Freud, Flytraps, and Fish

In the beginning there were flytraps.

In the rec.arts.books newsgroup a gentleman by the name of Russell Turpin introduced the term “intellectual flytrap” for discussion as follows:

An intellectual flytrap is an elaborate system created by an author (1) that has the proven ability to attract intellectuals, (2) that is flawed in ways easily recognized by those with more breadth of experience (and hence it attracts mostly the young or narrowly educated who lack such breadth), and (3) whose flaws far exceed any real advances it makes. (Indeed, one of the ways to tell an intellectual flytrap is to ask a proponent to summarize one or two major advances the author makes and listen to the resulting nonsense that vacillates between “er, uh, …” and claims that the author revolutionized how people think about everything!)
This definition undoubtedly needs sharpening.
One characteristic of an intellectual flytrap is that its proponents inveigh it to buttress (explain?) terribly bad arguments or understandings they learned from it, frequently insisting that if you do not understand those views it is because you have not read the book that explains their understandings (as if bad arguments get better when explained in some length). When one succumbs to these pleas and reads the book, one is disheartened to find that the source is as bitter as the cup.
But an intellectual flytrap is not just the works of an author who took an intellectual wrong-turn, though that category certainly bounds it on one side. An intellectual flytrap is elaborately and carefully constructed by someone quite clever, and from this it draws its ability to attract others who are bright. Its sins are more often ones of omission (which are sometimes hard to circumscribe for so large an enterprise), and its sins of commission are enwrapped in complex defensive structures. The author of an intellectual flytrap is always someone with considerable intellectual capacity.

Russell gave sundry examples which were followed up by others with still more examples and, in turn, objections to those examples. Some examples cited were General Semantics, Objectivism, Dianetics, Deconstruction, Marxism, and Psychoanalysis.

Now the interesting thing (interesting to those who might be interested which may only be me) is that there was a confusion of categories in the discussion. People mixed up the concept of a closed system of thought (sometimes called sealed premises) with the notion of an intellectual flytrap as defined. Some good examples of said flytraps are General Semantics, Objectivism, and Dianetics.

On the other hand Marxism and Psychoanalysis and, say, Medieval Christianity are (debatably) closed systems of thought but they are not intellectual flytraps in the sense specified. Although there may have been a single original progrenitor these systems of thought have drawn in many deep thinkers, have had demonstrable effects and results, and are not obviously hogwash. They may be lion traps but they definitely aren’t fly traps.

Rhetorical Flourishes On The Net

The mention of psychoanalysis and Freud drew a sharp and somewhat mysterious response from Silke-Maria Weineck, followed by some banter between yours truly and her, as follows:

Silke-Maria Weineck: If that were the only common misconception in the post, I could live with it. When will people learn to read Freud as a philosopher instead of being mad at him for not aggrandizing their miserable little lives?

Richard Harter: It’s really quite remarkable but do you know, I really do believe you meant that seriously. How quaint.

Silke-Maria Weineck: I’m sorry to say there is nothing remarkable in your reply; just plain old nothing-to-say but wanting-to-go-with-the-flow. But perhaps you can explain.

Richard Harter: Oh, piffle. Unless I am very much mistaken you are not in the least bit sorry nor are you in any doubt about what I am saying. Try again.

Silke-Maria Weineck: I _am_ sorry because I remember some damn interesting posts you made a few weeks back. You could be saying several things: Freud is not a philosopher, Freud does aggrandize miserable little lives, people hate Freud for different reasons than I say they do.

In each case, a little argument would not be out of order. Then again, you could just scan in some of these abominable New York Review of Books articles. I was wondering whether you had something _else_ to say besides, “it’s not clinically proven that self-knowledge is beneficial.”

Freud and Fish

This was the cue for me to write the following essay on Freud. The text here has been edited from the original usenet posting.

Oh drat. Of all the sneaky underhanded ways of conducting an intellectual battle, complimenting your opponent is the worst. Here I am, already to leap into the fray, dressed in full battle regalia and you utterly disarm me with a single blow. It’s dastardly of you to do so, but thank you for the kind words.

That said, there is a problem here. You see, I don’t read the NYRB. Haven’t read it in years. Wouldn’t have it around the house. Don’t need it. Wrap my fish in wax paper. Never wrap your fish in newsprint. The print comes off on the fish. Your compulsive reader will read anything. So there you are, preparing dinner and you get caught up reading the fish. The indignant call comes “when is dinner going to be ready” and you mumble “sorry dear, I was reading the fish”. Very embarrassing. Stick to wax paper.

But I digress. That’s all right. Digression is good for the soul. In any case I don’t read the NYRB and thus did not catch whatever brouhaha over psychoanalysis went on If it weren’t for the fact that a correspondent mentioned it in the course of commenting on this very exchange I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of what you are talking about.

