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From Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science

and Psychoanalysis (1995)

With revised opening section, 2002


ONCE WE ACCEPT THE theory of natural selection, whether in its Darwinian form or in some less ideologically skewed version which places less stress on competition, warfare and ‘the struggle for existence’, it would appear to follow that any systematic inquiry into human nature must allow itself, to some extent at least, to be guided by that theory.


One conclusion which might be derived from such an evolutionary perspective is that the task of investigating human nature is now primarily one to be undertaken by biologists or Darwinian theorists. On this view those who are not biological scientists can do little more than wait for those who are to refine and develop the ideas which they have already begun to formulate. This position certainly seems to have some currency among those who work in the humanities. Long used to deferring to scientists, it would seem that some thinkers are quite prepared to leave the field of human nature to those who have in the past sometimes been seen as hostile to the humanities – to those trained in the natural sciences.


In his commentary on the claims of science to deal with human nature, neurobiologist Kenan Malik notes that a recent series of seminars on Darwinism, held at the London School of Economics, attracted not only leading evolutionary biologists but ‘a galaxy of non-scientific personalities from broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg to neurologist-turned-opera director Jonathan Miller … [and] the novelist Ian McEwan …’  As Malik writes:


The new Darwinians have become the scientific superstars of our age. Their books dominate the science sections in every bookshop, while they are increasingly called upon to pontificate about political and social issues from a Darwinian point of view. From Cosmopolitan to Time magazine, the media has become seduced by their vision of Man. TV producers fall over themselves to bring sociobiology to a new audience.[1] 


Were this cultural trend to be allowed to develop unchallenged, however, it might have a particularly odd consequence. For it might mean that the subject of human nature  would be left primarily to those trained in the natural sciences – which have traditionally excluded human beings from their field of study – while those professionally engaged in what are sometimes called ‘the human sciences’ would make no contribution to it.


This seems undesirable for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important of these is that, historically speaking, the contributions which Darwinian science have made to our conception of human nature have left a great deal to be desired. For although Darwin’s theory provides a solution to the problem of species and an account of the development of organic forms, the many attempts which have been made to apply it to human behaviour are by no means always persuasive. While incidental insights are plentiful, Darwinian theory cannot yet offer any adequate or comprehensive explanation of the development of human culture or the extraordinary complexity of human behaviour.


The limitations of the theory of natural selection in this respect were by no means always recognised by Darwin himself and they have certainly not always been recognised since. These limitations have frequently led to the formulation of extreme hereditarian theories of human behaviour such as the ‘ - ’ model of human nature which was put forward in uncompromising terms by the biologist C. D. Darlington:


Owing to inborn characters we live in different worlds even though we live side by side. We see the world through different eyes, even the part of it we see in common ... The materials of heredity contained in the chromosomes are the solid stuff which ultimately determines the course of history.[2]


In recent years an increasingly influential group of ethologists, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists have attempted to explain human behaviour in terms of similarly narrow hereditarian categories. In doing so they have contrived – as scientists frequently do – to disregard what some would see as one of the most important of all scientific principles. For instead of sceptically testing out their theories against the hardest and most refractory forms of evidence, some biologically orientated thinkers have sought out just those aspects of human behaviour which can be fitted most easily into crude forms of genetic determinism. Ethologists frequently observe that primates copulate; they do not frequently observe that some primates publish poetry, that other primates worship the Virgin Mary, and that others still are professional philosophers. It is just such facts as these, however, which remain anomalous and unaccounted for in neo-Darwinian biology. If we wish tacitly to maintain a theistic view of the world, this will not, of course, disturb us. But if we wish truly to illuminate human nature, then it is just these mysteries which must be turned into problems.


Alex Comfort is undoubtedly correct when, writing as a biologist, he reminds us that ‘if we reject Mendel as bourgeois, we find that we have no beef.’[3] But what we must always bear in mind is that Mendel’s theories were designed to explain how the peas in his monastery garden reproduced their species, and not why the monks in the chapel within had renounced the opportunity to reproduce theirs. The fact that neither our ascetic and religious behaviour nor our complex non-reproductive behaviour can be explained by the existing theory of natural selection appears to indicate that some crucial element is missing from that theory. The ultimate aim of any empirical study of human nature must be to supply that momentously important missing element. It must thus set out to complete the enterprise which nineteenth century theorists such as Darwin and Wallace started by adding to the  theory of the evolution of organic forms a theory which is capable of accounting for the complexity of the human imagination, the development of human culture, and the course of human history.


In this respect one of the most interesting contributions to a Darwinian theory of human nature to have emerged from within the discipline of biology itself is that made by Gerald Edelman. Behind Edelman’s work on the extraordinary complexity and biological plasticity of the human brain there lies a very large theoretical aspiration. For he himself sets out to go beyond the hard-centred hereditarianism of some neo-Darwinian theory in order to complete Darwin’s intellectual project. ‘I have written this book,’ Edelman writes in the preface to Bright Air, Brilliant Fire,


because I think its subject is the most important one imaginable. We are at the beginning of the neuroscientific revolution. At its end we shall know how the mind works, what governs our nature, and how we know the world. Indeed, what is now going on in neuroscience may be looked at as a prelude to the largest possible scientific revolution, one with inevitable and important social consequences.[4]


Edelman explicitly recognises that his own theory has limitations and implicitly acknowledges that his scientific approach, which draws primarily upon the tradition of the natural sciences, leaves many aspects of human behaviour out of account. Yet even given these qualifications, the aspirations which lie behind his theory are huge and they promise – or threaten – an intellectual revolution which would transform the entire way in which we study and reflect upon our own nature.


