to diminish us.  Reading Freud, or taking him seriously, it is felt, carries the danger or threat that we will emerge with a reduced sense of ourselves, of our importance, of the significance of our values, of the depth and seriousness of our commitments or misdeeds, of the meaning, in short, that we give to our life and existence. Putting it bluntly, and in unashamedly question-begging terms, it is as if Freud’s work poses a serious threat to the narcissistic over-valuation of our egos and, consequently, to the devious and desperate psychic and cultural measures we have developed in order to interpret our human world in ways that ultimately will secure, more or less successfully, its control or mastery. Freud, then, becomes the butt, the object, of the feeling that he is blowing the whistle on us. And how can he do this? Is he not, after all, one of us? What gives him the right, etc., etc.?

Suppose the above characterisation fixes the relevant sense of the charge of “reductionism” levelled at Freud. Two ways of responding to it might be to say either ‘True, and let me show you why he is right to do what he does’, or ‘ Not true, he is not doing what you take him to be doing, even though sometimes he sounds as if he is’. The line of my response – one that I learned from him but, as we shall see, not only from him – will be to say that both of the responses are justified, but that the important thing is to understand how such fusion or combination of apparently contradictory elements is an inevitable consequence of the perspectival location Freud’s thinking occupies; therein lies, I want to suggest, both the risk and the great value of his contribution, both his courage and his audacity. I call Freud’s perspectival location “Middle Ground”.

Some autobiographical remarks

Before examining what this perspectival location involves let me remind you of a figure that seems to hold a significant role in our intellectual and cultural history – this is the idea of the intermediary, the in-between, the go-between, the representative, the conciliator, the arbitrator, and so on. Here is a cluster of functions which in spite of differences between them seem to revolve around a single idea, and, more importantly perhaps, to elicit the same ambivalent valuations. On the one hand they are regarded as necessary, if not essential, to the ordinary conduct of human affairs, to the preservation of order, reasonableness, peace, and well being, in how we live with ourselves and with others. On the other hand both the functions and the persons who come to occupy them are regarded with some derision and resentment, sometimes turning into something like contempt. They are necessary but not really important; they are our help and salvation but not as exciting as the things they mediate between, and from whose excessively attractive pull they hold us back; they are called upon because they are needed (more often than we would like) but the time and energy we seem to spend with them, or they with us, seems excessive and of lesser value than that spent on other pursuits.

From Socrates’ picture of Eros, and of philosophy and the philosopher as erotic creatures, in the Symposium – indeed of Plato’s picture of Socrates himself in the dialogues – to the figure of Christ the Redeemer, the Son of God, and all the figures in between, prophets, seers, chiefs, kings, leaders, …professors and heads of departments, we get an extraordinary range of the ways in which the imaginings of our culture have repeated a pattern. It is not my purpose in this paper to explain this repetition. No doubt it calls for explanation and Freud’s work helps here. I am more concerned to notice it, to mark some of the features of the ambivalence that attaches to it, and to use it to bring out certain aspects of Freud’s own work. My hope is that this will help us understand the issue of “reductionism” with which we started.

First though some remarks about myself. I know that in doing so I run the risk of self-indulgence, but I need to make clear, to myself as much as to you, ‘where I come from’. As a migrant I have often been, and still am, the recipient of this question. But there is another, and perhaps more pertinent though obscurely connected, sense in which I am asked this question. People often say to me in response to something I have been saying – usually philosophical – ‘I hear and understand at one level what you are saying but where do you come from?’ – meaning, I am sure, that they have not been able to gauge the intellectual perspective from which my remarks “originate”, or that I have not managed to make clear the “descent”, the lineage as it were, of my thought. Reflecting on this it struck me that a lot of friends and colleagues over the years have remarked, often with a mixture of solicitous exasperation and kindly admonishment, that though interesting and important as some of my philosophical work seems to them, there is an indirectness in the style of my presentation that lessens its force. “Write more directly so that the reader knows where you are, and from where you started to get to your explicit thought”. I daresay I am not unique in this respect, and that compared to live speaking and communication writing as such gives the impression (but only the impression Derrida would say) of being indirect in the sense of concealing or repressing its ‘originating source’. This is a matter of some interest deserving a paper (or a talk?) to itself.  But let me return to the personal mode and say something about ‘where I come from’ in both its senses. As most of you would know I was born and brought up in Alexandria (Egypt). Alexandria, though not a large metropolis in my time, retained to some extent what would have been its character in ancient times: a veritable mixing pot of nationalities, languages, cultures, and religions. Not only Moslems, Christians of various hues, and those of the Jewish faith, but also Arabs, Europeans, Russians and Armenians, Greeks and Jews. I have kept the last two pairs distinct because they comprised mixed populations of European and non-European descent, and because the last pair, with which I associate myself most closely (for reasons of national origin and of contingent early friendships), had for me a special significance. The Greeks and Jews of Alexandria were not only significant traders and businessmen (so were the Armenians), they were also the vehicle of a distinctive culture, let us call it the “Alexandrine” culture. This is not the place to go into it in great detail. Suffice to say that whatever the national origin of those belonging to it they came to represent the special flavour that made the Middle East middle: a point both of convergence of European and non-European cultures and languages, but also a point of origin themselves, of systems of thought, religion, and cultural practices, which though different had come to form a curious form of symbiosis. None of this is particularly new, though I am trying to convey the peculiar flavour of two distinct cultures, the Greek and the Jewish, living and expressing themselves but in close awareness of the other, no doubt in both a co-operative and a competitive sense.

