Psychoanalysis, Metaphysics and Platonism

Plato, Raphael's The School of Athens, 1509-11

‘psycho-analytic treatment is founded on truthfulness. In this fact lies a great part of its educative effect and its ethical value. It is dangerous to depart from this foundation. Anyone who has become saturated in the analytic technique will no longer be able to make use of the lies and pretences which a doctor normally finds unavoidable’1

In The Ego and the Id Freud wrote that the division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise of psychoanalysis and that psychoanalysis situates the essence of the psychical not in consciousness but that what finds expression in consciousness has its source in the unconscious, the basis of the ‘non-rational’.2

Psychoanalysis focuses on bringing the unconscious to consciousness, on what has been made unconscious by repression.3 The unconscious is the realm of the ‘non-rational’ and the non-propositional, of the emotions.

What is sought in psychoanalysis regarding ‘non-rational’ behaviour is not a reasoned causal sequence of thought but an explanatory over-abundance, a multiplicity of interpretations – none of which themselves are definitive – which derive from behaviour patterns, contingent non-determining associative connections between memories, images, words, unconscious conflicts, and desires.

Towards this, free expression of imagination and the play of fantasy are encouraged. These explanations are ‘first person’ – the analysand is the authority, because the explanations concern therapeutic self-knowledge.

In the case of Mr R,4 Freud explored the ‘non-rational’ unconsciously motivated behaviour of a man who was torn between love for (of which he was conscious) and hate towards (which he had repressed) his lady friend. This was represented symbolically by his removing a stone from the road along which her carriage was to pass and then replacing the stone so that she might have an accident.5

Freud notes that Mr R’s behaviour was a compulsive pathological action and such actions, in two stages, are typically the manifestation of obsessive neuroses. In a footnote a couple of pages later,6 Freud gave another instance of a man who had done something very similar, throwing a branch into a hedge from the ground in his way, going towards home then, filled with unease, was compelled to hurriedly return and put the branch back in its original position, even though it would have been more dangerous to passers-by there than in the hedge. Freud described the second act (as with Mr R’s action) as hostile but in the conscious view of the man, philanthropic.

Mr R did not understand his two actions, that they were part of a pattern, and how they related. If his actions had been intentional he could have easily provided a rational explanation. In removing and replacing the stone Mr R was re-enacting the same unconscious behavioural pattern and emotional reaction from his childhood when his father had beaten him. His inability to recognise it as such made his behaviour unconscious.

Donald Davidson in ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’ exemplifies the metaphysical understanding of the rational explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour. He began his article ‘The idea of an irrational action, belief, intention, inference or emotion is paradoxical. For the irrational is not merely the non-rational, which lies outside the ambit of the rational; irrationality is a failure within the house of reason.’7

He wrote that reason explanations are built into our intentions and intentional actions, into our attitudes and emotions and asks how we can explain irrational thoughts, actions or emotions and why someone would knowingly and deliberately act contrary to their own best judgement.

Davidson believes that all intentional actions, irrespective of whether they are or are not in some further sense irrational, have a core rational element, that since beliefs and desires are causes of actions for which they are reasons, reason explanations include causal elements.8

He considers the example of the man who returned to the park to move the branch back to its original position. In his retelling, he strips the event of all the emotive ‘non-rational’ elements (a sudden seizure with unease, an obligation to get off the tram and return to the park and compulsion to behave in particular ways which in the parallel case of Mr R were, in addition to compulsion anxiety, hatred, love and fear – elements of which both men had no clear understanding) that are in Freud’s telling, concluding that everything the man did was done for a reason and discusses the story within the bounds of the rational, beyond which lies simply ‘the irrational’. For Freud it is ‘beneath which’.9

The problem for Davidson is how a ‘mental’ event can cause another ‘mental’ event without being a reason for it and in such a way that there is not necessarily any irrationality. He exemplifies this happening when cause and effect occur in two ‘minds’ – a person wishing that another enter their garden, grows a flower.