Thinkers of a liberal humanist or pluralist disposition, however, are likely to react to this prospect with alarm, and point to the dangers posed by the kind of overarching theory Edelman seeks to construct. The fact that the most general exposition of his ideas is dedicated not only to Darwin but also to Freud may itself reinforce these doubts. The doubts are not likely to be dispelled by Edelman’s discussion of psychoanalysis, which includes the claim that ‘[Freud’s] basic theses about the action of the unconscious were essentially correct’.[5] But what is perhaps even more important is that, although Edelman is a physiologist whose work is entirely concerned with the human body, and above all with the most complex part of the human body – the brain – he presents his own work as a study of the human ‘mind’. Not only this but he frequently refers to the ‘mind’ as though it were a real entity which can be illuminated by biological research. As we have seen, the goal of the neuroscientific revolution which Edelman has announced is not to understand human nature. It is to ‘know how the mind works ...’


It is just here, I believe, that we need to question Edelman’s project most carefully. It might well be thought that the project of constructing a genuinely biological theory of human nature which goes beyond psychoanalysis is one which is entirely dependent on the kind of neuroscientific and biological expertise which a scientist like Edelman is uniquely well qualified to provide. There is perhaps a sense in which this is true. But I believe it would also be true to see the success of such a project as being dependent not simply on overcoming intellectual difficulties but on recognising that many of the difficulties with which theorists traditionally grapple are in fact illusions of their own creation. The main task, it might be said, is not to tie new and ever more complex intellectual knots, but to untie old ones which need never have been tied in the first place.


There can be little doubt that of all the ancient and unnecessary intellectual knots which have prevented us from unravelling the strands of our own nature, the most important is the dispute as to whether theories of human nature should be based on a study of the observable behaviour of men and women or on a study of the workings of the human ‘mind’. In this connection we must recall that Freud himself did not set out to provide a theory of human behaviour. As the word ‘psychoanalysis’ itself suggests, he set out to provide a theory of ‘mind’ and a very large part of his writings is given over to an attempt to construct a model of the internal structure and ‘mechanism’ of ‘mind’.


The problem of ‘mind’ and ‘behaviour’ has not only occupied psychoanalytic theorists, but it has also perplexed philosophers, academic psychologists and anthropologists alike. The anthropologist Lévi-Strauss has assumed the problem solved and has put forward what is, in effect, an entire theory of human nature which is based entirely on hypotheses about the internal structure of the ‘mind’. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle has argued that the very concept of ‘mind’ is a philosophical illusion hailing chiefly from Descartes and sustained by logical errors and ‘category mistakes’ which have become habitual.[6] More recently cognitive psychologists have found in the computer an ostensibly mind-like machine which they have frequently treated not simply as a metaphor but as a model for the human mind.[7]  More recently still the philosopher Colin McGinn has argued that the very nature of the human mind precludes us from finding a solution to the mind–body problem.[8]


The difficulty which has come to surround the problem of ‘mind’ and ‘behaviour’ is, I believe, largely illusory. But because that difficulty now looms so large over any attempt to construct a theory of human nature we can scarcely proceed as though its shadow did not exist, for to do this would merely give rise to even greater intellectual confusion.


Much of the intellectual confusion which already surrounds this issue derives directly from that universal modern predicament to which I have already referred – our culturally orthodox lack of familiarity with the orthodoxies of our own culture. For the view that the secrets of human nature can be unlocked only by a theory of mind is, although commonly held by secular philosophers and psychologists, essentially a Christian idea. This idea has its most significant source in the ancient Christian-Platonic belief that human beings are made up of two separa ies: an animal body which was created by God, and a mind, spirit or soul which was given by God uniquely to Man.


It was on this ancient theological doctrine that the discipline of psychology was first constituted. For psychology was originally itself a branch of Christian theology, the word having been created in the fifteenth century by theologians who were engaged in the study of the human soul.[9] In the eighteenth century the word began to be applied to more ‘scientific’ forms of analysis, and at the end of the nineteenth century it was adapted by Freud and applied to his own methods of analysis and treatment. By this time the theological origins of psychology had been all but forgotten. But the theological and moral assumptions which had always been associated with it had survived almost intact and continued invisibly to determine the way in which both Freud and many other psychologists approached the problem of human nature. If we are to appreciate the immense significance of the invisible moral theology which still underlies the thought of many of the most influential secular thinkers in the twentieth century, then we must first reconstruct that theology in its original form.


