Brandom and Freud again

January 5, 2022

Continuing my practice here of putting up somewhat preliminary reactions to Brandom’s Hegel work, so as not to lose track of the thoughts – being clear that this is hopefully all going to get worked through more carefully in the future – I want to put up a quick post about Brandom and Freud.  I’ve gestured to this before on the blog I think, but I want to very quickly and superficially expand on a couple points.

So – one of the overarching themes of ‘A Spirit of Trust’ is the way in which Brandom’s Hegel takes himself to have advanced beyond Kant, by making the transition from the “meta-meta-categories” of ‘Verstand’ to those of ‘Vernunft’.  Very broadly speaking, this is a shift from a synchronic to a diachronic understanding of the forms of obligation associated with the synthetic unity of apperception.  For Brandom’s Hegel the Kantian synthetic unity of apperception consists in the obligation to eliminate incompatible commitments.  What makes a self a self – what makes it a unity: this self rather than some other self – is that its commitments are bound together by this meta-commitment to internal consistency.  I am not obliged to make my beliefs consistent with your beliefs – we may simply disagree – but I am obliged (the thinking goes) to make my beliefs consistent with themselves.  When inconsistent beliefs present themselves to me (for example, by new evidence presenting itself to me via my senses, which contradicts some of my present beliefs), I need to go to work addressing this inconsistency by transforming some of my beliefs, in one way or another.

A great deal of philosophical analysis of rationality can be understood in terms of this model.  Basically, we can synchronically analyse a set of beliefs, and if it is consistent then that is good, and if it is inconsistent then that is bad.  This, for example, is what a lot of formal logic consists in: organising the relationship between different beliefs to clarify relations of compatibility and incompatibility, with the idea that when incompatibilities of belief are revealed this throws one’s belief system into the space of unreason, in a way that must be addressed by modifying one’s beliefs.  This synchronic approach can seemingly make it easy to sort belief bundles into two piles: those that are internally consistent (good), and those that are internally inconsistent (bad).

So far so good, but if one stops here – with the synchronic picture – then one is silent about the mechanisms by which one addresses the obligation to shift from an inconsistent to a consistent set of beliefs.  If one is confronted with incompatible commitments, it is not a trivial task to decide how to modify one’s commitments to address this problem of incompatibility.  And of course it is not the case that every way of attempting to respond to this obligation is equally desirable.  The way in which we choose to address incompatible commitments is itself a norm-governed enterprise – some ways of resolving this tension are better than others.  For example, if one is confronted with incompatible commitments, it is often desirable to keep these incompatible commitments suspended together, while one tries to work through and assess the different ways in which one might possibly attempt to fulfill one’s obligation to remove this incompatibility.  And this process may well take significant time and effort.  While one engages in the process one might provisionally prefer one commitment over another, but it may be specifically normatively desirable not to reject one incompatible commitment in favour of another in too hasty or thoughtless a fashion.  Keeping such incompatible commitments suspended together – even for very significant periods of time – might well be the most rational and reasonable thing to do.

The point here is that shifting from a synchronic to a diachronic understanding of rationality can among other things foreground this process.  Instead of simply sorting belief bundles into good and bad piles, our focus is now on the ongoing – indeed, never-ending – process by which we wrestle with our own internal inconsistency.

What does this have to do with Freud?  Well, Freud’s analysis of the psyche gives a central role to inconsistent or incompatible beliefs or commitments.  Of course, much of the Freudian project is about attempting to lessen the inconsistency of those beliefs – unwinding the double binds, or diminishing the symptoms produced by the psyche’s attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.  In this sense Freud is a good Enlightenment rationalist, engaged in a similar project of explicitation to Brandom’s Hegel.  On the other hand, Freud is clear that some level of inconsistency of commitment is “in the grain” – the smoothly untroubled psyche in which our commitments do not conflict is a fantastical goal, for Freud.  It is also easy, then, to see Freud as a straight-up anti-Enlightenment irrationalist, fundamentally antithetical in his analytic framework to the work of reason associated with – for example – the kinds of formal logical analyses captured by a synchronic account of our rational normative obligations.  Alternatively, one could see Freud as analysing the kinds of obstacles – the ‘deformations of reason’ – that confront us as we attempt diachronically to move towards a more rational and internally consistent set of commitments.

What I want to argue in this post is that there is another option.  My claim is that because sustaining incompatible commitments is in fact a core part of a normatively desirable process for rationally addressing incompatibilities within the ‘synthetic unity of apperception’, psychological mechanisms for sustaining inconsistent commitments are a crucial, inescapable part of the machinery of reason.  For this reason, we can’t a priori say that any of the Freudian categories that capture such inconsistencies of commitment involve ‘irrationality’.  Once we have shaken out our inconsistent commitments, of course, we can see the moment at which inconsistent commitments are simultaneously held as an ‘irrational’ moment in the process of reason and experience.  But this is not an avoidable moment in that process – it is fundamental to the process.  It is part of reason itself.  Moreover, because for Brandom’s Hegel the process of unfolding experience is ongoing, the bacchanalian revel of truth never truly ends, so we can never be rid of this ‘irrational’ element of reason.

Now, when Brandom himself discusses Freud he typically does so under the heading of the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that is rebutted via the story of the Kammerdiener.  Within this framework, the Freudian apparatus can be seen as giving a ‘debasing’ perspective on a set of practices that can also, from another perspective, be seen as norm-governed.  And in a sense, that is what I am arguing in this post.  We can easily (but, I am arguing, wrongly) see Freudian categories as analysing the ways in which we human creatures depart from reason, without recognising the constitutive role that such categories play in norm-governed rational thought.  I want to say, though, that the understanding of the role that such categories can play within the Brandomian-Hegelian apparatus that I’m advancing in this post goes somewhat beyond Brandom’s own remarks.  Brandom’s remarks tend, I think, to place Freud more firmly on the ‘debasing’ side of Hegel’s ‘small-souled’ versus ‘great-souled’ division.  I’m arguing here that there is work to be done in understanding and elaborating the constitutive role that ‘living with inconsistency’ plays within our norm-governed rational obligation to achieve consistency of commitments.  And this is, I think, one way (not, I think, perhaps, the only one – though obviously that is a matter for another day) in which a ‘Freud-Brandom-Hegel’ synthesis is potentially interesting and productive.