Psychoanalysis and phenomenology are the two fruits of the same seed – except different gardeners cared for their roots. That image encapsulates Maria Gyemant’s objective in Husserl and Freud: a common heritage, a book with historical and philosophical relevance.
In this review, I walk you through the author’s main discussions: the psychological theories of 19th century philosophers, the status of the unconscious prior to Freud, the relevance of truth before Husserl, the notion of trauma between psychoanalysis and phenomenology, and whether either two thinkers can fairly be called philosophers.
It is a history of philosophy that is at stake in Maria Gyemant’s account – a history intimately related to the origins of psychoanalysis and phenomenology. In 1900, Europe was simultaneously discussing the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams and that of Logical Investigations. Thanks to Maria Gyemant, we now have a proper explanation as to how the rival creeds that divided the 20th century – psychoanalysts and phenomenologists – have common origins.
I. Freud and Husserl, a question of generation
Maria Gyemant first immerses us in the post-Kantian world to which Freud and Husserl belong. “Since all human thoughts unfold in the psyche of subjects,” she notes of the intellectual rationale of the time, “and since the sciences cannot produce except within mental activity, it is the laws of psychology that govern all other human activities,” (15). The Kantian revolution, at the turn of the nineteenth century, severed the bond between objectivity and subjectivity, and Gyemant populates that century of the fractured ego with a set of characters who wished to pick up the pieces; to re-stitch the link between pure mental life and pure reality.
For example, in the post-Kantian response of Wilhelm Wundt, a predecessor to Freud and Husserl, his objective is not to “be dragged into the excess of its opposite and deal with nothing but the will and emotions, but rather to consider that voluntary and intentional action is the paradigm of all psychical processes,” (23). It is a “dynamic vision of psychic life” that Wundt is promoting, as though the presuppositions of his own processors did not allow that dynamism to occur. We notice a similarly-withdrawn intellectual position in Frantz Brentano who “advocated prioritizing description over explanation,” (24) which is also a way to let the psyche speak for itself; rather than repeat what we wish it to speak. These intellectual positions are fertile from a gender studies angle. Were these two thinkers unwittingly responding to the masculine posture of psychology at the time? Or is it rather against the individualistic ethos of Kant’s philosophy – masculinity and individualism belonging together – that the Wundt-Brentano backlash targets in the field of 19th century psychology?
One would assume, at this point, that the responses of Wundt and Brentano suffice to deliver psychology from its Kantian shackles. Yet it is hard to see where the smoke is coming when one stands too close to the fire – and indeed Gyemant succinctly shows the reasons that psychoanalysis or phenomenology could come not from the generation born in the 1830s but the one quarter of a century later. Gyemant indeed notes how “according to an idea traced back to Kant, the psychic cannot be the object of science because it is not measurable,” (39). The objective of Wilhelm Wundt would be to “show that psychology can be an exact science.” With this goal, “the objective of Wundt, like Brentano’s, was to banish all forms of metaphysics that postulated the existence of a soul,” (40). Of course the problem arising from this banishment is not the taboo against the soul, but the taboo to discuss metaphysics at all; talking about an invisible unconscious or an all-encompassing phenomenological method included. One could argue that such a taboo remains alive nowadays after the usefulness of exact science triumphed post-Einstein.
Gyemant’s book is insightful because it sees Freud and Husserl not as our contemporaries, us who still dabble in psychoanalysis or phenomenology, but as standalone figures who were part of a lost generation. This generation, more or less, is stuck between the philosophically-informed scientific ambitions of the 1830s generation (Wundt, Brentano, but also Ernst Mach, who thought the ego could not be ‘saved’) and the mathematical geniuses born after the mid 1870s, Einstein among them; the generation that abolished metaphysics (and philosophy) for good when physics became the most exact way to measure the world.
We also notice in Gyemant a marriage between these two generations. A student of Wilhelm Wundt, Moritz Geiger (b. 1880), wrote how “it is impossible to describe emotions when they are lived out,” (48). It would take an astute historian to analyse the use of the word ‘impossible’ around the time of Einstein’s revolution. Yet Husserl’s critique against Geiger meant to focus rather on the possible: he “shows that it is not emotions, but reflection in general, that causes the problem,” (49). This inversion – from the im/possibility of quantifying human emotions to the im/possibility of counting on our human intellect – is not only typical of Husserl and Freud, but also their contemporary Henri Bergson, whose critique of the intellect, and quarrel with Einstein, are well known. In any case, whether with Husserl, Freud, or Bergson, we are facing the limits not of ungraspable nature of human emotions (or the human soul) but the limits of the human intellect.
