William James, Sigmund Freud, and Analysis vs. Synthesis in Academic Discourse


I’ve been having a fascinating conversation with Dr. Andreas Sommer of Cambridge University (http://forbiddenhistories.wordpress.com/) in the comments of my earlier post “Affect and Rationality in William James” about whether Freud’s concept of “the return of the repressed” can viably be marshaled in relation to James’ ideas. I think Dr. Sommer is right that his approach as an historian is probably different from my approach as a philosopher and cultural theorist with a doctorate in English. But I also think he’s perpetuating a fallacy that’s fairly pervasive in contemporary academia, exemplified by the poststructuralist “incredulity towards metanarratives,” imposing an excessively critical analysis of conceptual wholes into their constituent parts. This primarily critical mode seems to miss the proverbial forest for the trees, which I believe is fundamentally counter to the integrative character of James’ philosophy. Indeed, James addresses this very issue extensively in his work. For instance, he writes in Pragmatism:

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. . . . Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.  We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid. Pragmatism unstiffens all our theories, limbers them up and sets each one at work. . . . New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact. . . . ‘To be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function. . . . Loosely speaking, and in general, it may be said that all things cohere and adhere to each other somehow, and that the universe exists practically in reticulated or concatenated forms which make of it a continuous or ‘integrated’ affair. . . . Everything makes strongly for the view that our world is incompletely unified teleologically and is still trying to get its unification better organized. (18-54)

The theoretical mode James consistently articulates is one in which diverse, and often contradictory theories, modes of thought, and thinkers can be brought into relation, their “metaphysical disputes” “settled” by the pragmatic “marriage-function,” which strives to unify, integrate, and reconcile seemingly incommensurable entities. This integrative impulse seems eminently applicable to the relation between the ideas of Freud and James himself, who, in the larger cultural context in which they are embedded, are more alike than they are different, not least in that they both spent their lives attempting to understand the same subject: the human mind in relation to the world.

Henri Bergson (with whom James was friends) also addresses the frequent modern academic preference for analysis over synthesis in Creative Evolution (to which James intended to write a laudatory preface for the English edition before he died):

Intellect therefore instinctively selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known; it seeks this out, in order that it may apply its principle that ‘like produces like.’ . . . Like ordinary knowledge, in dealing with things science is concerned only with the aspect of repetition. Though the whole be original, science will always manage to analyze it into elements or aspects which are approximately a reproduction of the past. Science can work only on what is supposed to repeat itself—that is to say, on what is withdrawn, by hypothesis, from the action of real time. Anything that is irreducible and irreversible in the successive moments of a history eludes science. To get a notion of this irreducibility and irreversibility, we must break with scientific habits which are adapted to the fundamental requirements of thought, we must do violence to the mind, go counter to the natural bent of the intellect. But that is just the function of philosophy. (24-25)

The mode of thought that Dr. Sommer is employing in apparently denying the possibility of finding complementary conceptual elements in James and Freud seems to me essentially complicit with the methods of reductive materialist science, which continue implicitly to dominate the humanities despite frequent protestations to the contrary. While I think the kind of critical, historical contextualization Dr. Sommer prefers is valid in its own right, it oversteps its domain of validity when it denies the impulse to produce emergent wholes through the synthesis of different thinkers’ ideas.

This pragmatic approach is concisely expressed by John Stuart Mill (whom James thought would have been a leader of pragmatism had he still been alive) in his essay “Coleridge”:

All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

Dr. Sommer seems to want to reify the “controversy” between James and Freud as metaphysically fundamental. I agree that Freud and James were very different thinkers, a point I allude to when I write that “James perhaps goes farther than Freud,” particularly in that James affirmed the validity of formal and final causation in addition to material and efficient causation, whereas Freud was a materialist, only affirming the latter two causal modes. However, I believe that critical negation (which Alfred North Whitehead terms “the peak of mentality”) of the possibility of synthesis, as Dr. Sommer seems to call for, should be relegated back to its appropriate place in the scholarly armamentarium, so that we can again begin to see apparently disparate modes of thought as complementary “in what they affirm.” In fact, as James asserts in a footnote to The Varieties of Religious Experience (444), this “inextricably mixed” quality of all kinds of “distinctions” was the predominant mode of thought prior to the seventeenth century. While I agree that critical, analytical, historical contextualization is a vitally necessary and important activity, one that has required the last few centuries for its individuation, this impulse is only half of a dialectical process. As Whitehead (who calls James “that adorable genius”) writes in Adventures of Ideas:

