Freud / Brandom

November 20, 2010

In my early twenties, before I started blogging, I spent a lot of time trying to think about my own and others’ actions in terms of categories derived from psychoanalytic theory (i.e., basically, Freud). The principal analytic categories I was using at that time were libidinal circulation and cathexis. I was interested in, among other things, thinking about intersubjectivity and normative demands in terms of the ideas of libidinal investment and incorporation of the other into the internal dynamics of the psyche. The paradigmatic psychoanalytic emphasis, here, is on the internalisation of the demands of the parent(s), in the formation of the superego: love and the desire for love, which are taken as the basic motive forces of the psyche, can be used to account for the formation of internal demands – the creation of the self is also the differentiation of the self, as the first parental object of cathexis is separated into external and internal components, real separation from the other achieved by ideal internalisation. Now, I think psychoanalytic theory tends to place rather too much emphasis on the role of parents – and this connects to its naturalisation and transhistoricisation of a culturally specific mode of family organisation. But I found these categories helpful back then, and I still think Freud’s work contains a lot of insight, however problematic and silly it may also often be.

Nevertheless, I encountered an impasse, when I was trying to think things through in these terms. Retrospectively, I think that impasse had at least two aspects. First, the status of the categories of Freudian theory is always somewhat unclear: on the one hand, Freud has a strong desire to understand the psyche in naturalistic terms, and at least in principle to open his theories to the possibility of empirical or scientific refutation. On the other hand, the categories have a tendency to slide towards metaphysics – and various other psychoanalytic thinkers (e.g. Jung; Lacan) are happy to push that tendency as far as it will go. Further, Freudian theory has difficulty giving an adequate account of anything properly social (which includes the contingently-social elements of the family structures Freud analyses). Theorists who want to use Freudian categories to explain complex social phenomena (e.g. Adorno; Zizek) have typically done so – taking their cue from Freud himself, to be sure – by analysing societies as if they were analogous to individual psyches: a move guaranteed to result in idealism and incoherence, whatever the supposed rationale. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, looking back, for me to see my engagement with social/political theory, and the political radicalisation that followed pretty quickly from paying full attention to such issues, as among other things a response to the limitations of the Freudian theoretical apparatus – although there were, it’s true, plenty of other things going on in my life and head at that time as well.

Anyway, I now find myself back in something close to the psychological space I left off in moving away from this material more than five years ago – but, I think, with considerably more in the way of theoretical resources; more lived and understood; and a stable, happy, loving and rich affective background, where before all was anguish. I want to return to some of these issues, then – although in a personal, rather than a very theoretically rigorous way – and try to draw some connections between the work I was doing then and the work I’ve been doing more recently. In particular – and this will probably be no surprise, given recent enthusiasms – I’m interested in connecting the practice-theoretic foundation of Robert Brandom’s philosophical apparatus to the basic categories of Freud’s ‘discourse on desire’. Brandom and Freud, after all, are both theorists of explicitation – and they share this fundamental Enlightenment commitment (or ethical gamble, if you prefer) with the Marx of Capital. In a way, looking back, explicitation seems to me to be a thread running through almost all of the work – artistic as well as intellectual – that I’ve attempted in my life. The idea that the role of the artist/intellectual is to articulate in words, to a community, things that we already know in some sense, because we already do these things, but have never or rarely brought them to conscious reflection… and the idea that, through this act of making-conscious, we are enriched, as a community, and have an increased capacity for self-transformation (individual or collective)… this seems to me to be a useful way to understand the kinds of luxury production I’m interested in. (Of course, the ‘enrichment’ thus achieved need not be a positive enrichment – the community so ‘enriched’ may be a monstrous one; my remarks here are intended to be ethically neutral in that respect.) I’m not, of course, interested in such production here – these remarks have the goal of purely personal explicitation.

For both Brandom and Freud, we act without necessarily knowing why we act: we are driven by motive forces that are not necessarily part of our conscious thoughts – but we can, if we wish, aim to make explicit to ourselves the principles of action at work in our deeds, and, via this process of explicitation, reflect upon and transform them.

