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

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Freud’s theory of instincts is truly complex and, as with any other theory dealing with these issues, incomplete and tentative. Freud himself was well aware of this difficulty as throughout his work he continually revised his theory. One of the main aims of Freud’s instincts theory is to provide a framework for the elaboration of his psychosexual theory of human development which, as observed by many authors, represents one of his major contributions to psychoanalysis.

In this regard, Freud's position is far more complex than the simplistic vision of instincts based only on biological exigencies: in fact, Freud made clear the many components of the concepts of instinct: in particular — as laid down more extensively in Massenpsychologie undIich-Analyse but also in Totem und Tabu, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur and other works — libidinal links between the members of any society, which include affection and emotions and may include neurotic conflicts related to them, play a crucial role in maintaining social cohesion.

In this sense, one of the most important insights of psychoanalytic theory is that the intellectual, affective and biological aspects of instincts are intertwined in the complexity of each person and unfold in all the aspects of individual and collective behaviour. Even when the expression of one of these aspects is more pronounced, this does not mean that the other aspects cease to operate, but only that they operate in the background, in a partly unconscious and indirect way that may nonetheless heavily influence the aspects appearing in the foreground. In this process, the role of symbolic meaning is of special importance in the synthesis of these aspects.

For instance, the act of feeding assumes importance for the child not only because it satisfies a biological need but also because it tends to be interpreted by the child as an expression of affection; and the child, in making this and other connections, also expresses and develops its cognitive and intellectual faculties.

The same complexity emerges if we follow the unfolding of these early experiences towards their progressive socialization: in this regard, we can easily observe that the need to eat and drink and the pleasure associated with these activities are a universal feature of human beings; indeed, if we consider the social contexts of eating habits, the surprising element is that, whereas cultures vary widely in the characteristics of their eating habits, virtually all seem to attribute to such habits great importance in many family and social situations.

Eating habits — for instance, in the form of typical dishes and restaurants — often help to identify the distinguishing features of many cultures.

One explanation of these phenomena may be that eating habits can express, partly at a symbolic and unconscious level, many individual and collective affective and cultural instances. In this regard, many factors may intervene in the explanation of the significance of eating habits: for example, practical reasons, in the sense that eating activities often occur during break or leisure time, and the fact that these activities are in many cases a source of experience and knowledge.
However, it is true that in Freud’s work these concepts are often implicit and sometimes, especially in his later theory of death instinct, he seems to assume a pessimistic view of human development, in that little can be done to reduce human aggressiveness.

In this respect we believe that Freud’s theory of death instinct — which, however, it is important to remember, Freud conceived only as a very tentative interpretation of human behaviour — hindered him from carrying out a deeper analysis of human aggressiveness (but, refer also to previous footnotes), which was later done by other authors.

However, notwithstanding these shortcomings, it should not be overlooked that one of the central aspects of Freud’s theory is the discovery of a new method for the analysis of psychological disturbances, through which the person can reach a better self-understanding of his or her neurotic conflicts; this means that the reduction of neurotic conflicts is associated with a decrease in the neurotic aggressiveness related to them, and Freud explains the dynamics of this process in depth. Therefore, as already observed, even when he assumes that life has the character of an irreducible struggle between life and death instincts, he does assume neither that they are given, for every concerned individual, in any “fixed and immutable proportions”, nor that there is any systematic tendency across individuals for the prevalence of one or the other; consequently, little determinism is allowed in his theory, which, on the contrary, casts more light on the complexity of the factors at play in determining human behaviour.

Furthermore, if our needs were based only on a set of biological-based instincts, it would be difficult to explain the role of emotions, affection and intellect in psychic life. In this regard, the following points would require further investigation: i) Freud finds neurotic conflicts not only in our society but also — as analysed, for instance, in Totem und Tabu, 1912-1913 — in early societies; neurosis, therefore — and also the related characteristics of repression of sexuality and aggressiveness discussed above — seems to be a typical characteristic of human development and may assume different expressions in different societies and thus, in this regard, takes on a distinctive evolutionary character. ii) If the child seems to behave only out of its instinct-based needs, this does not happen only because it refuses to adapt to the principle of reality but because it does not know the requirements of the external world. In fact, for the working of the principle of reality, the child needs to grow and develop its cognitive and intellectual faculties; in this respect, education (at least a sound one) plays not only the role of showing the limits of individual behaviour but also that of helping the child to learn how to bring out its potential. These concepts are closely related; indeed, for a child learning the exigencies of the others is not only a necessary limitation of its behaviour but, more importantly, may concur, by helping it establish adequate relations with them, to a better expression of its personality. Furthermore, as shown by Freud and many others, intellectual faculties play a critical role from the very beginning of a child's development. iii) Even if a child's behaviour seems to be dominated by its biological-based instincts — for instance, in the case of hunger and thirst — this does not mean that affective and intellectual exigencies play a little role. In this regard, Freud has always underlined the child's need for parental affection.

These findings have been confirmed by many important studies; a pioneering study in this field was made by Spitz (1945), who shows that children brought up in foundling hospitals tend to be affected by severe neurotic disturbances, even when their biological needs may have been fully satisfied.

In this sense, the role of society is much more complex than simply “repressing instincts”: society also represents an irreplaceable setting for the development and expression of the complex and conflicting aspects of human personality. In fact, as we have seen, human instincts constitute a manifold entity where the affective, intellectual and, of course, biological aspects make up the individual personality; as these aspects cannot be developed in isolation, a society needs to be built in such a way to afford their expression, with, of course, all the complexities, conflicts39 and feed-back effects associated with such evolutionary patterns. Therefore, the ability of society to create an adequate environment for a full development of its members depends crucially on the characteristics of every culture considered; these, in turn, depend on the complex interplay of the individual and collective conflicts both between themselves and between the “materialistic” aspects of society.

In relation to these concepts, the consideration, especially by the "independent psychoanalysts", of the emotional orientation of a person as evaluation states and the importance attributed to the environment for the development of the "true self" (Rayner, 1991) have a striking parallel with important institutional concepts: in particular, social valuing and Commons’s theory of institutions as a means for controlling, liberating and expanding individual action. In this regard, an interdisciplinary use of these concepts may cast a deeper light on the characteristics of many social phenomena

In this sense, the repression of instincts — meant as the whole set of familiar and social limitations not conducive to the full expression of the person's feelings and abilities — not only is unnecessary for the existence of society but may also be a cause of its destabilization. In fact, as we have seen, the repression of instincts can cause more neurotic conflicts which, by entailing further neurotic aggressiveness, constitutes one of the main causes of the impairment of the social fabric.

Needless to say, Freud’s theory is not free of contradictions but, given the complexity and the evolutionary nature of the issues at hand, it would have been very difficult for him to provide a “perfect theory”. In light of this difficulty, our remarks have not tried to identify “what Freud really said” but, rather, to stress a number of aspects along a new avenue of research.

It is also worthwhile to note that, as emerges from the previous discussion, psychoanalysis is completely at odds, especially in its recent developments, with a conception of human nature as an expression of universal natural laws.

Certainly, psychoanalysis adopts a set of “universal hypotheses”, but these stem from the observation of a number of common human characteristics and are continually developed, refined and revised as a result of subsequent research.

Examples of these basic hypotheses include the trauma of birth, the child’s need to be fed, cared for and loved by his or her caretakers, and the emotional conflicts associated with the process of growing up. By assuming these and other hypotheses, psychoanalysis has developed an articulated theoretical framework which takes into account the familiar and social contexts in which the child’s development takes place.

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