The most influential Christian psychologists never needed to accord themselves that name, for there is a sense in which Christianity is itself a psychological theory. This theory was first formulated by Jesus and Paul, and it was developed over the centuries by monks, bishops, theologians and Christian scholars, who sometimes found in the philosophy of Plato an ideal vehicle for their own distinctive theology. Right at the very heart of Christian psychology there lies the issue of the relationship between the flesh and the spirit – between the animal body of men and women and their supposedly immortal and non-animal soul. In view of the nature of Christian doctrine, this relationship could not be seen as anything other than a profoundly moral one. In one succinct formulation of Christian orthodoxy the function of the ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ was to act as ‘God’s viceroy’ in man. By disciplining and subjugating the unruly desires and appetites of the flesh, it would, in an ideal world, force man to behave in a way that constantly reflected his inward spiritual nature. Reason would play its proper role of chastising concupiscence, and by chastising it, would make men and women chaste. In reality, however, such an ideal subordination of the carnal body of human beings to their divine soul was by no means always realised. For, through Adam’s fall, sin had entered into the world, and men and women’s fleshly appetites were now in a constant state of rebellion against the pure spirit which had originally been designed to rule over them at all times.


This did not mean, however, that the unique spiritual essence of human beings had been destroyed. For the fact that men and women might at times behave like animals, and copulate with every evidence of animal lust and enjoyment, was not to be taken to indicate that they actually were animals. It was, rather, a sign that they had allowed their ‘real’ spiritual nature to be overcome by their carnality and had thus failed to reflect their inward essence in their outward bodily behaviour. In this respect at least the behaviour of men and women might very well be an extremely unreliable guide to their true nature, and might, indeed, bear no relationship to it at all. For this reason, although human behaviour was always a matter of concern to the Christian moralist, it was never a stumbling-block for the Christian theologian. For whenever the unruly, violent or lustful behaviour of men and women seemed to offer evidence that their ‘real’ nature was not reasonable, spiritual and chaste, the theologian could deal with this evidence by the simple expedient of disregarding it – or, to be more precise, by invoking the myth of the Fall in order to explain it. Whatever men and women might do, or whatever they might say that they felt, desired or lusted after, these actions and utterances could never be taken as a reliable guide to their ‘true’ nature. For although the purity of the soul might be defiled by lustful and concupiscent behaviour, it always remained susceptible to cleansing, and could never be destroyed except by God himself.


It would be wrong to suggest, however, that this faith in the reality of men and women’s spiritual soul ever led Christian psychologists to entirely disregard the evidence which was offered to them by human behaviour. For just as it was possible for the rebellious forces of the body to overthrow the authority of the divine reason which had been ordained to rule within human beings, so it was also possible for men and women to use their rational souls in order to chastise concupiscence and thus subdue and control their fleshly appetites. The Christian had, indeed, been enjoined by Paul to ‘put to death’ these fleshly appetites and to live the life of the pure spirit. When Christians sought to obey this injunction and led lives which were reasonable and chaste in all outward respects, then the evidence of their behaviour, far from being disregarded, was treated in an entirely different way by theologians, and was immediately construed as an outward sign of their inward reality and of man’s ‘true’ spiritual nature.


It was, however, this inward spiritual reality, and not any behavioural manifestation of it, which always remained the real focus of Christian psychology. For since all men and women were deemed to be subject to Original Sin, no form of human behaviour, however apparently sinless, could ever quite convey the true reality of the spirit. Spotless behaviour might well be a reliable indicator of the general nature of that reality, but it was not the pure spirit itself. For the spirit was an immaterial entity, imperceptible to mere bodily senses. In view of this its real nature could be approached most closely only by the rational soul itself, meditating in silence upon its own attributes and defining these in purely abstract and rational ways, undefiled by the corruptions of the flesh.


It was this view of human beings’ God-given and rational soul which would eventually lead, in the fifteenth century, to the creation of psychology as a specific area of theological inquiry. More importantly still, however, it was this view which was preserved almost intact when, some two hundred years later, the modern discipline of psychology began to emerge. At this stage in its development psychology was seen as the scientific counterpart of Newtonian physics, and it is crucial to recognise that the fundamental assumptions of both these disciplines were still quite explicitly grounded in Christian theology. Just as Newton had seen himself as exploring the manifestations of God’s rationality in the physical world, so psychologists saw themselves as students of the same divine rationality as it was manifested in the postulated ‘non-physical’ world of the mind. In the words of Gilbert Ryle:


It was supposed that ... as Newtonian scientists studied the phenomena of the one field, so there ought to be scientists studying the phenomena of the other field. ‘Psychology’ was supposed to be the one empirical study of ‘mental phenomena’. Moreover, as Newtonian scientists found and examined their data in visual, auditory and tactual perception, so psychologists would find and examine their counterpart data by counterpart non-visual, non-auditory, non-tactual perception.[10]


Strictly speaking, as Ryle’s words imply, the original programme of psychology granted to psychologists no licence to investigate those aspects of human behaviour which are accessible to the ordinary observer. Secular psychologists, like the most rigorous kind of Christian psychologists, were expected to concern themselves solely with the immaterial ‘reality’ of the mind itself.


