Mel’s question

By skepticlawyer

During the course of what is now a lengthy thread on the future and role of the humanities in higher education, Mel asked me a very thought-provoking question. It runs as follows:

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.


    Posted October 25, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    One supposes that psychoanalysis — like other applied ideas, is verified or not in the results derived from the application. We tend to think of Freud and co as a response to a previous concept of rational human that proposes a subjective model to account for personality and character formation during growing up that can account for irrationality and give some explanation of how the psyche might form.

    The worst blue he committed was not coming out of denial as to his studies of childhood fantasies that were actually examples of chld sexual abuse. As you sort of implied in your remark about Dawkins, later in your comment, there does seem to this tendency in humans to sanitize or suppress unpalatable information.

  2. Posted October 26, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    During my undergraduate course the combination of philosophy I with a later full year honours course in the Philosophy of History made me distrustful of theoretical models in the interpretation of history. This compares to attitudes and beliefs that might affect the history of a time. I did, however, still use models and concepts drawn from other disciplines such as economics to guide questions and analysis.

    Twenty years later I came back to history to write a biography. As part of this, I did look at some of psychoanalytic theories/models as they related to the writing of biography. They were quite popular at the time. I found some useful, some not, but rejected a specifically psychoanalytic approach as a-historical.

    As part of my work, I also set myself to catch up on the journals; I gave up because I found the “theoretical” material dominated by turgid left material that seemed to me to fail the most basic test; it wasn’t actually refutable because it was based on a set of beliefs that were held independent of evidence. By contrast, some of the psychoanalytic material was quite helpful in providing questions and clues.

    One reason, I think, that history is perhaps less prone than say English to “theoretical” approaches is that the very subject is in some ways antipathetical to those approaches. It’s not just the approach to the evidence, but also the way that the discipline actually looks at changing concepts and ideas over time.

  3. conrad
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    I can give two specific examples where psychoanalytical theory all the way back to Freud were right, but where the ideas are or have been generally ignored:

    1) Most stuff you think of happens out of conscious awareness. A large but slightly shrinking chunk of psychology doesn’t believe this, probably because they haven’t thought about it and don’t know how to investigate it, and they’re certainly wrong.

    2) Very small environmental effects may have huge long term consequences on your behavior (i.e., blocks in your development can cause your life to go a quite different path). No-one wants to believe this, or at least people don’t think about it much because most of our statistics etc. that we use look for means and relatively additive effects of things (e.g., you’re smart because your mother was smart, your dad was okay, and you went to a good school). If you look at identical twin studies, however, it’s easy to find massive differences in important things like gender identity for no obvious reasons. Yet this is generally ignored, and there is a massive bias against thinking about this because our statistics look for associations and we love group studies.

  4. Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    I must admit I am starting to come round to the older Freudian view that repressing normal human sexuality leads to very strange and destructive behaviour. As in, I think putting barriers against integration between the private and public self undermines integrity quite profoundly.

    I also suspect the ‘Freudian butterfly effect’ Conrad outlines in point 2 above has something in it, and could also be tested empirically.

    Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Private is intrinsic to public. It’s what makes it the gift that it can be, a beautiful mechanism that is part of what someone like Dawkins may see as (the complexity of) our species’ adaptive capability across evolution and life. We obviously function within a sort of discursive or dialectic mode within ourselves as with the sphere of our relations with the exogenous world, to our selves’ needs and capacity to function with others of our species. It’s a precondition of life as we know it for us.

    A jigsaw puzzle before us, for us to put to together as we feel the moment. Part of our condition is that we know our current mode of being seems finite. Beyond a point we seem not to know from whence we came, or whence to, from here. What is absence from worry?

  6. Peter Patton
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 6:22 am | Permalink


    Ah, that’s why I’m a utilitarian


  7. Posted October 26, 2010 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: Those basic bits of Freud, spotting part of the aetiology of psych/behavioural issues, and the iceberg nature of the psyche, were pretty much all we gave credit to him for back around 80 in med school (too much coke and the selection of subjects for observation might explain the rest of his work).

    You also seem to have some affinity with the conclusion (but not the mechanism) of the ancients – that semen can back up into the brain and cause madness.

    I personally (perhaps because I’m a philistine) think that if that ancient Greek hypothesis about one aetiology of madness was correct, most literary theoreticians would be at little risk of insanity because of self-protecting behaviours.

