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Freud and phenomenology


Having repressed the old traumas the person’s life, for Freud, is determined by those early experiences, as he has the tendency to repeat them in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Psychoanalysis is then the method of bringing this conflict up to the patient’s consciousness, which will result to the disappearance of the symptoms and will stop this unhelpful repetition. Freud ignored to examine how his biases influenced his perception, due to his wish to be scientific. However, Freud seemed at times to be proposing a phenomenological way of working with people, one that enables the therapist to put aside his desires and presuppositions and stay instead with the experience of his patient. These Freudian ideas inform a phenomenological therapeutic work with clients through understanding them as “imaginative hypotheses that challenged one to explore further” (Guntrip, 1975, p.154), and not as scientific conclusions that both me and the client should accept.

Freud’s theory

Freud viewed the individual that came for analysis almost as a tragic hero, one that suffers due to “forgotten” old wounds and traumas. “Everything that had been forgotten had in some way or other been distressing; it had been either alarming or painful or shameful by the standards of the subject’s personality” (Freud, 1925, p.17). As the person is unaware of these events and the feelings that accompanied them, he tends to repeat them by recreating similar situations. Freud described that as “an impulsion towards the restoration of a situation which once existed but was brought to an end by some external disturbance”, calling it” the phenomena of the compulsion to repeat” (Freud, 1925, p.36). This Freudian concept echoes a major question that arises from several myths of humanity: Is there such a thing as destiny, from which the human person’s life is determined? If there is, then what is the role of analysis towards breaking this condemning prophecy?

One of Freud’s well known ideas is that of the deterministic role of childhood towards a person’s symptoms and adult life in general: “the impressions of that early period of life, though they were for the most part buried in amnesia left ineradicable traces upon the individual’s growth and in particular laid down the disposition to any nervous disorder that was to follow” (Freud, 1925, p.20).  Freud built his theory of the period of early childhood starting from the notion of Repression, which was followed by his concept of the Unconscious and the revolutionary idea of infantile sexuality.

This inner process of “forgetting” traumatic events and feelings, by “debarring the impulse from access to consciousness” (Freud, 1925, p.18) is what Freud called repression. He believed that these repressed impulses are constantly trying to move back to consciousness and he viewed psychosomatic symptoms as a compromising result, “for although they were substitutive satisfactions they were nevertheless distorted and deflected from their aim owing to the resistance of the ego” (Freud, 1925, p.18).

From the concept of repression Freud arrived at the notion of the Unconscious. Since there is repressed material, which still influences the person’s being in a way that is not conscious he argued for the existence of a dynamic unity within the self which he called the Unconscious. He states that (Freud, 1925, p.19) “the study of pathogenic repressions and of other phenomena which have still to be mentioned compelled psycho-analysis to take the concept of the “unconscious” seriously. Psychoanalysis regarded everything mental as being in the firsts instance unconscious”.

Through his experience of working with adults, Freud noticed how the most frequent cause of the neuroses was that of “conflicts between the subject’s sexual impulses and his resistances to sexuality” (Freud, 1925, p.20). He viewed neurotic symptoms as “substitutes for what was repressed…driving back to early childhood” (Freud, 1925, p.20), challenging the “myth” (as he called it) of an asexual childhood.

As if these ideas were not challenging enough for the conservative Victorian society of Vienna, Freud then claimed that these sexual instincts within the child are targeted at one of the child’s parents. Freud described this situation as the Oedipus complex, grounded on the ancient Greek tragedy of Oedipus, in his effort to establish his theory of children experiencing, in the early years, sexual wishes towards the parent of the opposite sex, along with hostile feelings against the parent of the same sex (Freud, 1925, p.22). This is, for Freud, responsible for the child’s feelings of guilt and fear for punishment, due to the “forbidding” nature of such desires. Freud considered this discovery as fundamental for psycho-analytic theory, as for him “the Oedipus complex was the nucleus of the neuroses…the climax of infantile sexual life and the point of junction from which all of its later development proceeded” (Freud, 1925, p.35).

Freud then defined as the task of his therapeutic method, which he named psycho-analysis, that of uncovering the person’s repressed material and bringing it into the person’s consciousness, by enabling the patient to free associate and by interpreting the Unconscious through the patient’s words. He set “free association as the fundamental rule of psycho-analysis, which he enabled through asking the patient to say “whatever came into his head, while ceasing to give any conscious direction to his thought…bringing into consciousness of the repressed material which was held back by resistances” (Freud, 1925, p.25).

When the “repressed” material is brought into consciousness, for Freud there is no longer any reason for the neurotic symptoms to still exist and as the conflict is now resolved, the person is no longer drawn to acting in the same repetitive self-hurting way. This can be achieved, for Freud, through overcoming the patient’s resistances that are battling against the process of uncovering what is repressed (Freud, 1925, p.25).

