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De Anima by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As I have lately been making my way through Aristotle’s physical treatises, I have often observed that many of Aristotle’s errors stem from his tendency to see the physical world as analogous to a biological organism. So it is a pleasure to finally see Aristotle back on his home territory—living things. While Aristotle’s work in proto-physics and proto-chemistry is interesting mainly from a historical perspective, this work is interesting in its own right; in just a hundred pages, Aristotle manages to assemble a treatise on the fundamentals of life.
The first thing the modern student will notice is that Aristotle means something quite different by ‘soul’ than how we normally understand the word. The word ‘soul’ has come to mean an immaterial, specter-like wraith, the spiritual core of one’s personality—trapped, only temporarily, in a body; and this view has, over the years, caused problems for philosophers and theologians alike, for it remains to be explained how an immaterial spirit could move a material body, or how a material body could trap an immaterial spirit. Aristotle avoids these awkward questions. What he means is quite different.
Aristotle begins by observing that all forms of behavior, human or animal, require a body. Even supposedly ‘mental’ states, such as anger, love, and desire, all have concomitant physical manifestations: an angry man gets red in the face, a man in love stares at his beloved, and a man who desires alcohol tries to get it. From this, Aristotle quickly concludes that all the Pythagorean and Platonic talk of the transmigration of souls is silly; a soul needs a body, just as a body needs a soul. Furthermore, a specific soul doesn’t need just any body, but it needs its specific body. Soul and body are, in other words, codependent and inseparable. In Aristotle’s words, “each art must use its tools, each soul its body.”
This still leaves the question unanswered, what is a soul? Aristotle answers that the soul is the form of the body. Alright, what does that mean? Keep this in mind: when Aristotle says ‘form’, he is not merely talking about the geometrical shape of the object, but means something far more general: the form, or essence, of something is that by which it is what it is. Here’s an example: the form of a bowl is that which makes a bowl a bowl, as opposed to something else like, say, a plate or a cup. In this particular case, the form would seem to be the mere shape of the object; isn’t the thing that makes a bowl a bowl its shape? But consider that there is no such thing as a disembodied bowl; for a bowl to be a bowl, it must have a certain shape, be within a certain size range, and be embodied in a suitable material. All of these qualifications, the shape, size, and material, Aristotle would include in the ‘form’ of an object.
So the soul of living things is the quality (or qualities) that differentiate them from nonliving things. Now, the main difference between animate and inanimate objects is that animate objects possess capacities; therefore, the more capacities a living thing has, the more souls we must posit. This sounds funny, but it’s just a way of speaking. Plants, for Aristotle, are the simplest forms of living beings; they only possess the ‘vegetative soul’, which is what makes them grow and develop. Animals possess additional souls, such as that which allows them to sense, to desire, to imagine, and—in the case of humans—to think. The ‘soul’, then, is a particular type of form; it is a form which gives its recipient a certain type of capability. Plants are only capable of growth; animals are capable of growing, of moving, and of many other things.
Aristotle sums up his view in a memorable phrase: “From all this it is obvious that the affections of soul are enmattered formulable essences.” These capacities cannot be ‘enmattered’ in just anything, but must be embodied in suitable materials; plants are not made of just anything, but their capacities for growth always manifest themselves in the same types of material. Aristotle sums up this point with another memorable phrase: “soul is an actuality or formulable essence of something that possesses the potentiality of being besouled.”
So an oak tree is made of material with the potentiality of being ‘besouled’, i.e., turned into a living, growing oak tree. Conversely, a life-sized statue of an oak tree made of bronze would still not be an oak tree, even if it shared several aspects of its form with a real oak tree. It isn’t made of the right material, and thus cannot possess the vegetative soul.
I have given a somewhat laborious summary of this because I think it is a very attractive way of looking at living things. It avoids all talk of ‘ghosts in the machine’, and concentrates on what is observable. (I should note, however, that Aristotle thought that ‘mind’, which is the faculty of reason, is immaterial and immortal. Nobody’s perfect.)