    Perhaps the best example of how wrong and contradictory psych analyses of texts can be might be found where there have been millenia of analyses of the same texts, with the abrahamic and hindu texts being the most obvious candidates for meta-analysis of analyses.

    I remember being struck by this at LanguageLog, which discusses use of the approaches of the hard sciences to literary analysis – using data not just from texts, but from recording reactions of readers. (Perhaps this makes film producers using test screenings great empirical literary analysts?)

    Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.

    Any examples of horrendously wrong analyses of your own works?

  8. Posted October 26, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    If you look at identical twin studies, however, it’s easy to find massive differences in important things like gender identity for no obvious reasons. Yet this is generally ignored, and there is a massive bias against thinking about this because our statistics look for associations and we love group studies.

    A couple of years ago a study claimed that people can become wayward in their behavior not through any specific event but through a series of little events.

    These accidents of personal history, and our large lack of awareness of the causes of our own behavior, raise a whole series of questions which directly challenge some of our conventional notions about being human. These questions remain largely unaddressed because they are at the heart of our legal and ethical perspectives.

    So I for one at least prefer not to have theories in psychology. At least not BIG theories. Eg. Theories of Personality. Waste of time. Ideas about specific behaviors is about as far as we can get and even that is often dodgy.

    Posted October 26, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Many thanks, DB.
    “Forewarned is Forearmed”.

  10. Posted October 26, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Any examples of horrendously wrong analyses of your own works?

    Dave, how long have you got? Rather than bore everyone rigid, I’ll mention only one, because it is so obvious, so silly and yet so prurient that my loudest critic (Robert Manne) wrote an entire book based on it as a premise: to wit, that the opinions of an author’s characters can be attributed to the author.

    Personally, I like the SM Stirling and Larry Niven take on this particular literary furphy:

    There is a technical term for someone who confuses the opinions of a character in a book with those of the author. That term is idiot.

  11. Posted October 26, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    [email protected] ROFL. You would probably like my piece on Death of the Author then 🙂

    Manne, like Michael Pusey, mostly writes crap: but it is crap aimed very precisely to appeal to progressivist prejudices and pretensions. It is all about moral vanity and telling fellow members of Club Virtue what is the correct opinion to have.

  12. conrad
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    “I also suspect the ‘Freudian butterfly effect’ Conrad outlines in point 2 above has something in it, and could also be tested empirically.”

    It of course has been, whether people realize or not — it’s the error term (unexplained stuff) in statistical analysis.

    Here’s what it looks like in science papers:

    “We looked at how identical twins raised in the same home enviornment performed on behavior X. The results showed that the twins had very similar performance, with environmental and genetic factors accounting for an astounding 60% of the variance.”

    What that really means is that everything else accounts for 40%. Since everything else includes all the things that you don’t usually care about because they don’t have any predictive power in big groups and hence don’t appear to be very important, they’re probably lots of little and quite possibly different things that have big effects on a small number of indivudals.

  13. Peter Patton
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink


    “Manne, like Michael Pusey” like Australian no-frills John Raulston Sauls. 😉

  14. mel
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    @3 @13 Conrad- I think you are attributing things to Freud that Freud cannot claim as his own.

    Conceptions of the unconscious date back to before Christ was born. You’ll find books devoted to the subject of theories about the unconscious before Freud, for example:

    Also note this: “William James, in his pre-Freudian Principles of Psychology, devotes many pages to arguing against those who, in his opinion, made too sharp a distinction between the conscious and the unconscious (James regarded the two as differences of degree along a continuum), and to discussing the role of the unconscious in such disorders as psychosomatic blindness. “The curative indication is evident:” he writes, “to get at the secondary personage [the unconscious], by hypnotization or in whatever other way, and make her give up the eye, the skin, the arm, or whatever the affected part may be.” ”

    All Freud ever did was add some ideas that have NOT been empirically validated and that are now almost universally ignored by the psychology departments in our universities.

    Anyone with a serious interest in Freud should read one or two of the dozens of very detailed and well researched books written by mainstream psychologists that dissect Freud into little pieces and force him down the insinkerator of history.

    I also recommend EM THornton’s book “The Freudian Fallacy: Freud and Cocaine” as it is an amusing account of Freud’s prodigious cocaine use and how cocaine and its associated pathologies influenced his theories.