In practice, however, secular psychologists are no more likely than theologians to keep their speculations unsullied by the evidence of their senses. For, as Ryle remarks, ‘a researcher’s day cannot be satisfactorily occupied in observing nonentities and describing the mythical.’[11] The official strict programme of psychology was never abandoned completely, but it did undergo a series of expedient adaptations. In making these adaptations secular psychologists unconsciously followed the patterns of thought which had been established by their theological predecessors and which had been deeply internalised into their own intellectual outlook. Just as Christian theologians had concluded that certain kinds of ‘pure’ behaviour were related more closely to the inner essence of the soul than other kinds of behaviour, so psychologists came to the conclusion that certain kinds of human behaviour betrayed the structure of internal mental phenomena more directly than others. Since such capacities as memory, intelligence, learning and perception all seem to be possessed of the necessary ghostly characteristics – they do not immediately betray their unclean physicality or the marks of their animal origins – eighteenth- and nineteenth-century psychologists singled out these as legitimate areas of study. In this way rationalist psychology redefined some aspects of human behaviour as ‘mental’ in order that it might facilitate its own researches. But the orthodox pre-Darwinian psychologist would no more have dreamed of using the observable behaviour of men and women as a key to the reality of ‘mind’ than would an orthodox theologian have regarded fornication or adultery as forms of ‘spiritual behaviour’ or as evidence of the real nature of the human soul. Secular psychologists thus tacitly preserved the Christian-Platonic view of the soul’s ‘complete incontamination’, and continued to regard the larger part of human behaviour, particularly that which could be deemed emotional, sensual or immoral, as being entirely irrelevant to their own concerns.


This tacit definition of the ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ as an area of purity and abstract rationality was challenged by some philosophers, and it would eventually be challenged in a particularly interesting way by Freud. Partly because of his Darwinian orientation, Freud’s concept of mind was significantly less chaste than any which can be found in the mainstream of rationalist psychology. We have already encountered William Wheeler’s view that the theories of orthodox psychologists at the turn of the nineteenth century ‘read as if they had been composed by beings that had been born and bred in a belfry, castrated in early infancy, and fed continually for fifty years through a tube with a stream of liquid nutriment of constant chemical composition.’[12] When it is contrasted with the kind of orthodox theories Wheeler refers to, Freud’s ‘ isation’ of the concept of mind does indeed seem radical and revolutionary. Yet, as we have seen, Freud did not repudiate many of the central doctrines which had always been associated with the traditional theological concept of mind. Rather he took over this traditional concept and attempted, as it were, to extend it downwards. He continued to regard rational consciousness as the distinctive quality of human beings and, following the psychobiologism of Ernst Haeckel, tended to regard sexual and sadistic impulses not as an intrinsic part of the ‘conscious soul’ but as a residue of man’s animal past which had now been relegated to the ‘Unconscious’. In this way Freud preserved the moral dualism of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but now located that dualism within the mind itself. Whereas theologians had traditionally seen human beings as riven by a conflict between their invisible rational soul and their all too visible sexual desires and sinful behaviour, Freud’s attempt to extend the concept of mind compelled him to see itself as a mental phenomenon.


He went on to apply systematically to the entire realm of visible behaviour the same principles of interpretation which Judaeo-Christian psychology and theology had developed in order to safeguard the belief in an invisible rational soul. Just as they had disregarded the evidence of observable human behaviour, and seen it as an entirely unreliable indicator of internal mental phenomena, so Freud, inheriting this profoundly sceptical attitude, set out to study not the whole range of behaviour or the sexual fantasies in which men and women consciously engage, but the invisible mental events which allegedly lie behind such behaviour. Just as theologians had traditionally seen the ‘spiritual behaviour’ of virtuous men and women as but an imperfect and often misleading extrusion of the internal reality of the pure spirit, so Freud saw the sensual behaviour of men and women as an imperfect and often misleading extrusion of that internal psychical reality which he believed ultimately to be the sole legitimate object of scientific psychology.


The immediate result of Freud’s attempt to extend the traditional concept of mind was thus not to render a larger area of human behaviour susceptible to scientific observation but to effectively remove the ‘flesh’ from the realm of the visible and redefine it as belonging to the realm of the invisible. Throughout his theoretical writings Freud maintains this attitude of modified theological traditionalism and sees himself not as a scientific investigator of human behaviour, but as a student of the human soul – die Seele. He repeatedly refers to this ‘soul’ as though it were a corporeal body extended in space and, as we have seen, a large part of his work is given over to an attempt to lay hold of this ghostly body and to describe its anatomy, its ghostly digestive system and its intimate internal functions by using models drawn from electricity, hydraulic systems and other complex physical phenomena. This can be seen both in the fabulous mechanical excesses of the early Project and in his later work where he postulates the existence of a ‘psychical apparatus’ – a mind or soul which inhabits and in some mysterious way pilots the body. Throughout his writings Freud continues to describe, anatomise, particularise, and occasionally anticipate Lacan by presenting diagrams of the internal shape and dynamics of the mind. It was in the course of his pursuit of these speculative studies of the human soul that Freud convinced himself of the reality not only of such well-known concepts of mental geography as the ego, the superego and the id but also of numerous abstruse mental processes which he then named: cathexis, decathection, counter-cathexis, object-choice, condensation, displacement, imago, object-representation, constancy-principle, fusion, defusion, anaclitic model, mnemic residue. All these and countless other terms were invented or adopted by Freud not to describe any observable entities or behaviour, but to postulate the existence of the spiritual entities and mental processes which he ‘needed’ in order to construct his theory of mind.