The subject of time, so central in Bergson’s controversy with Einstein, is also what distinguishes Husserl or Freud from the generations that preceded and followed them. For Gyemant notes how “for Husserl as much for Brentano it is time that creates the necessary distance for introspection, but unlike Brentano’s view, it is not because emotion has passed that it is over,” (52). Bergson held a similar view of time, and though Freud will not go as far in words, the continued liveliness of memories is central to his psychoanalysis.
II. Freud, defending the unconscious
After situating Freud and Husserl in their common intellectual context, Gyemant moves to isolate the psychoanalyst and explore the novelty of his theory of the unconscious. The idea that Freud’s unconscious is not new is an attractive topic for all philosophically-minded students of history, who will find parallels with Nietzsche or Schopenhauer. Freud’s snobbery is well known about this subject – he does not read philosophers, he often repeated. Gyemant’s account, in some way, justifies Freud’s claim of uniqueness. She keenly focuses on Brentano’s rejection of the unconscious, manifest in the following claim: “on the question of whether there exists an unconscious consciousness […] we can therefore respond with a categorical no,” (55). For Brentano, “psychical phenomena are all conscious,” (68).
Between a categorical no and the use of all, we begin to understand the animosity against the underground level of our mind which would vindicate Freud’s snobbery against the philosophers. Wundt, him, would also dismiss the unconscious by “relegating it to the rank of physiological processes,” (79). Or there is worse – Gustav Fechner’s view, that “the unconscious is another name for psychical phenomena that are too weak in intensity to cross the threshold of consciousness.” (80). This dismissal should strike us in the same way philosophers since Freud have downplayed his psychoanalysis. Clearly it is a chief concern of philosophy, to ban the unconscious. Perhaps philosophy itself, to preserve its legitimacy, requires its banishment.
It is one thing to be deemed a heretical philosophy – but a hysterical philosopher! Of course Gyemant rightly shows that it is not the philosophers who are heretics – a kind of philosophical establishment rises in her account, one keen on the motto, ‘all is conscious!’ Here we have strayed from the anti-masculine posture of contenting oneself with the description of phenomena rather than its explanation. Even a concession to masculinity remains masculine! Perhaps the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was right, that it is masculinity itself, diluted or not, that is epistemologically restrictive.
But Gyemant points to one predecessor to Freud who accepted the unconscious: Theodor Lipps. Lipps is not too older than Freud, so he does belong to relatively the same generation, but Gyemant makes sure to note that “before Freud, Lipps said in his conference that the unconscious ‘does not appear as an occasional fact but rather as the general base of psychical life,” (77). This is an important claim to locate because within Freud’s originality lies his insistence that the unconscious is constantly working, namely through how “repression does not happen once and for all but it is must be permanently maintained,” (83).
Gyemant very well pins down the important facet of Freud’s psychoanalysis, whose emphasis on the unconscious, ironically, will be downplayed by future psychoanalysts as Elizabeth Young-Bruehl analyzed in her own works. But Gyemant interestingly shows that Freud still has claim for originality over Lipps, for whom “it is essential to preserve a continuity between the conscious phases and the unconscious phases of psychical processes,” (85). Meaning, there cannot be for Lipps an independent unconscious operating on its own. Freud himself would not be opposed to the idea of continuity between conscious and unconscious, but it is true that there cannot be any psychoanalytic methodology if the unconscious is not given its rightful throne through which it could exercise its powers. In some way, with Freud, there must be an impasse in the psyche, there must remain one road or channel of communication completely blocked between the conscious and the unconscious (otherwise, the unconscious itself would be overthrown).
It may be in Freud’s acquiescence to the unconscious, in giving it a throne of its own, that lies philosophy’s aversion to psychoanalysis, for it is philosophy who ought to be the queen of thinking. In some sense, what Freud was claiming for the unconscious was the right for its own empire. The journey of his unconscious, so long persecuted by philosophy, is therefore not unlike the story of prince Abd al-Rahman, whose family, the ruling Umayyads, were overthrown in Damascus by the Abbasid Revolution. Alone this disinherited prince would flee to the extremity of the rising Abbasid Empire, Spain, to establish his own caliphate. Does psychoanalysis not continue to live in a similar way today, it ruling discretely from Cordoba, whereas philosophy rules the lands and the seas comfortably from Damascus?
