Saturday, May 19, 2007

One thing Freud knew for certain

Over the years I've seen so much evidence, not only in others but also in myself*, of people's tendency to believe what they want to believe that I now consider it virtually an axiom of what we might call the psychology of belief that people generally do believe what they want to believe—and selectively seek out reasons to support their beliefs.

So with some pleasure I discovered this morning, in reading George Prochnik's May 6 New York Times essay, "Hail to the Analysand," that Sigmund Freud knew this too—knew it for certain, he said. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote:
One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man's judgments of value follow directly his wishes for happiness—that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.
I say "Freud knew it too," but of course he knew it first and, because I read his book many years ago, his statement may have lodged in my mind waiting for me to corroborate it in my own experience.

If Freud's "certain knowledge" is a veritable straitjacket always and ever constraining people's beliefs (or their "judgments of value," as he says), how can people with different "wishes for happiness" ever come together in accord? That may be one of the central questions mankind must answer if world peace—or, at least, concord among bloggers—is to be possible.

But I wish to believe that there are ways to escape the straightjacket, that my "axiom of the psychology of belief" doesn't condemn us to wear it. In order to escape it—or at least to free oneself from a particular belief—certain conditions must obtain. It's time for me to start investigating what the conditions might be.

One happy thought is that there may be a seminal contradiction in Freud's understanding. For what if one's wish is that man's judgments of value need not always follow directly his wishes for happiness? What conditions must obtain for us not to believe something simply because we wish to believe it?
* Ironically appropriate to the theme of selectively seeking out reasons to support our beliefs, I read Prochnik's article because I expected to find yet more material condemning George W. Bush. The title of his article implies that the "analysand" (or person being psychoanalyzed) is someone we officially address with a "hail to" (as he swaggers awkwardly into the East Room or the Rose Garden accompanied by music supplied by the Marine Corps band or somebody). Prochnik takes off from the fact that another president had been a sort of analysand to Freud, who wrote a chapter titled "Thomas Woodrow Wilson" for a book by diplomat William C. Bullitt about the peace negotiations in Versailles following World War I.


  1. "That may be one of the central questions mankind must answer if world peace—or, at least, concord among bloggers—is to be possible."

    Alas. The death of an idealist. You have lowered your goals considerably.