George Walford: Freud and Hegel

(This piece is reprinted from an early precursor of IC in the study of Harold Walsby’s theory of ideology: SCIENCE AND IDEOLOGY, edited by Richard Tatham, Nos. 2 and 3, 1948, the year after publication of The Domain of Ideologies. There are passages in it we would now express differently; in 1985 one cannot speak as confidently as in the 1940s of man “subjecting nature to himself,” and whether what is being done be good or bad woman’s part in it cannot now so easily be ignored. Writing on the same subject now we would be less inclined to use the formulations of dialectical materialism to illustrate Hegel or to think it obvious that Freud was unacquainted with Hegel’s work. But we do not claim to have spent the last forty years without learning anything; the main argument stands, and the piece is presented without alteration. GW)

In the long history of science there can be seen a number of nodal points, sudden advances when a great mind has forged ahead of his contemporaries. It would not, perhaps, be possible to write an adequate history of science by merely linking together these outstanding figures, yet a knowledge of their work is essential for understanding of the development of ideas.

There are two dominating figures in the study of human behaviour in modern times. These are George W. F. Hegel and Sigmund Freud. A general consideration of the work of either – let along any attempt at integration – is not to be attempted here. Our discussion will be confined to the attempt to trace, in very partial fashion, the manner in which the essential principle of Hegel’s work – the universal principle which he terms dialectic appears it the writings of Freud.

Almost without exception, books on the Hegelian philosophy emphasise its difficulty – the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, refers to it as “confessedly one of the most difficult of all philosophies” – and the task of expounding it in its full richness and complexity has defeated many a thinker. Of Hutchinson Stirling’s weighty volume, The Secret of Hegel, it was remarked (perhaps unjustifiably) that if the author had discovered this secret, he had kept it to himself. We are not attempting to elucidate that secret here, but only to give a general idea of Hegel’s main principle, sufficient for the reader to perceive its relevance to some aspects of modern scientific thought.

Few writers on Hegel have failed to stress the misconceptions liable to arise from a separation of his system from his method; nevertheless, for our present purpose, they must be separated. Our attention will be directed rather to the method, the dialectic, leaving for possible future consideration the world-view to which the system leads us.

Dialectic originated among the ancient Greeks. Hegel relates, in his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, how Socrates, by means of questions apparently designed to obtain clearer knowledge about the subject under discussion, would lead those with whom he talked to the opposite of what their first impressions had pronounced correct. Similarly the Hegelian dialectic, raised and developed from a technique of discussion to a method of thought, reveals, in the first place, that truth and reality are not quite as simple as “practical commonsense”

Commonsense believes it reaches the peak of truth and reality in considering that which exists “here” and “now;” Hegel shows that the definiteness and simplicity of these terms are largely illusory. This “now” and “here,” he says, are vanishing entities:

Now is no more while it is, and another Now has taken its place, and this has likewise vanished – This Here which I mean and point out has a right and left, an above and a below, a behind and a before, etc. ad infinitum; i.e. the Here pointed out is not a simple and hence definite Here, but a unity including many Heres. (Outlines of the Phenomenology)

When it is recognised that “here” is a generalisation and “now” a constant flux, it becomes evident that these matters are more complex than is usually realised. The same is true of those ideas which at first sight appear the very simplest. Consider one familiar example of direct opposition: the North and South poles. We do not commonly think of them as having very much in common, but they are in fact so intimately linked that it is quite impossible even to think of one without the other – every movement toward the North is a movement from the South. Indeed, since the earth is spherical, every step toward the North is also a step (by a rather roundabout way) towards the South. Similarly with all pairs of opposites: up and down, good and bad, black and white, yes and no – each term implies its complementary and could not be thought of in separation from it.

This dialectical procedure thus has two aspects: (a) It reveals the complex nature of things and ideas which we previously thought of as simple unities. (We have quoted Hegel’s remarks on “here” and “now;” in a similar fashion science has shown that the electron is not, as was previously thought, a simple, solid,and very definite indivisible object, but a rather indefinite and complex wave-structure.) (b) It reveals hitherto unsuspected associations of things into higher and more inclusive unities (e.g. North and South, above). Professor Wallace, the translator of Hegel’s Logic, says of dialectic:

The name came in the first instance from Kant, but ultimately from Plato, where it denotes the process which brings the ‘many’ under the ‘one,’ and divides the ‘oneĀ° into the ‘many.’ (The Logic of Hegel, Prolegomena, p. 221)

It will be seen that these two aspects of the process, are themselves dialectically related; each implies, and leads on to, the other: analysis leads to synthesis; by breaking down an apparently simple object we find that which it has in common with others. Only when the atom had been analysed into its constituent protons, electrons etc. was it discovered that all elements were composed of these same fundamental units and could be transmuted into one another.