Coming closer to home and family life, the memories most salient to our present concerns, and of necessity limited and distorted by the sort of amnesia of childhood experiences Freud postulates as constitutive of our psychic development, are these: there are memories of the feeling of tensions and discontent early on but not much by way of events. Outwardly at least, the memory is of a very stable social life. My parents seemed to be around most of the time, my father’s shop at the market place, over which stood the block of flats in which we lived, could be seen at any time from the small balcony off the kitchen, mostly our maid’s kingdom but a pleasant haven from some of my mother’s strictures about orderliness and messes. My mother seemed concerned to take me out twice a day for a longish walk in my stroller. Though trusted, the maid was never given this job under any circumstances. Later, I was allowed to play in the street near my father’s shop, where I could be supervised. Even there I could not help feeling a watchful eye casting its gaze upon me from that ever-present balcony.  The balcony, as you see, was first and foremost a border-line region between the inner world of the parental home and the world outside. It was also the place of my first contact with a Jew. For, the equivalent balcony of the next door apartment often contained a little girl who became my first friend. They were Jews from Russia and they spoke French, a language that at that stage I had not learnt. It was not long before Liliane and I were speaking French, even though I started by putting what I thought were French-sounding endings to Greek words. Gradually they became French words. It must have been about the same time, when I was about four, that I was sent to a French kindergarten. I can still remember the shock and threat I felt standing in a corner of the sand-pit being yapped at in an incomprehensible language. This linguistic isolation must have lasted all of ten days but it seemed interminable. The pay-off, when it came eventually, was that I could talk more freely to my friend next door with whom I got up to all sort of tricks and games. Eventually the balcony stopped being the intermediary meeting place, for she and I were allowed to visit each other’s flats. But it never lost its significance: in puberty it became the locus of erotic aspirations and communications with various maids and girls in many such other balconies, both in our block of flats and other such blocks. Balconies, it seemed, were essential to life, even though it was mostly fantasy.

A bit later, and moving down to that fascinating place the market, I got a new sample of what it was like to live ‘in the middle’. For there was a real cauldron not only of mixed cultures and languages but also of powerful emotions and sweaty impulses. I found it all terribly scary and exhilarating, this spectacle of men being swept up by gusts of greed, lust, obscene laughter, anger, invective, calm and benign fellowship at the end of the day. The din and inebriating smells and sights of the suk has remained for me an indelible reminder of the gross material reality of the Id and its mysterious mechanisms of association, condensation and displacement. When I came later to find in Freud his theoretical description of these processes in the dream-work and elsewhere I could hardly contain my excitement. It was as if he had seen it all! Of all the myriad recollections of this experience of the market-place I would like to single one out. It concerns my father and brings me back to the theme that began this section – the figure of the intermediary.  My father was a man of quick emotions, and a mixture of severity and permissiveness. His approval or disapproval was hardly ever concealed and he had a remarkable capacity to express and act out not only what he felt but also what others felt, whether or not they themselves gave strong expression to their feelings and attitudes. Why this was so is another and far more complicated story. Early on, however, the fact came to be impressed upon me that in the market-place, though not to my awareness at home, he enjoyed a very high esteem as a negotiator. Being the volatile place it was, the suk was constantly the scene of fights and squabbles – some of them capable of reaching serious fisticuffs and beatings. My father seemed to be not only willing but positively rushed to intervene and calm the waters. To my amazement, not to mention my fear and consternation as I saw him plunge into the melee of heaving bodies and fists, of raucous voices and imprecations, of throats in the grip of frothing anger or of other people’s hands, he managed to talk the warring parties down by a combination of stern admonition, appeal to common sense and common interest, making jokes or flinging teasing pleasantries at the warring parties, greatly appreciated by the onlookers and bystanders. Eventually the whole hubbub would die down into a peaceful hum of comment on the events, the nature of those involved in the conflict, wise remarks about the excessive character of the conflict, and appreciative expressions of the value of appeasement. The fighters would slink away visibly exhausted, shaken, and shame-faced; they gave a distinct appearance of being weakened. Whatever their thoughts might have been, it was as if the intensity of the thoughts had gone, while the content of that thought had remained unaltered or barely altered. I seem to carry a very strong impression of these events and of my father’s role in them. I suspect that they have a force analogous to what Freud calls ‘constructions’ in psychoanalytic treatment and which he distinguishes from ‘interpretations’ in his late paper called ‘Constructions in Psychoanalysis’. If I have time I shall return to this point.