The difference between the two, namely the Hellenic and the Hellenistic types of mentality, may be roughly described as that between speculation and scholarship. For progress, both are necessary.  But, in fact, on the stage of history they are apt to appear as antagonists. Speculation, by entertaining alternative theories, is superficially skeptical, disturbing to established modes of prejudice. But it obtains its urge from a deep ultimate faith, that through and through the nature of things is penetrable by reason. Scholarship, by its strict attention to accepted methodologies, is superficially conservative of belief. But its tone of mind leans towards a fundamental negation. For scholars the reasonable topics in the world are penned in isolated regions, this subject-matter or that subject-matter. (108)

Despite Dr. Sommer’s assertion that “it’s of course fine that you make it your task to synthesize ideas,” he appears to contradict this affirmation in the rest of his response. He seems, along with much of current academia, to take an essentially Hellenistic rather than Hellenic approach to the production of knowledge, almost purely scholarly and analytic rather than speculative and synthetic. While I fully acknowledge the validity of tracing the direct influence on James of less well-remembered figures like Frederic W. H. MyersThéodore Flournoy, and Pierre Janet, I prefer a mode of thought which synthesizes the scholarly and speculative modes, asserting that, because James and Freud were perhaps the two primary psychologists who mediated the founding of psychology as a viable discipline, it is not only our right, but even our duty given a century of perspective, to bring their respective positive content into relation if we hope to generate novel understanding. Rather than a “forced marriage,” as Dr. Sommer terms it, I see this activity as a hieros gamos, a “sacred marriage” of opposites for the conception of discursive transformation via teleological concrescence.


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10 responses to “William James, Sigmund Freud, and Analysis vs. Synthesis in Academic Discourse

  1. I’m surprised you read me as attempting to prohibit philosophical synthesis, and perceive my statement “it’s of course fine that you make it your task to synthesize ideas” as a contradiction, when I explicitly tried to explain my priorities and methods as a historian, which (as you acknowledge yourself) are somewhat different from yours.

    My problem was not so much with your original post, which I did enjoy as a whole. I merely pointed out that it would be more appropriate to refer to authors actually appreciated and utilised by James rather than to Freud, who was a latecomer in the study of unconscious cognition. My real difficulty was with the implication in your reply that poor James was probably a quasi-Freudian without knowing it.

    I almost regret my incidental objection as it seems to have occasioned another problematic statement: your opinion (already expressed in your first reply) that “because James and Freud were perhaps the two primary psychologists who mediated the founding of psychology as a viable discipline, it is not only our right, but even our duty given a century of perspective, to bring their respective positive content into relation if we hope to generate novel understanding.”

    Again, I never meant to deny your right to be a philosopher, quite on the contrary – the more pragmatists the better. But even if your (historical) claim of James’s and Freud’s standing as psychologists, and assumption of the “viability” of modern psychology as a discipline, were unproblematic (and as historian of psychology specialized in the study of over a “century of perspective” I can assure you they are not), I don’t see how this would impose the “duty” on me to become a synthesizing philosopher. I never prohibited you from philosophizing (in fact, I heartily encourage you), and in turn beg the right of continued existence as a historian.

    Again: all I ask for is that the synthesizing cart should not be put before the contextualizing horse, and that elements be reconstructed as faithfully as possible before they are merged. This is not reductionism, but merely the ideal of any historian worth their salt to engage with primary sources in a rigorous and context-sensitive manner (unlike the jokers responsible for the Wikipedia entry on Myers, if I may point out its almost complete uselessness).

  2. Hi Andreas, Thanks for your kind words about the original post. I’m enjoying this conversation.

    I don’t think I misread you as prohibiting the employment of Freud’s concepts in relation to William James’ ideas because James didn’t particularly like Freud’s work, which is one instance of a general premise with which I fundamentally disagree. I think if one were performing a purely historical analysis, your assertion might be correct (though, to appropriate a term you’ve employed, I think even this assumption may be problematic). But, as you admit, my explication is philosophical, not historical (though such discrete distinctions between disciplines are also problematic). I feel comfortable bringing the Freudian “return of the repressed” into play as both James and Freud formulated their concepts in relation to the same set of phenomena, rather than constructing self-contained theories with no relation to empirical actuality as your critique seems to imply. I find this synthesis fully justified, and any nuance produced by an examination of Janet or Myers can only add to the integrative project.