Dialectic is not merely something which Hegel (or Socrates) invented and proceeded to apply; it is the recognition of a universal principle. The relationship, for example, between North and South has not been invented or inserted by us; it is inherent in the existence of the two poles. That which has been invented is rather the common undialectical conception of them as simply opposed or different, having no intimate relationship. For Hegel dialectic was primarily a method, not for analysing relatively static relationships, but for comprehending development. Although many of its manifestations are extremely complex, dialectical development (which Hegel maintained to be universal), is, in essence, comparatively simple. It is the process whereby a unity breaks down into contradiction, the contradiction then being resolved in a higher unity. Thus, prior to the evolution of man, the natural world was a self-contained unity; when man appeared on the scene he struggled against nature, breaking down the original unity; now, arising from that struggle, a higher unity is coming into being: man is subjecting nature to himself. In organic development the self-division of a cell leads into the higher unity of a multi-cellular body; in inorganic development (according to the nebular hypothesis) a simple mass of nebular gas in its cooling broke down into a number of parts, which came to form the more highly-organised unity of the solar system.

Professor Wallace shows the same process at work in the world of ideas. He describes how, after a leader of thought has developed a theory embracing a number of phenomena previously thought of as unconnected, his followers tend to break up into opposing schools, each of which takes one aspect of the master’s work as the whole truth rejects the other side of it:

While his theory was a comprehensive and concrete grasp, including and harmonising many things which seem otherwise wide apart, theirs is abstract and inadequate; it fixes on a single point…

But the aspect of the theory which has been rejected cannot be completely suppressed; it rises in opposition to that which has been accepted:

If the first side be called Conservative, the second must be called Reforming or Progressive. If the first step is Dogmatic, the second is Sceptical. They are two warring abstractions, each, in a different direction.

This is not the end of the process; ultimately the two opposing view-points which have grown out of the original theory are recognised as complementary:

And this disappearance of the antithesis is the re-appearance of the unity in all its strength, reinforced with all the wealth of new distinction. (The Logic of Hegel, Prolegomena, pp. 222-3)

This process repeats itself; the resolution of the contradiction itself breaks down, leading through new contradiction to a further unity and so on. Seen from a slightly different viewpoint this process appears as the development, out of an original “affirmation,” of its opposite or “negation,” which in turn passes into its negation, thus re-establishing the original affirmation, but in a form which includes the development through which it has passed. This process is known as the Negation of the Negation; a simple example will make it clear.

Consider the development of skill in driving. Our original affirmation is the existence of control over the car – Mr. X proceeding peacefully and steadily along the Great North Road. Although Mr. X may not think about it in quite this fashion – if he did he would probably travel by train – there are many factors involved in the control of a car, prominent among them being the weather. Sooner or later it rains, and it is highly probable that Mr. X will, if he continues driving, eventually skid. He loses control and we, being able to observe dispassionately since we are not in the car, recognise skidding as the negation of control. Mr. X, being a determined gentleman, does not let this incident disturb him; he continues driving and, after several more skids, learns to control a car even when it is skidding. He overcomes or negates skidding and reasserts his control – but this is a more developed form of control, since it includes the control of a skidding or “uncontrolled” car.

Hegel’s approach was very different from that of Freud; Freud was primarily concerned with the cure of mental disorders, and only in the second place with general theories of the structure, development and functioning of the mind; his studies were chiefly directed toward the emotions, Hegel’s toward the logical processes. Freud refers to Hegel as “incomprehensible” and explicitly states:

We are not interested in examining how far we have approached to or adopted any given philosophical system historically established. Our approach to such speculative hypotheses is by way of our endeavour to describe and account for the facts falling within our daily sphere of observation. (Quoted by J. Rickman: General Selection from Freud, p.162)

Again, with more direct reference to dialectic:

I have never been able to convince myself of the truth of the saying that ‘strife is the father of all things.’ I think that the source of it was the philosophy of the Greek sophists and that it errs, as does,the latter, through.the over-estimation of dialectics. (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, p. 208).

Nevertheless Freudian principles are, as we shall see, strikingly dialectical. Had Freud been a conscious Hegelian this would have been significant enough; the fact that it came about in spite of his obvious unfamiliarity with Hegelian dialectic points even more strongly to the fundamental nature of Hegel’s work.