The point of this highly selective excursus into autobiographical material was to tell you where this paper is coming from. I am emphasising the figure of the intermediary both because it seems to have played a major formative role in my psyche, both culturally and individually, but also because it has come to colour my response to Freud and how I read him. Indeed, as some of you who know my work will attest, it has come to colour my whole attitude to intellectual work. The interpretation of texts, often of neglected, or of despised, or of ‘lesser’, or of ‘misunderstood’, or of ‘foreign’ philosophers, has been a major preoccupation. Perhaps all this ‘living in the middle’, considerably intensified by my shifts in culture and language since I left Alexandria, found an echo in the texts of the notorious Viennese doctor. Vienna too, after all, was a mixture of cultures, and was not Freud someone who as a Jew felt excluded from the professional positions reserved for the gentiles? And was he not also someone proud of his Jewish heritage but unable intellectually to share its Hebraic religious fervour? He even came to sadly lament the fact that he had never learnt Hebrew. Perhaps, then, Freud’s work found an echo in me, and I must confess that though I have read many works by other psychoanalysts, and never been psychoanalysed myself, I always return with excited anticipation to re-reading Freud. Early attachments, I suppose, remain strongest. At any rate, after some years of reading Freud I finished up writing a very long piece on his metapsychology, concentrating particularly on the idea that ” for psychoanalysis the notion of an instinct is a border-line notion between biology and psychology”. In it I tried to explain the importance of the notion of ‘representation’ and of a ‘psychic representative’ as it appears in ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’, ‘On Repression’ and ‘The Unconscious’. This was in 1976. I never published it because I thought it needed to be completed with reference to his later work, and especially The Ego and the Id with its later ramifications. This I have not done. Nor am I going to say anything further about this earlier piece of mine. It is too long anyway for our purposes. What I will do instead in the rest of this paper is to suggest that the notion of an intermediary under the guise of a ‘representative’ plays a crucial role in Freud’s structural model of the ‘psychic apparatus’. I will then draw some consequences of the analogy between a ‘representative’ and the figure of the intermediary. This I believe will help with our initial problem of “reductionism”.

The Model

Freud’s mature theory of how the agencies of the Ego and the Superego develop out of an initial reservoir of instinctual impulses that is the human infant is complex and requires for its proper understanding an appreciation of the different currents of thought that had occupied Freud over a number of years. I cannot possibly deal with this material here. What I would like to do is to single out an important aspect of the model, viz. that the developed psyche is the complex representation of its component agencies to one of these agencies, the Ego. To get clear about the import of the theory let us note that Freud’s thought operates at a number of different theoretical levels simultaneously:

1. The level of a theory of instincts or drives, i.e. the nature of the energies operating in the psyche and the principles or regulatory laws that govern the discharge and circulation of these energies in the system. Where earlier he had thought there were ego-instincts or self-preservation instincts opposed to sexual or libidinal instincts, he now thought that the duality of instincts should be thought of as the two opposite tendencies the mind has of discharging tension – to seek and achieve pleasure in whatever way possible to it (Eros or life-instinct), and to drain totally its energy, to destroy itself as it were (Thanatos or death-instinct). I shall not go into Freud’s reasons for this change. They are quite important in themselves.

2. Now that instinctual energies have been firmly located in the one place in the system – the Id – how could any other agency develop in the system? How is Freud going to account for the functions of the Ego and the energy required for their operation? These functions are: that as distinct from merely reacting to stimuli (internal or external) we perceive the world; that as distinct from being bundles of motor action, uncoordinated movements, nutritive and excretive motions, bodily origins of screaming and gurgling sounds, etc., we act so as to change the world; and, thirdly, that as distinct from being passive recipients of whatever the world happens to surround us with we adapt to the world, that we select strategies of self-formation, as it were, to maintain ourselves in the world as distinct entities. None of these functions need in the first place be conscious though some manifestations of these functions do become so, and, importantly for Freud and psychoanalysis, become so distortedly and maladaptively in pathological cases. This level then is the functional level.

