Becoming Transdisciplinary with Freud

Posted by Edward Willatt on Monday, May 5, 2014 Under: Transdisciplinary

A recent issue of Consciousness, Literature and the Arts features an article which charts the history of the concept of sublimation in order to reveal its transdisciplinary dynamics. In so doing it offers a way of understanding how transdisciplinarity comes about and functions. In his exploration entitled ‘On the Transdisciplinarity of Freudian Sublimation’ Jonathan Michael Dickstein highlights the cooperation of different disciplines.  He argues that this is the result of their mutual dependence upon one another.  In giving rise to concepts like sublimation the disciplines can even be said to 'operate as one'.

Transdisciplinary concepts indicate the cooperation of different disciplines rather than arising through specialisation and a focus upon specific subject-matters. Dickstein considers Freud's concept of sublimation and reveals the clamour of different disciplinary voices and encounters between the disciplines over centuries of thought. Such a transdisciplinary concept emerges from this diversity and these interactions just as the accretion of different materials and interplay of geological layers give rise to new formations that do not resemble or simply follow from what went before in a particular place. Dickstein's paper is able to show how a concept overspills the limits of one discipline just as historical objects are never discrete but are heavy with wider social, political and economic conditions. 

D
ickstein claims that Freud realises the ambitions of transdisciplinarity because he maintains that which is different in accounts from specific disciplines while avoiding the privileging of any one of them. He is therefore able to unify different methodologies without displaying the bias that follows from grounding one's own method in a particular discipline.  The article gives a clear and coherent history of sublimation beginning with the term sublime. This includes alchemical and aesthetic versions of the sublime, emphasising their theological origins, and arriving at Kant's understanding of the sublime in his Critique of Judgement. Dickstein offers a psychological reading of Kant's sublime and of his account of the faculties. The sublime emerges from the mind's reflection on its own activity. This reading is contentious as many readings of Kant, particularly in the Continental tradition, emphasise the way in which Kant externalises the faculties and their activity. The sublime can be seen as one aspect in the externalisation of a subject which was made impersonal in the Critique of Pure Reason rather than representing a personal and psychological interiority. Dickstein also invokes the biological sublime of Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche's vitalistic stagings of the concept.  While we might dispute the readings of these thinkers found here we will now turn to the major claim of this paper concerning Freud’s ability to articulate a genuinely transdisciplinary approach.

In Freud sublimation is a process which evokes opposing mental forces and this leads to the construction of mental damns which suppress unpleasurable feelings. Dickstein argues that Freud avoids using one discipline as the ground or foundation of all the rest when he combines the different aspects of this concept that arose through the work and encounters of a number of disciplines. His claim is that all pre-Freudian accounts did provide a specific disciplinary ground. For Freud there is no discipline upon which other contributions are founded: 'For instead of this inverted pyramidical structure, Freud introduces a coherent circular one, in which all disciplines determine each other and cooperate non-exclusively'.

Dickstein sees in Freud's method and understanding of reality the coincidence of categories (mental/physical, waking/dreaming) that are irreconcilable (Dickstein cites Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle). No privilege is given to either category and this is the model for the nonhierarchical cooperation of the disciplines. Freud is said to have taken all the clamoring voices of different disciplines formulating concepts of the sublime and removed the role of a fundamental or primary discipline. Dickstein finds here a model for how disciplines depend upon one another for their own operations and how they all operate as one. The transdisciplinary is therefore not simply a place where disciplines meet to share the fruits of their separate endeavors. It is where they are always already involved in a network of thought that finds its genesis in encounters between disciplines that spark conceptual shifts.  The principle of this network is tension and cooperation is through tension rather than reconciliation.  Thus the encounter of alchemy and aesthetics with theology is said to have sparked a shift that brings the sublime into conceptual operation, as something clarified and able to operate effectively in artistic and alchemical processes. The concept marks the difference between the base materials used in alchemy and art, and something that is divine or rises above the baseness or limitations of these materials. Like the geologist we seek the process of formation in the encounter of different things, not in separate processes operating independently or discretely. This encounter between theology and those laboring in art and alchemy is what moved things forward without simply being an extension of one discipline in particular. This wasn’t a case of art and alchemy simply becoming theological because the sublime emerged as a concept of breaking with the limitations of matter without committing itself to theological precepts. Instead alchemical thought and practice formulated a process of sublimation where metal became conceptually divine and able to prevent diseases.  Dickstein draws together cases such as this where thinkers were able to ‘…infuse the alchemical process of sublimation with theological ideas’.

