Jews and the ‘mad science’ of psychoanalysis

Adam Phillips’ biography of Sigmund Freud explains the creative thinker’s ideas in layman’s terms

Jewish British author and psychoanalyst Adam Philips (Jerry Bauer)
Jewish British author and psychoanalyst Adam Philips (Jerry Bauer)

LONDON — Towards the latter half of the 19th century in central Europe, Orthodox Judaism was going though an enormous period of transition. The haskalah, a Jewish Enlightenment that had more in common with the general European Enlightenment than it did with the scholarly rabbinical tradition, began eroding the traditional Jewish intellectual landscape.

Thus a culture of reason and sceptical humanism that was suspicious of dogma and traditional forms of authority emerged.

This, then, encouraged Jews to assimilate even further into the various communities that they had lived in throughout Europe for centuries. Historically, being the number oneenemy of Christianity— which was the dominant religion of Europe for nearly two millennia —Jews have always been the ultimate outsiders.

They were, by definition, a dissenting group who were clearly different.

The liberal political ideas that a creative thinker by the name of Sigmund Freud would adhere to his whole life, would legitimate this dissent.

Well, at least that is according to Adam Philips, a British-Jewish psychoanalyst, who has just recently published “Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst.”

Cover of 'Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst' (courtesy)
Cover of ‘Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst’ (courtesy)

The psychoanalysis that Freud began to invent in the 1880s, was, writes Philips in new book: “a story about acculturation; about how individuals adapt and fail to adapt to their cultures, and about the costs of such successes and failures.”

I’m presently sitting across from the softly spoken and extremely polite 59 year old, in his flat in Notting Hill, west London.

As he begins explaining this idea in more detail, I can’t help but cast my eyes at the thousands of book titles that cover every corner of the room.

“What has happened to Jews over many generations is that they’ve had to assimilate into cultures that are often hostile to them,” Philips explains, looking outside to a dreary gray sky that seems to threaten a great thunderstorm.

“Now two things seem to be going on here: Jews are going to know about assimilation and adaptation. And they are going to know about the cost of assimilation. But that is also true of any colonized group. It knows it has to adapt in order to survive. And that adaptation is going to make you feel a lot of things very intensely.”

Philips’ latest book is part of Yale University’s Jewish Lives series, which aims to celebrate the biographies of eminent Jewish thinkers, artists, and political figures, from antiquity to the present day.

Even though the book is clearly an inquiry into the links between Judaism and psychoanalysis, Philips is keen to point out that Freud’s work should not be regarded— as some have previously suggested— as a kind of Jewish pseudo-science.

‘It’s misleading to ascribe [psychoanalysis] with too much Jewishness attached to it’

“It’s misleading to ascribe [psychoanalysis] with too much Jewishness attached to it,” Philips states categorically.

“Yes, it is Jewish in the sense that it’s bound up in Jewish history. But it’s also to do with modern history, where there have been generations of colonial and imperial invasions.

“That said, it does want to make a different kind of Jewish life possible. It’s a kind of democratic wish: that as Jews you can be citizens and that you can politically participate. But at the same time that you could be more self-defining, and less defined than the people who are hostile to you.”

Becoming Freud is a biography of sorts. Even though, as Philips points out, Freud believed biography itself is a form of repression and mechanism of defense. The book also asks one slightly complex question: What exactly is psychoanalysis?

The author quotes Freud at length in the book. It’s worth remembering one particular phrase, where Freud claims that the facts of psychoanalysis “have a habit of being rather more complicated than we like.”

One of Philips’ claims is that Freud’s work always attempts to explain why human beings spend so much of their lives avoiding the facts of their history and of their own childhood. As he does for most of the book, Philips then interprets Freud’s words in a language that is easily understood and that shies away from academic pretension.

Through psychoanalysis —a theory of the mind claiming that there are large parts of psychological functioning hidden in our unconscious— Philips suggests that Freud attempted to work out the ways in which modern people are unduly self-protective.
The result is something he refers to as “a mad science.”

Why give psychoanalysis such a dramatic label?

“Well it’s a mad science because it’s attempting to give a scientific account of madness in the full knowledge that our scientific account is going to be informed by our madness. Freud’s basic idea is that there is a fundamental and indelible irrationality. Or put another way: that we are never completely and entirely ourselves.”

‘Freud’s basic idea is that there is a fundamental and indelible irrationality’

“So [psychoanalysis] aspires to a rationality that everything in it makes suspect. It’s a mad science— at least in Freud’s version— which aspires to be a science, while at the same time there is something crazy about that very aspiration to be that rational.”

Philips says that the fundamental principle inherent in nearly all of Freud’s work is his great confidence in seeing people’s capacity for pleasure seeking in life. This, he says, is what the whole psychoanalytical project is about: enabling people to recover their pleasure in being alive.

“It was Freud’s belief that our desire is always in excess of any object’s capacity to satisfy it,” says Philips.

“So there is something intrinsically obsessive in Freud’s view about sexual desire. We always want more than is available, however much we have.”

This insatiable sexual hunger that Freud saw in all human beings, he referred to as the “silence of a Death Instinct working inside of us.”

“The death instinct is Freud’s idea that there is a part of us that wants to die,” Philips explains.

“It is a kind of odd idea. But nevertheless he talks about the silence of it in the sense that it doesn’t announce itself. And that it doesn’t always present itself. It’s a part of us that craves inertia, insensitivity, and anaesthesia. And it works silently, Freud says, because we are very often unaware of the parts of ourselves that are self-destructive.”

In a book he published in 2012 called “Missing Out,” Philips explored how difficult it is to try and work out what it is that human beings really might want to make them happy in life. It also suggested that we spend our whole lives dreaming of a fantasy “other life,” where things will be so much better.

‘How do you work out, in this great big supermarket of stuff that one is offered, what it is that might make one happy?’

He claims that as we are all products of a capitalist society, we never really have to look too far to be reminded what will supposedly fulfil our needs and desires.

So what are these exactly?

“Well we are constantly told that they are sex, money, happiness, security, glamour, prestige, and so forth. So the question is —and this is what psychoanalysis is really about— how do you work out, in this great big supermarket of stuff that one is offered, what it is that might make one happy? Or where is one’s real enjoyment to be found in life?”

“Real lived life is intrinsically so frustrating that we take refuge in fantasies of satisfaction,” Philips adds. “So in the lives we are not having, we are having a much better time. Whereas this one we are living is difficult, because actually, life is intrinsically difficult.”

So should we, then, as human beings, try and aim for happiness in our lives, I ask Philips? Or, is managing a life a more apt terminology to use when speaking about such matters?

“I think what a life is like depends on so many accidental factors,” he responds.

“It would be misleading to say: life is a nightmare, or life is a veil of tears. As it would be to say, no, life is fabulous. It seems to me it can be all of these things, depending on one’s experience. Which is a combination of the genetic potential one inherits, luck, and many other factors that one has no control over really.”

Philips says one of the great problems of life is that it can be intensely pleasurable.

“Once you experiences pleasure, you want to reproduce it. And have it again and again. And that’s what keeps us going: the promise of that pleasure,” says Philips.

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