Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) was a neurologist whose work in the field of psychology gave birth to the contemporary psychiatric apparatus of psychoanalysis. Freud initially worked as a medical doctor at the Vienna General Hospital, where he undertook research into conditions such as cerebral palsy. The publications of his research would later see him offered a position as a university lecturer specialising in neuropathology.
The intellectual climate in which Freud formulated his theories was shaped largely by the titanic influence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory of common descent and natural selection. Previously, under the Aristotelian and Platonic hierarchies, man was differentiated from animals by his possession of an immaterial intellect or soul i.e. man was a rational animal. One of the consequences of Darwin’s theory was that while man was indeed different from the animals this difference was only in complexity; quantitative rather than qualitative.
Freud was also largely influenced by the development of the physical theory of the conservation of energy. Brücke, a supervisor of Freud in his early career, published a work contending that all living organisms were also governed by the law of energy conservation. Freud’s novelty was to flesh out what Brücke’s theory meant for the human mind; that the human psyche is also a mechanistic system and its various outputs are governed by the laws of physics.
Thus arises psychoanalysis, where mental disorders are treated as physical problems and their symptoms are to be elucidated through an interrogation of the patient by a psychoanalyst. It was Freud’s revolutionary idea to apply the principles of modern science to the treatment of mental disorder, and his legacy looms large over our contemporary intellectual landscape.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was an English scientist best known for his particular theory of special evolution involving common descent and natural selection. Darwin initially found fame for his work in the field of geology and the popular journal of his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. It was during this time that Darwin first became fascinated by the manner in which the diversification of species seemed to follow a geographical pattern. It was not until 1858 that Darwin published a joint paper outlining his evolutionary theory.
In a way, Darwin’s theorising is the perfect modern archetype. Platonic philosophies outright rejected change in the immutable world of the forms (which includes forms of the species), and for Aristotle whilst there was a gradation in the complexity of living things (inorganic < vegetable < animal < rational) the difference between these categories was clearly defined and not a matter of degree. The most important thing to note is that for Aristotle and Plato the information of matter to a various species takes part as a teleological process. For Plato it is the will of the demiurge and for Aristotle his Divine being of pure actuality.
There was nothing novel, or even modern, in Darwin’s rejection of teleology. After all, prior to Aristotle Leucippus the Atomist had asserted that “nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use”. Following the work of Newton and Descartes, mechanical explanations of natural phenomena had begun to displace classical and medieval dualistic views. However, while Newton and Descartes seemed to favour natural laws as manifestations of divine will, Darwin favoured Schopenhauer’s view that life is imbued with a will that manifests itself as a struggle to survive.
Darwin’s novel insight was not that one species was generated from another, but rather that the method for this generation was natural selection. In this way, Darwin provided a way to account for the diversity of species (and the origin of man himself) in a purely mechanistic manner. Darwin’s theory radicalised not only biology, but also anthropology – as before the Aristotelian hierarchy had rendered man wholly other to the animal kingdom. Now with Darwinian evolution, man was only different from animal and vegetable life by degree.
The definition of sex is surprisingly hard to pin down. There are a few common tropes such as that which produces orgasm or that which is pleasurable. But neither of these will do because sex can be sans orgasm and pleasure can be induced in other ways. One may say it’s the insertion of a penis in certain orifices, but of course this won’t do either for obvious reasons. Consent is also insufficient.
The traditional western definition is the coming together of two distinct individual organisms as one organism for the production of a new life. However, this takes something like a Platonic or Aristotelian realism and a fundamentally teleological view of nature for granted. This just begs the question: can a society that is essentially naturalistic (i.e. no forms and no teleology) produce a meaningful definition of sex?
The naturalist position is the reverse of the realist position. For the realist, the man as substance is both more real than and is the final cause of his various accidents (such as his appendix for example). This view can most simply be thought of as wholes causing parts. For the naturalist-cum-atomist, atoms are the substance and man is the accident – parts causing wholes. This is the problem of the one or the many. When the naturalist view is fleshed out, not only is the definition of sex problematic but also the principles by which distinct individuals (which are necessary for sexual intercourse) have their being.