To refer to only one of Freud’s better known works, the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, we find at least four very clear instances in which, although he does not actually use the word, he has been forced by the nature of his subject-matter to recognise dialectic principles at work. We have remarked above how dialectical analysis shows that opposites (such as North and South, good and bad, etc. etc.) are very intimately related, even interpenetrative. Freud states:

… that anxiety is the direct opposite of a wish and that opposites lie very near one another in association and, we have learned, actually; coincide in the unconscious. (p. 185)

You know that the coincidence of opposites in the dream is analogous to what is called the antithetical sense of words in the oldest languages. (p. 194)

But we have long ago learnt from psycho-analysis that opposites do not constitute a contradiction. (p. 253)

We have quoted Professor Wallace’s description of the dialectical process whereby, after a thinker has formulated a principle which expresses the unity underlying apparently disconnected or opposed phenomena, his followers tend to break up into opposing schools, each taking one aspect of the unity and setting it up as a whole in opposition to the other. Freud tells us:

It is a popular habit in scientific matters to seize on one side of the truth and set it up as the whole truth and then in favour of that element of truth to dispute all the rest which is equally true. (p. 291)

But let us consider this question of the dialectical functioning of the mind more systematically. Our attention must be centred, in the first place, upon the process of repression, whereby (a) thoughts and desires are relegated, to the unconscious (because, e.g., their conscious recognition and expression would lead to conflict, either within the self or between it and the environment) and (b) the contents of the unconscious are prevented from,emerging into consciousness.

The fact that psycho-analysis originated it and derived most of its leading principles from psychopathology, has created a widely held impression that the phenomena with which it is concerned are necessarily abnormal. This is, of course, not always or even usually the case. Not only do mental diseases, slips and errors exhibit the functioning of the processes discovered by Freud and others, but also the acts which we normally and efficiently perform. Repression is to be observed not only in the analyst’s consulting-room but in many – if not all – of the thought-processes connected with our daily activity.

Every individual, in early childhood, passes through a period of intense identification with the mother. Later this has to be given up, partly, in order to avoid disastrous competition with the father. But it is not completely abolished; repressed into the unconscious it remains powerful, and may well influence the choice of a sexual object in later years. This is one example of what we may regard as complete repression, when the process is carried so far that the skilled assistance of the analyst is required, if the repressed material is to be re-admitted to consciousness. Partial repression, however, is going on all the time. Only a small fraction of our knowledge is ever present to consciousness at one time; even the focussing of attention involves the repression of other interests. In the case of partial repression only an effort of will, sometimes very slight, is needed to overcome the repression, but whether it be partial or complete the, process is basically the same. The distinction between repression leading to neurosis and that which we usually consider as merely “not thinking about” something is, in the first place at least, one of degree.

When Hegel says the scientist must collect and systematise the facts before the the philosopher can work with them, he is excluding these scientific activities from his own sphere, repressing his interest in them. Repression of this type is not only normal but necessary; in this way Hegel was able to concentrate upon the elucidation of universal principles. Conversely, in the case of the scientist, it is largely by repressing any interest he may feel in wide speculation, and concentrating upon the study of this or that particular problem, that he is able to succeed in his task.

We know that the contents of the mind – from which, according to Freud, nothing is ever lost – include not only wishes, desires, ideas etc., but also repressions; these too are preserved. What, then, does Freud mean when he speaks of ‘removing’ or ‘overcoming’ a repression? We already know of the only way in which anything in the mind can be disposed of – by means of repression. Repressions cannot simply be eliminated, but they can themselves be repressed. Psycho-analysis as a therapeutic technique depends largely upon the repression of repressions, and the effort involved in calling anything to mind is actually expended in repressing the (partial) repression to which it has been subjected. It will be seen at once that in this process of repression, of repression we have an example of negation of the negation.

The psycho-analysts have developed a specialised technique for assisting this overcoming of repression, a technique in which “free association” plays an important part. The analyst suggests a word and the patient, suspending his critical faculties, responds with the first idea that comes into his head. By measuring the reaction time and collating and examining the responses, the analyst is able not only to tell where the repression is particularly intense but also to gain some idea of the nature of the repressed material. Although the term used is “free” association this does not imply that the associations are entirely arbitrary. On the contrary; the practice is based on the belief that they are very strictly controlled – by the unconscious. It is one of the most striking facts revealed by psycho-analysis that the apparently irrational and pointless behaviour of neurotics can usually – if not always – be shown to have some deep meaning, to serve some purpose of the unconscious. Certain animal-phobias, for example, have been traced back by Freud to a suppressed fear of the father which has been transferred on to large, though in reality harmless, animals such as horses. (Some of these interpretations have been questioned, but the principle that the symptoms have a hidden meaning is not disputed.)