Does Freud, as Dickstein claims, give us a genuinely non-foundational account which avoids privileging a particular discipline? This raises questions of how we read Freud. We could read him a highly disciplinary thinker and indeed challenge Dickstein’s reading of the history of thought which distinguishes Nietzsche’s supposedly disciplinary stance from Freud’s transdisciplinary outlook and mode of operation.  Insofar as the mental forces whose tensions Freud charts are externalised and staged within nature as a whole his work resembles the naturalism of thinkers like Herder and Nietzsche.  As John Cooper Powys suggests in his reading of psychoanalysis, we can find desire externalised and staged in nature as the arena of opposing forces:  '
We begin to grow aware that the whole organism of our nerves and senses, as it stretches out its invisible tendrils, towards the material objects that narrowed us, draws the method of its functioning from this underlying urge [sexual desire]' (p. 31).  This reading can seem to align Freud with vitalism as well as naturalism as is invokes ‘… nothing less remote than planetary or even stellar influences’ (p. 34) that are ‘… diffused throughout the universe!’ (p. 36). This is at odds with Dickstein's reading of Freud which focuses upon the process of analysis and the models which do not belong to a particular discipline. Do we find models of thought that are genuinely transdisciplinary in Freud or does he draw upon natural science and philosophy as much as some of his predecessors?

How does Freud approach the nature and relation of the disciplines?  A good place to look is his metapsychology where questions of the nature and place of the discipline of psychology are in sharp focus.  In his ‘Instincts and Their Vicissitudes’ Freud argues that the basic concepts upon which sciences are built must be open to change as each discipline develops.  They are in fact provisional and are improved upon as observations of the subject matter of each discipline increase and are refined.  He refers to a concept that is ‘indispensable to us in psychology’ (Freud, 1984, 114).  This basic concept is ‘instinct’.  In order to formulate this concept he suggests that ‘... we apply ourselves to considering mental life from a biological point of view’ (Freud, 1984, 118).  He goes on to define the disciplinary character of his task:  ‘The study of sources of instinct lies outside the scope of psychology’ (ibid, 120).  This question, which is not within the field of psychology, should not concern us in our psychological investigations.  Our concern is with the aims of instincts rather than their origin.  It is clear that Freud separates the disciplines and allocates them their own methods and materials.  He argues that biology provides psychology with a concept of sexuality as something that exceeds individuals because its aim is the preservation of the species (ibid, 121).  Psychology and biology are bridged by the concept of instinct and yet we cannot reduce one to the other.  On Dickstein’s reading of Freud the psychological and the biological are irreconcilable and neither is privileged.  The concept of instinct, like that of sublimation, emerges from quite different disciplinary domains because it is transdisciplinary in nature.    

This brief consideration of Freud’s text has provided support for Dickstein’s thesis.  Freud allows another discipline (biology) to contribute to his thought without seeking to include it within his own theory or explanatory system.  He locates himself as a psychologist who is open to disciplines whose subject matter he cannot explain.  The origin of the concept in biological materials and methods does not concern him.  This makes him light-footed.  Rather than grounding instinct in his discipline and its resources he is able to draw upon this concept in all its unfamiliar and singular force.  It is as if biology as an unknown and unconquered field can have a greater impact and power to move thought forward because Freud makes no attempt to include it in his system for explaining things (he limits his theory to psychology).  Here we find cause for optimism about the rise of more specialized disciplines, as if this frees thinkers from being distracted by the need to master different fields and gives them the freedom to encounter the unknown.  This is the freedom to be shocked by something unrecognizable from one’s own disciplinary point of view.  This must be liberating and empowering rather than leaving the thinker passive and powerless before the unfamiliarity of that which another discipline brings. 