In his selection of problems Freud never ceased to be influenced by his theory of mind. A very significant portion of his work was given over to the study of dreams, jokes, errors and slips of the tongue – all areas of human behaviour which might be held to afford the investigator some kind of privileged access to invisible ‘mental phenomena’. His therapeutic interests were presented as part of the same programme. Freud believed that the minds of his patients had, in effect, been turned inside out as a consequence of their ‘neurosis’:


If we throw a crystal to the floor, it breaks; but not into haphazard pieces. It comes apart along the line of its cleavage into fragments whose boundaries, though they were invisible, were predetermined by the crystal’s structure. Mental patients are split and broken structures of the same kind ... They have turned away from external reality, but for that very reason they know more about internal, psychical reality and can reveal a number of things to us that would otherwise be inaccessible to us.[13]


Even though Freud’s biologically based concept of mind extended the range of behaviour which could be considered psychologically significant, this behaviour was held to be relevant only because it could be regarded as a luminous extrusion of ‘internal psychical reality’ – a representative of the spirit-world of the mind which had inadvertently become incarnate in a bit of physical behaviour. The kinds of behaviour to which psychoanalysis does attribute significance in this way are frequently odd, obscure or abnormal. What ordinary men and women do, what they believe, and what they say that they feel – which is to say the larger part of human behaviour and human history – is treated as though it constituted suspect evidence, or as though it belonged merely to some external, mechanical realm which bears no direct relationship to ‘mental phenomena’ and can therefore hold no interest for the psychologist. It is for these complex traditional reasons that the psychoanalytic movement has very often disregarded the very research into human behaviour which it has helped to inspire. At the same time psychoanalysts, in their doctrinally inspired search for hidden or cryptic manifestations of the ‘unconscious mind’, have frequently failed to study with sufficient attention the complexities of ordinary human consciousness.


In all these respects orthodox psychoanalytic theorists are in very much the same position as those spiritualists or theists whose psychological assumptions Freud inherited. Secure in their faith in an invisible psychical reality, they have very little motivation to consider the merely visible, particularly when this is a source of counter-instances to their own theories. Psychoanalysts normally defend this position by maintaining that through ‘clinical experience’ they have privileged access to this invisible reality. For, as Charles Rycroft writes, the data of psychoanalysis ‘are derived not from the direct observation of human behaviour, but from the analyst’s experience of a particular kind of therapeutic relationship invented by Freud’.[14]


It must be recognised that the therapeutic relationship which Freud invented was itself designed according to a model suggested by his theory of mind. In constructing this abstruse theological theory Freud never ceased to be influenced by the central tradition of Judaeo-Christian psychology, and never succeeded in emancipating himself from the contempt in which this tradition held the evidence offered by human behaviour. For this reason Freud, in his attempt to construct a theoretical model of human nature, was very often in the position of the astronomer who is so engrossed in making mathematical calculations in his notebook that he considers his observatory a distraction and his telescope an impediment to science.


When, more than half a century before the psychoanalytic movement was born, Darwin had set out to solve the problem of species, he had never ceased to be acutely aware of the theological origins of the disciplines of geology and biology in which he worked. Although he never succeeded in throwing off this religious inheritance entirely, and eventually capitulated to a secularised form of Christian teleology, Darwin always endeavoured to divest his chosen disciplines of the abstruse theological complexities which had grown up around them, and to study anew that evidence which he could see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands. Later, when he attempted to account for his success in formulating the theory of natural selection, Darwin said simply that he ‘saw what the clever men had missed’. At the end of the nineteenth century Freud attempted to bring about a similar revolution in the discipline of psychology. Freud, however, was unaware of the theological origins of his own discipline. Rather than divesting that discipline of its needless theological complexities, he saw it as his duty to multiply those complexities. His theory failed because, too often, in his anxiety to construct an abstract and intellectually complex theory of mind, he missed what simple men could see.


Freud’s theories provide one very significant example of the manner in which ancient theological attitudes towards the problem of ‘mind’ and ‘behaviour’ continue invisibly to determine the shape of modern theories of human nature. It is important to recognise, however, that whereas Freud challenged the traditional view of mind as an area of purity and abstract rationality, the mainstream of our rationalist intellectual culture has preserved the orthodox Judaeo-Christian view in an almost intact form. There is no clearer example of the direct continuity between traditional theological rationalism and modern secular rationalism than that provided by the emergence in the latter part of the twentieth century of structuralism and post-structuralism. Since the structuralist movement and its more recent derivatives have made a very significant contribution to shaping the intellectual environment in which we now think about human nature, the traditionalism which underlies its supposed ‘postmodernism’ needs to be borne in mind.


The very fact that structuralist theories succeeded in attracting such a large number of adherents throughout the Western world during the 1960s and the 1970s would in itself seem to indicate a certain compatibility between structuralist doctrines and older and more revered elements in our cultural tradition. Observers of the structuralist movement, indeed, like observers of the psychoanalytic movement, have sometimes noted a powerful religious element in the way the structuralist ‘faith’ has been spread by its advocates. This religious dimension of the structuralist movement was certainly visible in the group which formed itself round Jacques Lacan. At his most extreme Lacan projected himself not simply as a messiah but as an inscrutable god. The young psychoanalysts who were his students frequently referred to him as ‘God the Father’, and one of his former patients, Danièle Arnoux, has even recounted how she sought out Lacan rather than enter into analysis with one of his followers on the grounds that ‘it was better to deal with God than his saints’.[15]


It is not only in relation to Lacan that such cryptic religious traditionalism may be discerned. For the case of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who is generally agreed to be the ‘purest’ of all structuralist thinkers, provides an even more interesting example.