Brandom and Freud are also both interested in the construction of norms from our social behaviour: they both refuse to see norms as anything other than effects of our actions and interactions. I’m interested, in particular, in tracing out parallels between the two thinkers’ accounts of this process. Or, really, I’m interested in assembling my own understanding of how this process operates: I suppose that’s why I’m thinking of all this as, in the first place, a personal, rather than a theoretical, analysis. Brandom’s ‘rationalism’, with its emphasis on the social practice of asking for and giving reasons, and Freud’s ‘irrationalism’, with its emphasis on libidinal investment at the origin of normativity, seem to me to be describing fundamentally the same phenomenon. There is, however, I’m sure, some incompatibility between the two accounts. I want to establish my own sense – an accurate sense – of how these processes function. That may mean working through Brandom and Freud in a bit more detail – or it may mean (my preferred option), just trying to feel through to an articulation of this stuff based on knowledge and experience.

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5 Responses to “Freud / Brandom”

  1. Reid Says:

    Hey Duncan,

    Interesting comments. Just thought I’d mention that, on the Brandom-Freud connection, the former makes some brief but tantalizing comments on Lacan in an unpublished paper, available here, called “Towards Reconciling Two Heroes: Hegel and Habermas”. I’d also note that while several of Lacan’s popularizers, including Zizek and Badiou, have interpreted his work in a metaphysical way, I don’t think there is much warrant to understand his work in that way.

  2. duncan Says:

    Hi Reid, thanks. I’ve glanced at that Habermas/Hegel paper but I should read it properly.

    On Lacan – I’m obviously no Lacan scholar, and don’t imagine I’ll ever acquire the knowledge required to articulate a proper critique (because the work strikes me as wrong and crazy, so there’s no incentive to put the time in): I’ve read a fair bit of the Ecrits, and about half of seminar VII. Recently I read the Bruce Fink intro for clinical practitioners – which I assume is Lacan presented in about as non-metaphysical form as he gets – and it didn’t change my mind about this. Take, as an example, this set of statements, which Fink quotes: “In the beginning was rivalry… It is in a fundamental rivalry… that the constitution of the human world as such takes place.” Now quite apart from the metaphysical language (constitution of the human world as such) [and of course Lacan very often cites philosophical figures to support his positions, as if they were positions that could be supported in these terms, rather than on the basis of empirical research], what is the status of this claim? What would it take to show that Lacan’s wrong on this point? What would the claim even mean, if cashed out in less grandiose terms? What are the grounds on which Lacan invites us to take this claim and others like it as discursively and descriptively legitimate? I don’t think Lacan has good (non-metaphysical) answers to these questions – I think his apparatus is irreducibly metaphysical, and he persuades people he’s doing something clinically acceptible, by convincing his admirers that no actual counterexample or alternative explanatory framework could even in principle cause problems for his approach – once one’s got one’s Lacanian framework in place, everything oppositional is just a symptom, it doesn’t have to be engaged. (If I remember right from the seminars, Lacan spends quite a bit of time on back-and-forth with Jean Hippolyte, who is in the audience – I think Lacan may even get him up on stage at one point to lecture on Hegel. And Hippolyte’s is not a Brandomian pragmatist Hegel. What’s this stuff doing in there, if the system isn’t metaphysical?)

    There’s a book I really liked five years ago or so (I’m much more critical of it now, but I still think it’s got insight) – not so hostile to Lacan, uses a fair bit of his apparatus, for lit-crit purposes – Henry Staten’s Eros In Mourning: From Homer to Lacan. The last chapter is a (psychoanalytic) reading of the core texts of Lacan’s corpus. Myself I’d aim for a broader critique, but Staten’s remarks strike me as careful and pretty devastating on something not a million miles from Lacan’s own terms. Not that I’m suggesting you should read it – I’m just flinging out the reasons why I regard Lacan’s work as metaphysical and problematic – I realise none of these remarks can in themselves convince.