III. Husserl, defending truth
After sketching the reasons that lead Freud to assiduously defend his theory of the unconscious, Gyemant moves onto tracing the path that led Husserl to defend truth. That truth needed to be defended at all in the nineteenth century is a complex landscape draw out. Reasons for confusion surely arose when the search for objective facts under the emerging scientism of the time collided with the prevailing individualism of the century. How could we assert that truth existed if everyone – poets, philosophers, peoples – claimed their own? Hannah Arendt, herself affiliated to Husserl through Heidegger, was right when she characterized the nineteenth century as a clash between individualism and collectivism, ego mentality and class mentality.
Husserl, according to Gyemant, is cognizant of that clash between subjectivity and objectivity. She interestingly reminds us his interest in the work of his predecessor Bernard Bolzano, who “concludes that truths must have an existence in themselves, whether they were thought or not,” (91). This is a great quote, because it points us to the those few voices in the early-to-mid nineteenth century (Bolzano was born in 1781) who had to insist against both the prevailing subjectivism and idealism of the time that truth did exist. But would Husserl, through Bolzano, be ushering a return to Platonic Ideas, which have an existence of their own? According to Gyemant, it would be the work of another predecessor, Hermann Lotze (b. 1817), which helped Husserl understand that “while Ideas are not, since only things are, they are also not nothing, they have their own ontological status: a validity,” (93). Thus Husserl synthesized his readings of Bolzano and Lotze to reach the conclusion that “it is not the subjective character of acts that are primary when it comes to knowledge, but the objective character of its truths,” (94).
It is not surprising that philosophically-minded mathematicians at the time wondered whether a square existed. Following another student of Brentano, Alexius Meinong, “some philosophers wished to attribute a certain form of minimal existence to inexistent objects,” (94). We learn thanks to Gyemant that Husserl solves this debate in a very cheeky way: “an “inexistent object is not an object at all,” (98) which might be another way of saying that existence is not necessarily the imperative of objects alone. For sometimes “this projection does not meet its target in the real world,” meaning that for Husserl, “even when there is nothing to refer itself to, there is always, in all acts, an objective content,” (99). All acts have an objective content – that is a provocative thought, because it denies the futility of any action, but also of any thought; and hence it is strange that existentialism, concerned with nothingness, would branch off from Husserl’s own disciples, Heidegger and Jaspers, and from them through Sartre and the French existentialists. That is why I qualified Husserl and Freud as belonging to a lost and lone generation – Gyemant’s account demonstrates how their ideas were as strange and revolutionary to those who preceded them as to those who followed them.
Moreover, Gyemant dwells on Husserl’s notion of ‘filledness’ – and that is reminiscent once again of Bergson, who in Creative Evolution deemed ridiculous that philosophers opposed the whole with nothingness, since according to him that meant to oppose the whole with the whole. We are still here circling around the notion of existence; and how could we not think about Rene Descartes’s I think, therefore I am? Of course both Bergson and Husserl (and Freud, but through a detour) stand opposite of Descartes, since they wish to surpass the ego, the I, and look at existence from a general viewpoint.
But Gyemant rightly paints Husserl as a kind of heir of Descartes, when she singles out one quote from his journal: “I have tasted enough the torments of obscurity, of doubt which comes and go. I must arrive to an intimate assurance,” (107). These two sentences encapsulate the brave journey Descartes embarked on to find a similar assurance; except that while Descartes found himself to exist, it seems Husserl landed upon the existence of everything. By finding that totality existed, truth, that last bastion Husserl wished to defend against the scepticism, romanticism, and idealism of his time, appeared to exist along with it.
IV. The notion of trauma
One of the last and curious inquiries Gyemant wages in her book is the question of trauma. She is very right to square Freud and Husserl against each other on the issue, and frankly this moment in her inquiry is the gem in the crown. Gyemant postulates that “psychical trauma, understood as such, seems radically incompatible with the phenomenological idea of an absolute consciousness, which encompasses all psychical possibilities,” (120). Yet trauma, under Freudian inquiry, is precisely that which escapes the conscious; Gyemant rightly notes that it is that which “is impossible to integrate without bringing with it the collapse of the coherence of our world,” (114). Hence why we repress traumatic events; it is a trade-off which our unconscious brands for the greater good. What should we then make of Husserl’s loyalty to the conscious, to its professed ability to grasp everything, including traumatic events?