Dickstein’s paper seek to open new vistas of research in the history of thought by showing how disciplines relate and form transdisciplinary concepts.  In the irreconcilable struggle between disciplines we can locate that which escapes disciplinary grounds and preconceptions.  This can release that which is captured by the gravity of disciplinary starting points and territorial concerns but which expresses what is most liberated in thought.  What happens when something exceeds the grasp of a discipline and yet concerns it deeply?  Instincts are for Freud a major concern of psychology but in biology something is revealed that a psychologist struggles with.  The result of this struggle is a transdisciplinary concept.  We’ve seen that as a transdisciplinary concept sublimation can be said to emerge in different soils (in the fertile grounds of different disciplines) while having a life of its own, one given to it by the ongoing struggle between disciplines.  Such concepts are brought to life by attempts to ground them in particular disciplines when the failure of these attempts both enriches the concept and shows how it exceeds any particular discipline.  Transdisciplinary thought moves forward in conceptual shifts whose genesis is the struggle between disciplines to form concepts.  Dickstein’s paper suggests ways in which we can understand this process by charting the relations of the disciplines in the work of philosophers as they seek to articulate things which exceed the ground upon which each thinker stands.


Bibliography

Dickstein, J. M. (2013) ‘On the Transdisciplinarity of Freudian Sublimation’ in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Volume 14, Number 3.

Freud, S. (1984), On Metapsychology, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Powys, J. C. (1975), Psychonalysis and Morality, London: Village Press.

In : Transdisciplinary 



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Becoming Transdisciplinary with Freud

Posted by Edward Willatt on Monday, May 5, 2014 Under: Transdisciplinary

A recent issue of Consciousness, Literature and the Arts features an article which charts the history of the concept of sublimation in order to reveal its transdisciplinary dynamics. In so doing it offers a way of understanding how transdisciplinarity comes about and functions. In his exploration entitled ‘On the Transdisciplinarity of Freudian Sublimation’ Jonathan Michael Dickstein highlights the cooperation of different disciplines.  He argues that this is the result of their mutual dependence upon one another.  In giving rise to concepts like sublimation the disciplines can even be said to 'operate as one'.

Transdisciplinary concepts indicate the cooperation of different disciplines rather than arising through specialisation and a focus upon specific subject-matters. Dickstein considers Freud's concept of sublimation and reveals the clamour of different disciplinary voices and encounters between the disciplines over centuries of thought. Such a transdisciplinary concept emerges from this diversity and these interactions just as the accretion of different materials and interplay of geological layers give rise to new formations that do not resemble or simply follow from what went before in a particular place. Dickstein's paper is able to show how a concept overspills the limits of one discipline just as historical objects are never discrete but are heavy with wider social, political and economic conditions. 

D
ickstein claims that Freud realises the ambitions of transdisciplinarity because he maintains that which is different in accounts from specific disciplines while avoiding the privileging of any one of them. He is therefore able to unify different methodologies without displaying the bias that follows from grounding one's own method in a particular discipline.  The article gives a clear and coherent history of sublimation beginning with the term sublime. This includes alchemical and aesthetic versions of the sublime, emphasising their theological origins, and arriving at Kant's understanding of the sublime in his Critique of Judgement. Dickstein offers a psychological reading of Kant's sublime and of his account of the faculties. The sublime emerges from the mind's reflection on its own activity. This reading is contentious as many readings of Kant, particularly in the Continental tradition, emphasise the way in which Kant externalises the faculties and their activity. The sublime can be seen as one aspect in the externalisation of a subject which was made impersonal in the Critique of Pure Reason rather than representing a personal and psychological interiority. Dickstein also invokes the biological sublime of Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche's vitalistic stagings of the concept.  While we might dispute the readings of these thinkers found here we will now turn to the major claim of this paper concerning Freud’s ability to articulate a genuinely transdisciplinary approach.

