Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My review of Albert Tauber's 'Freud - the Reluctant Philosopher'

This review is on amazon here. If it lies on your couch and tells you its secrets then be a sweetie and pop over there and click the like button. 

Tauber exposes the shaky metaphysical underpinnings of psychoanalysis as science but recasts it affirmatively as moral inquiry 

This is a brilliant book.

I learned my Freud from someone who had dedicated most of his academic career to giving psychoanalysis a scientific (genetic) basis. In the end, after twenty five years of trying he gave up and subsequently disavowed himself of his Freudianism. So, the questions Tauber explores in this book go right to the heart of my own understanding of, and relationship with, Freud and psychoanalysis. I was really looking forward to reading it and have not been disappointed.

It's not an easy read. But then, questions of metaphysics and the philosophy of science aren't easy either. Tauber lays things out as clearly as is possible. His writing is assured but gentle. He quietly repeats key points, highlighting their salience without interrupting the rhythm of his narrative or patronizing the reader. He is honest about his own view on Freud's scientific claims without being over-bearing or hostile. The pace and length of the book are also spot on. Tauber uses comprehensive endnotes rather than footnotes thereby avoiding any stalling within the reading experience but without compromising on the background detail of the arguments.

What helps Tauber cut through the knot of philosophical problems is a sharp focus on the notions of reason and freedom. From these two themes, and their inter-relatedness and co-dependency, Tauber constructs a convincing metaphysical argument to which he marries the story of Freud's intellectual history. We are left with the picture of Freud alive in the real world. Someone who on the one hand felt the need to present psychoanalysis as science to ensure rigor, method and authority. But also on the other hand, someone with quiet doubts and uncertainties about his claim to knowledge.

This is no simple biography of Freud's intellectual struggles, though. It does very effectively describe to the reader the intellectual current in which Freud swam. But in maintaining both balance and empathy for his subject, Tauber somehow - paradoxically - manages to ground the metaphysical arguments. He doesn't rely on metaphor or analogy so much, but instead we see the intellectual problems Freud faced and the perspective from which he faced them. The solutions to those problems are subtly suggested through an imagined discourse between Freud and the various philosophical schools.

I've generally found criticism of Freud frustrating, whether that comes from a post-structuralist/post-modern orientation, or from a materialist/positivist orientation. Of course, both ways of viewing reality can work to highlight deficiencies within Freud's thought, but all too often I find that, in developing their arguments, they tend towards an ideological rather a scholarly critique. I think this is in part why I found Tauber's book so appealing. His central thesis - his orientation - is an affirmative one. Tauber recasts psychoanalysis as a form of moral inquiry and so Freud himself, becomes a moral philosopher.

The central reason for my holding of Tauber's book in such high regard though, stems back to those early experiences of my teacher determined, but failing, to give a genetic basis to psychoanalysis. I think both my teacher and Freud held up science as a kind of moral goal; the truth as 'the good'. Whereas the feeling I got from reading Freud, particularly his later works and especially things like his correspondence with Einstein, was of a man concerned primarily with 'the good' who understood how unfaithful truth can be. Tauber references Stuart H Hughes 'Conscious and Society' - there's a few lines in that book that stuck with me and seem prescient to the thrust Tauber's argument. (Hughes quotes Ernest Jones).

"Kindness and integrity he [Freud] regarded as absolutes. In Freud, 'honesty... was more than a simple natural habit. It became an active love of truth and justice... A moral attitude was so deeply implanted as to seem part of his original nature. He never had any doubt about what was the right course of conduct,' and he cited with approval the saying: 'Morality is self-evident.'  (p. 139)

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