I surmise that you were not really responding to the thread but rather to NYRB commentary, possibly on the implicit assumption that every body else was familiar with it. I further surmise that said brouhaha amounts to this: Somebody said that psychoanalysis sucks, both as theory and as practice. Somebody else said psychoanalysis fucked up my head. Sundry psychoanalysts rose indignantly in defense.

Now that we have established context and told a few jokes, what about Freud, his theories, and psychoanalysis? Well we really have four issues to consider, to wit:

Freudian based therapy, i.e., psychoanalysis
The general Freudian theory of the operation of the mind
The place and impact of Freudian theory on the intellectual culture
Freud considered as a philosopher

I have a fifth category in mind, psychoanalysis as a religious exercise, but I will defer that for the moment.

The first issue we want to look at is whether psychoanalysis is an effective therapy. There is a problem here because we have to take into account what the goal of the therapeutic process is. However I shall restrict it to dealing with the immediate issues that bring the patient to the therapist. (Therapist here means anyone in the business of getting people’s heads straight, irrespective of their credentials.)

Within this restricted context psychoanalysis, indeed any therapy, is only modestly successful at best. If one has problems and doesn’t see a therapist the problems go away after a while about 2/3 of the time. If one sees a therapist the problems are resolved about 2/3 of the time. People usually cure themselves when they have problems amenable to therapy. (Mental illness due to physical problems is a different matter.)

Still and all, psychoanalysis does have its successes. It is, however, a particularly expensive and dangerous therapy. The expense is obvious so let me speak of the danger. To put it crudely, psychoanalysis sets up a mind-fuck scenario. People are suggestible. You can get people to believe all sorts of things including things that never happened. Witness brain-washing, cult-programming and deprogramming, reincarnation memories via hypnotic recall, etc. The therapeutic session sets up a situation where the patient is particularly vulnerable to mind-fucking. The very good therapist is very sensitive to what is going on in the patients head – Reik’s listening with the third ear – and does not impose his/her own interpretations/beliefs/suggestions on the patient. The not so good therapist wittingly or unwittingly engages in a mind-fuck.

Let us now consider Freud’s theory of the mind and its operation, the whole superstructure of id/ego/superego, dream interpretation, the censor, repression and sublimation, his sexual theories, the unconscious, regression, etc., etc., etc. Bluntly, much of it is wrong, some of it is very wrong and some of it is right on. It could never be completely wrong – Freud was, after all, working out his theories in response to real observations (filtered by cultural biases). I really don’t want to go into all of that – this is just a post and not a treatise. Take my word for it. Trust me. 🙂 [Just for drill do you really think Freud knew what he was talking about when he postulated penis envy?]

For the purposes of this thread, however, the point is that Freudian theory is indeed an “intellectual flytrap”, i.e., a general theory capable of explaining everything with built in devices for not allowing refutation. Blocking, repression, and denial are real but they are overly convenient for the theoretician. Again, I don’t want to go into detail – suffice it to say that the issues have been thrashed out more than once.

What about Freud’s place in intellectual history? Here his influence is enormous. The Freudian theorists gave an entire body of vocabulary, terminology which is pervasive. More than that, if God is dead, Freud preached the sermon at the burial service. Freud revolutionized the study of mental illness and the mind. If one is going to access the intellectual babble, er, commentary of the twentieth century one really has to have a working acquaintance with the outlines of Freudian theory.

What of Freud as a philospher? Granted that one can take any writer, even Rod McKuen, as the raw material for philosophy and can therefore do the same with Freud. However Freud was a man of multitudes and philosophized. However I would say that it is just when he essayed the big picture that he was furthest wrong. Just to cite an example [one gets tired of laying down magisterial obiter dicta; it’s rather like laying bricks without mortar] he assumed that primitive human social life followed the gorilla model, i.e., the social group was a single dominant male with a small harem with younger males being cast out. From this he drew all sorts of speculative conclusions. It is a common primate pattern but not the only one. For a number of reasons, degree of sexual dimorphism among them, we are pretty sure that hominids were not like that. Read Freud as a philosopher if you must but shop for table salt first.

As a final filip what about psychoanalysis as a religious exercise (using the term broadly)? The point is that sometimes mind-fucks work and work spectacularly well. You put your soul through the wringer and come out cleansed a new and better person. It’s a terrible risk because sometimes you come all mangled and broken. Zen works. Psychoanalysis works. Sitting in an ashram works. Sometimes…

I am not so sure that psychoanalysis really gives you self knowledge. Some, to be sure. Introspection, guided or not, takes you deep into mind-fuck territory and the truths you find always have an element of construction in them. For the delver it doesn’t matter – the constructed truths are only emblems for the incomprehensible and inexpressible. The danger is social – the true delver emerges as a person of power, charisma laden, able to found movements that change the world. And those movements adopt those idiosyncratic emblems. As the master said, so it goes.

And I think I’ve said all I want to say about this. Let us move on to the ontological exegenesis of Rod McKuen.

This page was last updated October 7, 1996