The other craves to see the flower and enters the garden. The desire of the first was not a reason for the craving of the second nor the reason for why the second acted, even though it caused both the craving and the acting of the second. ‘Mental phenomena may cause other mental phenomena without being reasons for them’.10

Arguing against the psychoanalytic position which he himself refers to – ‘the holistic character of the mental’11 – he then claims that the same can happen in the one ‘mind’ by partitioning it into two, which parts are able to interact at a causal level.

Each mini-‘mind’ has all the functions of the single ‘mind’ but one of those structures ‘must show a larger degree of consistency or rationality than is attributed to the whole.’12 – unless this is the case, the point of the analogy with social interaction is lost. Irrationality would occur when the less rational side, against the rational determination of the other, persisted with a desire, causing a failure of the principle to act according to one’s own best judgement.

That Davidson did not include a discussion of the unconscious in this article emphasises his focus on the operation of reason.13 His account is locked in a dichotomy between reason and irrationality. He treats irrationality as an inconsistency, thereby failing to recognise and incorporate into his discussion the patterns, recognised by psychoanalysis, that characterise obsessive compulsive behaviour.

Davidson’s treatment of ‘non-rational’ behaviour shows not merely a bias towards rationalisation and inferential reason but a failure to recognise and understand the significance of inner conflict in our behaviour.

Psychoanalysis does this. Just as Davidson places a premium on reason, so psychoanalysis does on our imaginative capacities. Davidson’s article shows no recognition of what repression is and how it functions – which recognition is fundamental to psychoanalysis.

Lear wrote ‘(Psychoanalysis) is a technique that allows dark meanings and irrational motivations to rise to the surface of conscious awareness. They can then be taken into account’.14

Yet the theorising of both Davidson and psychoanalysis share a common heritage in metaphysics, particularly Platonic. Lear wrote that Freud ‘self-consciously brought psychoanalysis into the Platonic tradition15 and quoted him having written of ‘the divine Plato’, an expression repeatedly used by the Neoplatonist Nietzsche.16

Lear quoted Freud linking Eros to Plato: ‘In its origin, function and relation to sexual love, the “Eros” of the philosopher Plato coincides exactly with the love-force, the libido of psychoanalysis.’17

Freud was not the first to identify an underlying structure of our ‘minds’, of our psyches. The latter term points to Plato whose divisions of the soul Freud based his own, and equally arbitrary divisions on.18 His ego (representing ‘reason’) and id (representing ‘the passions’) derive from the allegory of the chariot in the Phaedrus.19

On such an emotive subject as that of Freud’s significance, it is to Lear’s credit that he recognised and acknowledged the problem that Freud’s metaphysical and arbitrary divisions of the psyche presented for the psychoanalytic explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour.

He wrote that as soon as Freud determined that neurosis should be understood in terms of conflict between psychic parts, he should have changed his conception of therapy. He asked how any talking cure can harmonise these warring elements. On this basis, neurosis could no longer be conceived in terms of repressed ideas in the unconscious but must be understood as structural conflict.20

As did Freud and as does Lear, Davidson also drew heavily on Plato. As the ego and id of Freud so Davidson’s Plato and Medea Principles – but where Freud’s treatment of his concepts was more complex and creative, Davidson’s Principles were closer to the rigid Platonic distinctions – one of his ‘semi-autonomous departments of the mind’ was ‘the side of sober judgement’ the other ‘the side of incontinent intent and action.’21

As Plato argued that metaphysical ‘reason’ should control contrary forces in the soul and that his philosopher should ascend to ‘pure’ reason, Davidson argued that metaphysical reason should perform a similar function in the ‘mind’ where his philosopher would find ‘pure’ reason.22 The psychic models of Plato, Freud and Davidson are all equally arbitrary.

While the psychoanalytic explanation of ‘non-rational’ behaviour, precisely because it entails a far greater degree of recognition of the complexity and contradictoriness in how our brains function, especially ‘non-rational’ behaviour, offers far more than does Davidson’s stunted model, both are metaphysically based.

Both seek to extend the metaphysical concern with underlying structures of reality to the ‘mind’, using ancient Greek and Platonic concepts and models. But these ‘underlying structures of reality’, as Aristotle made clear, are those things that lie beyond process and change – which nothing does. To focus on the therapeutic potential of a non-existent ‘mind’ using such models is to deny the vitality, complexity and potential of the brain.

