Institutional economics and psychoanalysis: how can they collaborate for a better understanding of individual-society dynamics? Arturo hermann* may 2005

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In this section, we will try to bring into focus the most controversial aspects of the debate about Freud's theory, since they impinge upon the basic concepts of psychoanalysis and the development thereof. As observed before, two conflicting interpretations of Freud's work can be identified:
A) According to one interpretation, Freud tends to see psychic life as the arena for the perennial struggle between opposite instincts: for instance, in his continual elaboration — which we do not need for our purpose to follow in its complex evolution — of sexuality and self-preservation, or later on, of life (or love) and death (or hate). These instincts depend on the innate individual biological constitution and, therefore, tend in some instances to be regarded as deterministic in their unfolding. Psychic life is considered to be the result of the "kneading" of these instincts, but there appears to be no real dialectic or interchange between them: they stand, in a Faustian spirit33, in an irreducible opposition, and little can be done to improve such a situation.

Take, for instance, the concept of sexuality. According to this view, sexuality is an instinct which lies basically in bodily needs — like hunger and thirst — and therefore is supposed to be driven only by the principle of pleasure. Furthermore, this instinct is seen as lacking any self-regulating or integrating process as it is assumed to aim at an uncontrollable satisfaction regardless of any other human need or feeling. Such an instinct, of course, would render any social life impossible, and, as a consequence, must be repressed. However, this repression entails neurosis and — owing to the strength and pre-determined "biological" mould of these instincts — little could be done to reduce the trade off between neurosis and civilization.

In this view, neurosis is seen as the necessary price to pay for moving from the principle of pleasure to the principle of reality—that is, through the education process, from the uncontrolled instincts of the child to the repressed, neurotic and "civilized" behaviour of the adult34. However, as we will see in the following points, Freud's theory is far more complex than such simple biological determinism.
B) In this regard, a key point is that Freud, although he tends to construct his theory on the basis of conflicting instincts, does not seem to assert that these instincts have a deterministic development. In this regard, he expressly recognizes the importance for the development of every person of the joint action of the following factors35: (i) the person's "innate" constitution, including the entire set of his or her "innate" biological and intellectual traits; (ii) the influence of "accidental events", by which he chiefly means the role played by the family and socio-cultural contexts.

In order to explain the importance of these groups of factors in psychic development, he elaborated — in particular in Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie — the concept of "complemental series".

C) Considering the above outlined relation between neurosis and civilization, Freud's position is far more complex than the simple statement that neurosis, being based on the repression of instincts, is a necessary ingredient of social life. Certainly, in some passages he makes these kinds of statements, but, very importantly, he also stresses that neurosis is likely to sabotage the attainment of the objectives of civilization, because it is allied with the forces hostile to civilization that have been (only apparently) repressed.

In order to show this process, Freud (1908) describes the case of a woman who — owing to the conditions in which she contracted the marriage and to the experiences of her married life — does not love her husband but would like to love him at any cost because this corresponds to the ideal of marriage with which she has been raised. She will thus repress (mostly at an unconscious level) her real feelings toward her husband and put great effort into playing the role of the affectionate wife. But the consequence of this repression will be the full emergence of neurotic symptoms which will take revenge upon the husband by causing him so much, and perhaps even more, trouble as would have been caused by the revelation of her real feelings.

This example — which, of course, could also concern the husband and many other family and social situations — is interesting because it highlights the role of family and social factors in shaping, maintaining and transmitting what could be defined as the typical social forms of neurotic conflicts36; in fact, in the example, the neurotic conflicts expressed by the wife in her married life have their roots, according to Freud's theory, in her infantile history where a paramount role might have been played by her innate biological constitution combined with the influences of her family and social life. In this regard, one of the central insight of Freud's analysis is that neurosis constitutes, for any individual, a joint and unique product of (i) his or her innate biological constitution combined with the characteristics of human biological development, in particular the prolonged stage of dependence in the early stages of life, and (ii) the characteristics of his or her ISEF, including , of course, the characteristics of family setting.
D) The previous remarks lead us to underline another relevant point: even when Freud seems to adhere to a “hedonistic” view of human conduct — in the meaning of an unrestrained search for “pleasure”, regardless of any affective and social link — this does not seem to imply that he considers such orientation as an expression of natural and immutable laws but, rather, as an expression of neurotic conflicts which are, at least in part, specific to any given ISEF. Indeed, in these cases, as also shown by subsequent psychoanalysts, the obsessive search for "pleasure" acts — like, as observed before, any other neurotic symptom — as a defence from "incompatible representations" having their roots in the infantile story of the person.