It is partly by means of free association that the hidden significance of apparently meaningless neurotic symptoms is brought to light. Suppressing his ideas about what he ‘ought’ to think or feel in any connection the patient, so to speak, lets the unconscious have its say, and although the repressed material seldom if ever appears in undistorted form, the analyst is usually able to pierce the disguise and help the patient himself to realise the underlying meaning of acts which previously, to him as to the onlooker, had appeared meaningless – or which, more often, he had rationalised in some more or less superficial fashion. Thus one leading psycho-analyst refers to:

“Freud’s statement that the patient somehow is really always right, although he himself does not know how or why,” and continues: “the analyst has to show him this by revealing connections which were repressed, by filling in memories, previously forgotten, and by disclosing the ‘meaning’ of the illness and its symptoms.” (O. Rank The Trauma of Birth p. 2)

The patient is by no means always an eager or even willing collaborator in this task. To quote Freud:

Whenever we are on the point of bringing to his consciousness some piece of unconscious material which is particularly painful to him, then he is critical in the extreme; even though he may previously have understood and accepted a great deal, yet now all these gains seem to be obliterated; in his struggle to oppose at all costs he can behave just as though he were mentally deficient, a form of ’emotional stupidity’ (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, p. 247)

The essential condition for the success of the free association method is that the patient should suppress his ideas about what is fitting and allow the unconscious to speak as freely as possible; only thus can the underlying meaning of his symptoms be revealed. (And we would point out that Jung also insists that the deeper movements of the psyche are not so much achieved as “allowed to happen.” (See e.g. Jacobi: The Psychology of C. G. Jung, p.134). Similarly Hegel speaks of the necessity for the philosopher to suppress his personal, subjective beliefs and preconceptions and surrender himself to “the free movement of thought.”

It has already been emphasised that dialectical thinking consists, first and foremost, in ridding ourselves of unjustified assumptions; we pointed out, for example, that the dialectical unity underlying the opposition of North and South was not invented by us (or by Hegel); all we have done is to remove the misconception that they are purely and simply opposed, thus revealing (“bringing into consciousness”) the dialectical relation. The position is much the same when we think on a wider scale. On the basis of our sense-impressions – always fragmentary and often inaccurate – we form a conception of the world in which we live. This conception bears the marks of its origin in our experience – it is, to begin with at least, far from being a completely harmonious whole. (Compare the apparently unco-ordinated behaviour of neurotics.) Nevertheless, the fact that we can embrace our varied experiences in one conception, however imperfectly unified it may be, is sufficient to show that the world is not purely and simply an assembly of merely independent and unco-ordinated objects, as it appears to the senses. An underlying dialectical unity is indicated – nowhere directly observable but everywhere implied. By recognising this we penetrate beyond the evidence – often misleading – of the senses and bring our thought into accordance with reality, but the process is difficult and involves bitter blows to our pride. (The psycho-analytic patient, we recall, usually accepts the unconscious meaning of his symptoms only after making every effort to avoid what appears as a devastating blow to his conception of himself.) It will he obvious that one aspect of this unifying process is the theory of organic evolution, bringing different species into relationship one with another, the majority of people at first found the idea – that this system included mankind, that they were, in the phrase of the time, ‘descended from monkeys,’ – quite intolerable. Another great historical example, of an unpleasant truth which met with a very hostile reception is the Copernican system (without which the conception of an evolution of the stellar universe could never have been achieved), which displaced the earth from its proud position as the point around which: the universe revolved. On a small scale every advance in our thinking, in our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us, involves either the surrender or the undermining of some cherished belief. Nevertheless, only in so far as we are prepared, in the fine Platonic phrase, “to follow the argument wheresoever it may lead” – even if it be to the recognition that the conscious behaviour which we believe to be so firmly under our control is largely determined by forgotten childhood experiences, or that the, theory on which we have expended so much labour is not in accordance with the facts – can we become rational beings and bring our thought and action into, accordance with reality. The Hegelian terminology – surrender “to the free movement of thought” – is unfamiliar and at first appears obscure, but once this difficulty has been overcome then, in this case as in others it is seen that he has formulated the common principle governing what we had previously regarded as a number of disconnected events.

from Ideological Commentary 19, July 1985.