The disagreement between Freud and Husserl here is about categories and degrees as Gyemant points out: whereas there is a qualitative difference in Freud, between the conscious and the unconscious; for Husserl, there is only a quantitative difference; there is “never night but always dawn,” that is, “there is no distinction of categories but only a gradual distinction,” (128-129). Admittedly, this is a very poetic difference between Freud and Husserl; because their disagreement is about rupture or continuity, the beginning of sin following the irredeemable departure from Eden or the continued love of God in spite of human fault, the final collapse of a long-standing empire or the refusal of nostalgia for a reign not completely lost.
If anyone brought forth such a distinction to Freud’s ears, it would have been Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose psychoanalysis seems to follow a similar aversion to rupture as Husserl’s phenomenology. Hence the disagreement about trauma is not so much between psychoanalysis and phenomenology as between Freud and Husserl, between the founders of these two disciplines, as though the problem were indeed about the very act of founding something; that the founder must decide on very essential laws to their enterprise.
It is a philosophical question on its own to begin musing over whether Freud or Husserl was right, whether categories should exist or whether changes in degree are not neutral. But I do want to dwell on a very provocative insight that Gyemant draws from the debate. “Shouldn’t we then conclude,” she asks, “that trauma is an experience that is inconceivable unless it is attached to an individual subject, imprisoned in a personal history?” (121). Gyemant is telling us that it is only when feel to be individually ourselves, separate and isolated, that trauma becomes relevant to us; that the I feels traumatized only when there is an I.
Here is a very common example illustrating Gyemant’s argument. Many of us will say, after a breakup with a love partner, that we did not feel the pain that the relationship caused throughout its life. We will say, ‘gosh, this was so toxic, I don’t know why only now I am feeling the pain it caused.’ This common experience reveals that when we are not individuals, when we are with someone, as a twoness, trauma does not knock on our doors; it does not or cannot make itself felt, not even symptomatically. It is only when we regain our individuality that pain begins to make sense to us, both psychically and physiologically.
Where does this push our Husserl-Freud debate? For Gyemant, the subject of trauma “creates a hole in the phenomenological coherence of the transcendental ego,” (123). But does it? I am not sure, and I don’t fault Gyemant for not probing further, because the matter appears to be an intellectual rabbit hole. Yet it is so interesting, and we might need another Freud and another Husserl to settle the debate in outlandish terms; for the next frontier of that debate, clearly, has to do with seemingly mystical notions of the self that neither Freud neither Husserl wished to entertain. And maybe they were right not to go there? Jung did, and the rest was history!
V. Freud, Husserl… philosophers?
The last subject Gyemant entertains in her book concerns Freud’s status as a philosopher. She tells us the Freud’s earliest ambitions, regardless of his later dismissal of philosophers, was a “step toward philosophy,” (139). When I read this sentence, I felt compelled to write in the margin: “or poetry?”. For after reading Gyemant’s book, our view of philosophers is rather poor. Freud and Husserl strike to us as anomalies in their epochs, misunderstood poetic insights, and it is of the ironies of history that we remember them both very well today though we might have better understood them had their works remained in obscurity. Husserl is part of the philosophical canon, Freud to a lesser extent – but what does it mean for their respective revolutions, when their works were finally ‘admitted’ into the academy? Gyemant’s book, after all, is a reminder that we misread them both equally. But at what cost do we wish to rehabilitate the images of these two figures; and does rehabilitation mean to call them philosophers?
It may be loftier, to call them poets! But it is also fairer, for while Husserl is regarded as a philosopher, his thinking defied, like Freud’s, the regal innocence of philosophy; or more generally that of the human intellect. But Gyemant’s hunch at the end of her book is right, that after clarifying our relationship with Freud and Husserl, it is our / their rapport with philosophy that should be made clear. This task, too titanic to embark on, might be more suited to the philosophers themselves, who, if we understand Gyemant well, should be critical of their reliance on Husserl if they dismiss Freud, their loyalty to Freud if they dismiss Husserl.
How often did Freud think of Husserl and Husserl of Freud? That is a question Gyemant rightly chooses to ignore: her book brought them closer together in the same way one reminds two estranged brothers that their origins are common. If Freud and Husserl are deemed irreconcilable, it is because they are in some way brothers; that is, by growing up so close, it was natural for them to grow apart. I salute Gyemant’s effort, because she did not succumb to the lassitude with which we normally distinguish both thinkers; a too intellectual lassitude which we ought to discard, and replace with the childlike confidence that no, sometimes, two things, so seemingly different, are one and the same.