This point is extremely important and is effectively addressed by Eagle (1984); in the concluding chapter, he clearly explains that the supposed contrast between "instincts" and "reality" — to which should correspond a conflict between an uncontrolled unconscious (the Freudian "es"), and an ego conceived as a necessary controlling and "repressing" factor for the existence of society — is to be interpreted not as an expression of "human nature" but as a distinctive trait of neurotic disturbances. Indeed, in these situations what is repressed (e.g., made unconscious) tends to refer to all the aspects of personality that, owing to neurotic conflicts, tend to assume an infantile and anti-social character. In this regard, it is also interesting to observe that these conflicts do not develop in isolation but assume at the same time both an individual and social dimension.

In this regard, Eagle observes that the more damaging expressions of this neurotic-driven aggressiveness, like nuclear wars and mass-destructions, do not take place out of bursts of "instinctual behaviour", apart from and in opposition to social life, but are deeply rooted in ISEF's that can even be supposed to act as a repressing instance for the "instinctual behaviour" of the person. In this sense, as observed before, society acts as a key carrier for the expression of aggressive behaviour—also through the development of cultural forms and models that tend to be internalized in the ego and super-ego of the person.

Of course, society also tries to curb aggressive behaviour but in the presence of relevant neurotic conflicts these attempts are not likely to be very successful, especially for reducing the more "institutionalised" (e.g., more rooted in the structure of collective action) forms of aggressive behaviour. This is another significant way to remark what Freud observed about the power of neurosis to sabotage the pacific existence of society.

This implies that, for a deeper understanding of these phenomena, in the study of these conflicts both individual and collective dimensions should be considered, whatever be the particular focus of the analysis; for instance, in the study of individual conflicts, the characteristics of social and cultural forms should be taken into account; whereas, in the study of social and cultural forms, also the psychological orientation of the individuals composing such forms should be brought into analysis.
E) Perhaps one key element that could bring some unclarity to Freud's theory is his employment of the concept of sexuality: as a matter of fact, though Freud has always underlined the manifold character of sexuality, in his writings he speaks of "sexual instinct" and "repression or satisfaction of instincts" in a way that sometimes may seem to refer only to the biological side of the instincts: however, as we have seen, according to his theory, sexual instinct bears not only on the normal biological sexual activity but also on the affective involvement related to such activity, and on the so-called "sublimated" activities of the person linked, in a complex interplay with the affective and intellectual sides of his or her personality, to all the social, intellectual and artistic creations upon which society is based. The problem lies in the fact that the term "sublimation" carries two meanings, which, though blurred in most of our psychological experience, are neatly distinct at the conceptual level: (a) a means for the expression of neurotic conflicts, and (b) a means for the expression of the normal motivations of human personality.

These different concepts of sublimation are outlined but not always clearly distinguished in Freud's analysis, and this may be one of the reasons for some entangled aspects of his analysis of society.

F) This unclarity emerges also in "Das Unbehagen in der Kultur" (1930) — the work where Freud more extensively laid down his thesis on the necessity of repression of sexuality and aggressiveness for the preservation of society — but, in our view, it could be sorted out relatively easily. Here, in the first chapters, he speaks of sexuality and aggressiveness in broad terms, without specifying if he considers these psychological instances as a normal or a neurotic expression of individual and social life.

However, even without such previous specification, his description of these instances seems to be like that of a neurotic disturbance and, in fact, later in his paper, he makes clear that this is the case. He stresses that, in this respect, society acts like a neurotic individual that, through the instance of the superego — which, as observed before, constitutes the "moral conscience" as emerging out of a feeling of guilt related to the child's aggressive feelings37 towards its parents — tries to repress his or her neurotic expressions of sexual and aggressive "instincts". Having discovered the existence of neurotic societies, Freud wonders about the interesting possibility of employing psychoanalysis for the analysis of these social-based psychological disturbances. In this regard, Freud considers this kind of intervention possible but is rather pessimistic about its viability in contemporary societies. There are, in fact, on one hand, the difficulties in identifying the complex relations between individual and collective neurosis, and on the other hand, the problem of implementing policies aimed at improving social self-understanding.

We can conclude this chapter by noting that in Freud’s theory the concepts of instincts and, within this ambit, of psychosexuality (the eros or libido) are very complex and far-reaching as they embrace all the aspects of human personality, including affective and intellectual. Therefore, his theory does not seem to imply that human needs can be reduced only to biological exigencies. Far from saying that the mind — e.g. the spheres of feelings and intellect — is something different from "instincts" and, as a consequence, substantially powerless against these, Freud seems only to remark that the study of the “mind” is to be considered in all its complex connections with the "body", simply because we do not live apart from our body. If, as stated effectively by Rollo May (1972), a person can safely say "Certainly, I am my body, but am also my mind", also the symmetric relation holds true, and then it would be appropriate to say "Certainly, I am my mind, but am also my body".

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