For Freud, another foundation of the psycho-analytic work is the phenomenon of transference, as for him “an analysis without transference is an impossibility” (Freud, 1925, p.26). He proposed the use of transference by the analyst as the major way of understanding the person’s early and current conflicts around relating. Freud discovered through his practise that “in every analytic treatment there arises, without the physician’s agency, an intense emotional relationship between the patient and the analyst which is not to be accounted for by the actual situation”. This emotional relationship he saw as a repetition of previous relationships with the important Others during the early years, which were repressed and kept in the Unconscious (Freud, 1925, p.26). Freud described the therapeutic use of transference on behalf of the analyst as that of making it conscious to the patient and using the patient’s current emotional responses to uncover the earlier relationships with his important Others, mostly his parents (Freud, 1925, p.26). The uncovering of the repressed material along with the interpretation through the use of transference is what for Freud analysis is about (Freud, 1908, p.354).

‘Scientific’ Freud

Freud seemed to have had a craving wish for being scientific and for discovering universal truths. His main complaint from some people was that they “have refused to treat psycho-analysis like any other science” (Freud, 1925, p.37). Freud claimed that his theory derived from his experience, but it could be seen more as a developmental model around childhood. Not only did he tried to provide a systematic, universal manual that would include all children of all cultural backgrounds at any time, but he also described esoteric, psychic processes based on observation of some of the child’s behaviours. The “objectivity” of his observations is something that Freud establishes through his view of himself as a scientist. His theory then was “enriched” with labels created using medical, almost deliberately incomprehensible vocabulary. Furthermore, his wish to “surgically remove the symptom out of the patient’s mind” is illustrative of the influence that his identity of a doctor had on his view of the role of the analyst.

Heidegger underlined the significance of time, in his effort to illustrate how the “observer” is limited by his subjective “eyes”, constantly influenced by his position in the world, his temporality and his historicality (cited in Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p.26). In his “Autobiographical Study”, Freud characterises his method “long, patient and unbiased” (Freud, 1925, p.31). It could be argued here that Freud’s method and theories were not unbiased, as they can never be, but that it seems that Freud did not see how culture, time and his place at the world influenced his perception.

Freud lived in Vienna in the Victorian era, a society which he called secretive, conservative and “repressing” when it came to sexual issues. It could be argued that he overemphasised the role played by sexual conflicts and impulses in an effort to uncover an issue that was considered taboo at that time. It also seems interesting, to the author’s eyes, that Freud wrote about the death instinct right at the time when he had reached the age of 60, which he had always predicted as being that of his incoming death and was also the age in which his father had died. Also, Freud’s biased perception is obvious in his writings about women. The fact that he was a man of authority, in an era and a place where women’s equal place in the society was undermined, could be seen as contributing to some peculiar, in modern eyes, comments about women. It is characteristic, here, how his theory around development through childhood and especially through the phase of the Oedipus complex focuses on the male sex, and even when he speaks about female development he describes it through comparing it to the male one (i.e. his theory on the penis envy when all that girls see when they look at the female genitals is actually the absence of male genitals).

The above description of some of Freud’s biases, which could be seen as dictating his theories, was short (due to the purposes of the current essay), but was used as an example of how Freud seems to have fallen into the trap of creating universal theories based on his biased perception, failing in that way to be open and to allow his patients to be open to new possibilities outside these restricting borders. It is even ironic how this is a danger that he explicitly mentioned and condemned: “An analyst who has not been analysed well will “easily fall into the temptation of projecting some of the peculiarities of his own personality, which he has dimly perceived, into the field of science, as a theory having universal validity” (Freud, 1912, p.361).

Finally, Freud’s theory was invented in an effort to understand and to acquire knowledge on how to remove neurotic symptoms, which could be argued to be ignoring the actual person and splitting it into bits of minds. Winnicott illustrated that saying that “We differ from Freud. He was for curing symptoms. We are concerned with living persons, whole living and loving” (Guntrip, 1975, p.152).

‘Phenomenological’ Freud

While reading some of his ideas, I also discovered a “different Freud”, one that contradicts the modernist scientist. Due to the fact that I experienced this part of himself as being closer to Husserl’s and Heidegger’s ideas around the philosophical enquiry, I will use the term “Phenomenological Freud”. I will then try to combine some of these ideas in order to demonstrate the implications of psychoanalysis in my work.

Freud, as stated before, considered himself as a scientist, a person who through observation could come to definite conclusions and treat the person’s pathology. However, Freud stated that an analyst “may sometimes make a wrong surmise, and one is never in a position to discover the whole truth” (Freud, 1908, p.354). Also, towards the model of a therapist who is trying to put aside any of his hypothesis or theoretical grounds, Freud argues that “the most successful cases are in which one proceeds, as it were, without any purpose in view, allows oneself to be taken by surprise by any new turn in them, and always meet them with an open mind, free from any presuppositions.”

Furthermore, Freud stated that the analyst “should hold himself in check, and take the patient’s capacities rather than his own desires as guide” (Freud, 1912, p.362). Rogers’ desire to let the client direct the therapeutic dialogue (Brink & Farber, 1996, p.15-24), as well as Levinas’ proposition of ethically putting the other first (Loewenthal & Winter, 2006, p.95), seem to raise here a meeting point between person-centred therapy, post-modernism and psychoanalysis.

