In fairness to May, I must point out that he does not write directly on Sigmund Freud. He had after all done that many times. What he does here in The Discovery of Being is to describe how Freud reflects or builds on some of Nietzsche’s insights. He starts with the erudite evaluation of Nietzsche by the father of psychoanalysis: Nietzsche had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live.” (Quoted op. cit., p. 83) This is praise indeed coming from someone of Freud’s standing, and from someone who had a great knowledge of his own self. May is also at pains to point out that it does not detract from the genius of Freud to note that almost all of the specific ideas which later appeared in psychoanalysis could be “found in Nietzsche in greater breadth and in Kierkegaard in greater depth.” (Ibid., p. 84)
Freud’s Scientific Genius
Freud’s achievement according to May was in his translating the depth-psychological insights of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche into scientific terms. Freud was most suited to this task given his training as a doctor and some time in neurology, the fact that he had a highly objective temperament and was capable of taking the infinite pains necessary for such systematic work.
Freud’s Understanding of Reason
Freud had a rather wide understanding of reason one which can be traced back to the Enlightenment. I will give hereunder May’s description of this matter:
Freud had a concept of reason which came directly from the Enlightenment – namely, “ecstatic reason.” And he equated this with science. This use of reason involves, as seen in Spinoza and other thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a confidence that reason can by itself comprehend all problems. But those thinkers were using reason as including the capacity to transcend the immediate situation, to grasp the whole, and such functions as intuition, insight, and poetic perception were not rigidly excluded. The concept also embraced ethics: reason in the Enlightenment meant justice. (Ibid., p. 85)
As Tillich, amongst others, argues much of the ecstatic character of reason had been lost, and it was reduced to the narrower confines of logic or to technical or mathematical reasoning. This was the kind of reason which both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche vehemently and constantly attacked.
In short, Freud’s greatest contribution was his effort to overcome the fragmentation of man by bringing man’s irrational tendencies into the light; making the unconscious conscious as it were, and finally bringing split-off and repressed parts of the personality into consciousness and acceptance. While Freud tried to rehabilitate the Enlightenment understanding of reason, unfortunately he left himself wide open also to a narrow technical understanding of reason also. Herein lies a deep ambiguity, perhaps more so on the part of his followers and interpreters than on his own part.
The crucial significance of the existential psychotherapy movement lies in the fact that it is a protest movement against the tendency to identify psychotherapy with technical reason. As May puts it, “It stands for basing psychotherapy on an understanding of what makes man a being; it stands for defining neurosis in terms of what destroys man’s capacity to fulfil his own being.” (Ibid., p. 87)
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche feared the subordination of reason to technical problems, and that such a subordination would mean that humankind would become little more than the image of a machine like de la Mettrie had argued at the height of the French Enlightenment. That’s why for them pain, anxiety (angst), finitude, mortality, suffering in all its dimensions were ontological rather than psychological problems – they were problems that were part and parcel of man’s very nature as a human being. That’s what Nietzsche meant when he said that science was becoming a factory, and the result would be ethical nihilism.
If Freud means anything, and his contribution to psychotherapy by way of his psychoanalysis and his major writings mean some little is that it is indeed possible to have a science of man which “does not fragmentize man and destroy his humanity at the same moment it studied him. It unites science and ontology.” (Ibid., p. 88)