  3. ktismatics Says:

    Actually I find that I’m more drawn to personal revelations on these blogs than I used to be — while at the same time more reluctant to offer such revelations myself. I will, however, talk about myself a bit in response to the theme of explicitation (is that a real word?).

    In broadest terms: scientists try to make the world explicit; cognitive psychologists try to make cognition explicit. As a psychology grad student and to some extent afterward I focused on the cognitive psychology of scientists. Though I didn’t set Brandom and Freud as exemplars of explicitation, I was interested in exploring this distinction you’ve drawn in the context of scientific practice. I was aware that scientists’ tacit knowledge and norms constituted part of their expertise in understanding the world — call this Brandomian-tacit. At the same time, scientists’ work is also vulnerable to tacit biases and desires that can block their understanding of the world — call it Freudian-tacit. Rendering both sorts of tacit knowledge explicit would, I thought, contribute not only to the cognitive study of science but to the scientific endeavor more generally.

    In pursuing this line of investigation I was establishing a niche for myself at the periphery of my own field. So why did I do it? Brandom-wise, I like to think that, upon reflection, I was interested in the subject for its own sake rather than for the professional cachet it might afford me on the job market. At the same time I suspect there were multiple Freudian-tacit factors motivating me. Maybe I doubted my own expertise as a budding scientist, thinking that I might either reassure myself or learn something useful by explicitating more mature scientists’ tacit expertise. At the same time, there was the lure of achieving a kind of higher-critical intellectual superiority over my fellow scientists by probing the way they think and work. Then there was the sense that, if I didn’t become a resoundingly successful scientist, it might well be attributable not to my own failures as an expert, but to the tacit biases of the scientific community in which I functioned — biases against, say, brilliant scientists who happen to have a passion for exploring subjects that don’t happen to be hot topics in the field. In this way I could look with disdain upon those supposed experts who would judge me unworthy of joining their parochial, self-deluded little confraternity.

    Thank you, Doctor Law, for letting me get these things out in the open. I’m not so sure I feel all that much better about myself though…

  4. duncan Says:

    Oh, this is meant to make us better, not to make us feel better! (First – produce your symptom ;-P)

    Your comments on your experiences & actions re: psychology are very interesting, though – thank you. It puts me in mind, a little, of the approach I’m trying to take to economics – approaching the discipline crabwise, with a hugely ambivalent attitude to the norms that guide the research-community’s investigations. (Though I’m more thoroughly outside the disciplinary space than it sounds like you were with psychology, for good or ill.) There are, as you say, any number of different kinds of self-validations that can be achieved via different attitudes to the larger community – and this is, of course, something to consider in terms of the motivations it produces. The figure of the autodidact crank – which is surely the social role my own investigations most closely resemble – has a distinctive set of affects and attitudes typically associated with it. It’s possible to deliberately align oneself with such a social location. For example, I have a long term fondness for the remarks in Keynes’s General Theory about “the brave army of heretics… who, following their intuitions, have preferred to see the truth obscurely and imperfectly rather than to maintain error”. This can be a problematic self-conception, however, not least because it valorises present social isolation as evidence of intellectual virtue – and yet it is only through an ongoing interaction with the broader intellectual community, and an exposure of one’s ideas to others’ assessments and norms of assessment, that a legitimate confidence in the likely truth of one’s commitments (the confidence that could justify such relative isolation) could be achieved. It is a delicate line to walk – and one, as you say, fraught with affective lures. The temptation, for those outside an institutionalised research-community’s circle of esteem and material reward, is of course to attribute that exclusion to their work’s threatening insight and potency. Contrariwise, the temptation for those within the charmed institutional circle is to attribute their social and material success to the virtues of their intellectual product. These attitudes can be maintained even as much crasser and more obvious causal factors are systematically and consciously repeated by the participants. Thus the crank’s insults, directed at their intellectual peers, both tend to perpetuate their continuing social exclusion and also pre-emptively to explain and criticise it: a sort of intellectual game of fort-da. Likewise, the respected academic’s jockeying for position and constant attention to the micrology of academic status is somehow forgotten, in his own mind, when he reflects, with satisfaction, on what his social status says about his work’s enduring value. These are of course only two examples among many possible others. (And there are, of course, always multiple overlapping communities of research, rather than a single one in terms of which one defines one’s own activities.)

