Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx have a lot in common. Both were brilliant, revolutionary thinkers of their time. Both are dead. Both brought together powerful and lasting insights into the workings of human beings and human societies. Both had distinctive facial hair. Both lent their name to a runaway system of thought whose influence outlived them by many decades; indeed, many academics call themselves Freudian and Marxist to this day. Both smoked cigars. And, for better or worse, both have have enjoyed particularly long goodbyes.
In this post I want to make a few brief arguments against the value of our long, drawn out farewell to these intellectual giants. Camus would be pissed, but suicide is far from the most pressing of our philosophical dilemmas. Much as I try to avoid them, the persistent spectres of Freud and Marx compel me to formulate philosophy’s greatest plight as ‘What is it going to take for us to move on?’
It should be clear that I think both ideologies have outlived their usefulness. But more importantly, I think that the phenomena they pretend to describe (and critique) are now more accurately described by more coherent, rigorous theories, albeit incomplete ones. The Freudian theory of mind has been outpaced by modern psychology, and notably by evolutionary psychology. The Marxist theory of teleological economic and political relations between classes has been eclipsed by an interdisciplinary account of human cultural development, including the same theories of mind that do away with Freud.
And yet to this day it is legitimate in many academic circles to offer a Marxist or Freudian take on a theory or argument. Even when a thinker adheres to neither, it is typical to contrast an aspiring theory with the old vanguard.
I don’t deny that some level of lingering influence is to be expected for any influential theory, no matter how thoroughly debunked. And of course the faithful will argue that they remain viable theories that have yet to be ‘debunked’. However, a more accurate argument is that they cannot be disproved. That is, after all, the hallmark of all pseudo-science. Them’s fighting words, I know.
The charge of pseudo-science (or, general quackery) really pisses off Marxists and Freudians – after all, they claim, their theories are not merely descriptive but normative. Yet the simple truth is that non-normative information affects normative positions. If you hope to make a case for what ought to be, it helps to at least properly describe what is.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that the first time I read the Communist Manifesto I pretty much bought into it. WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE…..to kick Bill Gates in the balls! The book had strong intuitive moral appeal, to say the least.
Obviously, the effects didn’t last on me as they did on many others. The moral prescriptions for the establishment of the classless society may get the blood pumping on an unreflective reading, but any serious interrogation left me with only doubts. The inadequacies of Marxism are many, but I will give two:
1. It is based upon an inaccurate account of human nature. True, Marx was influenced by Darwin – there’s even a popular myth that he offered to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin (which turns out to be false, although he did send him a signed copy).* Modern Darwinism, as I have repeatedly argued previously, upsets a great many earlier ideological conceptions of humans. Marx’s is no exception. Although the sum of social relations indeed shapes how humans behave, that is not the full story as Marx would have us believe. For an excellent account of why it is meaningful to speak of human nature, I heartily recommend the excellent The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Peter Singer has written an excellent (and much shorter) book on the many ways that the Left misconstrues what we have learned about ourselves from science called A Darwinian Left.
2. Dialectical materialism offers limited predictive capacity. Indeed its most basic assumptions are probably what it ‘predicts’ best; the increasing concentration of wealth in capitalist societies and so forth. The telos of society has simply not been borne out by reality. And although many Marxists despise this argument (with some legitimacy), every attempt to implement Marx’s prescriptions have ended more or less catastrophically.
Similar reasons can be used against Freud:
1. Science has given us a better theory of human nature that does away with all the weird mummy-daddy-bum-cigar issues.
2. Psychoanalysis or something like it as a practice of therapy can be done without recourse to Freud’s framework of human nature.
I’m aware that my criticism will seem glib, ignorant, disrespectful (etc.) to some. I think I can explain this: I see both systems as proto-religions. Although not as dogmatic or as fundamentally unfalsifiable as a religion proper, they nevertheless have evolved to resist critique.** It seems that whatever empirical or logical arguments you throw their way, they find some way of squirming past it, incorporating yet another exception to their applicability.
And as with religion, when you argue with someone who has bought-into the worldview, it can be nearly impossible to talk to each other on the same terms. We have all had the experience of arguing with someone with such fundamentally different assumptions from us that the conversation eventually breaks down because we are simply talking ‘past’ one another. It’s as though you’re on two different, parallel planes of discourse that will never intersect.
It seems to me that in those kinds of situations, one person might attempt to descend to the plane of the other person’s point of view and attempt to argue from within the worldview in hopes of critically wounding it from the inside.
Unfortunately, it can be exceedingly difficult to use the logic of a particular system to demolish it from within. Religions are impeccably internally consistent. It’s incredible how much scholarship has been done in, say, Catholic theology. Once you’re ‘in’ the ideology, there is so much to discuss! Unfortunately once you’re ‘in’ there’s not much worth to your efforts. It’s staggering to think how much brilliant talent has been wasted throughout the ages on such forms of dogmatically constrained thought.
Marx and Freud were brilliant. But they were not prophetic. They have been shown to be fallible like the rest of us. And hopefully the ideologies that bear their names will soon die gracefully before they taint another century’s worth of academics.
* An excellent explanation of the myth can be found here: http://friendsofdarwin.com/articles/2000/marx/
**I will use the short hand ‘they’ to save space – of course I don’t think that Marxist or Freudian thought has become a self-aware, conscious entity (…yet). ‘They’ or ‘it’ refers broadly to the supporters, institutions and ideology that have an interest in preserving their respective worldview.