Thursday August 26th, 2010

When William Met Sigmund (Guest Post by Levi Asher)

freudLevi Asher is a writer and website developer. His blog Literary Kicks has been online since 1994.

Psychology is often concerned with origins, but the origin of modern psychology itself is murky. The field was born not from a great idea but from the lack of one. Philosophers had always studied the mind while scientists studied the physical universe, but the scientific revolution that followed the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 seemed to call for a newly rigorous, evidence-based approach to the mysteries of the human mind. The word psychology already existed by then (in its Greek, Latin, French, German, Russian, and English equivalents), but it took a few brave souls to step forward and try to define an actual discipline worthy of the name.

In the U.S., William James was the first brave soul. In 1875, as a 33-year-old teacher of anatomy and physiology at Harvard, filled with broad and exciting ideas but mostly unknown to the world, James sent a letter to Harvard president Charles W. Eliot proposing a new course in psychology. Eliot approved the idea and James began teaching it, the first psychology course anywhere in the world, in 1876. He also began writing a textbook, The Principles of Psychology, which also would have been the world’s first if James had finished it quickly—but he did the opposite, working on it until 1890, by which time many other textbooks had been produced.

Not long after Principles was published, James began to reach a larger audience with his speeches and writings on philosophy, religion, and the nature of truth. And the field of psychology found its own Darwin—an electrifying presence with a revolutionary theory to prove—in Sigmund Freud, whose Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900.

Freud and James met once, in 1909, at a gathering of psychologists at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Several other soon-to-be-notable psychologists, including Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Ernest Jones had arrived with Freud. (Some, notably Jung, would later break with him, but at the time they formed his loyal entourage). Freud was clearly the star attraction at the conference, and it was to hear him speak that James, by this time an elderly eminence, 14 years older than Freud and in failing health, made the short trip to Worcester from Boston.

According to all accounts, Freud and James were eager to meet each other. The two men ended their brief encounter by strolling alone together to a train station, and a dramatic scene unfolded: James, suffering from heart problems, suddenly felt an attack of angina pectoris coming on, and asked Freud to walk ahead alone so he could gather himself. This appears to have ended their chance for a deeper conversation, and later accounts of the meeting by both men hint at an undefined tension underlying the friendly meeting.

James and Freud shared a fascination with the phenomenon of human consciousness. They both believed entirely in the essential, irreducible willfulness of human nature. It was James’ greatest discovery that our needs, desires, and hopes are the cornerstones of our belief systems. It was Freud’s greatest discovery that our needs, desires, and hopes have a mind of their own—the unconscious mind—and, in this capacity, influence everything we do. On the biggest questions of life, meaning, and existence, Jamesian philosophy and Freudian psychology can be harmonious.

Yet the two could be described as ideological opposites as well. James had great intellectual passion for religion, and Freud was a passionate atheist who wrote a book about religion called The Future of an Illusion. James was also decidedly a pluralist, whereas Freudian psychology located sexuality as the singular emotional core (and core trauma) of human existence. A broad, anti-dogmatic thinker like James could never fall for a belief system based on a single cause, a single anything. Life, James believed, was too rich for that.

One can only wonder at the private bemusement with which James might have greeted the outrageously controversial Freud in 1909. In a private letter, he gently mocked Freud’s theories about dreams as the key to psychological revelation. But his own Principles of Psychology inexplicably contains only a simple half page about the phenomenon of dreaming (though it contains painfully long sections about, for instance, the perception of space and the phenomenon of optical illusions).

James knew that Freud’s energetic research had value, whatever its flaws or overreaching. It also seems likely that Freud’s more brazen statements would have pleased James for their audacity. Like Freud, James was no prude, and he didn’t mind shocking the academy every now and then.

Finally, as a father of pragmatism, James admired the fact that Freud’s reputation rested on actual clinical success. Psychoanalysis was the Freudian “pragma,” and it was known to actually cure patients in the field. By generously embracing and lending his credibility to the upstart Freud, James was acting as a pluralist, a pragmatist, and, above all, a man with love to spare for his embattled fellow thinkers.

As for explaining the awkwardness between the aging American genius and his younger European rival, a Freudian interpretation might come in handy.