I also find Aristotle metaphysical views attractive. True to his doctrine of the golden mean, he places equal emphasis on matter and form. He occupies an interesting middle-ground between the idealism of Plato and the materialism of Democritus. In order for a particular thing to be what it is, it must both have a certain form—which is embodied in, but not reducible to, its matter—and be made of the ‘right’ types of matter. Unlike Plato’s ideals, which reside in a different sphere of reality, existing as perfect essences devoid of matter, Aristotle’s forms are inherent in their objects, and thus are neither immaterial nor simply the matter itself
The treatise ceases to be as interesting as it progresses, but there are a few gems along the way. He moves on to an investigation of the five senses, and, while discussing sight, has a few things to say about light. Aristotle defines light as the quality by which something transparent is transparent; in other words, light is the thing that can be seen through transparent things. I suppose that’s a respectable operational definition. Aristotle also considers the idea that light travels absurd; nothing could go that fast:
Empedocles (and with him all others who used the same forms of expression) was wrong in speaking of light as ‘traveling’ or being at a given moment between the earth and its envelope, its movement being unobservable by us; that view is contrary both to the clear evidence of argument and to the observed facts; if the distance traversed were short, the movement might have been unobservable, but where the distance is from extreme East to extreme West, the draught upon our powers of belief is too great.
Aristotle also has a few interesting things to say about sense:
By a ‘sense’ is meant what has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the matter. This must be conceived of as taking place in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold; we say that what produces the impression is a signet of bronze or gold, but its particular metallic constitution makes no difference: in a similar way the sense is affected by what is colored or flavored or sounding, but it is indifferent what in each case the substance is; what alone matters is what quality is has, i.e. in what ratio its constituents are combined.
So we don’t take in the matter of a bowl through our eyes, but only its form. All of our senses, then, are adapted for observing different aspects of the forms of objects. Thus, Aristotle concludes, all knowledge consists of forms; when we learn about the world, we are mentally reproducing the form of the world in our minds. As he says: “It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools [i.e. the tool by which we use tools], so the mind is the form of forms [i.e. the form by which we apprehend forms].” (Notice how deftly Aristotle wields his division of everything into matter and form; he uses it to define souls, to define senses, and then to define knowledge. It is characteristic of him to make so much headway with such seemingly simple divisions.)
For a long time, I was perplexed that Aristotle was so influential. I was originally repulsed by his way of thinking, put off by his manner of viewing the world. His works struck me as alternately pedantic, wrongheaded, or obvious. How could he have exerted such a tremendous influence over the Western mind? Now, after reading through much more Aristotle, this is no longer perplexing to me; in fact, I often find myself thinking along his lines, viewing the world through his eyes. It takes, I believe, a lot of exposure in order to really develop a sympathy for Aristotle’s thought; but with its emphasis on balance, on growth, on potentiality, it succeeds in being a very aesthetically compelling (if often incorrect) way of viewing things.
This piece represents, to me, Aristotle at his best. It is a grand synthesis of philosophy and biology, probably not matched until William James’s psychological work. Unlike many gentlemanly philosophers who shut themselves in their studies, trying to explain human behavior purely through introspection, Aristotle’s biologically rooted way of seeing things combines careful observation—of humans and nonhumans alike—with philosophical speculation. It is a shame that only the logic-chopping side of Aristotle was embraced by the medievals, and not his empirical outlook.
On the Heavens by Aristotle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is quite a charming little book. In it, one can find the description of an entire way of viewing the natural world. Aristotle moves on from the abstract investigations of the Physics to more concrete questions: Is the earth a sphere or flat? What are the fundamental constituents of matter? Why do some things fall, and some things rise? Is the earth the center of everything? Aristotle’s answers, I’m afraid, have not stood the test of time; such, it appears, is the risk of all science—obsolescence.
