On 5/11/15, the basic foursome recorded a discussion of Sigmund Freud’s method of dream interpretation (for Wes Alwan’s Freud summaries, go here: https://www.philosophysummaries.com), and got a little bit into what this is supposed to tell us about the human mind, and what the results are for philosophy per Ricoeur’s admonition that we should take Freud into account.
The full episode, with no commercials, is now available for Citizens. The rest of you can listen to the first half now, with the second half being posted a week after part one, on Monday, June 1. This is a new release strategy we’re trying out, as people have long complained that our episodes are too long, plus having twice as many posts on iTunes will help our ratings there. We pitched this idea a few months ago to folks on our Facebook group, and no one seemed to object, but if you’d rather hear it all in one gulp and don’t want to wait for part 2 to show up on iTunes, we’re providing this Citizen option as an alternative. And if you Citizens are behind on other recent episodes, this new page now includes ad-free versions of all of our 2015 full-length discussions. For tips on listening to podcast files not fed through iTunes, see this page (starting in the third paragraph).
Put Sunday June 7 at 3pm Eastern Time on your calendar, and go join this Not School group if you’d like to attend the Aftershow for this episode, featuring Wes and your host Danny Lobell.
Our main text was On Dreams, a 1901 more popular and condensed presentation of his 1899 opus, The Interpretation of Dreams, although we also read a short section of the latter about the Irma dream. If you want to read exactly the selections from these two texts that we all did, get a hold of The Freud Reader. In addition, to get some idea of how his views evolved over his career, we read a 1933 lecture called “Revision of the Theory of Dreams,” which you can find in his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.
Here’s the dream-interpretation method: Right after you wake up, write down the dream. Then take each portion of the dream and free associate on it: what events from your life or things that you’ve been thinking about does it make you think of? The ultimate goal is to get at the “latent dream thoughts” that motivated the dream. To do this, you need some theory, so the second half of the process, after you’ve elaborated all of the associations you have for each dream element, is for the therapist to use his or her knowledge of many other patients to make this content conscious, which is often some repressed emotion; getting in touch with this emotion will improve your health and well-being.
Here’s the theory behind the method: Dreams are not just random, not just cognitive noise; they have a meaning and a purpose. Their purpose is to be the guardian of sleep, to keep all the things we’ve been worrying about during the day from keeping us awake. It does this by presenting some wish as already fulfilled. In the case of children’s dreams, or some adult dreams (as when you’re hungry and so dream of eating), this is obvious: kid wants candy, so kid dreams of eating candy. Most adult desires (things that come up at work and such), he thinks, don’t actually provide sufficient motive force to cause a dream: the impetus actually comes from more primal desires, ones that we’ve repressed, often related to infantile sexuality.
But the examples he gives of dreams in the readings we covered don’t bring in such things. The main one (his own from the night previous to writing the section) in On Dreams ultimately comes down to his desire to be loved unconditionally, without cost. But specifically, he resents having had to pay out some substantial sum on behalf of one of his relatives (he’s unclear on the details of the real-life situation), even though he made this payment willingly and without hesitation. That resentment, that regret, is one of those unacceptable desires that’s been repressed, and so it’s unconscious in his waking life. When sleep comes, the “censor,” as he calls it, relaxes a bit, but not all the way. We still don’t want such a concern to jump out full blown in a dream and actually wake us up (which is exactly what happens in trauma dreams, where the function of the dream as guardian of sleep fails: the repressed material is too overwhelming for the dream to handle).
Consequently, the repressed material comes out in disguise. It pulls random bits from the previous day, acquaintances from your life that you have no particular feelings about, maybe stuff from TV, and these stand in for the latent content. In Freud’s dream about wanting to be loved, he finds himself in a restaurant being hit on by some woman, not because his wish is to be with this woman (he doesn’t care about her at all), but because she’s standing in for his wife, who was had ignored him at a recent dinner. The dream presents that situation reversed, with the woman paying intense attention to him. That woman is the daughter of someone to whom Freud owed money, which brings in the notion of debt. They’re eating spinach, which brings to mind an incident where a kid in Freud’s house was complaining about the taste of spinach, and “taste” in German is “Kosten,” which is also related in German to “cost,” i.e., to being loved without cost. There are many other points made in elaborating that dream between the dream elements and the dream content, but you get the idea. The three measures that the mind uses in the “dream work” to transform the latent dram thoughts into the elements you experience in the dream are:
1. Dramatization, i.e., dreams are images, whereas the dream thought is literally a string of words (this seems strange, but see our Lacan episode for more on this point). So, the mind needs to turn words into pictures but can’t handle sentence elements like prepositions and conjunctions very well. Most dramatically, dreams don’t depict “or,” and always present exclusive options as all mashed together, giving dreams an often paradoxical element.
2. Condensation, where multiple people or situations are mashed together into one image.
3. Dream displacement, where strong feelings are transferred from repressed material (e.g., the person you’re actually angry at or in love with) to neutral material (that person who in reality you don’t give a damn about).
The resulting dream can look random, and it’s true that the choice of an item that gets pulled in for one of the above purposes will very often be arbitrary. But Freud thinks that—in a clinical setting at least, where the therapist really knows the patient, can discuss many successive dreams, and has other evidence (behavior, things that patient is complaining about)—it’s possible to reverse engineer the dream to figure out what’s going on. Of course, you can’t really do this by yourself, as you are likely to paper over the material that the censor in your dream was trying to conceal.
And remember, for Freud this will always be a wish fulfillment (with the exception of a trauma dream, as noted above). An anxiety dream, according to Freud, does contain fulfillment of the wish, but then that fulfillment itself makes you uncomfortable, because we don’t think we deserve such fulfillment or something like that, and so the end result in the dream is anxiety. This thesis that all dreams are wish fulfillments is not something that we concentrated much on in our discussion, though he spends a lot of time on it in his books.
The philosophical result is a model of the mind in which different brain functions are acting at cross-purposes: the repressed unconscious is bursting forth with energy, and the censor is trying to keep that energy tapped down so it doesn’t screw us up. Freud typically talked about all of this as the ego and id (and later the super-ego, which he brings up in the 1933 essay), but these early works of his don’t use this kind of language, focusing instead on a sort of hydraulic model, where there’s pressure that needs to be diverted lest it blow.
So, when I think and talk, I may think that it’s my “reason” dictating things, some transparent mechanism of thinking that considers options on objective grounds, but it’s actually a concatenation of multiple forces shifting all of our judgment calls this way and that way. Is this worrying? Does this undermine the process of philosophizing? Opinions among the podcasters differ.
Before you listen to this episode, it’d be a good idea for you to get our larger take re. how Freud fits into philosophy via our episode 26 on his most overtly philosophical (and much later) work, Civilization and Its Discontents. Also, this precognition Wes did for our Jung episode also has a really good, concise introduction to Freud on dreams in it.
The latter of these is also available as a free audiobook through Librivox. Freud later beefed up the text of On Dreams to publish a book in 1920 called Dream Psychology, which you can read online or listen to.