SL, do you have any thoughts on the theories and theoreticians popular in the humanities that derive in whole or in part from the psychoanalytic tradition? Do you think they are bunk, or do you reckon things like penis envy, the Oedipus complex and castration anxiety form the foundations of the human psyche?
Now we jurisprudes don’t often get to marinade up to our elbows in a tasty bucket of heavy duty philosophy, so I thought I’d do my best to provide an answer. I have studied quite a bit of literary theory in my time, but I am also firmly within the Oxford analytical school as a thinker. Analytic philosophy is a broad church, however, and I decided to answer Mel’s question by highlighting how a system of very mainstream analytic philosophy also flunks the ‘empirical reality’ test I outlined in my education post. This is what I wrote (lightly edited for clarity):
Now to psychoanalysis in literary theory (and elsewhere). This may take a bit of time to explain and I may not get it right, but I will do my best.
Psychoanalytic literary theory shares with philosophy and jurisprudence a desire to elucidate a particular metaphysics. Metaphysics (‘beyond physics’) need not have an empirical basis, and my saying that isn’t simply a sop to philosophers and their fondness for ‘intuitions’. Very little of Kant, for example, has a basis in ‘physics’ (empirical reality). By contrast, some philosophies (notably utilitarianism) do have a basis in ‘physics’. That is why utilitarianism can seem so very natural and reasonable to people trained in the sciences: like science, it is deeply concerned with outcomes and outputs.
Now, a philosophical system that purports to ground its metaphysics on empirical reality is in trouble if its assertions about reality are undermined. In recent times this undermining has usually been done by the biological sciences, which is why there is so much hostility between biologists and theists of various sorts. It is also why ‘natural law theory’ is in dreadful trouble. Natural law theory is based on two things: that it is possible to apprehend empirical reality simply by looking at it carefully, and that it is then possible to derive moral propositions (especially laws) from that ‘natural’ reality.
This led natural lawyers in the past to argue, for example, that homosexuality was ‘unnatural’ in humans because it did not occur in nature (Plato mildly, Philo and the later monotheists much more strongly). Unfortunately, Darwin and co turned up and showed that homosexuality is in fact extremely common in nature across many species including the near related high primates. The scientists also pointed out that you get inexplicable retrograde orbits unless you look at the planets through a telescope, and that the direct apprehension of life on earth is rather difficult without a microscope. In other words, accurate apprehension of nature is not possible without mechanical assistance. I could go on but you get the point, I’m sure. Natural law is thus pretty much a dead duck, because — as Richard Dawkins quite properly points out — if we derived our laws from what we now know to be ‘the laws of nature’, they would not look very nice. They would probably work (much Roman law is brutally Darwinian, for example), but it would not be a very nice society in which to be sick or poor, unless one enjoyed considerable kinship support.
In short, to the extent that one’s metaphysics depends on a given account of empirical reality, it is in deep trouble if its assertions about empirical reality are swept away. This reasoning applies to things like psychoanalysis in literary theory, but only to the extent that psychoanalytic criticism is making an empirical truth claim underneath its use as an analytical tool in literature. Some literary theorists do seem to write as though everything that Freud said is ‘true’. Others seem simply to be making it up (the absurd claim that people in ancient civilisations had no conception of ‘homosexuality’ for example).
Theorists of the latter two types are in the most trouble, and for the same reason that the natural lawyers are in trouble: their assertions do not match empirical reality, and — consistent with what I have written in my post — they need to learn to give it up with good grace, or risk having the scientists continue to poke fun at them. However, many literary theorists do not make empirical truth claims in the course of their analysis of literary texts. Instead, the psychoanalysis is treated as internal to the text, not extrinsic to it. This type of analysis — although often horribly ill-written — is therefore legitimate as a branch of metaphysics.
As DEM has just reminded me, I have tipped over the blockquote jar rather. Sorry about that.