In Freud sublimation is a process which evokes opposing mental forces and this leads to the construction of mental damns which suppress unpleasurable feelings. Dickstein argues that Freud avoids using one discipline as the ground or foundation of all the rest when he combines the different aspects of this concept that arose through the work and encounters of a number of disciplines. His claim is that all pre-Freudian accounts did provide a specific disciplinary ground. For Freud there is no discipline upon which other contributions are founded: 'For instead of this inverted pyramidical structure, Freud introduces a coherent circular one, in which all disciplines determine each other and cooperate non-exclusively'.

Dickstein sees in Freud's method and understanding of reality the coincidence of categories (mental/physical, waking/dreaming) that are irreconcilable (Dickstein cites Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle). No privilege is given to either category and this is the model for the nonhierarchical cooperation of the disciplines. Freud is said to have taken all the clamoring voices of different disciplines formulating concepts of the sublime and removed the role of a fundamental or primary discipline. Dickstein finds here a model for how disciplines depend upon one another for their own operations and how they all operate as one. The transdisciplinary is therefore not simply a place where disciplines meet to share the fruits of their separate endeavors. It is where they are always already involved in a network of thought that finds its genesis in encounters between disciplines that spark conceptual shifts.  The principle of this network is tension and cooperation is through tension rather than reconciliation.  Thus the encounter of alchemy and aesthetics with theology is said to have sparked a shift that brings the sublime into conceptual operation, as something clarified and able to operate effectively in artistic and alchemical processes. The concept marks the difference between the base materials used in alchemy and art, and something that is divine or rises above the baseness or limitations of these materials. Like the geologist we seek the process of formation in the encounter of different things, not in separate processes operating independently or discretely. This encounter between theology and those laboring in art and alchemy is what moved things forward without simply being an extension of one discipline in particular. This wasn’t a case of art and alchemy simply becoming theological because the sublime emerged as a concept of breaking with the limitations of matter without committing itself to theological precepts. Instead alchemical thought and practice formulated a process of sublimation where metal became conceptually divine and able to prevent diseases.  Dickstein draws together cases such as this where thinkers were able to ‘…infuse the alchemical process of sublimation with theological ideas’.

Does Freud, as Dickstein claims, give us a genuinely non-foundational account which avoids privileging a particular discipline? This raises questions of how we read Freud. We could read him a highly disciplinary thinker and indeed challenge Dickstein’s reading of the history of thought which distinguishes Nietzsche’s supposedly disciplinary stance from Freud’s transdisciplinary outlook and mode of operation.  Insofar as the mental forces whose tensions Freud charts are externalised and staged within nature as a whole his work resembles the naturalism of thinkers like Herder and Nietzsche.  As John Cooper Powys suggests in his reading of psychoanalysis, we can find desire externalised and staged in nature as the arena of opposing forces:  '
We begin to grow aware that the whole organism of our nerves and senses, as it stretches out its invisible tendrils, towards the material objects that narrowed us, draws the method of its functioning from this underlying urge [sexual desire]' (p. 31).  This reading can seem to align Freud with vitalism as well as naturalism as is invokes ‘… nothing less remote than planetary or even stellar influences’ (p. 34) that are ‘… diffused throughout the universe!’ (p. 36). This is at odds with Dickstein's reading of Freud which focuses upon the process of analysis and the models which do not belong to a particular discipline. Do we find models of thought that are genuinely transdisciplinary in Freud or does he draw upon natural science and philosophy as much as some of his predecessors?