The anthropologist Adam Kuper has described how, during the 1960s, several leading British anthropologists succeeded in ‘converting’ some of their most promising students to the new structuralist doctrines. He adds that their success


was facilitated by the almost religious enthusiasm of some of the proponents of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas. ‘Structuralism’ came to have something of the momentum of a millennial movement and some of its adherents felt that they formed a secret society of the seeing in a world of the blind. Conversion was not just a matter of accepting a new paradigm. It was, almost, a question of salvation.[16]


The significance of such religious fervour can be appreciated only if we examine Lévi-Strauss’s own ideology. For at the very heart of Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual system there lies a belief which is so unimpeachably orthodox that it has often entirely escaped observation. He maintains, with no less rigour than the strictest kind of theologian, that human beings are made up of two separa ies, whose theological origins he minimally disguises by describing them as ‘the organism’ and ‘the intellect’. In his view the sole business both of the psychologist and the anthropologist is to investigate the operations of the ‘intellect’, for it is by this means alone that the distinctive essence of human nature – ‘l’esprit humain’ – can be uncovered. Throughout his work, Lévi-Strauss implicitly characterises this ‘human spirit’ in the same way that theologians have traditionally characterised man’s God-given soul – it is orderly, chaste and rational, and apparently undefiled by any form of emotion or desire. Indeed Lévi-Strauss makes it quite clear that the study of human emotions is irrelevant to anthropology as he conceives it:


As affectivity is the most obscure side of man, there has been the constant temptation to resort to it, forgetting that what is refractory to explanation is ipso facto unsuitable for use in explanation ...


Actually, impulses and emotions explain nothing: they are always results, either of the power of the body or the impotence of the mind. In both cases they are consequences, never causes. The latter can be sought only in the organism, which is the exclusive concern of biology, or in the intellect, which is the sole way offered to psychology, and to anthropology as well.[17]


It should be said that Lévi-Strauss’s scepticism about explanations which invoke affectivity as a causal factor is, in one respect, entirely legitimate. To claim that people resort to redemptive rituals because they afford relief from guilt is not to offer an explanation; it is simply to beg the question as to what the nature of guilt is, and why particular rituals offer relief from it. But what is distinctive about Lévi-Strauss’s position is that his methodology makes it impossible to ask such questions. For, as can be seen from the passage quoted above, he proceeds from the truistic observation that human emotions are difficult to explain to the arbitrary conclusion that anthropologists should disregard emotional factors. Instead the human animal is divided into the fictions of ‘intellect’ and ‘organism’, the intellect being held to exist in some obscure and mystical way outside the organism. Our emotions are, apparently, neither part of the organism nor of the intellect. They appear to exist in some undefined limbo where no human science may legitimately address its attentions.


The ontology presented here bears no relationship to any possible post-Darwinian view of the human organism. The main difference between Lévi-Strauss’s view of the ‘human spirit’ and traditional theological views is that, whereas theologians tended to regard the human soul as being composed of a kind of immaterial essence of rationality and goodness, Lévi-Strauss attributes to it the very characteristics of order, regularity and pattern which are found in mathematics, and sees it as being composed of unconscious mental ‘structures’. As Edmund Leach puts it in his study of Lévi-Strauss, the object of analysis ‘is conceived as a kind of algebraic matrix of possible permutations and combinations’.[18]


Like his theological predecessors Lévi-Strauss sees the distinctive reality of ‘man’ as residing entirely within this invisible spiritual entity. Like them he is thus compelled to adopt an extremely radical attitude towards the evidence which is provided by human behaviour. For, since the days when the fundamental tenets of Judaeo-Christian psychology were first formulated, men and women have not, by and large, become any less unruly, any less violent or any less lustful, and their behaviour still seems to provide evidence that their ‘real’ nature is far from being chaste, rational and orderly. Lévi-Strauss deals with this evidence by adopting the simple theological expedient we have already encountered – he disregards it. Because Lévi-Strauss is a rational intellectual living in the middle of the twentieth century he does not, of course, appeal to the doctrine of Original Sin in order to justify this ancient strategy. But it is precisely because he is a rational intellectual living in the middle of the twentieth century that he does not need to. For both that doctrine and the Judaeo-Christian psychology which is associated with it have now become so deeply internalised into our habits of thought that they have come to form a kind of invisible intellectual environment from which secular thinkers may draw assumptions without ever recognising that they have done so and without it ever being noticed by their readers.


Lévi-Strauss’s greatest difficulty is thus not in persuading his readers to disregard the evidence of human behaviour, but in finding evidence to support his own theory of the particular character of the human soul. In past centuries traditional Christian missionary-anthropologists who took to journeying among savage and barbarous peoples in remote corners of the earth often experienced similar difficulties in verifying their theories. For although there was, among the lewd and obscene rituals of primitive tribes, much evidence to be had for the truth of the doctrine of Original Sin, there was very little of that chaste and rational behaviour which might be expected from those in possession of God-given souls. Such difficulties were not insuperable, however. For if these missionaries examined the taboos of primitive cultures closely enough, they would invariably discover some faint glimmerings of moral awareness, some sign that the immortal soul had not been entirely lost. Kneeling down beside these glimmerings of God, they would at once begin to fan them into the true flames of the spirit. Before very long the natives in question would be persuaded to desist from their barbarous rituals, fornicate less frequently or less openly, and begin to exhibit more and more of that kind of virtuous behaviour which alone offers confirmation of the tenets of Christian psychology.