The reader is immediately presented with a beautiful piece of Aristotelian reasoning. First, the good philosopher reminds us that “the perfect is naturally prior to the imperfect, and the circle is a perfect thing.” Circular motion, therefore, is more perfect than simple up-and-down motion like we see on earth; and since we do not find bodies whose natural motion is circular on earth, and since nature always strives towards perfection, it follows that there must be bodies not on earth which naturally move in a circular fashion. Again, since none of the earth-bound elements—fire, water, air, and earth—exhibit natural (i.e. unforced) circular motion, it follows that the heavenly bodies must be composed of something different; and this different substance (let us call it aether), since is exhibits the most perfect motion, must be itself perfect.
In Aristotle’s words:
… we may infer with confidence that there is something beyond the bodies that are about us on this earth, different and separate from them; and that the superior glory of its nature is proportionate to its distance from this world of ours.
Everything below the moon must be born and pass away; but the heavenly bodies abide forever in their circular course. Q.E.D.
In his physical investigations, it seems that Aristotle was not especially prescient. For example, he argues against “the Italian philosophers known as the Pythagoreans… At the centre, they say, is fire, and the earth is one of the stars, creating night and day by its circular motion about the centre.” Not so, says Aristotle; the earth is the center. He also argues against Democritus’s atomic theory, which posits the existence of several different types of fundamental particles, which are intermingled with “void,” or empty spaces in between them.
To be fair, Aristotle does think that the earth is round; he even includes an estimation of the earth’s circumference at 400,000 stadia, which is, apparently, somewhere around 40,000 miles. (The current-day estimate is about 24,000 miles.) Aristotle also thinks that “heavy” objects tend toward the earth’s surface; but puzzlingly (for the modern reader), he doesn’t think this has anything to do with the pull of the earth, but instead thinks it has something to do with earth’s position in the center of all things. In his words: “If one were to remove the earth to where the moon now is, the various fragments of earth would each move not towards it but to the place in which it now is.”
Then Aristotle launches into his investigation of the elements. As aforesaid, Aristotle posits four sublunary elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Earth is the heaviest, followed by water, and then air; and fire is the lightest. Aristotle believes that these elements have “natural” motions; they tend toward their proper place. Earth tries to go downward, towards the center of the planet. Fire tries to go upward, towards the stars. Aristotle contrasts this “natural” motion with “unnatural” or “violent” motion, which is motion from an outside source. I can, of course, pick up a piece of earth, thereby thwarting its natural tendency towards its proper place on the ground.
The elements naturally sort themselves into order: we have earth on the bottom, then water floating on top, then the air sitting on the water, and fire above the air. (Where all that fire is, I can’t say.) There are some obvious difficulties with this theory. For example, how can boats float? and birds fly? This leads Aristotle to a very tentative definition of buoyancy, with which he ends the book:
… since there are two factors, the force responsible for the downward motion of the heavy body and the disruption-resisting force of the continuous surface, there must be some ratio between the two. For in proportion as the force applied by the heavy thing towards disruption and division exceeds that which resides in the continuum, the quicker will it force its way down; only if the force of the heavy thing is the weaker, will it ride upon the surface.
The more one reads Aristotle, the more one grasps just how much his worldview was based on biology. The key word of his entire philosophy is entelechy, which simply means the realization of potential. We can see this clearly in his definition of motion: “The fulfillment of what exists potentially, in so far as it exists potentially, is motion.” That’s a mouthful, but think of it this way: the act of building a house can be thought of as the expression of the potential of a house; the physical house in progress is the partially actualized house, but the building itself is the potential qua potential.
It is easy to see how Aristotle might get interested in the expression of potentialities from investigating living things. For what is an egg but a potential chicken? What is a child but a potential man? This idea of fully realizing one’s potential is at the basis of his ethics and his physics; just as fire realizes its potential for moving upwards, so do citizens realize their potential through moderation. Aristotle’s intellectual method is also heavily marked by one who spent time investigating life; for it is the dreary task of a naturalist to catalogue and to categorize, to investigate the whole by looking at the parts.