    A mighty big thanks to SL for taking the time to answer my question at length. And a complementary Golden Elephant Stamp for the quality of the answer!

  15. mel
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Could my prev comment be released from moderation thanks. Ta.

  16. Posted October 26, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    SL @ 11: ROFL. And soooo true!

  17. su
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Conrad, I don’t think your proposition 1. is quite true. They are teaching empirical data about consciousness which “outruns” attention in undergrad psychology eg semantic priming by an unattended stimulus. But it is rather more complicated than at first appears, partly, as one of the commenters on this great post, points out, because words like consciousness and attention are not very well defined and in the case of consciousness, may be very difficult to define.

  18. su
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    HTML FAIL again –

    Excellent blog. I’d never heard of experimental philosophy but I likes it.

  19. conrad
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    su, the argument presented there is about the relationship between consciousness and attention. Freud’s point (and my summary), is that most things you do you arn’t conscious of and don’t require attention. The extent that attention can be used out of conscious awareness and the extent you need to use attention to bring things to conscious awareness is a slightly different question, and limited and to only a subset of behaviors.

  20. conrad
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink


    I agree that Freud didn’t think of the idea of unconscious processing, but he was important in the development of those ideas in psychology, and psychoanalytical theory was one of the few branches that really took those ideas seriously until people began investigating them again in rather different ways in the early 80s.

  21. mel
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Freud was a bumbling lunatic not unlike the psychiatrist played by Peter Sellers in “What’s new Pussycat?”.

    Freud’s acceptance of Fliess’s bizarre Nasal Reflex Neurosis should be sufficient evidence that Freud was a nutter. Wiki gives some details here:

    Freud, of course, had a severely necrotic nose due to his heavy coke use.

    I’m amazed that otherwise intelligent people still give the man some credibility.

  22. Peter Patton
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    mel the bits I have read of Freud have not stunned me for their revelation of “truths” or even facts. It is the quality of his thinking and reasoning. There is nothing more intellectually intoxicating that a truly four dimensional syncretic thinker and gas-bagger, even if they are so wrong, they burn.

  23. Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    The worst blue he committed was not coming out of denial as to his studies of childhood fantasies that were actually examples of chld sexual abuse. As you sort of implied in your remark about Dawkins, later in your comment, there does seem to this tendency in humans to sanitize or suppress unpalatable information.

    I must admit this is the one thing I knew about Freud in detail, mainly due to it being presented as a textbook example of what not to do if one was a professional with a duty of confidentiality. I learned it in — of all places — my Bar Course.

    Of course you could argue that in those days, people didn’t automatically go to the cops when they found out about child sexual abuse, but the barrister running the unit was at pains to point out that other medical professionals floating around at a roughly similar time (he mentioned Florence Nightingale and James Young Simpson) when confronted with crap like this did something about it, immediately.

  24. Peter Patton
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 6:06 pm | Permalink


    Oh, from an empirical, let alone science, perspective Freud was never a player.

  25. Posted October 26, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    I posted it before, but this seems to be the thread to give it another airing: Freud on why men hunt and women attend fires.

    [email protected] At least one emeritus professor of psychology of my acquaintance came home one day rubbing his hands with glee: he had set an essay question on Freud and Jung and was going to fail any student who agreed with either.

    I have read things by Freudians which were revealing and perceptive: but mostly despite their Freudian framework, not because of it.

  26. Posted October 26, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Oh God Lorenzo that is hilarious. It belongs in a Monty Python sketch. Maybe Freud had a future in stand-up and didn’t know it.

  27. Posted October 26, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] on Freud’s bonfire of the inanities… I’m laughing with [email protected] How’d Sigi go with arsonists then, or users of more rigid flames like oxyacetylene torches, or ring burners on gas stoves which are wider than they are high?

    Freud is better as a case study.

    Have either of you got potted summaries like that, but of the most ridiculous literary analyses? Oh, I forgot, random noise is incompressible.

  28. mel
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Does Conrad believe that excessive female masturbation is a manifestation of a nasal reflex neurosis? Freud did.

