Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul

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Freud is discredited, so we don’t have to think about the darker strains of unconscious motivation anymore. We know what moves our political leaders, so we don’t have to look too closely at their thinking either. In fact, everywhere we look in contemporary culture, knowingness has taken the place of thought. This book is a spirited assault on that deadening trend, especially as it affects our deepest attempts to understand the human psyche―in philosophy and psychoanalysis. It explodes the widespread notion that we already know the problems and proper methods in these fields and so no longer need to ask crucial questions about the structure of human subjectivity. “What is psychology?” Open Minded is not so much an answer to this question as an attempt to understand what is being asked. The inquiry leads Jonathan Lear, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, back to Plato and Aristotle, to Freud and psychoanalysis, and to Wittgenstein. Lear argues that Freud and, more generally, psychoanalysis are the worthy inheritors of the Greek attempt to put our mindedness on display. There are also, he contends, deep affinities running through the works of Freud and Wittgenstein, despite their obvious differences. Both are concerned with how fantasy shapes our self-understanding; both reveal how life’s activities show more than we are able to say. The philosophical tradition has portrayed the mind as more rational than it is, even when trying to account for irrationality. Psychoanalysis shows us the mind as inherently restless, tending to disrupt its own functioning. And empirical psychology, for its part, ignores those aspects of human subjectivity that elude objective description. By triangulating between the Greeks, Freud, and Wittgenstein, Lear helps us recover a sense of what it is to be open-minded in our inquiries into the human soul.

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Freud once defined psychoanalysis as an impossible profession. What he meant, explains Jonathan Lear, is that "professionalization" is by its very nature a codification of standards, a mandating of stock responses--we already know the answers, professionals tell us, now give us a problem to solve. For Lear, psychology (literally, in Greek, "working out the logic of the soul") is much more open-ended, a quality it shares with philosophy. The two disciplines, he writes, "share the same fundamental question, posed by Socrates: in what way should one live? ... To live openly with the fundamental question is to avoid assuming that there are any fixed answers which are already given."

In a fascinating reevaluation of Oedipus Tyrannus, Lear proposes that Oedipus's problems were not, in the Freudian sense, oedipal--after all, Oedipus doesn't know that he's killing his father and marrying his mother, so it doesn't necessarily make sense to claim that he's acting on or even possesses those desires. What Oedipus does do, consistently, is behave as if he knows the answers before the questions have even been asked, and thus fundamentally misunderstands the questions. Similarly, Freud bashing is usefully understood not as an attempt to "kill" the grand old man of psychoanalysis and attain his power but as a failure to recognize that Freud's legacy lies not in any offered "solutions," but in a methodology of asking questions--a methodology that has in many ways already moved beyond Freud. "The point of psychoanalysis," Lear tells us, "is to help us develop a clearer, yet more flexible and creative, sense of what our ends might be." He makes useful connections between Freud's ideas and those of "acknowledged" philosophers, particularly the ancient Greeks and Wittgenstein, that do as much to revitalize philosophy as they do to relegitimize psychoanalysis. --Ron Hogan

About the Author:

Jonathan Lear is John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

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