Saturday, April 05, 2008

Franz Brentano (1838, Marienberg am Rhein – March 17, 1917, Zürich): An Early Philosophical Influence on Freud

We are all inevitably influenced by our earliest teachers and this is true even of the greatest scholars.  We simply cannot escape this inevitable formation of our thought.  Both Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) among many other scholars sat on the benches in the lecture halls where the great philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano lectured.  Between the years 1874 to 1895 this great scholar taught at the University of ViennaRoss M. Skelton of TCD writes of Freud  that at this university "he studied medicine, neurology and psychiatry, but perhaps more importantly he was to attend the classes of the great German philosopher, Franz BrentanoBrentano was at the time pioneering a revolutionary theory of how human subjective experience was to be understood and, in those classes, Freud was to sit in the same room as Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, which became the great rival theory of subjectivity to Freud's theory of psychoanalysis." ("Psychoanalysis", art. in Psychotherapy in Ireland, Edward Boyne, ed., The Columba Press, 1995, 12)

In starting these recent posts my intention has been to get to grips with Freud and his writings.  If luck is on my side I shall have inscribed on an M. Phil. in Psychoanalysis in TCD for the 2008/2009 academic year.  Hence my grappling with these early philosophical influences on our man Freud.  Who was Brentano and what were his teaching?  Ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1864, Franz Brentano became a Professor at the University of Würzburg in 1872, but doubts over the dogma of papal infallibility led to his resignation from his post, and eventually from the priesthood in 1873.  He was an astute student both of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas and especially of the influence of the former on the latter.  Indeed he had spent some six months as a student in the Dominican Order earlier in his life.  Brentano is best known for his reintroduction of the concept of intentionality, also called intentionalism — a concept derived from scholastic philosophy (Thomas Aquinas) — into contemporary philosophy in his lectures and in his famous academic tome Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint.  Here is a brief summary of his impact on psychiatry and psychology in the words of the scholar Raymond E. Fancher, trained in clinical psychology at Harvard (Ph.D.) and emeritus professor of psychology at York University, Ontario:

Brentano published an important book of his own entitled Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint.  Here Brentano proposed an act psychology, in which he contrasted the essential nature of psychology's subject matter with that of the physical sciences.  While the physical sciences study objects, for Brentano the fundamental units of psychological analysis are acts that always refer to or "contain" an object.  For example, while a unit of physical analysis might be an atom, a psychological unit might be an act such as thinking about an atom, or believing that a particular kind of atom must exist, or wanting such a kind of atom to exist.  Thus there is an "aboutness" to all mental phenomena, a quality of referring to or implicating some object in consciousness that Brentano called intentionality. (Pioneers of Psychology, W.W. Norton & Co., 1996, 370-371)

It is interesting to note in passing that the young Freud inscribed for and took five elective courses with Brentano in his first two years as a medical student, and for a while he toyed with the idea of taking a degree in philosophy with this learned scholar after taking his medical degree.

It is also interesting to note that Franz Brentano believed that philosophy should be done with methods that are as rigorous and as exact as those of the natural sciences.  Freud also believed this to be strongly the case as regards what he termed the science of psychoanalysis.  In this belief Brentano had an empirical approach to psychology.  However, we must enter a "caveat" here as this scholar's understanding of the term "empirical" differed markedly from that of the meaning of the word for us today.  Brentano meant that all our knowledge should be based on direct experience - a readily understandable premise.  However, he did not contend at all that this experience needs to be made from a third-person point of view - that is, an objective point of view like that of another more neutral observer - and thus opposes what is the very essence of standard empirical science of today.  In other words, our man Brentano argued for a form of introspectionism.  In other words, for him doing psychology from an empirical standpoint means to describe what one directly experiences in inner perception, from a first-person point of view.

Needless to say such introspectionism - subjectivism indeed - was harshly criticized with the rise of scientific psychology in the tradition of logical positivism, especially by the behaviourists.   However, this in no way gainsays the fact that Brentano did play a crucial role in the process of psychology becoming an independent science.

It is further interesting to note that he distinguished between what he termed (i) Genetic and  (ii) Empirical or, as he later called the latter, Descriptive Psychology (or at times Phenomenology), a distinction that is most explicitly drawn in his Descriptive Psychology. Genetic Psychology studies psychological phenomena from a third-person point of view.  This second category of Descriptive Psychology aims at describing consciousness from a first-person point of view. Its goal is to list “fully the basic components out of which everything internally perceived by humans is composed, and … [to enumerate] the ways in which these components can be connected” (Descriptive Psychology , 4). Brentano's distinction between Genetic and Descriptive psychology strongly influenced Husserl's development of the phenomenological method.

In short, one can see clearly that Brentano's theory of intentionalism or intentionality is a blend of scholastic thought with a form of empiricism which leads to a type of subjective idealism which links into his native and strong Theism. However, his importance cannot be forgotten because he had considerable influence on the thought, writings, work and life of psychologist Carl Stumpf, philosopher Edmund Husserl, and Tomás Masaryk, the founder of modern Czechoslovakia, not to mention our man Sigmund Freud.

