Gustav Klimt; Wikimedia Commons
The philosophy of the 1900s
Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939)
Freud’s main line of thinking was that the life of the soul is not identical to the life of the consciousness. Through his teachings on neurosis, repressions and dreams he showed that the soul was far more multifaceted, dualistic and dramatic than rationalism had given the impression of. He showed that urges and instincts of biological character, as well as sublimation of these, governed much more of people’s behavior than thought earlier. In order to better understand these “hidden forces”, he developed psychoanalysis.
Through the study of patients with hysteria he discovered a few guiding principles. Firstly, all symptoms were explainable. Secondly, the causes were to be found in the unconscious – in the soul, not the body. Thirdly, the symptoms were caused by uncomfortable memories that the patient had repressed. Fourthly, all the symptoms could be brought out by suggestive techniques. By allowing patients to talk in an uncensored way, the tensions could be relieved. This method, through use of “free assosiations”, was called “cathartic” – from Greek katharsis (cleansing). Freud found that experiences in childhood were of fundamental importance.
Freud assumed that there was a form of sensorship at work between the unconscious and the conscious. By this sensorship the repressed thoughts and urges could be held in check, but they would show up in dreams, unconscious actions, physical symptoms and slips of the tongue. It would all come out from the unconscious to the conscious if tensions became strong enough. Freud’s work on interpretation of dreams became just as important for psychology as Darwin’s work on evolution had been for biology. Freud used the dreams to uncover a past that the individual would not willingly recognize. Dreams are not easily interpreted, because the images at work in dreams are not straightforward, but veiled or coded.
The human urges are energies that do not take account of factual realities. The Ego handles the urges in relation to the actual conditions for their fulfillment. The Ego is a civilizing force. The force behind the urges is Id. The Ego attempts to make sure that the Id is balanced out in relation to acceptable forms of behavior in society. The Ego is under double pressure from the Id and the Super-Ego. The Super-Ego is the consciousness, symbolized by the parental authority. In explaining this force, Freud develops the theory of the Oedipus-complex, whereby the individual (in childhood) wishes to own that parent which is of the opposite sex, and take the place of the parent who is of the same sex. The father-image, for the boy, represents both a model and a threat. This produces the image of the Super-Ego with its aggressiveness and urge to control. The Super-Ego is of an unconscious nature.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951)
Communication and language are the main themes of Wittgenstein’s thinking. Language is not something independent, it changes through its use. When somebody expresses something, they have an intention. Language is an instrument that is adapted to our interests. When our interests, or our form of life, changes, while the words are kept, the content of the words change. One should not allow the history of a word to make an impression, it is its present use, and why it is used, that should be analyzed.
The relation between language, images, thought and reality is, according to Wittgenstein, the basis for philosophy. The confusion between these elements gives philosophy its reason to be. If philosophy is well executed, it will make itself superfluous. Wittgenstein does not believe that the traditional challenges of philosophy, linked to God, what is right or wrong, the purpose of life, etc. can be formulated as meaningful questions by use of language. These challenges belong to what he calls “the mysterious”. He contended in his earlier work that philosophy was a cure or a treatment one had to go through and put behind. It had no other function than to make itself superfluous.
In his later work, he modified this view in the sense that he concentrated on the use of language as closely linked to the purposes and functions present in the mind of the person who used the words. The question of the meaning of the words used, had to be linked to an understanding of the motives behind the use. Philosophy is then, in his view, nothing else than fictitious answers to fictitious problems through an incorrect understanding of language. When words are not names for material objects, we conclude that they must be names for immaterial objects. In this way is created the menagerie of notions that the philosophers behave as masters of. Expressions like “language”, “experience”, “world”, and “consciousness” have no deeper meaning than the words “table” or “chair”. Anything that cannot be expressed in daily language is meaningless. Philosophy is “therapy of language”, and perfect clarity will make philosophical problems disappear.
Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976)
At the end of the First World War of 1914 – 18 there was an atmosphere which had eradicated the spirit of humanism, liberalism and optimism that had followed the period of Enlightenment. The spiritual climate created an increased interest in the thoughts of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger was working in this climate. Another important influence for Heidegger was the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938). Phenomenology develops its thinking around how the outlook of man is, how phenomena and patterns of phenomena are experienced by man – rather than attempting to find out “how the outer world is”. Phenomenology is the teaching about what appears to be, how things appear to reason and thought. The sharp distinction between subjective thinking and the outer world is then blurred.