Therein is one of the potential sources for confusion in the modern debate regarding sex and marriage. The cart has gone well and truly before the horse; the question of the morality of sex must be subsequent to inquiry into the nature of sex itself. We don’t know what to do with sex and by extension marriage, simply because as a society the west has no understanding of what these things are.
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125
“God is dead” – the oft quoted, but seeming as oft misunderstood, idea of Nietzsche. These words are often casually dropped in conversation, as if a soundbite, but rarely does the mournful gravity of Nietzsche’s contention break through.
The mourning comes from recognising the crisis that the death of God will bring upon the individual and Europe as a whole, and whether Nietzsche meant death as literal or figurative doesn’t change this point. For Nietzsche, when one gives up the credulity of the existence of God, one also necessarily relinquishes one’s right to Christian morality. Furthermore, one is left with a universe absent of objective values and truth – a disorderly place that at first glace seems to evoke the only natural response of nihilism. Nietzsche’s solution to this nihilistic tendency was the ubermensch and his will to power.
Thus arises Nietzsche’s vehement criticism of “the herd”. Nietzsche saw the popular culture as embracing the false Christian morality in order to avoid the use of their own will. As Marx held that religion holds man back from the sanctity of his labour, so Nietzsche criticises the herd for holding back the rise of the ubermensch, culminating in their own damnation.
In this previous post, I outlined Nietzsche’s epistemology of perspectivism. In summation, Nietzsche rejects an objective reality of the sort posited by rationalists such as Plato and Descartes, and contends that human knowledge cannot be independent of perspective.
Like most great thinkers, Nietzsche wrestled with the moral questions of how one should live one’s life. The context of Nietzsche’s writings is important: he was working at a time when the values of European Christianity were under intense scrutiny and the role of the Church in everyday life was being steadily dimished.
Thus Nietzsche presents his solution to the angst of a man living in a post-Christian nihilistic world: the ubermensch. Following from his rejection of objective truth, Nietzsche naturally sees the creation of a value as being more worthy than the value itself. An ubermensch is a type of superman that is aware of the absurdity of objective truth and understands that his most potent activity is the domination of the external world through the exertion of his will. Nietzsche calls his voluntaristic theory of human behavior the “will to power”.
Nietzsche shares existentialist similarities with Kierkegaard, who also thought truth was subjective and generated through relationship (though particularly with God contra Nietzsche).
The contrast with Plato is interesting. Plato was known for criticising artists that would represent the external world in differing perspectives. Plato considered this kind of knowledge a mere opinion (doxa) based upon a shadow that was cast by true reality, the Forms.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) was a German philosopher known for his body of work criticising religion, morality and contemporary culture as well as his ideas regarding the primacy of the will in human affairs. Like Kierkegaard, he was an aphorist whose work was rich in irony and metaphor. Nietzsche enjoyed only a brief career as a professional academic due to health problems that frustrated him for most of his life. At age fourty-four, he underwent a complete mental breakdown and lived his remaining years in the care of his sister.
Like most great thinkers, the interconnectedness of Nietzsche’s ideas can be crystallised through an analysis of his epistemology. Nietzsche begins by dismissing the ideas of rationalist thinkers such as Plato and Kant regarding an objective reality and our minds ability to known it. Nietzsche’s primary reason for rejecting the rationalist thesis is that there is no idea that is independent of interpretation and no interpretation that is independent from an interpreter. Furthermore, each interpreter is influenced by cultural norms, language and etc. Nietzsche’s epistemology of interpretation has come to be known as perspectivism.
There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity” be. – Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic.
Perspectivism at first glance may appear to collapse into relativism – but for Nietzsche this was not the case. While perspectivism is relative in its refusal of objectivism, according to Nietzsche there are some views that are simply false (such as the view that there is an objective reality). The consequences of Nietzsche’s skepticism caused him to reject a host of philosophical concepts such as substance, being, object-subject and etc. that were generally taken for granted by both modern empiricists and rationalists alike.