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Apprehending the Inaccessible: Freudian Psychoanalysis and Existential Phenomenology.

Apprehending the Inaccessible: Freudian Psychoanalysis and Existential Phenomenology.

Richard Askay and Jensen Farquhar. (2006). Evanson, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

I not only have no capability for philosophy but also no respect for it ... in secret, I cannot say this aloud, I believe that metaphysics will one day be seen as a nuisance, as a misuse of thought ... and it will be judged thus.

(Freud, 1975)

As if the most useless things in the world were not arranged in the following order: shirt collars, philosophers, and monarchs.

(Freud, 1990)

It is common belief that Freud exhibited nothing but antipathy towards philosophy, especially when it came to metaphysics. On closer inspection this view is both wrong and surprising. Wrong because despite his expressed aversion, Freud was nonetheless familiar with many philosophical works fairly early on in his career, which of course influenced the development of his own metapsychological theory, in particular his concept of the 'inaccessible'. Surprising because Freud's metapsychological theory can be seen as one answer to the central anthropological question, namely, 'What is human being?' In answering this question, psychoanalytic theory holds a middle position between science and philosophy with a strong positivistic understanding of the human being.

Apprehending the Inaccessible is an attempt to embed Freudian psychoanalysis in a broad philosophical context. The main focus is to explore different approaches to the question of how best to approach the inaccessible in order to gain a deeper, more holistic understanding of the phenomenon itself. Firstly, it explores the most fundamental philosophical presuppositions underlying the philosophical-historical influences on Freudian psychoanalysis. Secondly, it creates a dialogue between Husserl's phenomenology, existential phenomenology (Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty) and psychoanalysis. While doing so, the major concern of the authors is to disclose the mutual failures of understanding between Freud and Husserl and the existential phenomenologists. The aim is to show that both traditions are not mutually exclusive but have much to gain from each other.

In the first part of the book, the authors take a closer look at Freud's philosophical heritage to facilitate a more profound understanding of his theory. In line with psychoanalysis and existential phenomenology, the authors are using a regressive archaeological approach moving from the manifest material--the surface presentation of psychoanalytical theory towards Freud's roots in the Enlightenment which are themselves traced back through the Western philosophical tradition to Empedocles and Platon. We learn that Freud himself included a book entitled The Greek Thinkers on his list of 10 favourite books. So it comes as no surprise that the ideas of Empedokles and Plato influenced Freud's psychoanalytical theory. Since Freud believed that during our socio-historical development the basic elements of our humanity became more and more repressed, this step back into our primitive past provides a purer insight into the innermost truth about men. Moving on from the ancient Greek philosophers, the authors identify some important similarities between the central psychoanalytical concepts and the romanticist philosophers (Schiller, Schelling, Goethe). Freud's concept of repression, for example, can be traced back to Schelling's idea of the 'uncanny' as something that ought to have remained secret but has come to light. Another interesting parallel is their shared understanding of nature as a unified whole governed by polarities.

The main part of the 'regressive archaeological exploration' deals with the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche which pervaded the intellectual ambiance of Freud's formative years. Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche insisted upon a hidden, unconscious quality of the human mind. For Schopenhauer the inner nature of the human mind is the will as a thingin-itself as the unconscious source of all human motivation. The authors show firstly that Schopenhauer's 'will' can be read parallel with the Freudian 'id' and secondly, what implications can be drawn from their notions of the unconsciousness for the issue of freedom versus necessity and determinism. The last point is of particular interest because it provides a sound philosophical background for understanding the conceptions investigated in the second part of book and the critique of Freud's worldview on the part of the phenomenologists. The major disagreements between the (existential) phenomenologists and Freud are on the question of freedom and determinism and the closely related ideas of motivation and responsibility. Freud denied --in line with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche--that human existence includes the capacity to make choices and act in the world based on those choices in any significant sense. This view on freedom seems at least a bit strange because freedom plays an important role in Freud's therapy as well. On one side, it is a necessary condition for the implementation of the fundamental rule of free association in therapy, on the other expanding the horizon of the individual's freedom is the goal of psychoanalytical treatment. This last point was made by Boss, who claims that Freud's metapsychological theory is therefore contradictory in itself.

The authors meet Boss' criticism by embedding Freudian theory into Schopenhauer's philosophy. They argue--in one of the most insightful passages of the book--that Schopenhauer's metaphysical position can provide the philosophical grounding for Freudian psychoanalysis and that many of the existential phenomenological critiques simply dissolve within the Schopenhauer model. In contrast to the (existential) phenomenologists, Schopenhauer understands freedom neither as freedom of choice nor as freedom of action but as the removal of hindrances to the will. Freedom comes with a greater awareness of what the will desires and the motives acting on it. Here the Schopenhauer and the Freudian perspective coincide. For both, our freedom lies in our capacity to become aware of our underlying motives. The psychotherapeutic function of psychoanalysis is to liberate the analysands by enabling them to understand their true motives. What follows is that Freudian theory is not in itself contradictory but that his conception of 'freedom' is incompatible with the conception of 'freedom' of the (existential) phenomenological thinkers.

The last important point the authors make is that the existential phenomenologists criticism of Freud's metapsychological theory was premature and superficial because they were insufficiently familiar with Freud's work. The authors contend that a better knowledge of Freud's work and philosophical background have enabled them to see the greater depth and unity of his metapsychology as grounded in Schopenhauer's philosophy.

Overall Apprehending the Inaccessible is a book very much worth reading. It provides the reader a detailed overview of Freud's metapsychological theory and situates it within a broad philosophical framework. The authors show that the popularly held view of Freud's antipathy towards philosophy is definitely wrong. For me the particularly interesting parts were composed dialogues between Freud and the (existential) phenomenologists. After depicting the criticisms of Heidegger and Sartre the authors construe Freud's possible responses, creating a constructive exchange of both views that deepens the horizon of both psychoanalytical and (existential) phenomenological thinking. For me, this exchange of ideas proved very valuable. It demonstrated once again that a single theory is naught but a single perspective of reality and it is always worthwhile to consider a phenomenon from different angles to achieve a more holistic understanding--be it one of the inaccessible, of human beings or of the world itself.


Freud, S. (1975). The Letters of Sigmund Freud. Freud, E (ed). Trans. Stern, T. and Stern, J. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, S (1990). The Letters of Sigmund Freud to Eduard Silberstein. Boehlich, W. (ed). Trans. Pomerans, A. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.
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Author:Reitinger, Claudia
Publication:Existential Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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