Here are Three Freudian Propositions as addressed in three separate sources, with excerpts and
emphases from me.
1. Our consciousness is opaque, not translucent. Consquently, we cannot know ourselves (or
others, or the world, or anything) through a simple process of naive self-introspection.
The Cartesian paradigm consisted of two components: a view of the mind’s relation to itself and a
view of the mind’s relation to the body. Descartes held that all occurrent mental states are selfintimating
– that is, he thought that when a mental event is occurring, the person in whose mind the
event occurs is aware that it is occurring. Put more crudely, Descartes held that we are of necessity
immediately aware of our own cognitive states and processes. He also held that this self-aware
mind is something distinct from the body. The mind is a non-physical thing that interacts with the
physical body (a complex, flesh-and-blood machine) through the medium of the brain.
Descartes’ doctrine that the mind is transparent to itself suggested that one need only introspect to
acquire knowledge of one’s own mental states and processes …
During the first decade or so of his neuroscientific career, Freud was on board with the prevailing
view. However, all of this changed in the spring of 1895. By this time, he had become increasingly
disenchanted with the theoretical contortions required to reconcile his clinical observations with the
Cartesian perspective. He realized that he needed to revise his philosophical views about the nature of
the mind, and that this had to begin with a new theory of consciousness. So he cut the Gordian knot by
discarding the entire Cartesian package, beginning with body-mind dualism. Freud became what is
nowadays called a physicalist …
He also jettisoned the view that all mental phenomena are conscious. In fact, Freud argued that all
cognitive processes are unconscious, and that the outputs of some of these processes are
secondarily displayed in consciousness. So-called conscious thoughts are merely representations of
2. Our true feelings are fundamentally ambivalent and our beliefs, even when conscious, are
influenced by forces beyond our control and of which we may be only dimly aware.
Freud counseled that a much neglected aspect of maturity is the ability to tolerate ambivalent
feelings, to be able to eschew dividing the world into white and black hats. After the death of his
father, Freud suffered from a profound depression born of torturing himself about the stew of
affectionate and hostile sentiments he had towards him. But as Freud came to understand it, the
emotions we feel towards those we deeply love are always a blend. And it is Stygian labor to admit
the likes of disappointment and rage towards a father or mother. Sometimes, as in the case of sitting
bedside at the often long and horrific fifth acts of life, it does not require a Freud to fathom the
excruciating work of reconciling intensely conflicting affects.
In short, if there were one wisp of wisdom that we could pluck from the mind of Freud it might be
this: those who are unaware of their feelings risk becoming puppets of those feelings.
In his most openly philosophical work, “Civilization and its Discontents,” Freud maintained that
our psyches are layered. As he explained it, much as Rome is built upon the ruins of past Romes,
our emotions are stratified: what is past and below lives on and informs what is above, even if
we refuse to acknowledge it.
3. Happiness is something essentially subjective (meaning there is no shared concept of even
animal contentment) and, in any event, is no part of the good or ethical life for man.
My three fairly obvious propositions are: first, in Freud’s formulation from Civilisation and its
Discontents, “happiness is something essentially subjective” (subjective I take it, in the sense of
being not only personal but idiosyncratic). We can be surprised by what makes us happy, and it will
not necessarily be something that makes other people happy. This has significant consequences not
least in the area of our lives that is sometimes conducive to happiness, sexuality. And this makes
happiness as a social or communal pursuit complicated. We have only to imagine what it would be for
someone to propose that we had a right to sexual satisfaction to imagine both how we might contrive
this and what terrible things might be done in its name.
Second, bad things can make us happy – and by bad things I mean things consensually agreed to be
unacceptable. It clearly makes some people happy to live in a world without Jews, or homosexuals, or
immigrants, and so on. There are also what we might call genuinely bad things, like seriously harming
people and other animals, that gives some people the pleasure they most crave. I remember a very
unhappy boy of 10 telling me in a psychotherapy session that he was only happy when he was cutting
the feet off rats that he had caught. He said it made him feel “really awake”, that it was like “turning
on the light in your favourite room in the world”. Cruelty and humiliation make some people
happy, perhaps lots of people happy some of the time; and this issue is not dealt with merely by
saying that they are not really happy or that they are in some way perverse or sick. We tend to
pathologise the forms of happiness we cannot bear … So put briefly – as every child and therefore
every adult knows – being bad can make you happy. Happiness is subjective, it takes many forms, and
one of its forms is immorality.
Last but not least – though the least exciting – is the third point: some people like being unhappy.
Freud’s advancement of Propositions One and Two effectively serve as a refutation of Descartes on
mind, self, and consciousness.
Freud’s advancement of Propositions Two and Three effectively serve to discredit most of Kant’s
attempt to theorize our (Christianized) notions of happiness, pleasure, and will.