    I’m fairly certain I didn’t imply that James was an unknowing Freudian, as you assert; I merely suggested that the ideas of different thinkers about the same subject can be related to one another and, as in this case, they can complement one another by illuminating different aspects of the same set of phenomena. In fact, I find your earlier statement that “there is surprisingly little in psychoanalysis that’s original” to be an exemplary instance of Bergson’s “original” “whole,” which the analytical mode reduces to “approximately a reproduction of the past.” I fully acknowledge Freud’s limitations and, in fact, I’m far more partial to the psychologies of James and Jung. But the epochally novel synthesis Freud enacted completely “eludes” the reductive mode of thought that you appear to be championing in practice here (despite your protestations to the contrary), which “selects in a given situation whatever is like something already known” and is blind to emergent entities.

    Also, just to be clear, I didn’t say that “you” must “become a synthesizing philosopher,” but only that this is collectively “our duty. . . if we hope to generate novel understanding.” I acknowledge that the purely historical analysis you seem to call for might also be capable of producing a limited kind of novel understanding, but I believe that the integrally necessary and valid project of historical contextualization should be in service to the generation of radically emergent modes of thought through the dialectical reconciliation of disparate elements. It certainly shouldn’t impede this philosophical project, which the content of your critique implicitly seeks to do, despite your explicit assertion of the validity of synthesis.

    Richard Tarnas addresses this issue in “Cosmos and Psyche”:

    “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, Santayana declared, and the metaphor is apt. The mind that seeks the deepest intellectual fulfillment does not give itself up to every passing idea. Yet what is sometimes forgotten is the larger purpose of such a virtue. For in the end, chastity is something one preserves not for its own sake, which would be barren, but rather so that one may be fully ready for the moment of surrender to the beloved, the suitor whose aim is true. Whether in knowledge or in love, the capacity to recognize and embrace that moment when it finally arrives, perhaps in quite unexpected circumstances, is essential to the virtue. Only with that discernment and inward opening can the full participatory engagement unfold that brings forth new realities and new knowledge.” (xiii)

  3. Hi Grant
    I look at all this Discourse in more simple way. We can stumble over Linguistic terms and then get lost in a huge entourage of historic theories and outdated knowledge; – you know, missing the forest for the trees.
    There are a couple of thoughts I would like to add to the mix.
    All our economic & political thinking, as well as arts & entertainment have ‘divorced’ themselves from the psycho(life)-dynamics of our natural environment.
    Same with science & education, they are trapped in a linear hierarchic Weltbild or Paradigm which separates & divides everything along the Lines of Property & Entitlements.
    Now we are not only treating land, water & people as a Commodity or Tangible Asset, but also Ideas, Theories & Melodies became an Intellectual Property !
    With the Law & Order of Monotheism came the Belief in a primal Good or Bad, the Delusion of a Beginning & End and the idea of an absolute Truth.
    Everything gets divided into right & wrong and then is intellectually or physically defended along these terms of Logic.
    Centuries of manipulation & indoctrination have compromised our social-emotional- intelligence to a state of pandemic proportions-(Jung)
    Thru the compromising nature of Empathy we have disconnected ourselves, not only from our natural environment but also from our fellow man.
    All the collective, integrating & cooperating social traits of Homo Sapience (man of Wisdom) were replaced by the Law & Order of the Abrahamic Religions.
    With the loss of our Common Sense we also lost our understanding of synergy and co-creating consensus.
    I think, in this Day in Age only the idea or Analysis which is uncompromised by the idea of proprietorship has the substance of being relevant & applicable.
    Of course everything is connected, if we observe our natural environment we will learn that very idea, theory or creation is a collective achievement and is never-ever Absolute or even Finished; – everything is Related, Interconnected or Interwoven.
    Only our ‘Love for Wisdom’ can sense these Correlations and teach us how to navigate thru this ‘Wilderness’ or ‘Chaos’of Eternal Life.
    Realizing that there is only one ‘truth’ and that this Truth is Constantly Changing, embraces the idea of Integration, Synthesis & Intercourse in ‘Marriage’, and can ‘elevate’ us to another level of Consciousness, this different Level of Thinking (Einstein).
    In metaphorical terms I call this ‘Wisdom Generator’ a ‘digestive’ process,
    which ‘ferments’ our personal memories & knowledge with our psychosomatic experiences, and then ‘amalgamates’ everything with our collective consciousness.

