Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Freud and Irrationality



I love exploring the shelves of second-hand and remaindered books in any bookstore because one is always likely to find a gem stuck somewhere among the mass of less interesting books.  Some years back I happened upon one wonderful book entitled Irrationality: The Enemy Within (Penguin, 1992).  This book was a real find and it is one I return to again and again for its accumulation of interesting and astute observations on human nature.  Not alone that, but all those observations are based on good research which the author quotes authoritatively.  The author is Norman Stuart Sutherland (1927 - 1998), always known professionally by the shorter version Stuart Sutherland.  He was a British psychologist and writer.  He was also interested in human perception and cognition, and in 1992 he published the above mentioned book which is essentially a lay reader's guide to the psychology of cognitive biases and common failures of human judgement.

Sutherland argues forcefully and convincingly that we humans simply are not as rational as we like to think we are.  To support this contention he advances many cogent arguments, all backed up with well-marshalled scientific facts and research. I was interested in what he had to say on Freud:

Ryle [Gibert Ryle] led a cloistered life in Magdalen College, Oxford, an environment in which it is perhaps not too difficult to act rationally, but Sigmund Freud, who interacted in Vienna not with desiccated academics but with neurotic patients and with his often equally neurotic colleagues, shared Ryle's approach [that rationality was the key to human life].  He assumed that rational behaviour is the norm: he therefore attempted to explain only acts that are irrational, particularly dreams, neurotic symptoms, and slips of the tongue.  His explanations are an attempt to show that once the unconscious processes underlying behaviour, particularly the conflict between the libido and the superego, are understood, all these apparently irrational acts are in reality rational: they allow the libido satisfaction in disguised form.  The defence mechanisms that conceal the fulfillment of the libido's wishes from the superego are unconscious but entirely rational.  The miser hoarding money that he will never use is not really irrational: he is gratifying himself by fulfilling an infant desire to retain  his faeces. (Op. cit., 3)

I have, needless to say, italicised and bolded parts of the above to highlight Freud's rationality.  That is a new insight for me; that even the irrational was ultimately rational for Freud.  This is a good point to be cognizant of, I think.  It adds another perspective to the Freudian approach to psychiatry and essentially psychoanalysis.

It is beyond the scope of this post for me to say anything about Sutherland's marvellously erudite debunking of the Rorschach tests (The test is named after Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) who developed the inkblots, although he did not use them for personality analysis. The test is considered "projective" because the patient is supposed to project his or her real personality into the inkblot via the interpretation. The inkblots are purportedly ambiguous, structureless entities which are to be given a clear structure by the interpreter. Those who believe in the efficacy of such tests think that they are a way of getting into the deepest recesses of the patient's psyche or subconscious mind. Those who give such tests believe themselves to be experts at interpreting their patients' interpretations) which are still widely used today as we write.  Nor to I wish to explore the nuances between the words irrationality and non-rationality.  Both these asides must wait for further reading and further in-depth thinking on my own part.  However, I must remain grateful to Stuart Sutherland for his enriching insight into Freud's approach to irrationality.


Man's best friend - the reliable, lovable and unconditionally loving dog - all id and irrationality!

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