While this mindset served him admirably in many domains, it misled him in the investigation inanimate matter. To say that chickens grow from eggs as an expression of potential is reasonable; but to attribute the downward motion of rocks as an expression of their potential sounds odd. It is as if you asked somebody why cars move, and they responded “because it is the nature of the vehicle”—which would explain exactly nothing. But it is difficult not to be impressed by Aristotle; for even if he reached the wrong conclusions, at least he was asking the right questions.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Aristotle continues to provoke conflicting reactions in me. I am always torn between realizing his tremendous originality and historical importance, and suffering from his extraordinary dullness. This book exemplifies both sides of the coin. Seeing a man single-handedly create the field of logic, ex nihilo, is tremendous; yet reading through these treatises could put a coffee-addict in a coma.
I am not insensitive to the appeals of philosophy. Far from it; I think reading philosophy is thrilling. Some of my most acute aesthetic experiences have been had contemplating some philosopher’s idea. Yet I have never had this reaction to Aristotle’s writings. Part of this is due to his formidable difficulty; another part, to the nature of the works (which, I must constantly remind myself, are lecture-notes).
Nevertheless, Aristotle had a prosaic mind; even when faced with the most abstract phenomena in the universe, his first reaction is to start parceling everything into neat categories, and to go on making lists and explanations of these categories. He does make logical arguments, but they are often brief, and almost as often unsatisfactory. Much of the time the student is faced with the dreary task of working his way through Aristotle’s system, simply because it is his system, and not because it is empirically or logically compelling.
(Every time I write a review for Aristotle, it comes out so disappointed. Let me try to be more positive.)
My favorite piece in this was the Posterior Analytics, which is a brilliant treatise on epistemology, logic, and metaphysics. Aristotle succinctly presents an entire theory of knowledge, and it’s incomparably more rigorous and detailed than anything Plato could have produced. I also particularly liked the Topics, as there we see Aristotle as a seasoned debater, in addition to a bumbling professor. Of course, there is much of strictly philosophic interest in this work as well; a particularly memorable problem is that of the future naval-battle.
For me, Aristotle is at his best when he is discussing the acquisition of knowledge. For Aristotle, whatever his faults, more perfectly embodied the love of knowledge than any other thinker in history. He wanted to know all; and, considering his historical limitations, he came damn near close. Us poor moderns have to content ourselves with either a mastery of one tiny slice of reality, or a dilettante acquaintance with all of it; Aristotle had the whole world at his fingertips.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Of all the ancient thinkers that medieval Christians could have embraced, it always struck me as pretty remarkable that Aristotle was chosen. Of course, ‘chosen’ isn’t the right word; rather, it was something of a historical coincidence, since Aristotle’s works were available in Latin translation, while those of Plato were not.
Nonetheless, Aristotle strikes me as a particularly difficult thinker to build a monotheistic worldview around. There is simply nothing mystical about him. His feet are planted firmly on the ground, and his eyes are level with the horizon. Whereas mystics see the unity of everything, Aristotle divides up the world into neat parcels, providing lists of definitions and categories wherever he turns. Whereas mystics tend to scorn human knowledge, Aristotle was apparently very optimistic about the potential reach of the human mind—since he so manifestly did his best to know everything.
The only thing that I can find remotely mystical is Aristotle’s love of systems. Aristotle does not like loose ends; he wants his categories to be exhaustive, and his investigations complete. And, like a mystic, Aristotle is very confident about the reach of a priori knowledge, while his investigations of empirical reality—though admittedly impressive—are paltry in comparison with his penchant for logical deduction. At the very least, Aristotle is wont to draw many more conclusions from a limited set of observations than most moderns are comfortable with.
I admit, in the past I have had a hard time appreciating his writing. His style was dry; his arguments, perfunctory. I often wondered: What did so many people see in him? His tremendous influence seemed absurd after one read his works. How could he have seemed so convincing for so long?