I shall conclude these thoughts here by returning to an above quoted article by Ross M. Skelton and quoting a relevant few lines:

By the age of 37 then, Freud had assembled the main ingredients of his theory: from Brentano he had received a profound teaching about the subjectivity of human experience, from Charcot he had seen with his own eyes the unconscious power of repressed ideas, from Elizabeth von R he was aspired to free association, and in his relation with Breuer we find the first nudge towards what will become the theory of transference. (Skelton, op.cit., 13)

Above I have uploaded a picture of the young Brentano!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

That Fellow Freud 2

I have always found biography and autobiography a good way into history, philosophy and science, to name but some of the areas in which I am interested.  Freud's personality mystifies and intrigues me by turns.  Hence, there is room for a second entry on our man Freud's unique life.  The following are just random points added to supplement and complement what I mentioned in the immediately prior post to this one.  As such I shall number these points as I shall list them rather randomly.  Hence this post will be somewhat prosaic and have the quality of a list rather than of an essay with a beginning, a middle and an end.  Apologies to Aristotle.

1. Literature: I have already mentioned before that one of the great things about reading Freud is that he is a brilliant writer who writes like an angel and who shows both a breadth and depth of reading.  In 1930 he become the fourth recipient of the Goethe prize for literature by the city of Frankfurt.


2. Music: One of Freud's nephews reported that his uncle had little or no interest in music except for opera.


3. Basic Negativity and Pessimism: Anyone who even begins to read Freud will find at once that he has a very negative take on the human condition.  He described himself as an "atheistic Jew" and a negative take on life is immediately implied in this.  As a doctor with an early interest in neurology and psychiatry based on biological-physiological principles his approach to the human person can be described as positivist, reductionist and determinist, though this approach was to get somewhat less rigid as he grew older.  Also given that he had witnessed much of the unseemly, the disturbed and ugly side of nature in his early medical studies one can almost forgive him for this negative take on life.  Anthony Storr, one of my favourite commentators quotes a revealing comment by Freud, which I'll indent for emphasis here:

I have found little that is "good" about human beings on the whole.  In my experience, most of them are trash

[from Freud's book Psychoanalysis and Faith, quoted Freud: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 1989, 2001,  Anthony Storr, 13)]

This above quotation goes beyond pessimism and negativity into sheer misanthropy or hatred of humankind.  Again we can forgive our man Freud because, to tell the truth, we can all hit a rock bottom period both in our life and  in out thought and the above quotation would not be the tenor of his thought as a whole on balance.


4.  Personality: Storr also points out that as a person Freud lacked an immediate warmth. (op.cit., 13)  In fact he was impersonal and cold of character.  It is also documented that his approach to psychoanalysis was consequently impersonal, cold and objective.  Freud, himself, was cognizant of the fact that his personality could be off-putting.  In the following short quotation from a letter, which I also found in Storr, he shows an almost glaring envy of his one-time loyal friend and follower, Carl Gustave Jung.  He writes to his friend that people found his personality somewhat "strange and repellent" and goes on in an envious tone to state that "all hearts open to you."  (Ibid., 13)


5.  Rigidity and Control: Freud was a brilliant student all his life who liked to do his own thinking, work things through for himself down to the last iota.  He probably was a cocky scholar who felt he had achieved a lot.  Unfortunately as a result of this basic character flaw - a certain obvious hubris - he was intolerant of disagreement and this rigidity led to a long series of defections among his early collaborators.  This is one of the most striking features of any study of the history of psychoanalysis - the flight from the master of erstwhile loyal followers, collaborators and friends.   This list of defectors is impressive if sad and understandable:  Breuer, Fliess, Adler, Stekel, Jung, Rank and more. In brief early psychoanalysis allowed no disputes with what the master claimed to be the fundamental and absolute tenets of his new science.  This master was autocratic.  One's disagreement with the master meant simply the end of both friendship and professional relations.


6.  Unusual tolerance of human Frailty: What might not be obvious from the foregoing points was that Freud showed an exceptional and unusual tolerance for human frailty.  This man did not make moral judgements on people at all, and certainly not on his clients or patients.  In this, we have a lot to be thankful for to this great man.  Freud's tolerance has pointedly led to a more civilized attitude to the mentally ill or disturbed individuals amongst us.  We are more tolerant of neuroses, psychoses, even sexual deviation and all possible forms of emotional mal-adaptation.  Mr Freud, take a bow.


7.  Secrets: One aspect of our man Freud which I find astonishing is how extremely reluctant he was to reveal his own private life or his own secrets.  After all he specialized in what he termed a "science" which endeavoured to investigate the kind of intimate secrets which people strive to conceal from themselves and from others.  Also he did believe that their revelation to the full light or even glare of consciousness was the actual healing process for all neuroses.  In a letter to his future wife in 1885 he declares to Maria that he had just destroyed his notes, letters and manuscripts from the previous fourteen years as he had no desire "to make it easy for my future biographers."  (Storr, op.cit., 11)  This is a man full of himself and full of hubris!