    One of the things I most like about Brandom’s work – one of the things I’ve found most helpful to me – is that it permits an account of conceptual value that explains it wholly in terms of social recognition, and yet does not intrinsically bind that recognition to any specific empirical community in the way that has historically caused problems for pragmatist (and indeed many idealist) accounts of normativity. I mean to say, Brandom’s is an account of truth as (nothing more than) taking-true, that is nonetheless not vulnerable (in my opinion) to the kind of skepticism that is often prompted by reflections of the sort in my last paragraph (e.g.: scientific ‘legitimacy’ is nothing more than the approval of those in power). I find this useful not just because I think it’s right, but also because I find it psychologically helpful in navigating the social spaces of intellectual conflict and exclusion.

    One of the striking things about science, as a collective endeavour, is how successfully it’s been institutionalised – more successfullly in some disciplines than in others, to be sure – in such a way that jockeying for status, resentment, jealousy, snobbery, intellectual viciousness, etc. etc. are all tethered to a system of self-reproducing communal esteem and non-esteem that more or less, in the longish run, tends to produce truth. This is an absolute triumph of organisational ingenuity, and worth reflecting on as such. It is a much better example of the kind of social dynamic that liberal economists claim to find in capitalism, for example, than is capitalism itself. (Capitalism’s outcomes are much more reliably heinous). “It is not from the benevolence of the physicist, the chemist, the biologist, that we can expect our legitimate truth-claims, but from their regard to their professions’ institutionalised norms of status-reward”, as Adam Smith more or less said.

    That said, although the institution of science can orient a lot of human behaviour toward the production of legitimate truth-claims, even when much of the behaviour might seem directly opposed to such a goal, this kind of institutional ‘sublimation’ can only do so much: it is important for the persistence of the scientific project that the institutional goals are also the personal goals of enough of the institutions’ participants that the institution can be consciously reproduced by those with the ability to. This means not just an awareness that science is oriented towards truth (which all scientists of course possess), but an awareness of how: of the quite complicated ways in which the different kinds of scientific best-practice hang together in a more or less coherent social system. It is, I think – and this is I guess the point of my digression – in some ways more important for the crank to possess this kind of knowledge, than it is for those who inhabit the scientific institution more fully. For the crank does not reliably come into contact with these sorts of institutionalised checks and balances, but must work (to a greater extent than the accredited academic) according to his or her own criteria of legitimacy. This is a valuable freedom. But it also demands, perhaps, a greater attentiveness to the kinds of knowledge that can, often, remain tacit within a larger community of practice – and a greater degree of reflection on the justification for the acceptance or rejection of those norms. Such, at any rate, is my own justification for these interminable metatheoretical reflections.

    I miss your blog, ktismatics: I hope you’ll consider starting again at some point. And I trust the writing is going well.

  5. duncan Says:

    Relevant to the discussion in the original post, this passage from Brandom’s Philosophy and the Expressive Freedom of Thought (in Reason in Philosophy, p. 149):

    We sapients are self-constituting beings because what we are for ourselves is an essential element of what we are in ourselves. One of the central tasks of philosophy is to craft vocabularies we can use to interpret, understand, constitute, and ultimately transform ourselves. The production of potentially self- and community-transforming vocabularies is not, to be sure, the exclusive province of philosophers. For instance, filmmakers and novelists (imagers and imaginers of lives and projects), poets (sculptors of language and linguistic images), and such hard-to-classify thinkers as Marx and Freud are all practitioners of this arcane, human-alchemical art.

    There’s a lot I disagree with in this essay, which I’ll get to by and by, but I wanted to make a note of this passage in passing.


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