I know from experience that when I find a respected author ludicrous, the fault is often my own. Seeking a remedy, I decided that I would read more Aristotle; more specifically, I would read enough Aristotle until I learned to appreciate him. In the words of Stephen Stills, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” I decided I would stick with Aristotle until I loved him. I still don’t love Aristotle; but, after reading this book, I have a much deeper respect for the man. For this book really is remarkable.
Hardly a sentence in this book can be accepted as accurate. In fact, from our point of view, Aristotle’s project was doomed from the start. He is investigating physical reality, but is doing so without conducting experiments; in other words, his method is purely deductive, starting from a few assumptions, most of which are wrong. Much of what Aristotle says might even seem silly—such as his dictum that “we always assume the presence in nature of the better.” Another great portion of this work is taken up by thoroughly uninteresting and unconvincing investigations, such as the definitions of ‘together’, ‘apart’, ‘touch’, ‘continuous’, and all of the different types of motions—all of which seem products of a pedantic brain rather than qualities of nature.
But the good in this work far outweighs the bad. For Aristotle commences the first (at least, the first, so far as I know) intellectually rigorous investigations of the basic properties of nature—space, time, cause, motion, and the origins of the universe. I find Aristotle’s inquiry into time particularly fascinating, for I am not aware of any comparatively meticulous investigations of time by later philosophers.
I was particularly impressed with Aristotle’s attempt to overcome Zeno’s paradoxes (a series of thought experiments which ‘prove’ that motion and change is impossible). Aristotle defines and re-defines time—struggling with how it can be divided, and with the exact nature of the present moment—and tries many different angles of attack. What is even more interesting, Aristotle fails in his task, and even falls into Zeno’s intellectual trap by unwittingly accepting Zeno’s assumptions.
Aristotle’s attempts to tackle space were almost equally fascinating. Once again see the magnificent mind of Aristotle struggling to define something of the highest degree of abstractness. In fact, I challenge anyone reading this to come up with a good definition of space. It’s hard. The paradox (at least, the apparent paradox) is that space has some qualities of matter—extension, volume, dimensions—without having any mass. It seems, at first sight at least, like empty space should be simply nothing, yet space itself has certain definite qualities—and anything that has qualities is, by definition, something. However, these qualities only emerge when one imagines a thing in space, for we never, in our day to day lives, encounter space itself, devoid of all content. But how could something with no mass have the quality of extension?
Aristotle does also display an admirable—though perhaps naïve—tendency to trust experience. For his refutation of the thinkers who argue that (a) everything is always in motion, and (b) everything is always at rest, is merely to point out that day-to-day experience refutes this. And Aristotle at least knows—since it is so remarkably obvious to those with eyes—that Zeno must have committed some error. Even if his attacks on the paradoxes do not succeed, therefore, one can at least praise the effort.
To the student of modern physics, this book may present some interesting contrasts. We have learned, through painstaking experience, that the most productive questions to ask of nature begin with “how” rather than “why.” Of course, the two words are often interchangeable; but notice that “why” attributes a motive to something, whereas “how” is motiveless.
Aristotle seeks to understand nature in the same way that one might understand a friend. In a word, he seeks teleological explanations. He assumes both that nature works with a purpose, and that the workings of nature are roughly accessible to common sense, with some logical rigor thrown in. On its face, this is not necessarily a bad assumption. Indeed, it took a lot of time for us humans to realize it was incorrect. In any case, it must be admitted that Aristotle at least seeks to understand far more than us moderns; for Aristotle seeks, so to speak, to get inside the ‘mind’ of nature, understanding the purpose for everything.
Perhaps now I can see what the medieval Christians found in Aristotle. The assumption that nature works with a purpose certainly meshes well with the belief in an omnipotent creator God. And the assumption that knowledge is accessible through common sense and simple logical deductions is reasonable if one believes that the world was created for us. To the modern reader, the Physics might be far less impressive than to the medievals. But it is always worthwhile to witness the inner workings of such a brilliant mind; and, of all the Aristotle I have so far read, none so clearly show Aristotle’s thought process, none so clearly show his mind at work, as this.