Lévi-Strauss’s difficulties, it must be conceded, are far more acute than those of the traditional Christian missionary. For whereas Christian theology has always characterised the human soul as both wholly good and wholly rational, Lévi-Strauss, in an unconscious attempt to disguise from himself the moral nature of his own theology, has found the essence of the human soul to reside purely in its rationality. Since he believes that this rationality takes a specific logical and algebraic form, this means that no ordinary behaviour, however good it may be, can satisfy his need for evidence. What his theories demand from the members of primitive cultures is evidence not so much of good morality as of good mathematics. For if the ‘human spirit’ is indeed logical and algebraic in its essence, then it follows that even primitive cultures will provide some evidence of this. Expectations which are too reasonable, however, are very often thwarted. While it is moderately easy to find evidence of algebraic skill and absorption in abstract intellectual problems in the classrooms of the Sorbonne, the same task becomes a great deal more difficult when it is pursued in the jungles of South America.


Historically speaking, however, poverty of evidence has never been an obstacle to faith. Lévi-Strauss’s solution to an apparently intractable theological problem is to claim that the abstract logical skills of the members of primitive cultures have been secreted all the time in their myths and marriage customs without either them, or any other anthropologist, ever having been aware of this fact. Using his own Freud-like powers of rational exegesis and abstract ingenuity, Lévi-Strauss proceeds to analyse these myths and marriage customs in such a way that the evidence which is required by his hypothesis emerges from them. His approach to myth derives directly from the kind of linguistic analysis pioneered by Jakobson. Just as structural linguistics treats phonemes as though they were the smallest components of an autonomous entity called ‘language’, so Lévi-Strauss breaks down myths into something which he calls at one point ‘mythemes’, which are held to be the smallest components of ‘l’esprit humain’. As structural linguistics disregards the affective and semantic content of language, so Lévi-Strauss disregards entirely the affective content of myths, together with their surface meaning. Following Jakobson he maintains that myths are made up of elements which are related by a process of abstract binary logic, opposing pairs of concepts such as culture and nature, the raw and the cooked, the fresh and the rotten, honey and ashes.


It is in this manner that the ‘human spirit’ is shown to be no less pure, rational and logically astringent in primitive cultures than it is in modern post-Cartesian cultures. It is by assuming the existence of an invisible spiritual entity which is separate from the human organism, and attributing to it the characteristics of order, regularity and systematic logic, that Lévi-Strauss quietly, and with very little fuss, undertakes a massive repudiation of what the non-specialist might regard as the historically constituted subject-matter of anthropology. For anthropology, as Lévi-Strauss conceives it, is not a study of human societies in all their historical, economic, religious and political dimensions. Still less is it a study of human behaviour or of the relationships which exist between parents and children, women and men, leaders and led. Anthropology is seen rather as consisting solely in the study of unconscious processes of logic which are both hypothetical and invisible. It is thus converted into a branch of speculative psychology. Any myths or customs which anthropologists have traditionally had difficulty in explaining are immediately assumed by Lévi-Strauss to be vehicles for invisible mental structures, and as such worthy of ‘structural analysis’. Any aspect of human behaviour which cannot be so redeemed by intellectuality is cast by Lévi-Strauss into the category of the ‘organism’, or regarded as emotional and therefore of no interest to the student of the intellect. The consciously held beliefs of men and women, their emotions, their everyday conduct, their habits of work, the wars that they fight, their family life and their attitudes to children, may be matters of concern to the biologist, the historian, the economist or the novelist. But they cannot – or should not – be the concern of the anthropologist who, in Lévi-Strauss’s view, is nothing other than the scientist of the human soul.


The concealed religious traditionalism of Lévi-Strauss’s attitude towards human behaviour has generally escaped observation by his colleagues. One exception is the American anthropologist Stanley Diamond. As Diamond writes: ‘Lévi-Strauss emerges as a type of religious and philosophical thinker, a theologian in spite of himself, who cannot accept an apocalyptic notion of God and thus adopts an anthropological stance in order to ground his arguments in “reality”.’[19]


Lévi-Strauss’s intellectual vision, indeed, merely intensifies, and attempts to modernise, what have always been the central tenets of Judaeo-Christian rationalism. Just as Paul, one of the most fiercely ascetic of Christian psychologists, came to perceive his own renunciation of the flesh as the very core of selfhood, and could experience other men and women as ‘real’ only to the extent that he could see them as purely spiritual, so Lévi-Strauss, in offering his own apocalyptic vision under the guise of a theoretical apprehension of social reality, effectively purges human beings of all trace of carnality. Falling victim to the most subtle form of cultural chauvinism, the most refined form of racialism, he proclaims the humanity of the ‘savage’ only after he has delivered him from his body, his emotions and his customary behaviour. He embraces the savage only after he has recreated him in his own image – the wholly rational, bodiless image of the twentieth-century intellectual.