The assertion that rationality will always be language based again exemplifies the impact of Plato – it binds a narrow understanding of ‘reason’ (that it is conscious, that it is deliberate, that it is inferential) and language together. To so do denies what psychoanalysis lays greatest claim to – an understanding of psychic behaviour.

What Lear disparagingly referred to as ‘elemental mental operations that occur below the level of linguistically informed thought’ and ‘the cunning of unreason’ entail our most complex and subtle thought which finds its expression in conscious deliberation.

Psychoanalysis must shed metaphysical thinking and, if it is to maximise its recognition of the complexity of the brain’s functioning (particularly manifest in ‘non-rational’ behaviour) and the therapeutic potential made claim to in its name, reflect developments in science.

The choice is not between metaphysics and science, it is between basing psychoanalysis on metaphysics or on science. Lear wrote of future brain research reinvigorating psychoanalytic ideas by revealing their organic basis. He writes that Freud predicted this and that Freud had no doubt that science would lead to a revision of his hypotheses, that his work would be superseded by science.23

This is the way for psychoanalysis to develop. Any understanding of the brain can only be on a materialist basis which therefore recognises the unity and plasticity of the brain’s functioning. The dynamic unconscious is material, not metaphysical.



1. Sigmund Freud, “Observations on transference-love”, S.E. XII: 159-171, p. 164

2. Sigmund Freud, The ego and the id, S.E. XIX: 13-66, p. 13

3. ‘The point is not merely that ideas can operate in the mind outside of conscious awareness; it is that the mind is motivated to keep ideas out of awareness because they are forbidden, rejected.’ Jonathan Lear, Freud, Routledge, London, 2005, p. 6

4. Sigmund Freud, Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, S.E. X: 152-249

5. Ibid., p. 190

6. Ibid., p. 192

7. Donald Davidson, ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’, in Wollheim, Richard and Hopkins, James, Eds., Philosophical Essays on Freud, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 289- 305, p. 289

8. Ibid., p. 293

9. Lear wrote that the mind is inherently irrational. Jonathan Lear, Open Minded, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 87

10. Davidson, op. cit., p. 300

11. Ibid., p. 302

12. Ibid., p. 300

13. Lear wrote (regarding Mr. R’s engaging in the love-and-hate two-step) ‘‘To search for unconscious reasons is only to increase the confusion. It is to treat the unconscious as though it were a repository for already formed reasons’ In Freud, op. cit., p. 39

14. Lear, in ‘The Shrink is In’, New Republic, December 25, 1995, reproduced at:

15. Freud, op. cit., p. 254

16. Ibid., p. 19

17. Ibid., p. 227 note. SE XVIII: 91. Also re- psychoanalysis on sexuality: ‘it had far more resemblance to the all-inclusive and all-embracing Eros of Plato’s Symposium.’, ‘Resistances to psychoanalysis’ SE XIX: 218 in Freud op. cit., p. 19

18. Lear referred to Plato’s account of the psyche as ‘a remarkably well-worked out account of psychological structure.’ Ibid., p. 191

19. Plato, Phaedrus 246a-254e. Freud wrote ‘‘The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions. All this falls into line with popular distinctions which we are all familiar with; at the same time, however, it is only to be regarded as holding good on the average or ‘ideally’. … Thus in its relation to the id it is like a man on horse-back, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.” S. Freud, The ego and the id, op. cit., p. 25

20. Freud, op. cit., pp. 187 and 190 Earlier in the same chapter ‘The structure of the psyche’ which begins with Plato’s division of the soul, Lear advocated these same Freudian divisions. The knots Lear got into regarding the superego – the heir to a so-called complex (the Oedipus complex) that never occurs and ‘never exists as such’ but which ‘plays a crucial role’ are exemplary. Lear was correct when he wrote ‘It is a little difficult to follow the developmental story’ … p. 183

21. ‘Paradoxes of irrationality’ op. cit., p. 300

22. Ibid., p. 294 Davidson’s ‘Plato Principle’ is the view that no intentional action can be internally irrational. He wrote that this is the doctrine of ‘pure rationality’

23. Freud, op. cit., pp. 6, 7