    Philosophy & Psychology are the most fundamental traits of our intelligence and therefore
    most important for everybody’s, very own personal Life.
    Within the healing process of our Psyche we will find a new Vision of Intellectual Properties, the art of co-creating consensus and collaborating with our ecosystem.
    Happy New Year

  4. Hi Wolf, thanks for writing. There’s a lot to chew over here, but I’ll just say that I recently read Charles Eisenstein’s “Sacred Economics,” which I found illuminating in relation to some of the subjects you discuss, particularly the monetization of the “commons,” which refers to both the natural world and to the “ideas, theories, and melodies” that currently constitute “intellectual property.” More than anything, I found his critique of usury deeply convincing, and deeply aligned with the participatory, integrative, pragmatic, vital mode of thought articulated by James, Jung, Bergson, Whitehead, Tarnas, and many others.

  5. George Hogenson

    Dear Grant Maxwell
    I am curious why, in your comments on James and Freud you say so little about Jung–notwithstanding your apparent appreciation for him. Just to put some historical markers in place to move this along a little, both Jung and Freud met James at the 1909 celebration at Clark University. Jung apparently met with James privately as well. Following the meeting at Clark, James wrote to his friend Flournoy remarking on how he had found Jung (Young, in the letter) far more congenial than he found Freud. It was in this letter that James used the expression “a most dangerous method,” which he applied to Freud’s particular use of symbolism (see John Kerr’s book of that title for more). Flournoy was a staunch supporter of Jung and provided him with the materials for Jung’s book, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido, the first section of which directly reflects James’s ideas about two forms of thinking, and which was pretty much the efficient cause of the break with Freud. Flournoy was, of course, friends not only with James but also with Janet, with whom Jung had studied in Paris, as well as with James Mark Baldwin, who directly influenced Jung’s thinking. One can add, as Christian Kerslake has in his book, Delouze and the Unconscious, the clear influence of Bergson’s ideas about instinct and the “somnambulistic” on Jung’s thinking. Bergson again being a close friend of Flournoy. The net result of all this is that Jung’s work, and particularly those elements that separated him from Freud, emerged within this Francophone/American psychological network. There is, in the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard a manuscript of a chapter Jung intended to have in Memories, Dreams, Reflections–his “autobiography”–that the editors apparently removed after Jung’s death in which Jung discusses the deep influence of both James and Flournoy on his thinking. It is not entirely clear why this chapter was left out, but it gives considerable weight to the importance of the two older psychologists. James, of course, died before the final break, but Jung makes it clear that he relied heavily on Flournoy for emotional support after the break, and even refers to him as a true father to him in the midst of the crisis. With all of this in mind, it would seem to me that in any consideration of a productive synthesis of James and Freud more explicit consideration should perhaps be given to the place Jung would hold in that assessment. Just a thought. I enjoyed reading your material and the other comments.
    Best regards,
    George Hogenson

    • This is all very interesting information, but it seems silly to criticize me for not covering it in a short blog post about a very specific issue. I discuss Jung quite a bit elsewhere, especially in my new book, The Dynamics of Transformation, which is coming out in January.

      • George Hogenson

        Not being critical, just adding some information. I have only now come upon your blog, and thought I would throw in with the conversation. There are so few these days that are really intellectually rewarding. The point, if there is a critical one, is that the relations amongst these early psychologists/psychoanalysts are very complex, and require careful attention to all aspects of their relationships. The fact that James was at best skeptical about Freud’s approach is critical to an assessment of whether, to what degree, and how they might be brought into dialogue. But no offense meant, just some historical data. Might be interesting to your other commenters
        Best regards,
        George H.

      • Sure, that makes sense, though I also think that we can’t always take a theorist’s word at face value. For instance, James didn’t like Hegel very much but, as John Dewey suggested to James in a letter, he had far more in common with Hegel than he liked to admit.

        I also think it’s essential to take this post in context, which was in reply to Dr. Sommers, who was objecting to the employment of the Freudian return of the repressed in relation to James. This situation makes your comment about Jung seem out of context, which is ironic given that you’re advocating a careful contextual reading.

  6. Valuable piece , I loved the points – Does someone know if my company could possibly find a sample a form example to edit ?

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