Freud first lecture


A. Stage-setting: Freud's picture of the human soul. An extreme pre-Freudian picture: the inner life is transparent to introspection and amenable to control in light of reason. In Freud's picture, in contrast, much of the inner life takes place in obscurity. The forces that operate in the inner life are in some respects like persons, operating independently and exploiting mechanisms to protect their own interests. A grown-up psyche is the result of complex maturation, which can go wrong. The maturing of an individual's psyche involves impact from the social setting, first from the family and then from a wider social context. Socialization includes internalizing social standards (acquiring a sense of right and wrong). Freud's question: Is there something in human nature that persists through socialization and is inevitably frustrated by civilized life? In that case civilization inevitably involves discontents.


B. Chapter I. Romain Rolland said that "the true source of religious sentiments" (p. 10) is the "oceanic" feeling: "a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded" (p. 11). Freud offers "a psycho-analytic — that is, a genetic — explanation of such a feeling" (p. 12). He also gives a different (also psycho-analytic in that sense) explanation of "the source of religious sentiments": they originate in "the infant's helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it" (p. 20). Some detail:

1. The account of the "oceanic" feeling is in terms of the origin of a mature sense of oneself ("the feeling of our self, of our own ego," p. 12). The ego (the I) is non-sharply distinguished, inwardly, from "an unconscious mental entity which we designate as the id [the it]," p. 12; an aspect of our psyche that we don't identify with. Outwardly the I is distinguished from the external world, including other people; normally sharply, but the boundary is blurred in love and in some pathological states. Freud's point is that this differentiation of ourselves from the world had to be acquired: "originally the ego includes everything" (p. 15), and the infant gradually learns to see some of what there is as not itself. The "oceanic" feeling is a trace of this primitive state in which one doesn't yet differentiate oneself from the external world (p. 15); he goes on (pp. 15-20) to elaborate the general picture of which this is an application, according to which the mature psyche preserves its earlier stages within itself.

2. The "oceanic" feeling is "a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being at one with the external world as a whole" (p. 12). This is reminiscent of some of Marx's rhetoric about what a proper human life would be like ("Alienated Labor"): in working over nature freely and productively, a human being would feel at home in nature. Freud mentions work in Chapter II, but as just one life-technique among others, and he thinks there is a "natural human aversion to work" (p. 30, footnote). Marx would say aversion to work isn't natural, but a product of unsatisfactory socio-economic arrangements. Marx could offer a different view of the "oceanic" feeling: not as a trace of an infantile state, but as a glimpse of the human condition as it ideally should be. So perhaps Marx counts as religious in the sense that Rolland was driving at.

3. The general form of Freud's debunking explanation of religious belief ("You believe that only because it makes you more comfortable") is very challenging. One should believe what one does because it's true. (Because one has evidence, etc.)


C. Chapter II begins by arguing that the idea of human life as such having a purpose belongs with religion. So Freud sets it aside in favor of discussing the purpose of this or that individual's life. In all cases, he says, the purpose is pursuing happiness, i.e. maximizing pleasure or minimizing unpleasure. The chapter discusses several different techniques for doing that.


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