Anger seems to listen to argument to some extent, but to mishear it, as do hasty servants who run out before they have heard the whole of what one says, and then muddle the order, or as dogs bark if there is but a knock at the door, before looking to see if it is a friend; so anger by reason of the warmth and hastiness of its nature, though it hears, does not hear an order, and springs to take revenge.
—Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics
Just yesterday I had an interesting question posed to me. Of the seven deadly sins—gluttony, lust, envy, greed, wrath, sloth, pride—which one afflicts me the worst? I thought it about it for a while. Certainly I am afflicted by each deadly sin. I can be lazy, arrogant, selfish, and all the rest. But I think my outstanding challenge has always been my capacity for rage.
I used to be an angry person. Just ask my brother, or any of my old friends. The smallest things could set me off: a joke, a passing remark, a perceived slight. And when I got angry, I lost all control. Once I threw my cell phone at my oldest friend (thankfully, it hit the guitar he was playing instead of striking him) and snapped it in half. Another time, I kicked a good friend in the back, causing him to fall over in the street. And I can’t tell you how many times I beat up my brother when I was a kid.
It is revealing that, almost always, I can’t even recall what made me so angry in these situations. Usually it was something very trivial. Big things don’t provoke rage in me, but little things do. I become enraged when I’m hungry and I can’t find a place to eat. Or when I’m impatient and stuck somewhere. Or when somebody is being silly when I’m in a sour mood. My mood makes the crucial difference. When I’m hungry, tired, stressed, or otherwise irritable, my patience disappears and I have a tendency to snap at people. I lose my ability to empathize and become a selfish, egocentric man-child.
A big part of growing up, for me, has been learning to control my anger. To do this, I’ve had to recognize that anger is almost always illogical and unwise. Rage, indignation, and outrage are dangerous emotions, because they convince us that they are justified. Indeed, anger can feel extremely empowering. We are never so sure that we are right and others wrong than when we’re enraged. And yet, as Aristotle points out, it is when we’re angry, indignant, and outraged that we are most prone to being wrong, precisely because we feel unshakably sure that we’re right.
Anger is just a defense of the ego. When we feel that we are being undermined, or slighted, or treated unjustly, our anger is a way of preventing our ego from being damaged, of preserving our sense of self-worth, of reaffirming our own perspective. Yet by defending your ego, you acknowledge that it’s vulnerable; and even if you retaliate, you can’t undue the injury that’s been done to your pride.
It is one of the hardest things in the world, but also the most rewarding, to actually listen when you’re being criticized rather than to retaliate. I know from painful experience that the urge to fight back can be nearly overwhelming. Instead of understanding what the other person is saying, we immediately start thinking of how to refute them. But how can you refute someone when you haven’t heard what they’re saying? And how can you convince them when you don’t acknowledge the validity of their experience?
When something seems untrue, unjust, or unfair, then your whole body and mind can tense up in protest. But in these moments it is crucial to remember that what seems true to you may not seem true to somebody else, and what seems fair to you might seem unfair to a friend. Most of all it is important to fight the angry tendency to mishear what other people are saying. To do this, extra effort is necessary, the effort to listen and understand. Do not be like Aristotle’s dog and bark before you know who’s at the door.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.
“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.
The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)
The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.
In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:
As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.
If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”
There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.
For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.
The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.
The medulla oblongata is a very serious and lovely object.
When I was in college, I used to get in long and rather aimless arguments with a friend about Freud. The funny thing is, both of us agreed that Freud was fundamentally wrong about most things. The argument was, rather, whether Freud was worth reading and thinking about—and was even potentially useful—in spite of his theories’ veracity. My friend said he wasn’t, and I said he was. I still think this way, which is why, every now and then, I find myself making my way through one of his books.