Freud also introduced the notion of the “evenly suspended attention in the face of all that one hears” (Freud, 1912, p.357), which seems to echo the phenomenological concept of “horizontalisation”, which is about directing the focus equally on all information received (Spinelli, 2005, p.21),   Freud resembled the danger of the person to direct the findings of his research by following a self-fulfilling prophecy with that of the analyst to direct the learning of the patient by imposing his interpretations (Freud, 1912, p.357).

Freud even introduced the concept of distorted perception that one has due to his biases and which could be “apt to interfere with his grasp of what the patient tells him”. In order to reduce this “”blind spot” in his analytic perception” (Freud, 1912, p.360), Freud proposed that an analyst should always have prior experience of personal analysis which in a way will allow him to be more aware of how his biases influence his understanding. This idea seems similar to the Husserlian notion of “parenthesising”, which is the inquirer’s bracketing of his hypothesis and biases in order to be more open to the experience (Loewenthal & Snell, 2003, p. 20).
Freud also underlined the significance of learning from experience, which is the source of significant knowledge and not through theories (Freud, 1912, p.363), favouring in that way a growth that does not derive from the therapist’s knowledge, but from the ability of the patient to experience.

Furthermore, Freud speaks about the importance of the therapist just being there with the patient. He states that it is not the therapist’s insight that is therapeutic, but the very fact that he is there, together with the patient, as an “effective outsider” (Freud, 1916, p.590). This being with the other that is expressed along with an acknowledgment that the therapist does not have any “insights” to add is demonstrated in Winnicott’s transcripts  (Guntrip, 1975, p.151): “I’ve nothing particular to say yet, but if I don’t say something, you may begin to feel I’m not here”.

Freud through some of his writings seemed to be interested into the essence of love. His image of a distant and emotionally cold individual, which he promoted himself seems to be contradicted by some of his other writings. “There are only too many occasions on which a child is slighted, or at least feels he has been slighted, on which he feels he is not receiving the whole of his parents love (Freud, 1909, p.298)”. He then suggests that one major hurting effect upon one’s self-regard is realising, either mentally or through somatic symptoms, that one is not able to love (Freud, 1914, p.560).  There Freud moves forward by suggesting that therapeutic result can occur through the therapist’s love for his patient, as “love is the great educator”, as “it is by the love of those nearest him that the incomplete human being is induced to respect the decrease of necessity and to spare himself the punishment that follows any infringement of them”.

Therefore, the question is how Freud’s ideas around the human person, his compulsion to repeat, as well as notions of regression, unconscious, transference and Oedipus complex can inform my practice as a therapist, combined with his remarks on the importance of working in a phenomenological way.

How Psychoanalysis could inform a phenomenological practice

So far, a part of my therapeutic work with people included the notion of taking responsibility over their lives through the realisation of their freedom to exist in their own way, influenced by the ideas of Nietzsche and Rogers. However, my clients often brought into our work how even though they were fully aware of how they are hurting themselves and even though they thought they knew what they had to do in order to improve their lives, they would still continue to make the “wrong” decisions. This seemed even more intense when it came to relating with others and especially in their affectionate, intimate, romantic relationships with others.

Through Freud’s notions of Repression, the Unconscious and Transference, I found it useful to wonder (and wander) along with my clients around the possibility of them repeating something painful from their past. Specifically, in this essay, I will present our co-exploration of how maybe the person each one of my clients chose to relate to intimately, as well as the way the choose to relate, could have anything to do with the way they related to their parents from an early stage. The hope is not that their “neurotic” symptoms will vanish as soon as the conflict gets conscious for them, as Freud dictated; it is more that they might become aware of what painful events or feelings they are repeating, as well as acknowledge that this way of relating is what they were taught, but not the only possible one. Maybe this could allow them to grow through being more in charge of their lives in a responsible way, but not as a false sense of complete freedom, but more as a conscious knowledge of the chains that occasionally are bound to.

In Freud’s concept of the “compulsion to repeat” central remains the point of the choice of an erotic partner in adult life. Freud believed that the primary relationship that the child has with his mother is the “prototype of every relation of love” (Freud, 1925, p.288). He also argued that the way the “the finding of an object is in fact the refinding of it” (Freud, 1925, p.288), meaning that the person that one chooses to intimately relate to, as well as the kind of relationship built with that person, could be seen as a repetition of that primary initial bond, as well as a repetition of his experience of the Oedipus complex. For Freud, then, any malfunctions in the way the child related to his parents will be expressed and repeated through the child’s sexual life in the future (Freud, 1925, p.292).

Freudian ideas were used in practice in a way similar to what Winnicott called “imaginative hypotheses that challenged one to explore further” (Guntrip, 1975, p.154), and not as scientific conclusions that both me and the client should accept. During the work with my clients, theory was seen as “a useful servant but a bad master”, as it is “therapeutic practice that is the real heart of the matter” (Guntrip, 1975, p.144).


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