8.  Courage:  What certainly is obvious now to any reader is that Sigmund Freud was a very complex individual indeed.  I suppose one would have to admit that such is the wont of any great human being.  Another striking characteristic of the founder of psychoanalysis is his sheer courage.  A lot of Freud's theories were revolutionary and in the context of the times - (Victorian and Edwardian) - downright offensive and objectionable.  His theories spoke about humankind's basic animal drives - indeed the very audacity of reducing practically every psychological complaint to the sex drive and the problems associated therewith would have been anathema to his readers.  Yet Freud persisted to publish his findings even where he experienced downright rejection and opposition from his professional colleagues. How many of us would have the courage to risk the contumely of our colleagues?  Once again, Mr Freud, take a bow.  You have brought tolerance for human frailty further still.

Above, I have uploaded a picture of an older Freud.

Monday, March 31, 2008

That Fellow Freud 1

We have all heard of Freud no matter what subjects we have studied or no matter what professions we have pursued.  Quite simply he has influenced contemporary culture - not just psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis - to such a large degree that most scholars recognise that he has been as influential as Albert Einstein has on modern civilization.  Freud certainly built up a deliberate movement about him - he realised early that he was going to leave his mark on the world.  Like Jacques Lacan, a major twentieth-century interpreter, I feel he built up a mystique about his very person.  One thing that Freud shares with his unique, if not peculiar, interpreter is that they both destroyed their more private notes before their deaths in an effort to make any biographer's task difficult.  This action does, of course, leave us wondering why - was there anything untoward in either's private life?  If both were sincere and "congruent" (to use modern parlance from Rogerian therapy) psychoanalysts why all this desire for secrecy?

Anyway, our man Freud was born on the 6th of May, 1856, in a small town called Freiberg in what was then called Moravia, but the family moved to Vienna when he was four or five years old.  His father was a successful wool merchant in his second marriage to a woman 20 years his junior.  At 21 years of age this woman gave birth to her first-born son Sigmund.  Freud had two older half-brothers by his father's first wife and  six younger siblings by the second. 

Freud was a brilliant scholar both at school where he excelled at the classics and at university where he topped his class in medicine.  It is interesting to note that Sigmund was gifted at languages: Greek, Latin, German , Hebrew (he was an atheistic Jew), French, English and he possessed the rudiments of Spanish and Italian.  Shakespeare and Goethe were his favourite authors.  While at university he fell early under the influence of the brilliant physiology professor Ernst Brucke.  Brucke believed quite simply that nothing other than "physical-chemical forces" were at work in the human organism.  In other words this professor of physiology was a man of his era - a positivist scientist influenced by Enlightenment thinking.  A modern way of describing this is to say that our man Brucke was a reductionist: "No other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism."  Storr describes Freud as "determinist" throughout his long life, that is, he believed "that all vital phenomena like thoughts, feelings, phantasies are rigidly determined by cause and effect."

In 1882, at 26, Sigmund fell in love and became engaged to Martha Bernays and he married her in April 1886.  Martha and he had six children, the last being Anna Freud, the only one of them to become a psychoanalyst.

Freud consequently saw himself as a hard-headed scientist in the positivism tradition early in his career who continually sought to attempt to "reduce" personality to neurology.  He later gave up in this quest, though he always thought of himself as a scientist and of psychoanalysis as a science.  I agree with Anthony Storr that Freud was definitely over-stating things with regards to this contention.

As only limited places were available in neurology or neuro-physiology as it was then called, Freud continued with his research in Paris under the great psychiatrist and neurologist Charcot (at the Salpetriere Hospital) and then with another medical scholar called Bernheim in Nancy.  Both these psychiatrists were experimenting with hypnosis as a therapy for the mental disorder known then as hysteria.  From Charcot Freud developed an interest in the problems of of neuroses as opposed to organic diseases of the nervous system.  A colleague called Josef Breuer helped Freud set up a practice in neuropsychiatry.

Anthony Storr points out that our man Freud was obsessional by nature - he actually admitted this to his one-time disciple and later renegade psychoanalyst Carl Gustave Jung.  Being obsessional he was meticulous, scrupulous, accurate, reliable, honest, and much concerned with cleanliness, control and order.  No wonder he had a penchant for  rejecting people who did not totally agree with him as Dr. C. George Boeree underlines.  I'd go further and claim that our man was a "control freak" as we say in clichés these days.  It is interesting and amusing to note also that a barber attended Freud on a daily basis.  However, his English disciple and biographer, Ernest Jones was to recall that Freud never owned more than three suits, three pairs of shoes and three sets of underclothes.  According to Storr, Freud was also generous to less fortunate relatives, patients and poverty-stricken students.  He was also a compulsive smoker of cigars who continued despite having many operations on his jawbone for cancer of the mouth from which he suffered for the last twenty years of his life.  Also with respect to his obsessional character we can say that Sigmund Freud  was an important collector of antiques and ancient statuettes.  Storr states succinctly that he was "not a connoisseur collector but an obsessional collector."

Freud emigrated to England just before World War 2 when Vienna became an increasingly dangerous place for Jews, especially ones as famous as Freud.  Not long afterwards, the great man died of the cancer of the jaw to which I have just previously alluded.  The year was 1939.

Above an early picture of the young Freud