  29. mel
    Posted October 26, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    This University of Houston lecture backs up whjat I’ve been saying and is worth a read:

    “Why did Freud change his career so drastically? By the late 1880s he had a profitable practice and a distinguished academic career. He was married and had a growing family. All this changed in the 1890s. He had been very strait-laced in his sexual attitudes. Now he seemed to overthrow all conventional sexual morality. His foremost biographer, Ernest Jones, says that from 1890 to 1900 Freud had great mood swings and a substantial neurosis. He was worried about the strange behavior of his heart and rejected his friend, Breuer, for a man, Fliess, who had a theory about “nasal reflex neurosis.” It was also at this time that he accepted a messianic role, to bring the word of psychoanalysis to the people of the world. One theory of Freud’s change is based on his use of cocaine at this time. It was Fliess who particularly encouraged him to use cocaine to cure his nasal reflex neurosis, and as Freud sniffed the cocaine, his nasal problems increased, as did his use of cocaine.”

    “In sum, Freud’s theories have taken us down a long blind alley. They have retarded progress and continue to be a serious block to the development of effective treatments for people with mental disorders. Freud created a complex and endlessly fascinating way of understanding human behavior, but a theory that was flawed in many ways. The most important flaw was most of his theories are not testable. Many of the concepts cannot be stated in scientifically testable form, and therefore, it is never clear whether the theory is valid or not.”

  30. conrad
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    “Does Conrad believe that excessive female masturbation is a manifestation of a nasal reflex neurosis”

    Mel, I don’t have any great time for Freud. However, some of his ideas, whilst crazy in terms of his examples, were things which were largely ignored for decades (like unconscious processing) by other groups like the behaviorists etc. — Have a look at how many silly questionaires that try and measure something that you can’t introspect are still used today.

    It’s also the case that modern psychoanalytical theory, which I also don’t have much time for, did shed some insight in ways that other theories would not have. For example, not that I know much about it, but it’s very common for people with borderline personality disorder to have massively overbearing mothers. Looking at this type of thing and recognizing its significance is obvious from a psychoanalytical point of view, but not necessarily from others.

  31. Posted October 27, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Quite, and glad you liked it. Stephen Hicks has a sharp eye for nonsense — his Explaining Postmodernism is splendid.

    [email protected] White noise may be incompressible 🙂 But I have a nomination: see my discussion of Death of the Atuhor. No Freudianism in sight, however.

  32. Posted October 27, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I’ll second that post of Lorenzo’s, if only because it’s on a piece that’s well known, widely regarded and well written. In the meantime, I will go digging in due course for some of the more egregious piffle I had inflicted on me during my Eng. Lit. major, but I have an opinion to write first (for Friday), so it will have to wait for a bit.

    Posted October 27, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Mel’s contribution, a nuanced thing, was a milestone for this writer and he is humbled at the exponential increase in his body of knowledge, esp #30.

    I will never see a snuffly female bearing a wad of Kleenex in the same light, again.

  34. Peter Patton
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    SL/LE and other LE types

    A cousin of mine is just finishing a G8 Economics/Law degree, is confident in getting 1st Class Honors in Law to match the 1st in Economics. He is a real Law and Economics geek, who wants to write his PhD thesis straddling the Law and Economic/Finance faculties.

    For him, the ideal degree would be the US JD/MBA or JD/M.Ec, or JD/PhD. However, he already has the LLB. I’ve searched high and low and can’t seem to find Masters/PhD that combine the LLM with graduate Finance or Economics, whether at PhD level. So, I’be grateful for your comments on those I have found which come close.

    At this stage, he says he would ideally like to study in Europe, UK, or the US a degree such as:

    1. A 2 year double Masters in Law and Economics/Finance

    2. An LLM/MBA

    The only one I could think of are:

    1. Oxford’s brand new Masters in Law and Finance, which is a 1 year masters taught jointly by the Law Faculty and the Said Business School. Then he get spend an extra year writing his M.Phil under the supervision from both a Law and a Business person> Presumably, he could then choose which of Law or Finance he wanted to write his PhD.

    2. The 1 years European Master in Law & Economics; a consortium of 7unis

    3. The 3 year European PhD in Law and Economics .

    4. 1 year Goethe Masters of Law and Finance; 3 years PhD.

    5. I have found out that the UNSW now offers an LLM/MBA i only 2 years, which would be right up his alley, but I can’t see him jumping at UNSW.

    Any suggestions?

One Trackback

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Hacking, Legal Eagle. Legal Eagle said: Mel’s question: During the course of what is now a lengthy thread on the future and role of the humanities in high… […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *