Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Beyond the Pleasure Principle, by Sigmund Freud
1920, 90 pp.

This is a very slender book, and indeed could have stood to be even more slender. Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a fascinating thirty-page article trapped in a speculative 90-page book. There is an interminable section on cellular physiology and the idea that cells have a libido and exhibit narcissism which makes for a decent analogy, but unfortunately is meant as a serious hypothesis. The central argument, though, is critical: indeed, it has been said that any self-respecting intellectual of the 20th century has had to invent his own alternative to Freud's argument here, since the original satisfied nobody.

Everything we do is to increase our pleasure or decrease our pain, Freud argues. This is the pleasure-principle. The reality-principle persuades us to delay gratification for our own good, rather than engage constantly in unmitigated hedonism until, bloated with cheeseburgers and Glenfiddich, we burst well before our time. The ego serves the pleasure-principle by repressing the subconscious, the release of which would cause us pain. Thereon rests his theories of dreams, wish-fulfillment, and the like. So far so good. But we also have a "repetition-compulsion" instinct: a desire to return to a former (usually safer) state which had to be abandoned due to disturbing external forces. This is an analogue to inertia in organic life, and since the ultimate safe prior state is non-existence, the repetition-compulsion instinct is in fact a death-instinct. The death-instinct vies with the rather more progressive sex-instinct, which manifests itself as self-preservation based on the idea that the organism wants to die in its own way at its own time, not due to external forces. The dubious chapter on cells tries to combine and reconcile these concepts, without success.

Freud himself concedes that all of this is pure speculation. Indeed, as with any of Freud's works, one feels slightly impolite about shuffling one's feet and muttering about "scientific rigor," "sample sizes," "empirical testing," or that filthy word "R-squared." Of course Freud is more interesting and useful as a philosophic thinker, but it is worth noting that he considered himself and his work to be terribly scientific, and was rather effective at convincing a lot of other people of the same thing. But obviously one can't draw sweeping conclusions from a sample size which consists of Freud and a baby he talked to at a friend's house this one time. Nothing in Beyond the Pleasure Principle can be tested or verified, nor is it always logically consistent. It is, however, thought-provoking. Freud himself never used the slightly crude "Eros vs. Thanatos" dichotomy, but that same idea which owes its origin to this essay has animated much productive thought over the past century. If for only that reason, Beyond the Pleasure Principle is certainly worth a read, especially if one wishes to be a self-respecting intellectual and begin the project of inventing a better theory. It is a very short book, and even shorter if one is willing to skip the rubbish about cells, and should provide the basis for a good and profitable discussion.

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