From Image to Imago

From Image to Imago: Reflections on Phenomenology, Psychological Depth, and the Unconscious

Vic Schermer, PhD


Phenomenology and psychoanalysis appear to be at opposite poles of understanding, with phenomenology positing consciousness as subsuming the totality of all experience, while psychoanalysis holds that many experiences are repressed or otherwise concealed from consciousness. In this article, it is proposed that these two seemingly mutually exclusive points of view are reconcilable through an examination of the phenomenological reduction and psychoanalytic method.

The relationship between an image and an imago, an image that contains deep and hidden symbolism and meaning, provides a basis for linking phenomenology and psychoanalysis, using Husserl’s concept of horizon. At the horizons of the “things themselves” are potential ambiguities, contradictions, and gaps that provide a ground for metaphor and in-depth understanding and constitute evidence for psychoanalytic investigation of the unconscious. There are locations within the phenomenological field of perception, imagination, and judgment that allow for concealment. The unconscious can be understood phenomenologically as that which is hidden and ambiguous at the horizon, facilitated by imagination and dream, what Merleau-Ponty called the oneiric, and what psychoanalysis calls fantasy.

Key Words: Edmund Husserl; Sigmund Freud; Maurice Merleau-Ponty; phenomenological reduction; unconscious fantasy; horizon; oneiric; empiricism.Schermer

Axioms are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses. —John Keats

Edmund Husserl conceptualized phenomenology as the investigation of the things themselves as they appear in consciousness: the noesis-neoma relationship disclosed by the epoche (Husserl, 1980). By contrast, psychoanalysis is the pursuit of that which eludes and escapes consciousness, the repressed or otherwise sequestered unconscious conflicts of which the subject is unaware but which continue to influence his or her thought and behavior.

As such, phenomenology and psychoanalysis are at opposite poles of understanding, the former subsuming the totality of experience within consciousness, and the latter positing consciousness as but a small segment of the total psychosomatic mind-body complex that is largely unconscious. However, in what follows, I will argue that these seemingly diametrically opposed ways of understanding the mind can be reconciled and understood in terms of one another.

To do so, I will consider the problem of how an image, a dream, a work of art, or a symptom, understood through descriptive phenomenology, can become a deep image, an imago that has hidden complex meanings, thus susceptible to deep analysis. I will do this from the standpoint of the phenomenological reduction but with some reference to post-Husserlian thought, especially the work of Merleau-Ponty on perception and imagination. I will try to show that the phenomenological “I” and world, as they constitute themselves in perception, imagination, and judgment include ambiguities, gaps, fragmentations, and “hiding places” which remained in the background for Husserl and which Freud discovered in his analytic work. It is precisely in this overlapping region of phenomenological complexity and psychoanalytic understanding of the depths that much of post-Heideggerian Continental philosophy came about. However, this essay goes back to the beginnings because in the philosophical storm that ensued, some matters vital to Husserl and Freud were neglected.

Although Freud and Husserl lived and worked during the same time period and intellectual climate (the transition from the enlightenment and romantic eras to modernism), and even though they acquired similar ideas about psychology and intentionality from their studies with Franz Brentano, and despite their similar purpose to create an over-riding meta-theory for understanding that transcended and disclosed truths beyond the empiricist thinking of their time, Husserl and Freud went in divergent directions and left a yawning gap between their two points of view. Husserl sought the transcendent truth of consciousness from which psychology and the natural order arose, while Freud sought psychological truth consistent with nature but outside of consciousness. It would appear that never the twain could meet, but I will contend that they do indeed converge in the place of pre-reflective thought, the world where images rule.

The gap between a philosophy of all-encompassing consciousness versus a psychology of consciousness as a mere gateway to things concealed has persisted despite the efforts of psychiatrists, social thinkers, and Continental philosophers who have tried to close it, as well as the more recent efforts of some psychoanalysts (e.g. Atwoood and Stolorow, 2014) to incorporate phenomenology in psychoanalysis. Unmoved by these attempts at synthesis, contemporary phenomenologists still struggle to free themselves from the naturalism and empirical science that Freud and most of his followers employed. Thus, in the Cambridge Companion to Husserl (Smith and Smith, 1995), an end-of-the-century retrospective on Husserl’s work, there is not a single reference to Freud or psychoanalysis. Conversely, Husserl’s major preoccupation, the rigors of the phenomenological reduction, are rarely if ever discussed by psychoanalysts. For the most part, psychoanalysis continues to accept the natural world as a given, make empirical claims to validity, and assume biosocial, linguistic, and narrative views of the self and the organism rather than emphasizing the ground of phenomenology as such.

Thus, while there have been a number of efforts to discuss the interplay of Husserl’s and Freud’s ideas, the problematic that remains unresolved is whether and if so, how a philosophy that emphasizes the primacy of consciousness can be reconciled with a psychology that regards consciousness as the mere tip of an iceberg in which the mental life is mostly hidden and below the surface. That is the problem I hope to address, recognizing that there may be other paths to the same goal, as well as significant objections to such point of view in any form. My purpose in recalling how my ideas took shape is not so much to draw hard and fast conclusions as to stimulate thinking about how a depth psychology of what might be called the implicate order (a quantum understanding of nature as having an underlying flow posited by the physicist David Bohm, 1980) may emerge from the Husserlian reduction, which seeks and demonstrates transparency in all phenomena. How does an image, which, after all, is only an appearance, take on a deeper, concealed meaning? In attempting to answer this question, I take a different tack from Heidegger’s linguistic/hermeneutical turn from epistemology to ontology, and from Lacan’s emphasis on language and the symbolic order, rather focusing on pre-reflective thought, which Heidegger (1962) called the “present-at-hand” and which Lacan relegated to the “imaginary” and “real” components of the signifier-signified relationship. In my view, phenomenology and psychoanalysis share the common realization that we live in a sea of images, and that language, the life world, and psychology are ways in which we give these images further sense and meaning in communication and collectivity.

Dreams, Images, and Art as Phenomena with Depth

My attention was drawn to the apparent discrepancy between phenomenology and psychoanalytic interpretation by two experiences. The first was my realization of the difficulties of remembering and reporting dreams. The second was a conversation with a poet about a poem that initially seemed like an iteration of discrepant images, with a puzzle as to how to arrive at its underlying meaning. I will tell you a bit about both experiences and how they brought me to this point.

A patient reported a dream in which he, an architect, was standing in the construction area near a half-completed building. He was with his pet dog from adolescence, a dog who was his companion during a time of family upheaval that led to his being forced to leave them against his will to attend a boarding school far away from home. I had worked with him for several years, and the interpretation came to me quite naturally. I said that the dream spoke to his feelings of incompleteness and failure for which he sought comfort from me. Aware of counter-transference, I added that I may have sometimes neglected his need for understanding in this regard. The patient validated my interpretation with memories of his dog being “therapeutic” and elaborating on his insecurities about his work, further acknowledging that, yes, he felt more support from his dog than from me.

Sometime later, when I was reflecting on this dream while working on a book (Schermer, 2014) that included a section on phenomenology, I realized that many details of the dream escaped me: the location of the building, the clothes the patient was wearing, his posture and facial expression, the appearance and position of the dog, the light and shadows, and the position, emotions and attitude of the dreamer who dreamed the dream (Grotstein, 2000). In other words, I lacked an eidetic description of the dream. I didn’t know the dream at all. I only knew it vaguely within the narrative of a waking individual that was furthermore intersubjectively internalized into my own experience. I only knew the dream as a projection of myself in dialogue with the dreamer. That was not unimportant for therapy, but the dream as the thing itself, as phenomenon, remained hidden, a secret.

The truth is that no one has ever interpreted a dream-as-dream. As a private experience occurring during sleep, details are quickly lost when the dreamer awakens, and once he reports selected elements, they are assimilated into an intersubjective conversation and narrative, and ultimately into a historical and cultural context. The pure phenomenology of the dream-as-dream is lost. It can be partly recovered by detailed introspection, immersing oneself in the dream world in a way that the Romantic philosopher Herder described as “feeling ones way into” a person or literary work, pursing the phenomena until they become vivid inside us (Forster, 2007).

Even so, the dream as dreamed is quickly lost in the transition from sleep to wakefulness.

That realization led to the further thought that, while difficult to bring to light, some of the dream’s meanings must somehow reside in the dream as dreamed, not in projections and introspection based on waking conversation and analysis. While psychologists have debated whether dreams have meaning, people through the ages have been drawn to them on the basis of such a belief. I surmised that the dream images must acquire meaning from within their own organization. In that way, they become imagos, deep meaningful experiences having significance, depth, and history embedded within them.

The second occurrence that brought me to a similar place was a discussion I had with a friend14 about a poem by the late James Wright, one of the poets of the “deep image” (Haskell, 1979), a phrase used to depict the use of shifting images as opposed to narrative verse to convey emotions and implications about the human condition. My poet friend and I were discussing one of Wright’s poems called “The Jewel” (Wright, 1990, p. 122):

There is this caveIn the air behind my bodyThat nobody is going to touch:A cloister, a silenceClosing around a blossom of fire.When I stand upright in the wind,My bones turn to dark emeralds.

Wright (1975) ironically said his poems were “carefully dreamed”, and this poem is more like a dream, free association, or stream of consciousness than a real life narrative. As in a dream, the images at first seem randomly chosen: cave, air, body, cloister, bloss

om, fire, emeralds. Yet there is an undeniable power in these images as combined and spoken by the poet: a private space in need of protection, defiance, a choice having consequences. Their power gives them intuitive meaningful presence

14 Michael Graves, poet and literary critic, New York City contained in the images and words as such.

My poet friend, who knew Wright personally and had studied his work with him, gave me insights into the poem through allusions to other sources and contexts: Plato’s cave, references to blossoms and fire in other of his poems, connections to Yeats’ preoccupation with the occult, the mythic significance of emeralds, Wright’s alcoholic psychoses. I thought these were all pertinent and interesting, but I felt that the images themselves and their juxtaposition possessed depth in and of themselves. I suggested that we just immerse ourselves in the images as what Husserl called “the things themselves.” We agreed that the images were paradoxical: a cave in the air; a blossom of fire, bones turning into dark emeralds. Their power seemed to emerge from their ambiguous, contradictory, and disparate nature, exactly what struck Freud about dreams and symptoms.

These two experiences—with a patient and with a poem—led me to believe that an image, as simply an occurrence, can by a special intentional act acquire an intuitive depth of meaning prior to any reflection about it. Moreover, the meanings may not always be transparent through the epoche, but, under certain circumstances, present themselves therein as ambiguous and with gaps and contradictions, which, in turn are what give the images depth. Let me try to say what I mean, with special reference to dreams, but with all types of images in mind.

Images, Horizons, and Depth

The word “image” has several meanings. For our purposes here, an image is any mental appearance, usually sensory, that may or may not have a meaning, object or thought process assigned to it. 15 Thus, an image is a percept prior to its being attached to a specific idea about it, for example, a Rorsach inkblot, a blotch of paint on a canvas, or a sound before we identify its source or form. Through intentionality, images acquire meanings through the noesis-noema relationhip. (It could be argued, in agreement with Husserl, that there are no percepts prior to intentions, even if the object is not identified as such, that even “meaninglessness” is intended. For the current purposes, I am saying that many images are available to consciousness and that only some are selected by intentional acts.)

15 This definition is to be distinguished from the definition of an image as a representation.

Thus, by my definition, images have no object unless they are assigned one. As in Lacan’s mirror stage, the child’s image in the mirror has no meaning until he recognizes that it is of himself. (Until then, he lives in a world of images, of imagination, in which meanings are highly variable and paradoxical, what Freud called the primary process.) Most often the epoche discloses that an image is assigned an object in an intentional act. (I look at the moon, and it is the moon, not the image on my retina, that I “see.”) In most cases, when we apply the phenomenological reduction, we find their noema to be organized objects, whether the color red or an automobile or a unicorn or the number one. They may or may not represent something in the natural world, but they always have a “thing-ness” about them and a singular consistent meaning. The ideality of such things (or beings, what Heidegger called the “ontic”) allows us to reflect on them, think about them. This is what Husserl’s transcendent ego discloses to us. This is his legacy from Plato, Descartes, and Kant.

The concept from Husserl that via Heidegger caused a tectonic shift in twentieth-century philosophy is his notion of horizon. Noema have features that are implicit, not evident, like the back of a person who is facing me. Consciousness intends the whole object and its context without necessarily having prima facie evidence for it. We see a chair, which includes its unseen back, its familiarity, and its use. The noema includes ever-widening circles or layers, all of which are aspects of the same bracketed experience. Some of these horizons may be infinite or unknown. Thus, if I see a chair, it is in a room, which is in a house, which is in a neighborhood. Moreover, it has its use, which is also intended. These are the horizons of the experience of that particular chair that I see before me. The horizon contains the unseen and unknown.

Heidegger went further than Husserl and held that at the horizon of all beings is Being, Dasein, thrownness into time, mortality, Being that cares for its existence. This was the hermeneutical turn: for Heidegger, rigorous phenomenology disclosed at the horizon the interpretive necessity that permeated all of existence, the historicity and facticity of human life. This was the ontological bombshell that startled so many of his students and other thinkers of his time. It is a mind-blowing idea that we still struggle to come to grips with in its fullness and implications.

Without in any way diminishing Heidegger’s epoch-making insights, I wish to take a step back and look at the notion of horizon in a somewhat different way. I do this because I feel that something important was lost in the existential storm, something that takes us closer to Freud and his intentions. It is this: as we pursue the horizon of the noema, the ambiguity and uncertainty of its meaning increases. For example, when I look at this person who faces me, behind him may be a gift or a dagger. And as I am aware of his temporality and historicity, there is increasing ambiguity about their details. So if we start with an image like a dream or perhaps Rembrandt’s “Self- Portrait as the Apostle Paul” (Rembrandt von Rijn, 1662; see reproduction), and move to their horizons, we encounter complex meanings in the person, place, and action encountered in the beings that are there.

As I gaze at Rembrandt’s man with the turban and a manuscript shrouded in darkness except for the illumined face and the corner of the manuscript, I experience an ambiguity that calls for interpretation and understanding. The image takes me to a place of wanting to know something more about the man and his relationship to the manuscript. The darkness of most of the painting stimulates this pursuit of the unseen and unknown. The “fusion of horizons” of self and other (person, artwork, historical period, etc.) is, according to Gadamer (1997, p. 302), what prompts us to enter into a dialogue with the image and a conversation about it. This is the basis of metaphor and metonymy in language and of dream interpretation. I want to assert that the initial approach to ambiguous meaning is pre-reflective, already present in the horizon. This will bring phenomenology into conjunction with psychoanalysis.

From Phenomenology to Hermeneutics: How Images Constitute Meanings

An essential insight from phenomenology is that most of our lived experience is intuited, known to us well before we begin to think and reflect upon it in speech and language. It is “already there” and we live within it. Perception, memory, judgment, and imagination are intentions that constitute a lived experience. Language, science, logic, and the cogito serve to communicate, explain, clarify, and refine our lived experience.

Merleau-Ponty (1976) conceptualized the phenomenology of perception and lived experience in a way that potentially provides a way to understand what Freud called “unconscious” as constituted phenomenologically and prior to language and the symbolic order. For Merleau-Ponty, our pre-reflective perception of the world and the people who inhabit it emerges from and is an extension of our own body.16 This principle of the embodiment of all experience connects to Freud’s notion of erogenous zones and, more generally, to Melanie Klein’s statement that “The child is an intensely embodied person” (Ashbach and Schermer, 1987, p. 37). The phenomenological body is the center of the lifeworld, and the two are intertwined. Merleau-Ponty (1968, pp. 130-155) thus argues for the interpenetration of the embodied self and the world. For example, when we touch an object, we sense both our fingers and the surface it touches: the two are inseparable. Developmentally, the infant experiences its mind, body, and world as what Balint (1968) called an “interpenetrating harmonious mixup.” In certain respects, psychoanalysis may be seen to be a phenomenology of the embodied self and its interpenetration with the world. A patient of mine became pregnant during the course of her treatment. In the later stages of her pregnancy, the weight and activity of the little being inside her affected her sense of self as well as my own perceptions of the room, my own body, and my moods. The presence of the third living being in the consulting room was known to me phenomenologically as my own bodily experience. If I had bracketed off my knowledge of the natural world in the manner of Husserl’s epoche, I would have described a change in myself and the space, rather than a physical being inside the mother. The former is a phenomenon of pre-reflective thought, while the latter is an inference about nature.

16 “… now it is precisely my body which perceives the body of another person, and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intention, a familiar way of dealing with the world.” – M. Merleau-Ponty, M. (1976, p. 354)

Another area of great interest to Merleau-Ponty was the imagination ((Merleau-Ponty 1993, p. 126). He contended that the imagination informs all experience, including our perceptions of self and world. For Merleau-Ponty, dreams, myths, imaginary people and places, are all as much a part of our life world as are our perceptions of the natural world. They are as “real” to us as nature herself, even to be found within nature. Merleau-Ponty called the realm of the imagination the oneiric, linking it directly to dreams as the prototype. Phenomenologically, imagination and the oneiric precede and interpenetrate the natural world. The child lives in a world of imagination which gradually, and based on feedback from its actions (reality testing) and socialization, develops a semblance of a so-called “realistic” perception of a world which it can hopefully navigate successfully.17 Like the child, we all start out with images, and we weave stories and metaphors about them.

17 The same is surprisingly true of the hard sciences. Newton’s dreams and alchemical interests preceded his discovery of the laws of motion. Kekule disovered the shape of the benzene ring through a dream. Einstein used a series of “thought experiments” to formulate the special theory of relativity. Imagination is the midwife of theory.

Stories and metaphors are important means of establishing mutual understanding (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). They are essential components of hermeneutics and interpretation.

Images, Psychic Depth, and the Unconscious

Images acquire meaning within and through the noesis-noema relationship. They take on “sense” through the intentional act. So I see a chair or the moon, not merely the sensory features that compose them. So my patient dreamt about a familiar dog and a building. The dream images acquire sense. So James Wright wrote about things like caves and blossoms and wind rather than just making utterances absent the things themselves. The relevant questions for psychoanalysis are 1) how do these meanings within the noesis-noema relationship acquire depth? 2) How do they come to be related to the “I,” the self, the patient or poet, and his history? 3) How do they come to be ambiguous, contradictory. and concealed?

With regard to the first question, I have already hinted at an answer. Psychological depth opens up as the horizon expands, in what Heidegger (2008) called alatheia, Being disclosing itself. At that shifting horizon of disclosure is ambiguity. Ambiguity calls for something to generate sense and reference, completeness and transparency of the noema. But since direct apprehension is no longer possible, the noesis-noema relationship is completed through possibility, and this is done is through metaphor, a likeness to what it might be. The horizon and its metaphorical incompleteness create the experience of psychological depth. Thus, in the Wright poem, the image of a cave in the air creates an ambiguous horizon. Somewhere in the horizon of the image of a cave there is a relationship to a metaphorical enclosure in the air rather than the earth.. Consciousness begins to stretch the image. The cave shelters, conceals. The air is everywhere. The cave in the air affords shelter and secrecy from omnipresent transparency. As we begin to reflect on the meaning, we might compare the cave that no one is going to touch with Levinas’ (1999) “alterity,” the unknowability of the other; and Winnicott’s (1965, p. 187) “incommunicado core,” the secret aspects of the self. These are meanings generated by reason and understanding, but they require the ambiguous aspect of the image at the horizon to even be considered at all.

With regard to the second question, the psychoanalyst is primarily concerned with the image as it emerges from the patient, from a singular being who is present with him. How does an image become related to the “I,” a subject, the self, if indeed the two can ever be considered separately from one another? For Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, the “I,” is the embodied hub or center of the experience of the lifeworld. By contrast, many images and objects in daily life are typically perceived in a detached manner, not identified with the self.18 There are objects, and then there are objects that engage the self. People rarely regard dreams, poems, and works of art—at least the ones they appreciate—with detachment. They position themselves in such a way as to find the imagery personally meaningful objects of identification. The curious thing about some symptoms, is that they are experienced in a detached manner as patterns that come from an unknown source. The symptom is understood when the patient discovers its source in his own mental life. Freud’s famous statement, “Where id was, there ego shall be” (“Wo Es war, soll Ich werden”) literally translates as “Where it was, there I shall be” (Freud, 1991, p. 112). The presence of self in its identification with the object transforms the mundane and detached to an experience of depth and implication.

The third question is of singular importance with respect to the unconscious: how do images and their intended objects come to be concealed, hidden, inaccessible to consciousness and discourse? The answer that I propose resides in the nature of pre-reflective perception and imagination. The pre-symbolic infant and child inhabit a sea of images that are a concatenation of perceptions and imagination. The perceptual component acquires three dimensions through the binocular and binaural senses as well as movement within the sea of evolving experience. Such sensory-motor configurations configure the phenomenological world that we are born into. Experiences soon take on the quality of noema, of things themselves. So, for example, the child comes to think of “mother” as an object (and later, a subject) outside of itself. But at the horizons of these noema, there are places in the child’s imagination-infused three-dimensional world that are concealed, hidden from view. Moreover, they are not yet identified by the child as “mind” or “matter,” as cogito versus substance. (Research on “mentalization” (Fonagy, et al., 2002) suggests that the child only gradually develops a concept of mind and of subjects other than itself.) It is through the possibility of concealment within the sea of images that what Freud called the “unconscious” paradoxically becomes part of the phenomenological world.

18 Indeed, the scientific view, at least until recently, is based on the de-subjecitivizing of the natural world.

Within its evolving world of experience, the child discovers that there are horizons of things that are hiding places, “file cabinets” where it can put things away that it doesn’t like or are disapproved by others. It can put those contents inside something, or behind something, or at a great distance. It can retrieve some of those, but it can also banish them as the evil one in the kingdom is banished forever in fairy tales. As it begins to make hiding places, the child is creating within its phenomenological world regions of the hidden and even the imprisoned or unknown. Its horizons include enclaves of parts of self, relationships, phantasms, dreams, real and fictional characters, all of which become temporarily or permanently inaccessible. There are smaller worlds within worlds that are sequestered, like the private diary of secret thoughts kept by an adolescent. Those that are not encountered for a long period of time are forgotten. But, paradoxically, they are in the phenomenological world, yet a concealed part of it. Slap and Slap-Shelton (1991) captured some of this idea in their concept of “sequestered schema,” whereby the cognitive schemas the child uses to understand its experience can become “sequestered,” inaccessible to the child’s subsequent experience. Slap and Slap are referring to the child’s cognitions as understood by Piaget and Inhelder (1958), while I am talking about phenomenology, implying that sequestering develops before the child can think conceptually and is processing images in a pre-reflective way, which Piaget and Inhelder incorporate in the sensori-motor and pre-operational stages of intellectual development.

While psychoanalysis is still largely framed within a neo-Kantian (cf. Bion, 1962) and/or empirical epistemology, or in existential and Lacanian thought in terms of discourse, one can find echoes of phenomenology there as well. One example that has escaped the net of theorizing, although clinical examples abound, is Melanie Klein’s (1977) depiction of the defense mechanism of projective identification, as a fantasy. She says that the infant has a fantasy of putting the bad parts (pain, frustration, etc) of its experience into the mother’s breast until, as a result of mother’s care, it feels safe to retrieve them. This is an interesting idea with which even Klein herself could not fully come to grips: that defense “mechanisms” are not the result of “drives,” but the use of imagination for purposes of safety and security: the phenomenology of defense.

Bettleheim’s (1976) The Use of Enchantment provides many illustrations of the ways in which the child makes use of fairy tales and imagination to organize his or her inner world. While Bettleheim uses Freudian theory to interpret and explain these stories, it is sufficient for the present purpose to see how the child’s imagination works to make a world that allows it to cope with threat. Bettleheim’s (1983) Freud and Man’s Soul makes the further point that, based upon a medical model rather than Freud’s own subjective understanding, many English translations of Freud converted his concepts of self and mind into the mechanistic language of reductionist science. In other words, the subjective and phenomenological aspects of Freud’s theories were lost in translation.

An illustration of how images may be concealed within other images was provided to me by a colleague (Cohen and Schermer, 2004). A woman patient recalled that as a child, she would sometimes read books that incurred her mother’s disapproval. When her mother came into the room, she would put her secret “little book” underneath a “big book” so that her mother would not see what she was reading. The patient said that this was what she sometimes did in therapy, i.e, hide her real feelings under an intellectualizing façade, an insight that furthered her therapeutic progress. My colleague and I considered that at least some coping mechanisms and defenses are aspects of concealment within conscious phenomenological experience. The natural world, discourse, and the imagination afford many opportunities to put things “out of sight, out of mind.”

What I have said so far suggests that if they had engaged in a serious dialogue, Husserl and Freud could have found much common ground for reconciling their points of view, which of course never happened. And there isn’t much documentation to suggest that they had any knowledge of or interest in one another’s ideas. I believe their all too neglected commonalities can be seen in their common interests in images, interpretation and meaning, and how consciousness and ideas constitute themselves. However, each had strong philosophical and theoretical biases which were antithetical to one another. This is an unfortunate reality the consequences of which are still manifest several generations later. My purpose has been to demonstrate a strong commonality between them that is hidden by their opposing assumptions. I conclude my musings about Freud and Husserl with a slightly humorous aside by saying how their respective world views would have made each other’s ideas literal “nightmares” for each other. A rapprochement between their ideas, which is retrospectively quite possible, would have been difficult for them at the time.

