On the “return to Freud” in post-war German philosophy

Klaus Heinrich, 2020 copyright http://www.catonbed.de

Starting now (summer 2020) a new edition of the works of Klaus Heinrich, the Berlin-based scholar of religion, is published by ça ira (Freiburg/Vienna). On the RaT-blog, we will honor this with the publication of a mini-series in which several authors are going to pick out an aspect of Heinrich’s pivotal and expansive works and examine it from their perspective. They will address especially the second edition of “anfangen mit Freud. Reden und kleine Schriften I“ (beginning with Freud. lectures and writings I) and start a dialogue with Heinrich’s expansive thought. Common theme to Heinrich’s erudite lectures and writings, spanning from Herakles and the Bible to Lukretius, from Francis Bacon to Hegel, Freud, and Paul Tillich is the need for self-reflection of modern society. This is more pressing today than ever. This is consequently tied back to the employment of religious motives in this quest for self-knowledge of a particular time.

Our series starts with a commentary on Heinrich’s Study “Anfangen mit Freud. Die ‚wiederentdeckte‘ Psychoanalyse nach dem Krieg” that comprises the first part of „anfangen mit Freud“, by Herman Westerink (Nijmegen).

[Introduction by Jakob Deibl]

In his essay Anfangen mit Freud. Die “wiederentdeckte” Psychoanalyse nach dem Krieg from 1989, Klaus Heinrich addresses the issue of the repression and “rediscovery” of Freudian psychoanalysis during and after the Second World War. What is meant with repression here is very clear at first sight. It is the very real and physical destruction of psychoanalysis, that is, the clinical practice and theory as it had emerged in the central European German-speaking world of the fin-de-siècle in the milieus of bourgeois neurasthenics, hysterics, paranoiacs, compulsive and anxiety neurotics. Their severe inner conflicts behind the morals of the intellectual facades of Vienna and Berlin provided Freud and his followers with a unique perspective on the era of the dawn of grand empires and the slow but unstoppable emergence of the political experiments that would characterize 20th-century Europe. The repression of psychoanalysis took the form of a material-physical destruction that began with the burning of books and ended in the holocaust. Amongst others it was also the destruction of a critical-clinical analysis of a collective act of self-destruction – an act of a “civilization” unable and unwilling to see and review the consquences of its discontent.

The rediscovery of psychoanalysis Heinrich speaks of is a “rediscovery”, as if we cannot be certain whether there really was a rediscovery, what the nature of that rediscovery entailed, and whether the rediscovery was one or if it consisted of many rediscoveries. Heinrich tells the story of a series of partial rediscoveries in a context of a generation of students and intellectuals in post-war Berlin. In this context the “return to Freud” was part of a deep-felt need for a new – personal, political, moral, societal, utopian… – beginning. Freud was read as an existentialist, a thinker who provided blows in the face, „heilsame Choks“ for those that could and would not avoid the fundamental question raised in Totem and Taboo: Can there be a society not built on the pillars – or ruins – of repression and guilt?

Freud was what Joachim Scharfenberg would later name a Fremdprophet, called upon by the Geisteswissenschaften to deliver virtual impossible and contradictory tasks: the critical reflection of the recent past still visible in the ruins of Berlin; the need for a psychology of internalization of societal norms and order in an era of Wiederaufbau and Wirtschaftswunder. And a generation later: the longing for a vaterlose Gesellschaft without the suppressive authorities representing the contemporary Kultur-Über-Ich; and a psychology of ego-strength and the formation of a free agent’s moral responsibility in the twilight of a new neo-liberal order yet to come.

There were many “rediscoveries” of and “returns” to Freud motivated by very different observations, questions, agendas and hopes for the future. And yet, maybe Klaus Heinrich is not only telling us that there was not one rediscovery or return, but that in fact and in a sense there was none. Why could we say this? Well, think of that other great retour à Freud, Lacan’s reading of Freud as a philosopher of the modern subject, its self-alienations and its object relations. As a critique of the tendencies in its official organizations to confine psychoanalysis to its own clinical practices, supervisions and institutions, Lacan bridged the gap with the human sciences, connecting Freud with De Saussure’s theory of language, Lévy-Strauss’ theory of culture and a whole body of philosophical and Christian thought – Aristotle, Paul, Augustine, Descartes, Heidegger…. Was this retour à Freud not also a return to Freud’s desire of firmly establishing psychoanalysis as an academic discipline? By situating psychoanalysis in between biology on the one hand and philosophy on the other hand, was Freud not expressing the conviction that psychoanalysis had a potential – with the proper and established curriculum vitae – for contributing to these fields and everything that lies between them? From evolutionary biology, via psychiatry and psychology, via culture anthropology, religious studies, literary studies, to a critique of Naturphilosophie…. But this was never to really happen. The history of psychoanalysis at the universities is not so much a story of repression and return of the repressed, or of loss and rediscovery. It is very much a history of the failure of establishing itself as a scientific and academic discipline in the first place.

This failure is what characterizes psychoanalysis, not in the sense that its practice is not truly “empirical”, its theory not “true” or “valid”, and its institutions not “legitimate”, but in the sense that psychoanalysis fundamentally resists academic disciplining when we, with Michel Foucault, consider such disciplining as “the obligation to think in common with others”. From this perspective, psychoanalysis has always been and still is a way of “thinking differently” and of criticizing the seemingly self-evident and the common sense. Its practices and theories can be seen as “exercises” in thinking differently. Seen in this way, there can only be multiple returns to Freud, that is, ongoing returns to and repetitions of starting anew while putting into question the very – always already disciplined – position from which one was thinking and speaking. Its contribution to academic thought lays in its practice and theoretical ability of constructing and reconstructing individual and collective histories and narratives from repressed origins and recollections, inciting patients and readers to question and “work through” what appeared to be self-evident.

There is likely no other text where this is more obvious than in Freud’s Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion. It is a text – though not a unified text, much more a series of “fragments” – that appears only in the very margins of the post-war returns to Freud, awaiting its more profound “rediscovery” after Klaus Heinrich gave his pivotal lecture in 1989. It can be read as a case study of a people in which Freud tries to unravel the dynamics of repression and repetition, recollection and fantasy in Jewish (and Christian) history, i.e., in its official accounts relative to the transformations in its character. It is a text that shows the almost liberating force of what it means to return to origins and open up new perspectives on history and identity.

Rat-Blog Nr. 16/2020

Herman Westerink

Herman Westerink is Associate professor of Fundamental philosophy at Radboud University in Nijmegen.

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