The Intellectual Roots of Psychoanalytic Therapy: Nietzsche and The Theory of Displacement

What is Psychoanalytic Therapy? – A Personal View, Part 6

Freud’s development of psychoanalysis did not happen in a vacuum. He drew for inspiration on a wide range of predecessors in 19th century medicine, psychology and philosophy, as well as the great dramatists, poets and novelists of the past. As he himself was the first to acknowledge, the idea of the unconscious mind, the idea of unconscious conflict, the idea of defence against unpleasant and disturbing thoughts leading to their repression from consciousness, the idea of infantile sexuality, and other ideas that characterise psychoanalysis, had all been anticipated in one form or another before him. Freud’s importance is not that he was the first to think of any of these ideas but that he was the first to combine them together to create a viable form of psychotherapy.

As it has developed after Freud, modern psychotherapy has followed Freud’s example by continuing to draw inspiration from these older, pre-Freudian sources.

The philosopher and psychologist who is the most important anticipator of Freud’s thinking and who is closest to him in intellectual spirit is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche has had a deep impact on many areas of modern thought. His influence on the development of psychotherapy in particular, though not always acknowledged, has been profound. Freud once called him the first psychoanalyst.

When Freud was developing psychoanalysis in Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century he was working in an intellectual environment where there was widespread discussion of Nietzsche’s ideas. Though he was too ill to write any more after 1890, and died in 1900, during this period Nietzsche became an inspiration to the modernist intellectual movement that emerged throughout Europe in the years before the First World War.

Modernism has many strands in the humanities and sciences and in the arts and literature. It is characterised by an awareness that the religion and morality that guided European civilisation for centuries has burnt itself out, and that modern culture will be dominated by the ideals of science, technology and rationalisation, but that these developing trends will nevertheless collide and interact with, and at the same time come to reflect, the underlying irrational nature of human beings.

Joyce, Proust, Mann, Kafka are representatives of this modernist sensibility in literature; Mahler is in music; Munch is in the graphic arts; Max Weber is in social science. And there are countless other pivotal figures that could be mentioned here. Psychoanalysis is another part of this modernist movement, a movement that continues to shape all our thinking in the arts and humanities today.

Freud said he refrained from reading Nietzsche too closely because he wanted to develop his ideas as independently and as much in the light of his own clinical experience as he could. But there is no doubt he was influenced by this atmosphere of discussion of Nietzsche’s ideas. As a medical student he also had a friend, Joseph Paneth, who had met Nietzsche, and who discussed his ideas with Freud. [cf Ronald Lehrer, Nietzsche’s Presence in Freud’s Life and Thought, 1995, pp.44-51] And many of those who later became Freud’s followers, including those who subsequently broke with him to form their own schools, like Alfred Adler, Carl Jung and Otto Rank, made no secret of how important Nietzsche was to their own thinking. After Freud himself, Nietzsche is much the most significant shaper of the contemporary world of psychotherapy.

Nietzsche was especially interested in the psychology of religion and morality and in uncovering the unconscious roots of the emotions associated with these things. This is where his strengths are to be found, just as Freud’s are in the psychology of the family and of childhood and of sexuality.

Nietzsche is, in particular, the first thinker systematically to explore the notion of unconscious displacement. Displacement refers to the shifting of an emotion from the person it was originally aroused by and directed towards, through symbolic connections and associations, and as the result of conflict with other emotions and interests, onto a different person.

For instance, Nietzsche was the first psychologist to trace clearly the psychological mechanisms behind masochism, the inflicting of suffering on the self, making plain that it is a displaced form of sadism, the inflicting of suffering on someone else. Masochism can be as gratifying as sadism to the subject’s wish for cruelty, in fact it may be more gratifying; all that happens, from a psychological point of view, is that the self has been substituted for some other person as the object of the sadistic emotion. Masochism is accompanied by the unconscious thought, “I cannot make him suffer, but I can make myself suffer, and make him watch my suffering and feel uncomfortable and guilty because of it. I may also be able to stir up the anger of others, more powerful than me, towards him, through their identification with my displayed distress.”

An important point stressed by Nietzsche is that masochistic behaviour towards the self is every bit as much a reflection of self-assertion as is sadism towards another. Try as we may to evade it, egotism, the assertion of the interests of the self, animate everything we do.

Along with this insight into masochism and sacrifice of the self goes of course the corollary that caring for others, looking after them, tending them, healing them, protecting them, and so forth, may be, through identification with them, a displaced way of caring for ourselves. At the same time, caring for others can also, through the exercise of greater control over ourselves, be a displaced and sublimated way of gratifying our wish for power over them.

Nietzsche points out that our sense of identity is never clear-cut and precise, and that we identify one person with another person, and ourselves with others, and others with ourselves. As a result of this we can never be completely certain about where our most powerful emotions and feelings are directed. Love of others is always entangled with love of ourselves; hatred of others always goes hand in hand with hatred of ourselves.

These are revolutionary insights, because they undercut the ancient assumption (it can be traced back at least as far as Plato’s Republic in circa 400BC) that there is a fundamental moral difference between caring for someone else and caring for oneself, and between hurting oneself and hurting someone else, and therefore that the basis of morality is putting the interests of others ahead of one’s own.

In overturning this assumption Nietzsche lays the foundation for modern psychotherapy. Psychotherapy in the contemporary sense is only possible in a moral world in which the care of the self is regarded as being at least as important, and sometimes more important, than care for others. The idea that our moral duty to others can be isolated from our moral duty to ourselves is simply no longer tenable. To neglect ourselves is to neglect others, and to neglect others is to neglect ourselves. We are rediscovering here the ancient wisdom of the Jewish talmudist Hillel (circa 50BC) who famously remarked: “If I am not for myself who will be; and if I am for myself alone, what am I?”

If we had to identify the single most important insight in psychoanalytic therapy, and in the whole of modern psychotherapy and counselling, it would be this mechanism of unconscious displacement. In psychoanalytic therapy we are considering all the time how we shift our attitudes and feelings from one person to another, and from other people onto ourselves, and from ourselves onto other people.

This is how, for instance, we transfer our feelings that originate in our relations with our parents onto our adult partners, and onto our children. It is how our love and our anger get turned on people who apparently have had no objective role in provoking such emotions, how we come to persecute other people because they reflect things we don’t like in ourselves, and how we come to punish ourselves for things that were done by other people. This mechanism of displacement is the key to understanding the universe of irrationality that characterises human life and action.

The displacement of emotions plays such an extensive part in human life because we live so much by symbols and metaphors. This is another way of saying that, more than any other animal, we experience one thing as like or similar to, or associated with, or a substitute for, another thing. This makes us a very creative animal but it also amplifies, to an extent that is unparalleled in the rest of the animal world, the scope for both conscious and unconscious conflicts between our wishes, impulses and drives. Our wishes are continually getting entangled in each other, trying to achieve objectives that they feel are like an objective they cannot reach, and in the process forming alliances with each other, and at the same time pursuing aims that are incompatible with those of others.

It is because it takes the part played by symbolism and metaphor in human life so seriously that psychoanalytic theory has consistently outperformed in sheer fruitfulness every other model for human psychology that we have seen. These other models, invariably, have tried to mimic the sciences of other things, especially the psychology of others animals. But in doing so they have let slip from their grasp the essence of what makes us human.

Tomorrow: (7) The Notion of “The True Self” in Psychoanalytic Therapy

Author: Marcus Bowman PhD

I am a psychoanalytic therapist working in Cork.

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