Probably I should have come to this book sooner. Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is his attempt to give an accessible introduction to his system, and is thus probably one of the best places to start if you’re curious about his work. The lectures, given over one academic year, are divided into three sections: the parapraxes (the “Freudian slips”), the interpretation of dreams, and the neuroses. The material is arranged this way for pedagogical purposes, beginning with the simplest and most easily observable phenomena and ending with genuine mental disorders. By necessity, the last section is both the longest and densest.
One thing that fascinates me about Freud is how a system of ideas with paltry factual support could be so seductive and gripping. For my part, I find Freud’s system remarkably attractive; thinking along his lines has an undeniable emotional appeal, at least in my case. In my review of Civilization and its Discontents, I gave a partial explanation of this by likening Freud’s system in outline to that of Christianity. But I don’t think that’s the whole story, and thus I want to explore it further.
While reading this book, it struck me that Freud’s system is comparable with the Aristotelian physics and cosmology that held sway for so long in the Western world. Both of these systems, Freud’s and Aristotle’s, are so compelling and take such hold of one’s mind because they seem to explain everything while offering very little in the way of falsifiable propositions. Aristotelians could throw around terms like matter, form, ideal, potential, perfect, nature, and soul without providing any circumstances in which these concepts could be tested and disproved.
These categories were specific enough to be rationally compelling, and yet vague enough to be applied to nearly anything. Similarly, Freud created a system that could be applied to history, religion, mythology, and literature, while never specifying how its categories—repression, unconscious, transference, libido, censor etc.—could be disproven. It thus gives the illusion of an airtight and exhaustive system while remaining safe from testability.
The main reason that Freud’s theories are untestable is that they rely on interpretation; and interpretations, by definition, cannot be falsified. Now to be fair I think Freud’s system is most plausible, as a therapeutic technique, when he has his patients interpret their own dreams and symptoms. If a patient is free-associating, it makes sense that they might be able to hit upon an emotionally resonant interpretation.
Nevertheless, I think it would still be incorrect to call even the patient’s interpretation the “true” one, since being emotionally affected by something now in no way proves that this same thing motivated a dream in the past. And this is putting to the side the fact that Freud’s explanation for how dreams are formed relies on unobservable processes and entities that he posits in the mind. But let me stop here before I get sucked down the rabbit hole.
To repeat, then, although I think it cannot be proved that any interpretation of a dream is a “true” one, I still think having patients interpret their dreams might help them to explore their own feelings. But when Freud begins enumerating a kind of “key” for dream interpretation, his system gets really unsupportable. According to Freud, certain things always symbolize other things in dreams, irrespective of the individual, their cultural background, or their experiences. And, of course, most of these symbols are representatives of sexual matters:
We have earlier referred to landscapes as representing the female genitals. Hills and rocks are symbols of the male organ. Fruit stands, not for children, but for the breasts. Wild animals mean people in an excited sensual state, and further, evil instincts or passions. Blossoms or flowers indicate women’s genitals, or, in particular, virginity. Do not forget that blossoms are actually the genitals of a plant.
There is an entire lecture like this; and personally I find it so ludicrous that it makes me deeply suspicious of Freud’s judgment. It relies on so many unsubstantiated premises—that dreams have a deeper meaning, that this deeper meaning is always a desire, that this desire is always illicit and sexual, that somehow certain symbols are universal, and that Freud is somehow privy to this information—that it boggles the mind trying to unravel it.
When Freud does offer the explanation for why one thing symbolizes another, it bears a remarkable similarity to the logic used by conspiracy theorists:
And, speaking of wood, it is hard to understand how that material came to represent what is maternal and female. But here comparative philology may come to our help. Our German word ‘Holz’ seems to come from the same root as the Greek [hule], meaning ‘stuff’ ‘raw material’. … Now there is an island in the Atlantic named ‘Madeira’. This name was given to it by the Portuguese when they discovered it, because at that time it was covered all over with woods. For in the Portuguese language ‘madeira’ means ‘wood’. You will notice, however, that ‘madeira’ is only a slightly modified version of the Latin word ‘materia’, which once more means ‘material’ in general. But ‘material’ is derived from ‘mater’, ‘mother’: the material out of which anything is made is, as it were, mother to it. This ancient view of the thing survives, therefore, in the symbolic use of wood for ‘woman’ or ‘mother’.
