Freud is an enigma. He was a doctor, a sort of scientist; and yet he was heavily indebted to mythological foundations. He was a trusting confidant of many, and yet is known by his adversaries as an insidiously pathological liar (see Masson’s account of Freud’s suppression of the Seduction Theory in The Assault on Truth.). He is one of history’s most important figures, and few would deny his influence; and yet he is constantly scorned from almost every department in the academy. Therefore, I believe Freud’s legacy should be seen in a holistic manner, both acknowledging his great contributions and correcting his often damaging mistakes.
The greatest of Freud’s contributions is that of his role in the history of intellectual thought. Before Freud, very few thinkers considered the subject something with which to be dealt. In fact, it could be argued that this very notion is the specter that has always haunted western philosophy.
In Descartes, we see a subject who is primarily a ‘thinking thing’. Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. The Cartesian subject has no holes, he has no lack. He has direct consciousness of all things around him, and is the master of his domain. With Kant we see a change however, and all of German Idealism goes with him.
The Kantian subject no longer has direct access to the world. He is cut off from noumenal reality, having contact with only the realm of pure phenomena. However, he does have full access to himself. The dark secret of the unconscious has yet to be unearthed. With Kant, the limits of philosophy have been set anew, but it is not until Freud that they are set within the philosopher himself.
Nietzsche once remarked that, “When you look into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” When Freud sneaked a peak into the realm of the unconscious, he forever set the life of the mind on a new course. Unfortunately, once this step has been taken, it can never be reversed. The abyss always stares back.
This realm of what Zizek calls the “unknown knowns” (that is, something that you know, but that you don’t know that you know.) can be traced in the Judeo-Christian tradition all the way back to Paul. In Romans 7, Paul states:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!”
It is here that we first see the fragmented self, the fractured nature of being. There are wars being waged within us that we cannot even begin to comprehend. There are many ways in which we could critique Freudian theory in general. He was reductionistic. He wanted to make ‘scientific’ what was inherently non-empirical. His character was less than authentic and commendable. But it is only if we understand Freud through the lens of history, and his effects upon it, that we will finally be able to learn from him.