In Christian psychology, as I have tried to show, a moral theory of how men and women ought to behave became the basis of a theological theory of how men and women had actually been created. This theory maintained that human beings contained within them a pure and rational spiritual entity which was the very essence of their nature. The underlying moral theology of Christianity has been preserved in a tacit form both by structural anthropology and, in a more complex and subtle form, by psychoanalysis. For both these theories are premised upon the notion that the human animal can be divided into rational and non-rational parts. Both assume the superiority of the supposed rational portion of the human being, and both see its function being to control, suppress or subjugate a non-rational part of the self, which is deemed to be inferior and animal.


It is certainly true that the ethos of psychoanalysis is significantly different from that of structural anthropology. The crucial difference between the two philosophies is that, while structuralism tends to maintain the ancient dualism of mind and body, and to see emotions and physical impulses as residing in some way outside the mind, psychoanalysis, as we have already seen, extends the concept of mind ‘downwards’ and characterises one particular region of the mind as being rich with impulses, emotions and appetites. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that psychoanalysis offers a theory of human nature of a fundamentally different kind from that found in the work of Lévi-Strauss. For both theories are mentalistic philosophies which reject the evidence of human behaviour. Both are dualistic and postulate a basic antinomy between entities which resemble the ‘flesh’ and the ‘spirit’. In this way the underlying moral theology of the Judaeo-Christian tradition has been tacitly preserved. Neither structural anthropology nor psychoanalysis can, for this reason, be seen as original or autonomous psychological theories. Rather they must be regarded as adaptations of traditional Judaeo-Christian psychology. Although the different claims about human nature put forward by Freud and Lévi-Strauss clearly conflict, the dispute between them is not substantially different from the dispute between Christian rationalists and Christian traditionalists in the eighteenth century (see Freud, Satan and the serpent).


It is because our traditional doctrine of ‘mind’ is itself the vehicle of a particular theory of human nature that any systematic attempt to investigate human nature must, if it is not to be ensnared by orthodoxy, begin by repudiating that doctrine.



This essay is a revised version of Chapter 22 of Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, The Ghost in the Psychoanalytic Machine’.







[1] Kenan Malik, Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human nature, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2000, pp. 150-1. See

[2] C. D. Darlington, quoted in T. H. Dobzhansky, Mankind Evolving: The Evolution of the Human Species, Yale University Press, 1962, p. 54.

[3] Alex Comfort, Darwin and the Naked Lady: Discursive Essays on Biology and Art, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961, p. 8.

[4] Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, Penguin, 1992, p. xiii.

[5] Edelman, p. 145.

[6] Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949), Penguin, 1963.

[7] Patricia Churchland, for example, in her Neurophilosophy (MIT Press, 1986), has characterised the mind as ‘essentially a kind of logic-machine that operates on sentences’. These words are quoted by Raymond Tallis in his The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness, Macmillan, 1991, p. 103. Tallis goes on to offer an extended critique of computational models of the mind in which he sees such models as defying logic while at the same time traducing ‘the rich plenitude of experience’ (p. 140).

[8] Colin McGinn, ‘Can We Solve the Mind–Body Problem?’, Mind, vol. XCVII, no. 891, July 1989. This essay is reprinted in McGinn’s The Problem of Consciousness, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, pp. 1–22.

[9]  W. M. O’Neill, The Beginnings of Modern Psychology, Penguin, 1968, p. 11.

[10].Ryle, p. 301.

[11] Ryle, pp. 302–3

[12] Wheeler, see above, Chapter 14, note 40.

[13] Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, PF2, p. 90.

[14] Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Penguin, 1972, p. xxi.

[15] Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925–1985, Free Association Books, 1990, p. 424.

[16] Adam Kuper, Anthropologists and Anthropology: The British School 1922–72, Penguin, 1973, p. 206.

[17] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, Penguin, 1969, pp. 140, 142.

[18] Edmund Leach, Lévi-Strauss, Fontana, 1970, p. 42.

[19] Stanley Diamond, ‘The Myth of Structuralism’ in Ino Rossi(ed.), The Unconscious in Culture: The Structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss in Perspective, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974, p. 315. See also Simon Clarke’s The Foundations of Structuralism: A Critique of Lévi-Strauss and the Structuralist Movement, Harvester Press/ Barnes and Noble, 1981.

     A view of Lévi-Strauss which is strikingly similar to the one I have taken here was offered recently by John Carey in a review of the paperback edition of Brian Vickers’s Appropriating Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Quarrels, Yale University Press, 1994. After praising Vickers’s critique of modern critical theory, Carey writes the following:


In setting out theory’s assumptions, [Vickers] reveals, inadvertently it seems, its resemblance to certain ancient ways of thought that may account for its residual appeal. Theory’s preference for the immaterial over the things of this world, which it pronounces unreal, recalls the anti-materialist strain in Christianity and other religions. Lévi-Strauss, reducing all social systems to abstract models, located in the unconscious, sounds curiously like St Paul: ‘In my mind, models are real, and I would say that they are the only reality ... They do not correspond to the concrete reality of empirical observation. It is necessary, in order to reach the model which is the true reality, to transcend the concrete-appearing reality.’ When St Paul talked like that, he had spiritual things in mind, not anthropological models. But the contempt for material fact and observation (shared by all the Paris intellectuals) is identical, and constitutes a sort of godforsaken Christianity (The Sunday Times, 7 August 1994, Books, p. 3).




© Richard Webster, 2002