How does Freud approach the nature and relation of the disciplines?  A good place to look is his metapsychology where questions of the nature and place of the discipline of psychology are in sharp focus.  In his ‘Instincts and Their Vicissitudes’ Freud argues that the basic concepts upon which sciences are built must be open to change as each discipline develops.  They are in fact provisional and are improved upon as observations of the subject matter of each discipline increase and are refined.  He refers to a concept that is ‘indispensable to us in psychology’ (Freud, 1984, 114).  This basic concept is ‘instinct’.  In order to formulate this concept he suggests that ‘... we apply ourselves to considering mental life from a biological point of view’ (Freud, 1984, 118).  He goes on to define the disciplinary character of his task:  ‘The study of sources of instinct lies outside the scope of psychology’ (ibid, 120).  This question, which is not within the field of psychology, should not concern us in our psychological investigations.  Our concern is with the aims of instincts rather than their origin.  It is clear that Freud separates the disciplines and allocates them their own methods and materials.  He argues that biology provides psychology with a concept of sexuality as something that exceeds individuals because its aim is the preservation of the species (ibid, 121).  Psychology and biology are bridged by the concept of instinct and yet we cannot reduce one to the other.  On Dickstein’s reading of Freud the psychological and the biological are irreconcilable and neither is privileged.  The concept of instinct, like that of sublimation, emerges from quite different disciplinary domains because it is transdisciplinary in nature.    

This brief consideration of Freud’s text has provided support for Dickstein’s thesis.  Freud allows another discipline (biology) to contribute to his thought without seeking to include it within his own theory or explanatory system.  He locates himself as a psychologist who is open to disciplines whose subject matter he cannot explain.  The origin of the concept in biological materials and methods does not concern him.  This makes him light-footed.  Rather than grounding instinct in his discipline and its resources he is able to draw upon this concept in all its unfamiliar and singular force.  It is as if biology as an unknown and unconquered field can have a greater impact and power to move thought forward because Freud makes no attempt to include it in his system for explaining things (he limits his theory to psychology).  Here we find cause for optimism about the rise of more specialized disciplines, as if this frees thinkers from being distracted by the need to master different fields and gives them the freedom to encounter the unknown.  This is the freedom to be shocked by something unrecognizable from one’s own disciplinary point of view.  This must be liberating and empowering rather than leaving the thinker passive and powerless before the unfamiliarity of that which another discipline brings. 

Dickstein’s paper seek to open new vistas of research in the history of thought by showing how disciplines relate and form transdisciplinary concepts.  In the irreconcilable struggle between disciplines we can locate that which escapes disciplinary grounds and preconceptions.  This can release that which is captured by the gravity of disciplinary starting points and territorial concerns but which expresses what is most liberated in thought.  What happens when something exceeds the grasp of a discipline and yet concerns it deeply?  Instincts are for Freud a major concern of psychology but in biology something is revealed that a psychologist struggles with.  The result of this struggle is a transdisciplinary concept.  We’ve seen that as a transdisciplinary concept sublimation can be said to emerge in different soils (in the fertile grounds of different disciplines) while having a life of its own, one given to it by the ongoing struggle between disciplines.  Such concepts are brought to life by attempts to ground them in particular disciplines when the failure of these attempts both enriches the concept and shows how it exceeds any particular discipline.  Transdisciplinary thought moves forward in conceptual shifts whose genesis is the struggle between disciplines to form concepts.  Dickstein’s paper suggests ways in which we can understand this process by charting the relations of the disciplines in the work of philosophers as they seek to articulate things which exceed the ground upon which each thinker stands.


Bibliography

Dickstein, J. M. (2013) ‘On the Transdisciplinarity of Freudian Sublimation’ in Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Volume 14, Number 3.

Freud, S. (1984), On Metapsychology, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Powys, J. C. (1975), Psychonalysis and Morality, London: Village Press.

In : Transdisciplinary 



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