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15 Jan 08 – Breuer, Freud – Deterministic?

15 January 2008

On this day in 1842, Josef Breuer was born.  Breuer was a protege of Freud’s and, together, the two of them wrote up the case study of Anna O.  In this case study, Breuer was the treating physician, using hypnosis to “cure” Anna O. of her neurotic condition.  From this case study, the two (Breuer and Freud) developed the techniques of abreaction (mental reliving of a situation from the past) and catharsis (the physical expression of emotion).  However, the two did have some fundamental differences in their theoretical conceptualization of Anna O. (and all mental health “patients”).

Breuer and Freud were both student of Brucke.  Brucke put great faith in what was referred to as the “constancy principle,” which was first introduced by the physician Robert Mayer in 1842 and furthered by Hermann von Helmholtz as a style of explanation in physics.  The principle, as espoused by Helmholtz (and Mayer before him), held that there is a tendency for energies in a closed system to redistribute themselves (conservation of energy).  The force of this redistribution could account in a linearly deterministic fashion (with one thing causing another thing, like a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball, making it move) for the observed behavior of natural objects.  Breuer’s version of this principle showed up in some of his own published lectures and demonstrated how he applied this concept to humans:

Organisms…are all phenomena of the physical world: systems of atoms,
moved by forces, according to the principle of the conservation of
energy discovered by Robert Mayer in 1842…and then popularized
by Helmholtz…The sum of forces remains constant in every isolated
system.  The real causes are symbolized in science by the word “force.”
The less we know about them, the more kinds of forces do we have to
distinguish: mechanical, electrical, magnetic forces, light, heat. 
Progress in knowledge reduces them to two – attraction and repulsion. 
All this applies as well to the organism man.

Here, then, we have Brucke’s perspective that humans are, like any other natural object, the result of forces of attraction and repulsion; they are determined by forces outside their control.  As a good student of Brucke, Breuer likewise favored the constancy principle.  In fact, this principle was to be the basis of Breuer’s contribution toward explaining the hysterical neurosis: strangulated affect (affect and emotion are often used interchangably in psychology).  According to Breuer, this was a kind of bound energy that required working though in order for it to dissipate.  For Breuer, the way to work through and unbound this energy was to regress (take back in time) the patient to reconstruct the unhealthy circumstance that led to the emtion being strangulated in the first place. 

Freud seemed to accept the formulation of the strangulated affect, in general, but not in specifics.  That is, Freud disagreed with Breuer regarding the cause of such strangulations of affect.  While Breuer felt that the strangulated affect was an inherited condition, Freud felt that it was an act of will on the part of the patient.  In most, if not all cases, all that was needed was some exploration to discover this.  In fact, he met no such hysterical neurotics, “who did not exhibit an effort of while whose motive [could] be specified.”  Breuer’s etiology (belief about what caused the strangulated affect) was phrased “hypnoid hysteria” and Freud’s was phrased “defense hysteria.”

This struggle between deterministic and free will conceptualizations was to follow Freud for some time.  In fact, his close relationship with Wilhelm Fleiss was punctuated with failed attempts for Freud to establish a biologically deterministic perspective not unlike that of Breuer’s on neurosis.  In fact, Freud attempted to write a materialistic document describing neurosis but ultimately gave up on it because it did not fit what he saw in his practice or in his self-examination.  The one consolation Freud gave to the deterministic perspective offered by the constancy principle was his libido theory that certainly appears to be a mere “add-on” to appease his more deterministic minded associates (and to gain the respectability he so desired from the medical community).

Freud, then, was largely a “free will” theorist even though he is frequently painted as deterministic.  In fact, the one overtly deterministic portion of his theory was one he, himself, said depended on more of an analogy to biology than any direct evidence from psychoanalysis itself.  It was, in fact, superfluous to the theory that Freud formulated and did not appear to fit comfortably with Freud’s obviously final causal elements (e.g., wish fulfillment, that “for the sake of which” we act). 

SIDE NOTE: Free will (or, as it is more properly called today, “agency”) should not be confused with “non-deterministic” or “indeterministic.”  The latter terms imply a form of chaos, where anyhing goes and there is no direction to behavior.  The former implies an agent acting for the sake of final causes, who possesses possibilities (choices), which he or she can choose to act on.  This agent is constrained by context and ability but otherwise “free” to act on the choices available to him or her.  Some also add that freedom is associated with the actor making a choose that is “authentic.”  That is, the choice is one that is one is true to the proclivities of that individual, not accepted by someone else’s mandate or acted upon based on a belief that he or she must forfeit his or her choice in the matter (as Rush, the rock band said, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice”).

In the end, Freud was not deterministic; yet, due to his add-on of the Libido, he was not entirely a free will theorist, either. 

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.


January 15, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment