Review: Freud, the Reluctant Philosopher by Alfred Tauber

I am catching up on my summer reading.

Alfred Tauber’s Freud, the Reluctant Philosopher is a work of great learning, research, and scholarship, and the footnotes themselves deserve reading straight through as the locus of much rich material.

[Review of Freud, the Reluctant Philosopher by Alfred Tauber, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010, 318pp.  Reviewed by Lou Agosta, PhD]

Freud attended the lectures of Franz Brentano in Vienna in 1874. Brentano was committed to establishing psychology as an empirical science based on the analysis of intentionality as the defining feature of consciousness. Brentano’s approach excluded the possibility of an unconscious as a realm of intentions unknown to the subject. And, for Freud, that would be a significant issue.

Tauber provides fascinating background on the young Freud’s relationship to philosophy.

As a university student, Freud attended six of Franz Brentano’s lectures from 1874 through 1876  (Tauber 2010: 29, 30, 234n.12). These were the only non-medical classes that Freud took in his university days. He visited Brentano in the latter’s apartments, and, by way of Brentano’s mentorship, received work translating the volume of John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill on women’s equal rights into German. Freud enthuses to his friend Eduard Silberstein about how his encounter with Brentano has changed his life and his wanting to be a philosopher. However, Freud finally made a financial decision to pursue medicine as a better way to support his wife and children. 

Notwithstanding Freud’s youthful enthusiasm, the extent to which he adopted and used the notion of an intentional act as a distinction in his account of psychic acts is debatable. One thing is for sure. Freud did not agree with his professor, Brentano, that all psychic acts had to be conscious.

There is not wrong with Tauber’s account, and it is a fine work of scholarship. However, as regards “the reluctant philosopher,” there is something missing. Freud’s relationship with the philosopher Theordor Lipps.

Freud’s position aligned closely with that of a psychologist, Theodore Lipps (1851-1914), who was well-known prior to World War I. As argued elsewhere, Lipps played a latter-day Antonio Salieri to Freud’s would-be Mozart (Agosta 2010: 6; 2014: 53–64). Today few would have heard of Lipps except for “Lipps” being a footnote in Freud and lately Lipps’ having anticipated the notion of mirror neurons as muscular mimicry or embodied simulation in empathy – no small contribution. Lipps championed the position that mental events were unconscious, and Freud in his correspondence with friend Wilhelm Fliess says of Lipps: 

In Lipps I have rediscovered my own principle quite clearly stated – perhaps rather more so than suited me. “The seeker often finds more than he seeks.” Lipps regards consciousness as only a sense organ, the contents of the mind as ideation, and all mental processes as unconscious (Freud 1887/1902: 262; August 31, 1898).Still, Lipps seems to have lacked a robust concept of intentional act, relying more on a series of acts of synthetic integration, reminiscent of Kant’s synthesis of the unity of apperception as affinity, reproduction, and recognition. If one is going to “borrow”, one can do worse than “borrow” from Kant. However, Lipps was no neo-Kantian. Therefore, without further inquiry, we (and Freud) are either left with a Lippsian unconsciousness without intentionality or a Brentanian intentionality without unconsciousness. 

Still, Tauber argues convincingly – and by way of rational reconstruction – that the logical possibility of unconscious intentions is consistent with Brentano’s theory and that Freud’s project for a scientific psychology (discovered and published posthumously (Freud 1895)) was launched into the logical space thus envisioned. However, absent apparently non-existent historical evidence, it remains an engaging example of intellectual brain-storming. The “brain storm” is that Freud formulated his concept of psychic causation as a defense on behalf of psychoanalysis against Brentano’s denial of the unconscious. 

The idea of an unconscious intention that is causally effective in determining behavior is argued for out of a deep reservoir of drives, recovered memories, and traumas gaining release in dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue, and expression through compromise formation in behavior and neuroses (Tauber: 57).

The construction of data in psychoanalytic theory is at the least a hermeneutic tour de force and quite possibly a respectable positivistic fact given the interpretive framework of metapsychology. Freud does not live up to his own best results in either theory or clinical practice in his famous Encyclopedia Britannica article where he calls unconscious mental activity “an underlying postulate” (Tauber: 80), though it may be that also.

By way of criticism, Tauber sells Freud short when he turns Freud’s own words against him, quoting the above-cited Encyclopedia Britannica article. If the unconscious starts out as a postulate, it does not remain one for long, marshaling substantial clinical evidence (as Tauber also acknowledges) of its efficacy and reality.

Freud started out as a neurologist and his project for a scientific psychology must remain one of the crowning visions of neurological speculation. Tauber is engaged by Freud’s biologism. He spends much time on the Project for a Scientific Psychology, which contains an account of consciousness, perception, and memory that relies on different kinds of neurons and actions of neurons. It is perhaps a controversial point as to how reductive such an account ultimately is; but it points to Freud’s early vision as a neurologist that biology is part of the solution. 

Yet Freud quietly abandoned the belief that the answer was to be found in biology, writing (in the “Instincts and their Vicissitudes”) that psychoanalysis dealt only with representations of the drives in the psyche, not biological components themselves. Tauber suggests that it was this philosophical tendency to metaphysical speculation from which Freud distanced himself in his pursuit of the meaning of dreams and symptoms.

Yes, from the perspective of neurology, we are neurons all the way down – and all the way up. However, at some point, these neurons start to generate meaning. That is the boundary between neurology and the psychoanalysis where Freud’s contribution comes into its own.

Tauber approvingly quotes Paul Ricoeur’s interpretation as positioning Husserl and Freud as the heirs of Brentano for whom the psychical is defined as the meaningful and this meaning is dynamic and historical (see Tauber: 47).

Having crossed the boundary, the semantic distance between meaning and norms is a short one. Meaning is a rule-governed process and norms are rules relating to behavior. While the practicing psychoanalyst must be able to suspend ethical judgment and quarantine her or his own personal feelings of approval or disapproval of deviant or abnormal (or even criminal) behavior in order to reach an unbiased diagnosis, the entire enterprise has at least one foot on the slippery slope of yet another branch of philosophy, namely, ethics. 

Tauber lines up Freud with Kant’s moral philosophy in the specific sense that autonomy (a key Kantian distinction), the capacity for self-governance, is one of the main outcomes envisioned both in the process of psychoanalysis as an approach to psychotherapy as well as metapsychology in replacing the forces of the impersonal id with the conflict free ego sphere of the conscious ego.

Yet, if anything, Freud as exemplifying the mind of the moralist is a far cry from Kant’s inquiries into moral worth as the renunciation of self-interest in the face of respect for a self-imposed moral law that treats all persons as ends in themselves. Even if psychoanalysis is necessarily undertaken in a relatively neutral state of abstinence from gratification of drives, it is equally important to suspend moral judgments (typically of a morally immature and punitive superego) of the pedantic kind that caricatures a certain, narrow Kantian stereotype.

Unless there is an immanent danger of a significant crime or self-harm, moral judgments are best left in the psychoanalytic waiting room; nor does this imply a lack of agonized reflecting on right and wrong by a struggling analysand. 

Tauber is spot on target in asserting that Freud was a modernist who believed in progress and embraced enlightenment values about the perfectibility of mankind. Yet even as Freud clung to these values, Freud’s faith in humanity was deeply shaken by the slaughter of WWI and, towards the end of his life, by the rise of the irrationalities of fascism. While the death instinct (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1921) was mythology – as Freud himself eventually described it – it was a myth that expressed a deeper truth as do all authentic myths – the truth being man’s deep-seated aggressiveness. 

While it is likely that Freud, like most university educated Germans, read his share of Kant, Freud rarely comments on Kant except to devalue a caricature of Kant, the ding an sich, the thing in itself. The psychoanalyst who studied Kant in significant depth was Carl G. Jung; however, that is beyond the scope of Tauber’s engagement.

Tauber’s inquiry is based more on a productive philosophical conversation between Kant and Freud reenacted by Tauber himself than by any historical interaction. Think: rational reconstruction. The affinities between the two thinkers, Freud and Kant, in Tauber’s reading are significant in ways that exceed the overlap with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, who are also given significant coverage. 

Tauber’s approach to Freud and Immanuel Kant is distinguished by its learning and penetrating understanding of both thinkers. For the reader, Tauber is facilitating a thinking dialogue between two great thinkers, once again given that Freud’s reading of Kant was increasingly that of a reluctant philosopher.

Yet the overlaps and intersections of their thinking goes deeper than any of Freud’s often-times superficial and dismissive comments about philosophy. Both Kant and Freud are preeminently enlightenment figures, committed to the deployment of reason against the forces of pathologically determined irrationality of aggressive, sexual, and narcissistic incentives.

According to Tauber, Freud ultimately does not follow Kant’s universalization of morality in the form of a categorical imperative, because of Freud’s focus on individuality and the value of the individual. Yet they are fellow travelers in believing that autonomy is an ultimate source of self-determination and freedom in the proper sense.

Freud found many occasions to champion the cause of autonomy against the narrow, parochial conformity to bourgeois morality of the superego, the latter being a kind of scrupulous, inflexible, if not abusive, parent with an unenlightened sense of right and wrong.

Yes, Freud is a moralist; but it is an enlarged sense of morality that includes enlightened self-interest, an appreciation of the power of the passions, and, given Freud’s clinical work, a commitment to alleviating human suffering and infusing meaning into ideals, ambitions, and integrity in the sense of workability. 

Freud turns out to be a good Kantian, at least initially. “This paradox – the dual characteristic of the human being as a creature of the organic world and yet one who exercises free choice independent of natural causation – is thus resolved on the basis of reason’s standing and the arch-precept of human freedom leading to moral responsibility […][A]nd while Freud does not address the issue head-on, he basically accepts this construction and, with it, assumptions supportive to his own agenda” (Tauber: 140).

Yet Kant’s solution to the conflict of reason with itself over two kinds of causality (one of freedom and one of nature) was a bold hypothesis, albeit one inherent in reason itself: If the universe is a cosmos, a well-organized system according to reason, not a chaos; then we must postulate that virtue will be rewarded (even if only in an after-life) and that God, freedom, and the immortal soul are necessary postulates. In contrast with this deus ex machine, according to Tauber, Freud goes in the direction of biology and Darwin (and a Nietzschean interpretation of Darwin). Freud also goes decisively in the direction of atheism, convinced that organized religion is a kind of infantile dependence on an authoritarian father figure from which no good can come.

Tauber argues that Freud is carried beyond enlightenment ideals by the “fault line of inferred psychic determinism and the governing conviction of choice and liberation” (Tauber: 144-45), and aligns him with the biological constructions of the Freud of Eros and Thanatos, love and the death instinct, as Freud said “our mythology.”

Psychoanalysis is arguably normative without thereby being an ethical inquiry in any properly philosophical sense. Normativity inquires into cultural values and standards without thereby taking a stand on the ultimate derivation of these from a minimal set of higher moral principles. This is not so much relativism as a situational and pragmatic approach to moral ambiguities.

The basic distinction between norms and ethical value judgments is a basic one that is easy to overlook. This prevents psychoanalysis from being mistaken with metaethics, a philosophical task that is concerned about justifying the perfect and imperfect duties to self and other by deontological principles or even enlightened, utilitarian self interest. 

While psychoanalysis must be undertaken in the spirit and practice of uncompromising, unconditional integrity, the process does not work when accompanied by ethical finger wagging. The superego as a moral agency is deeply flawed, even after reading Kant, Hume, and Korsgaard.

Unlike the US Constitution where a person is innocent until proven guilty, under the regime of the punitive superego, the person is often presumed guilty. The condemning tribunal of parental control, personal misdemeanors, and the seemingly inherited guilt of man’s facticity, contingency, and thrownness into complex ethical situations leave us humans in the default position of “Guilty!” Hindsight is 20-20, and therapy often has to push back again the obsessional, depressed, or paranoid patient’s guilty self-accusations: “What’s so bad about that?” The average person is both too scrupulous and too lax with himself. Our judgments and evaluations are precipitous, distorted, and subject to constant revision. 

The tough cases of the analyst who violates boundaries and sleeps with the patient, the patient who boasts to the analyst about cheating on his taxes or padding his expense account, or dangerous acting out with alcohol, gambling, or unprotected promiscuous sex do not come up (for further details see Arnold Goldberg (1999), Moral Stealth). It is rather the philosopher’s take on ethics that we have here – perfect and imperfect duties to self and other. 

Tauber’s reflections on personal identity, the ego, the self, and the answer to the question “Who am I?” (e.g.: 4, 178, 206) are key points at which the ethical subject is invoked in its autonomy for choosing, deciding, distinguishing right and wrong. Yet Freud’s contribution to the self and the person is arguably overlooked by Tauber. For Freud the self/ego is fundamentally developmental, a process in time. The phases of development – oral, anal, phallic, latency, genital – lies at the heart of Freud’s most disruptive intellectual innovations. The identity is an ongoing, historical (developmental) one.

Of course, followers such as Eric Erikson, who was initially a specialist in education working with Anna (Freud) and not primarily a scientist or even a medical doctor (MD) (in no way diminishing his credit as a psychoanalyst), would run with the ball in the direction of phases of development extending beyond reproductive maturity and integrating productivity and psychobiography. 

By emphasizing Freud the biologist, what goes missing is the extent to which Freud moved on from biology to psychology, the latter being an irreducible domain of discourse (language) of its own. Today biology is what physics was in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the forces needed to put a man on the moon. Mapping the genome and the breakthroughs in pharmacology (including psychopharmacological results such as Prozac (floxatine) and an RNA vaccine against Covid) is like when Galileo looked through his telescope at the mountains of the moon – it is a whole new world/universe.

And, if such is the case, then Freud is more obscure than he ever was before including obsolete views on the (Lamarckian) inheritance of acquired traits. Just plain wrong. That is why it is essential that Freud’s psychology be preserved. If his biology is obsolete, his psychology is not. The latter is much more defensible in that dreams, symptoms, cultural artifacts all have meanings – in many cases ones that are hidden, nonobvious and distorted – that are available through language-like (rhetorical) transformations such as those documented in detail in the dream work. 

Thus, Tauber is led astray in conceptualizing the drive as a biological phenomenon. Freud is quite clear that the power and importance of the drive is due to its lying on the boundary between the somatic and the psychic. Thus Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905):

By “drive” is provisionally to be understood the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation, as contrasted with a “stimulus,” which is set up by single excitations coming from without. The concept of drive is thus one of those lying on the frontier between the mental and the physical [….] The source of a drive is a process of excitation occurring in an organ and the immediate aim of the drive lies in the removal of this organic stimulus (1905, 68)

Thus, Freud’s “Instincts and their Vicissitudes”:

A drive appears to us as a borderland concept between the mental and the physical, being both the mental representation of the stimuli emanating from within the organism and penetrating to the mind, and at the same time a measure of the demand made upon the energy of the latter in consequence of its connection with the body (1915: 121-23)

The power of the conception of the drive was (and is) to be found in its boundary position, reciprocally limiting both the body and the mind (psyche) by lying at the line of demarcation. Thus, in illness the mind is affected by the body; but just as importantly the reverse direction is clinically demonstrated to occur as the mind affects the body. In hysteria, an unacceptable idea is expressed somatically as it is (literally) converted into a somatic expression without the presence of a somatic lesion.

Two words – somatic compliance – cover a lot of ground for Freud, including issues of the relationship of mind and body, which ought to have been an issue for Freud, the reluctant philosopher, but never became so because he conceptualized the human being as an integrated whole with a body ego. It is always a hard decision what to “push down” into the notes; and I am a strong advocate of including the material in line, even if in a different font size, a view endorsed by few publishers (including Taubers’s).

In The Question of Lay Analysis, Freud commented that medical school did not offer the broad training in the humanities, literature, and the social sciences that was adequate to a psychoanalytic career, and so the MD had to undertake the latter separately (Tauber: 37-38). This was followed by dismaying decision on the part of the New York Psychoanalytic group to train only MDs in psychoanalysis. The rest is history from which the profession continues an intermittent recovery. 

Tauber smartly engages the issue of whether Freud was hamstrung by the distinction between reasons and causes, which lines up with the distinction between reasons for acting subject to free choice and deterministic, automatic, mechanical operations by which effects are automatically produced. Freud believed that he had uncovered a new source of causality as evidenced by slips of the tongue (etc.) and neurotic symptoms and dreams. Unconscious determinants are acting as hidden forces to cause the conscious purposes and avowed intentions of the person to be side-tracked.

An unconscious cause is like a creature from the deep ocean that is no longer recognizable when fetched from the abyssal depths. It either explodes due to differences in pressure or morphs into a different entity altogether. It either is clearly seen to be a monstrous chimera without meaningful place in the context of normal human relatedness (“You really are glad that you wish your sister dead so you can marry your brother-in-law”!?) or it makes sense in a the context of a past situation or extreme situation, distinct from current, actual reality.

Yet when these unconscious causes are surfaced, exposed, and made the target of an inquiry, they change into intentional psychic acts that often have meaning. Wittgenstein’s attack asserted that Freud had hopelessly confused reasons and causes. The old school positivists, logical positivists, and empiricists collapse the distinction in the direction of causality and then fault psychoanalysis for failing to satisfy criteria specific to the physical sciences.

Freud’s physics envy and scientism becomes a foil for saying that Freud himself had an inadequate view of science in the narrowest sense of physics, conditioned and qualified as it is today by indeterminacy, paradigm shifts, and the need for interpretation. Freud’s commitment was to psychic acts as a source of meaning as well as acknowledging impersonal forces in conflict that drive the ego forth into behavior not always intelligible to it upon further reflection. The debate continues.


Arnold Goldberg. (1999). Moral Stealth: How “Correct Behavior” Insinuates Itself into Therapeutic Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sigmund Freud. (1887/1902). Sigmund Freud: The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess. Eds. Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris. Trs. Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1954. 

Sigmund Freud. (1895). Project For a Scientific Psychology. In Sigmund Freud: The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess. Eds. Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris. Trs. Eric Mosbacher and Hames Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1954: 347 – 446.

L. Agosta. (2010). Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave/Macmillan.

L. Agosta. (2014). “From a Rumor of Empathy to a Scandal of Empathy in Lipps.” In A Rumor of Empathy: Rewriting Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave Pivot: 54 – 65. DOI: 10.1057/978113746534.0007 .

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: Freud, Franz Brentano, History of Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology, Intentionality and consciousness, The Unconscious

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