3. There is finally the developmental level. This is Freud’s account of how the agencies of the Ego and the Superego develop. Once again I cannot dwell on the details but there is one crucial point: the ego according to Freud originates in perception, it is primarily, as he says, a bodily ego. To understand the striking originality of this view let us note that whereas common sense and philosophy begins by distinguishing two kinds of perceptual awareness in terms of whether their objects belong to the outer world or the inner world, a distinction which presupposes as given the difference between the outer and the inner and hence of the ego as the differentiating agency, Freud’s view reverses the order of presupposition: at first a differentiation occurs between two kinds of perception according to their nature ,which subsequently we learn to identify in terms of their objects. What Freud has in mind is that the infant first becomes aware that some perceptions can be made to disappear by means of bodily movements, while others are resistant. This first differentiation, then, is both formative of the ego – the infant comes to classify the former as external to itself and the latter as internal – and constitutive of it since that first differentiation is how the newly formed ego comes to represent itself, its psychic location at the borderline of the differentiation. Thus the emergence of the Ego occurs at the same time as the idea, notion, or representation of it, and becomes, however sophisticated its subsequent development, inextricably connected with some system of ideational or conceptual representation. There can be no such thing as the Ego, one might say, without some idea (not necessarily conscious) of it. The whole process is aided and reinforced by the fact that the internal element of perception is hardly ever entirely absent from external perception. For, from the very beginning external perceptions give rise to pleasure and pain, satisfaction and frustration, and the organs of perception, particularly touch and taste, make themselves felt in our awareness of the differentiation. As Freud fills out this picture we get the following: since the representations under which the ego develops are primarily bodily, and since the various bodily activities, such as incorporating, excreting, drawing in and pushing out, are primarily themselves ways in which the instincts and their biological energies represent themselves in psychic life, the ego-representations under which the ego develops will be borrowed from, will lean upon, and thus reflect the dominant organisations of libido or instinctual energies at a given time, the oral , the anal, the phallic, and so on.

The concepts of narcissism, of the ego-ideal, and of the super-ego, are further elaborations of this basic story, not the proposal of a distinct and parallel development of the self. In other words, the development of the super-ego is an extension, albeit an important one, of the heavily corporealised representation the ego has of itself. Again skipping details, it comes about this way: prior to the formation of the ego, the discharge of the baby’s instinctual energies occurs basically in relation to its body and its various parts, mouth, anus, genitals and any part in which sources of excitation occur. After the formation of the ego, and given the essentially corporeal nature of its self-representation, the ego becomes the primary object of what we may call its interest; it is self-absorbed in the sense that its (corporeal) self-representations become themselves the object of its concern, of what it accepts or rejects. This is primary narcissism, i.e. it represents the fact that the primary form of action the infant undertakes upon the world is performed through and upon itself, and in doing so it becomes the ‘heir’ (a favourite expression of Freud’s), the inheritor of the instinctual energies attached to corporeal activities. In primary narcissism these energies become the ego’s energies which result in an enormous increase of its awareness of itself as the centre of power (omnipotence) and importance. Yet, as an infant it clearly depends on its parents for sustenance and comfort. This demand of reality has to be met: the infant extends its instinctual energies to objects other than himself and in the first instance to persons who have intimate relations with it. These object-choices are the ego’s first adaptive strategies directed at the external world, and depending on the stage of organisation of its instinctual impulses, it invests them with suitably expressed attachment or rejection, love or hate. But these libidinal forays of the ego into the external world meet, of course, with both success and failure. Some of its instinctual impulses are resisted, and in order to obtain the wished for benefits it has to develop within itself forms of defence against its own impulses that it has learned are counter-adaptive. The first lesson, therefore, is to incorporate them within itself, that is, it has to reshape its self-representation, in a way that replicates the way the dominant figures in its environment deal with the manifestations of the undesirable instinctual impulses. Thus, the ego’s first adaptive efforts take the form of a rhythmic sequence of introjections and projections. In doing so, however, the ego has taken in into itself, i.e. has identified with, figures that are both loving and hating. Consequently, its own responses to these introjected objects are bound to be ambivalent. Freud came to think that a crucial moment in the emergence of the super-ego is the crisis in the web of object relations and internal conflicts that constitute the Oedipus complex. The severe self-critical agency that sets up inner standards of how one should be, as distinct from what one would like to have, is the ‘heir’, the inheritor of its attachments to the mother and father. For example, it must be like its father to avoid his anger, and so must choose an object of erotic feeling other than its mother. The cases of this collapse of the Oedipus complex and its replacement by the super-ego is much more varied and complicated than this. The important point to bear in mind is that this setting up of a self-critical agency within the psyche represents a modification of the ego’s self-representation. At the height of the Oedipus complex the infant feels a deep hostility towards its parents which it knows that it must not express, both for the love it bears them and because of its psychical dependence upon them. Accordingly, it projects this unconscious aggression onto its parents, and their severity is then successively compounded in its eyes: for the more hostile they seem to it, the readier it is to react to them with rage, and this rage is again projected. In consequence when the parental authority comes to be introjected as the superego, it is invested with a double burden of aggression. We have in this a total reversal of our conventional moral views. For it looks as if we do not (as we think), that we desist from aggression because we have a rigorous moral ideal but, rather, we have a rigorous moral ideal because, or to the degree to which, we have renounced aggression as an adaptive, defence, strategy. Civilisation, as Freud points out, benefits from this in that socially aggression can be mastered. But it carries the danger that if the superego becomes too heavily invested with internalised aggression it can become ‘a pure culture of the death-instinct’.