In his youth, Heidegger studied Augustin and the great scolastics. The existential experience of the Christian tradition was an important point of departure for his thinking. The existential experience of Christianity was considered valid, even when reformulated in non-religious terms. Heidegger wanted to examine this experience from a phenomenological perspective, in order to find “the meaning of existence”. The human being is not something in the world. It is its world, and can be understood completely from the interplay between the individual on the one hand, and things, its fellow human beings, and the future on the other. He talks about “existentials”, formal structures in human ways of being. Heidegger makes a distinction between phenomena that are linked to a given individual’s experiences, and existentials that are ontological entities concerning human beings in general. The first phenomena are subjective, whereas the latter are objective and general. However, it is only through the individual experiences we gain insight into the general ways of humans.
Being a human is to be in the world, and in this sense human condition is seen in an existential way. The human being can find himself or lose himself, as it lives in activities, in situations, and in tensions which happen then and there – and there is no being outside of the world. There is no pre-existing or transcendent purpose to realize, as Aristotle thought. The human being is “thrown into life” and forced to survive under conditions it has not chosen. All existence is shaped by time and place. Thoughts and actions are developed in that context. The certainty of death is part of that context, and this certainty creates worries about the future and all the behavioral patterns that are linked to these worries.
For Heidegger, as for Nietzsche, metaphysics or philosophy in itself are signs of illness – because they assume clear and explicit distinctions between being and consciousness. For Heidegger, as for Wittgenstein, philosophy is mainly critique of philosophy. Thinking implies going back to memories of what existed before consciousness and reflection fell into philosophy, before the subject placed itself outside reality and the wish to take hold of reality as something distant. The metaphysical subject transforms being into something that can be manipulated and controlled. For Heidegger, things can be acquired and possessed, but being is something that just is. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger talk about nihilism. This is seen as what happened after the guiding values of time after Christianity had lost their normative power. The pre-Christian cultivation of life had been replaced by the Christian cultivation of suffering, and the result was a rejection of human life and all the values that had their basis in life on earth. Nihilism was about forgetting the state of being, and for both Nietzsche and Heidegger it was a main task to beat back nihilism. Philosophy has in Heidegger’s view distorted the question of “the meaning of being” into “the nature of being”.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980)
Sartre was also inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology, studying phenomena as they appear and avoiding reductionism (simplifications and rationalizations). What man is, shows in those situations and activities where he finds itself. For Heidegger and Sartre (as for Karl Jaspers who inspired them), Freud’s psychoanalysis was pseudoscience, because Freud seeks to explain the obvious by reducing it to appearances of a hidden nature. The existential philosophers are concerned with many of the same phenomena as Freud. However, they distinguish in a much sharper way between the human as an object and as a consciousness. While Freud reduced phenomena of consciousness to physical processes, and explained physical processes as caused by states of consciousness, phenomenologists made a sharper distinction here. They leave the analysis of man as an object to the relevant sciences, while concentrating their attention on understanding those relationships that show up in human consciousness.
The existential philosophers, of whom Sartre was the most prominent, analyzed states of consciousness or affectations in the context of human condition, the objective conditions of life. This type of analysis is of a different nature, and requires different notions, than the traditional philosophical thinking and the notions used there. It requires more empathy and recognition than the traditional thinking. This effort was already present in Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s work, but took on a more systematic character with Sartre and his followers. For Sartre, human revolt in the face of conventions was a central feature of his work. Revolt was seen as a manifestation of freedom to choose and to transgress limits.
A point of departure for Sartre, as for Descartes, was the distinction between consciousness and things. Sartre, however, sees this in a different way than Descartes does in his distinction between subject and object, res cogitans and res extensa. For Sartre, consciousness is a void – a vacuum – which aspires things and fills itself up with them. He calls this phenomenon the “intentionality” of consciousness. In traditional metaphysics the soul was eternal and free from the vicissitudes of life, which is why it could be considered as something apart – as Descartes did. In Sartre’s world, consciousness is exposed to external conditions in a radical way – far beyond what was thought in traditional metaphysics. Sartre believes, like Heidegger, that subjective experiences can be analyzed and that it is possible to find, categorize and retain general truths. He sees anguish as linked with freedom and the fear of the void; it is not death that creates anguish, it is freedom and life. Anguish arises from all the possibilities that freedom offer.