Freud’s Nightmare: Interpretation is Not an Empirical Science

Here is a fictitious “dream” of the great neuroscientist and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud:

Freud wakes up terrified from a dream in which he is in the medical laboratory of his mentor, Ernst Brucke, who chastises him for his recent paper concluding that hysterical symptoms are psychological rather than chemical in origin. Just then, a flask explodes and the shattering glass blinds him in one eye.

Freud was steeped in the empirical reductionist neuroscience of his day. He made a major departure from the zeitgeists of the emerging fields of neuroscience and psychiatry when he wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, where he used an interpretive method rather than one that emphasized empirical causes. In Dilthey’s terms, he shifted from causal explanation of natural events to subjective, intersubjective, and existential understanding of human experience (Lessing, Makkreel, and Pozzo, 2011). Freud attempted to unify the empirical and the hermeneutical by using Aristotle’s notion of representation, holding that conscious ideas represented unconscious processes that had an instinctual, somatic origin. He thus made himself vulnerable to a kind of “mentalism” in which biological necessity included “thoughts” that were not conscious. This led him erroneously to believe that an interpretive method could provide causal explanations of natural phenomena. Philosophers like Popper (1959) and Grunbaum (1984) have pointed to the fallacies and dangers attendant on confounding these two distinctly different paradigms of causality versus meaning. (This does not mean that Freud was wrong in his discoveries, only that his methods of verification were flawed.)

Freud, regardless of his own interests in art, philosophy, and the humanities, and his own statements that his basic ideas had long been expressed in literature and theater, was heavily invested in presenting psychoanalysis to the world as an empirical science, guarding against accusations of Jewish mysticism, quackery, and defection from the psychiatric profession (Gay, 1988). Imagine if Freud had come out and said, “Like my philosophical counterpart, Husserl, I am a phenomenologist. My real accomplishment has been to perceive and describe the full range of the lifeworld from birth to death and how our everyday understanding and discourse is but a small and self-protective part of a much richer and more complex life world.” His own claim to a scientific revolution would have been shattered, and his detached objectivizing world view that was so much influenced by Enlightenment science would have run aground. Freud, whose ideas were so profoundly immersed in the human experience, was nevertheless compelled to maintain a position based on empirical science rather than the interpretive method central to the psychoanalytic situation.

Husserl’s Nightmare: The Phenomenological Self and World as Ambiguous, Disruptive, and Hidden

Husserl falls asleep while monitoring a lecture by his student, Heidegger. While dozing off, he has a dream in which he is attempting a phenomenological reduction of his pet cat. As he is writing it down, the cat hisses at him and disappears beneath the sofa. When he wakes up, the whole class is surrounding him, comforting him, asking him if he is all right.

Husserl recognized and probably was put off by the difference between the unpredictable “cat-like” stream of consciousness and the phenomenology of the noesis-noema relationship. I don’t think he was quite able to articulate how the two are related to one another. His purpose, expressed in the notion of the transcendental ego, was to show how all ideas presuppose and are conditional upon experience that constitutes itself from the intentional relationship between the thinker and the thought. In other words, he sought to demonstrate through bracketing and the reduction that the building blocks of explanation and understanding were not sensations but irreducible phenomena that manifest in consciousness. Husserl, true to the idealist legacy, believed that the phenomenological reduction would reveal an orderly relationship of direct experience to thetic explanation and understanding. In a way, he anticipated Russell’s later idea of a universal science (Korhoven, 2013), although from a point of view different from the analytic philosophers.

In this respect, Husserl was blind to the “falling into death” that Heidegger saw behind all phenomena, and more importantly for the present purpose, the contradictory and troubled nature of human experience as it presents itself in the stream of consciousness. He incorporated some of the complexity and turbulence of the stream in his notion of the life-world, but he always distinguished between the life world and a coherent philosophical and psychological understanding of consciousness. My purpose here has been to suggest that there is no escape, not even through the epoche and phenomenological reduction, from the gaps, deceptions, and complex dynamic and developmental in-folding that informs experience as it constitutes itself in consciousness. In this, I stand with Heidegger, Sartre, and especially Merleau-Ponty. My intention has been to show that Freud as phenomenologist played a major role in deconstructing the idea of a coherent, orderly consciousness, while at the same time uniquely relating his understanding to clinical phenomena and the consulting room. For Husserl, this might have constituted an excursion into some personal Hell. But I think that if Freud and Husserl had both emphasized their discovery of the importance of images in the thought process, they might have found much in common.


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