There are many points of detail and application I have left out. My main point was to bring out how the emergence of the ego and the superego as psychic agencies are part of a story that shows the mind to be a complicated form of self-representation.

The Analogy.

If what I have been saying is correct Freud has provided us with a theory that has a fascinating feature: it not only provides a model of the mind and its workings, but also coincides with or reproduces the kind of representation we (consciously or unconsciously) make to ourselves of our mental processes. In this respect, I want to suggest, it occupies a perspectival location analogous to that which, on the theory, is occupied by the ego itself in its formation. And this location is decidedly ‘middle’. The ego finds itself often as an intermediary between the instinctual impulses of the Id, the severity of the superego’s demands whose energy is itself borrowed from these instinctual impulses, and the exigencies of adaptively coping with the parental and cultural environment, exigencies that the ego in its development has learnt to deal with by investing upon them energies it inherits from the Id. The ego is originally neither there, nor does it possess its own source of energy; it is fundamentally the inheritor and hard-pressed manager of conflicting forces, sometimes going along with one to control the other, at other times having to abandon its defences to withstand the assaults of the other. The theory then places the psychoanalyst in the position of interpreting or reconstructing an individual’s mental state in a way that catches or reproduces the fundamental representations under which the mental activities of that individual have come to operate. So, psychoanalytic constructions look in two directions at once: from the point of view of the analyst, or objectively, they provide a description of the state of mind, whereas from the patient’s point of view, or subjectively, it provides or may provide (it depends how the patient actually responds to what the analyst knows theoretically) an explanation. The idea is that the construction will explain the state of mind if it contains some crucial element in that state of mind that the patient is unconscious of but which could most likely be the representation that the patient’s ego makes of itself. Thus, the psychoanalyst, on behalf of the patient’s ego, and with the patient’s reactions as a fragile but important guide, attempts to trace in reverse direction the process of self-representations the patient’s ego has pursued.

My suggestion, then, is that to all the other cultural figures of the intermediary we add the psychoanalyst, but with the proviso that in him or her we have a demythologised version. Demythologised precisely because what Freud provided was a theory that seeks to account for the formation of the first and foremost of such intermediaries – the ego itself.

I can now briefly indicate why I said at the beginning that the issue of whether Freud was a “reductionist” should be answered with the apparent contradiction that he both was and was not. To the extent that he thinks that morality, religion, and social organisation are psychic derivatives or ‘heirs’ of ego-self-representations he is a ‘reductionist’. But the alternative here is not really acceptable. How could it be that bio-psychic beings like us have a sense of the good, the obligatory, the unforgivable, the noble, the beautiful, etc. that is somehow a given and not the outcome of a complex kind of representation? On the other hand, to the extent that he does not think of the content that moral, religious, or social thought can take at different times in human history, is itself a derivative or heir of some other kind of thought, he is not a “reductionist”. Some of Freud’s writings can mislead on this point, but close reading of these texts will reveal that he is most concerned with the vehemence or vigour with which moral, religious, or political ideas are sometimes, and as we are presently witnessing once again around the world, pursued. It is the psychic derivativeness of such vehemence and vigour that Freud, in my view correctly, saw.

So we come back to the picture of the intermediary I as a child both projected on to and perceived in my father. It was I suppose the idea under which an ego could see itself, as a being that could both quell the passions and ensure the value of reasonableness. But let us not forget for a minute the precarious and dangerous ground upon which such ego stands. Intermediary figures as they appear in the culture are subject to both veneration and destruction in both ritual and actual form.