Freud’s Ideas And The Steam Engine

Under this somewhat mysterious header I want to clarify something that often is overlooked in the history of the sciences, especially the medical and neurobiological ones. When we learn of the ideas of a great thinker or researcher, we take them more or less for granted. All of us will accept ‘living’ ideas as being true, we’re all susceptible to a little authoritarianism, first because we lack the time of really questioning everything that is put before us all of the time (we wouldn’t be able to make progress at all); and we have to stay on good terms with our teachers, i.e. the persons that eventually can hand good or bad markings to us. By ‘living’ ideas I mean ideas and theories that are held to be valid, incidentally.

We tend to overlook the fact that ideas are not developed in a vacuum. Every thinker constructs his/her hypothesis against a societal backdrop, and a such the ideas are also part of a historical process. René Descartes wrote his philosophical essays in an era when the world had become ‘mechanical’. So he was very much lured into representations of living beings as being complex ‘machines’, with cog wheels, connections, turning knobs, et cetera. One step further is the acceptance of mechanical properties in animals and humans as being entirely deterministic: once a process is started, it is a trustworthy and entirely predictable series of actions of matter upon other matter.

In those days, people were fascinated with clocks, and other complex mechanical devices. Those who rich enough could afford to have primitive robot-type toys, to demonstrate these at dinners and parties. I must note here that famous ancient Greek writer Homer already wrote a perfect hypothetical description of robots as servants; but of course in those days b.C., the technology required to construct robots was still impossibly far away. Here is a nice picture of a mechanical clock, finished by the son of another player in my personal theatre here:

This 19th century model is based on a drawing made by Galileo’s (1564-1642) friend and biographer Viviani (1622-1703) of a pendulum clock, which Galileo designed just before his death and which was partly constructed by his son Vincenzio in 1649. It represents the first known attempt to apply a pendulum to control the rate of a clock. Galileo had observed that the time taken for a pendulum to complete one swing was almost independent of the arc through which it swung and he had used a freely swinging pendulum to time various astronomical events. He recognised the potential of using a pendulum to control a clock but died before his work could be completed.

As early as the seventeenth century, Descartes in his Meditations was laying the groundwork for determinism. In Descartes’ world all things, at least material things, were explainable in causal terms. The material universe was like a giant machine, and as such could be explained by mechanical laws. His world view of the material universe was thus both mechanistic and deterministic–although he did allow that there is, in the case of man at least, another realm, that of thought. Thus he maintained that there are two realms, the physical and the psychological, and that they are not only distinct but indeed opposed to one another. In his dualistic schema the laws which govern the material world are deterministic and mechanistic, although he still maintained freedom for the spiritual realm. In his view, only man among all the animals has a mental life. Other animals are mere mechanisms. With the advent of Darwin and Darwinism in the nineteenth century this view of the radical difference between man with a mental and spiritual life which differentiated him from the other animals suffered a severe setback. Man came to be seen as much more closely related to the other animals; eventually all essential differences would be obliterated, and he would be seen as a purely material being comme les autres.

The main idea in the above is this: every thinker is also subject to a psychological process. This process depends on the knowledge that person has access to, to his/her cognitive powers, to general perceptions of the world around him, to his/her upbringing, in brief: to an immense number of different factors that together form the soil from which new contributions may grow.

So: Descartes had his clocks, to say it simply. Someone who took up the challenge put forward by Descartes one step further was Julien Offray la Mettrie (1709-1751), a medical doctor who, after a delirium caused by physical distress, was led to thinking that the internal experiences in our minds are nothing but the products of our physical bodies. He was a materialist and an atheist; the latter was still very dangerous in those days. Censorship always was on the horizon for provocative writers, and persecution led many a controversial thinker to flee a country and seek refuge somewhere abroad.

In 1747, la Mettrie wrote his most famous book, L’Homme Machine (Man as a Machine), with elaborated on his thoughts about humans being merely material processes. It was published in Leiden, the Netherlands, as he already had fled his country of origin, France – but after publication he had to hastily relocate again, this time to the court of the Prussion Emperor Friedrich the Great.

La Mettrie no doubt was a colourful character. Mysteriously, in 1748 a successor to L’Homme Machine was published anonymously, titled: L’Homme Plus Que Machine (Man as more than a Machine). In this work L’Homme Machine was criticized strongly. Initially, la Mettrie’s critics had a field day in seeing their opposition so eloquently voiced… until around 1900, linguistic research was performed on the book, and good reasons were found for assigning the second title to none other than mr. la Mettrie himself.

Here is a portrait of this important, but relatively little known man:

Finally, I can elucidate the title of this post. Freud, just as Descartes before him, and la Mettrie, was very much a child of his own time. In his lifetime, the steam engine was the mechanical device that helped factories produce, and trains ride.

Freud was born in the Czech Republic. When he was young, he moved with his family to Germany, then again to Vienna, where he settled and spent most of his life. During much of Freud’s life, the dominant technology was steam power. Steam was commonly the source of energy to power machinery. People traveled by steam engines and steam boats and they worked in factories on machinery powered by steam. Steam power was as common back then as computers are for us today.

Freud was greatly influenced the works of a scientist named Hermann von Helmholtz, whose interests were in physics, physiology and psychology. The laws of thermodynamics were of great interest to von Helmholtz and thus Freud also showed a great interest in the thermodynamics of steam power. He saw similarities between thermodynamics and the human personality. Freud used an analogy of thermodynamics to explain his newly developing theories of psycho-dynamics.

To create a psycho-dynamic paradigm that was tangible to the scientific community of his day, Freud constructed an analogy between thermodynamics and his psycho-dynamic model. Freud believed only one’s ego is in direct contact with the world. He felt that much of the human personality was hidden below the surface in our unconsciousness. He believed that the ego dealt with reality anxiety, whereas the id dealt with neurotic anxiety and the superego with moral anxiety. The anxieties of the id and the superego are, Freud believed, the result of conflict during a childhood psychosexual stage of development. Unfortunately, these anxieties cannot be destroyed. Energy, according to the analogy, can neither be created nor destroyed.

The anxieties of the id and the superego are often repressed into the unconsciousness as a protective defense mechanism. The ego, the part of personality we can see, can show symptoms of anxiety either acknowledged or repressed, just as an escape valve can release steam.

Freud’s psycho dynamic model may seem opaque to us today because he explained it in terms of the technology metaphor of his day. It is as if a scientist today used a current technology such as computers as a metaphor for things that we cannot explain easily. However, Sigmund Freud, although criticized, is a highly respected pioneer of psychology. The dominant paradigm of clinical work of psychiatry and psychology is Freudian work.  In sum, Freud’s theory of the unconscious assumes a private, personal mind; a mind populated with wishes, desires, and needs that have a biological, intra-psychological origin, and which follow endemic mechanical laws.

And finally, here is a beautiful photo of a steam-driven backhoe machine, taken somewhere between 1890 and 1930 in the U.S.A. So it was active at the same time when Freud did his own kind of ‘deep digging’…




One response to “Freud’s Ideas And The Steam Engine

  1. Pingback: Pensando: Analogías, símiles, metáforas, copia, innovación y comunicación | jbolano

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