Clearly this sort of thing wouldn’t past muster in any scientific journal nowadays, and it’s hard to see how it could have been convincing in Freud’s day either.
The above is just one example of the un-falsifiability inherent in Freud’s thought; and this is a big part, I think, of why his system can be so seductive. But there is another reason for its appeal: It is fundamental to Freud’s system to question the motivations of its detractors. That it, the system has a built-in defense mechanism in that anyone who disagrees can be accused of being a repressed individual who can’t face the truth of his own illicit desires.
To take just one example, let’s look at Freud’s discussion of his famous Freudian slip. In these lectures, he claims that all slips of the tongue are caused by a repressed desire that is finding a distorted expression. Now to be fair, there are definitely many instances when this seems to be the case, that somebody accidentally said something they were trying to keep secret. Nevertheless, it is absurd to claim that all slips of the tongue have this origin. For one, you cannot legitimately make a universal generalization from any finite data set. You cannot, for example, claim that all apples are delicious after you’ve eaten 100 delicious apples. Moreover, and once again, finding the “deeper meaning” of a Freudian slip relies on interpretation, and interpretations can never be objectively determined.
But a more troubling problem for me is that Freud essentially asserts that it is impossible to make an innocent mistake. If you are tired and you misspeak, it cannot just be an error, but must be the expression of a deep and terrible desire of which you are not aware. And if you deny this, it only proves Freud’s point; obviously you can’t face the truth about yourself, you are too repressed. Thus there isn’t any way out. You can’t disprove Freud’s interpretation (since it’s an interpretation and can’t be disproven), and all your protestations only make you look more guilty. And this sort of double bind isn’t restricted to Freud’s theories on slips of the tongue, but apply to the interpretation of dreams and neurotic symptoms. I wouldn’t be surprised if Freud argued that any time somebody fell off a bike it was because of a latent death wish.
To be fair to Freud, none of these criticisms is unique to his system. To the contrary, they can be applied to many, if not all, religious and political ideologies. The questioning of other people’s motivation is especially destructive in the latter sphere, and can be found on both the Right and the Left. Democrats only want to expand social security because they’re communists who want to make everyone dependent on the government; they only want to expand background checks to take away everyone’s guns and make them unable to fight against the government tyranny. Meanwhile, poor whites are too dumb to vote for their own interests, those who disagree with Obama are racists, those with Hillary are sexists, and if you disagree it’s your privilege talking.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that these accusations are necessarily incorrect, and indeed I think they are often quite compelling. Nevertheless I think you have got to be careful when you questions the motivations of your opponent, because it makes it impossible to have a reasonable debate. Probably it’s best to assume good intentions unless proven otherwise. But this brings me pretty far from Freud.
Or does it? I began by saying how useful is Freud even if one disagrees with him, and I think one way is to see how unsupported ideas can become widely accepted. But of course that’s not all.
Freud was, in my opinion, quite obviously brilliant. His ideas were so original and his thought process so novel that it is fascinating just to see him at work. What is more, even if they lack rigor in a scientific setting, Freud’s ideas, terminology, and system have undeniably enriched how we think about the human experience. That dreams can reveal a deeper meaning, that slips of the tongue can reveal hidden intentions, that desires can be repressed, that traumatic memories can be unconscious, that much of your motivation lies beyond your conscious awareness—all this and more we owe to Freud.
Two weeks ago I was walking through the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, where there is a wonderful painting by Salvador Dalí: Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening. The painting, which makes no rational sense, was partly inspired by Freud’s ideas on the dream-logic, how ideas get associated in the unconscious. Thus the elements in the painting are associated, not by reason, but by other chains of association—the sounds of their names, specific memories, visual properties, sexual desires. The entire logic of the painting can thus be said to be Freudian. Now, considering this, can you argue that he didn’t enrich our culture?