The Unconscious Abyss: Hegel's Anticipation of Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Title: The Unconscious Abyss: Hegel's Anticipation of Psychoanalysis
Author:  Mills, Jon
Publisher: New York: SUNY Press, 2002
Reviewed By: Marilyn Nissim Sabat, Winter 2005, pp. 65-68

I: Preliminary

As one might expect, inasmuch as he holds a doctorate in philosophy and is a practicing analyst, and though his book is scholarly throughout, Jon Mills was motivated by more than academic interest when he wrote The Unconscious Abyss: Hegel’s Anticipation of Psychoanalysis. This is not to say that the book offers clinical case material drawn from his own practice or from other sources; it does not. Rather, in showing that Hegel anticipated Freud, Mills seeks to accomplish two goals: first, he aims to restore the unconscious to the status and role it has in the Freudian body of writings; secondly, Mills aims to motivate the transformation of psychoanalysis into what he calls a “process psychology” or, equivalently, a “dialectical psychoanalysis.” Were this to come about, a sea change in clinical thinking and clinical work should follow. Thus, the showing of Hegel’s anticipation of psychoanalysis (a highly successful tour de force by Mills), is intended to evoke something like the following reflections: if Hegel anticipated psychoanalysis, then psychoanalysis can benefit greatly, at the very least, from Hegel’s dialectical method (Mills repeatedly states in the book that he does not advocate adoption of Hegel’s philosophical stance tout court).

Other than by a passing reference to Jessica Benjamin’s use of Hegel. Mill’s does not discuss the work of contemporary analysts, e.g., Ogden or Hoffman, who believe that some version of dialectics should be a feature of psychoanalysis. Irwin Hoffman, for example, refers to his view of psychoanalysis as dialectical; however, Hoffman maintains that in his version of dialectic, there is no reference to synthesis. In this respect, Hoffman’s version of dialectics is radically different from the Hegelian dialectic that Mills advocates for psychoanalysis. However, as Mills notes in his introductory chapter on the prehistory of Hegel’s notion of the unconscious abyss, the Hegelian dialectic is radically different from the Fichtean thesis-antithesis-synthesis; for Hegel, rather, every “synthesis” is a new beginning, and this places the emphasis properly: the dialectical process is ever ongoing. Perhaps Hoffman has not fully appreciated this aspect of the Hegelian dialectic.

The Unconscious Abyss is in many ways a remarkable book, particularly, as will be illustrated below, in the manner and content of Mills exposition of both Hegel’s and Freud’s ideas. Hegel has benefited from having quite a few superb expositors and interpreters; for example, from the contemporary literature, books on Hegel by Quentin Lauer, Charles Taylor, and Walter Kaufmann. However, Mills’ presentation of Hegel is like none other. While it contains many significant quotes from both Hegel and Freud, the book clearly is the product of an extraordinary process of internalization of Hegel’s writings and thought. Mills gives us Hegel from the inside, so to speak, Hegel as Mills’ lived experience of his thought, Mills’ love for and mastery of Hegel’s system, and Freud’s as well. Thus, Mills’ presentation of Hegel is neither merely expository nor merely interpretive; rather, it is a representation of Hegel infused throughout by a vision of the whole and by Mills’ conviction not only that Hegel anticipated Freud, but that if psychoanalysis is to have a future, qua psychoanalysis, that is, then it must be grounded in core ideas of Hegelianism.

From a critical perspective, it must be said that the marriage of Hegel and Freud is based on, so to speak, a pre-nuptial agreement; that is, Mills assumes that Freud’s philosophical perspective was not physicalist reduction (or positivist), as Hegel’s was not. This is certainly a plausible view of Freud for which many have argued, given that Freud’s own remarks are notoriously ambiguous on this point. Were Freud a physicalist reductionist, his system would be radically incompatible with Hegel’s. In the conclusion of this review, I will make some further remarks on this point.

The best way to characterize The Unconscious Abyss is by discussing the meaning of the phrase itself, as Mills understands it. However, before doing so it is necessary to discuss some of the most important factors that lead Mills to believe not only that Hegel anticipated Freud, but that Hegel provides a philosophical grounding for Freud’s conception of the psyche that gives psychoanalysis needed credibility.

For Mills, the view that psychoanalysis ought to be construed as a “process psychology” or a “dialectical psychoanalysis” is the outcome of comprehending the development of the ego from its inception in the unconscious abyss to its attainment of mature self-consciousness. This is so because Hegel’s notion of the inception of the psyche as “drive,” and as ceaseless self-activity and change is identical to Freud’s notion of “drive,” and anything that is in ceaseless change is necessarily in a process of becoming. Most important is a point Mills reiterates throughout his study: following Hegel, Mills insists not only that the ego (the ego in the psychoanalytic and Hegelian senses) originates in the unconscious; in addition and most importantly, he insists that the unconscious ontologically, logically, and developmentally precedes consciousness and self-consciousness and is the dynamic root of human psychic and psychosocial development. It follows from this that failing to appreciate this relation between consciousness and the unconscious amounts to abandoning psychoanalysis.

Mills is of course not the first psychoanalyst/theorist to deplore what is taken to be the jettisoning of the Freudian unconscious. Defense of the unconscious has come from a variety of sources, including some theorists who proclaim that Freud was a physicalist reductionist and that the unconscious consists primarily of drives that originate biologically, i.e., in the body where the body is construed as pure materiality. The problem with this perspective is that it inevitably culminates either in an untenable pure materialism that denies freedom or in some form or other of psychophysical dualism, for example epiphenomenalism, which Freud at times espoused. Mills’ defense of the Freudian unconscious rejects the view that Freud was a reductionist, even though Freud understood correctly that drives originate in the biological body. This is one of the crucial points that Mills believes is resolved by the Hegelian perspective. The issue to be resolved is this: how do we understand both that drives originate in the biological body and at the same time that this is not a reductionist claim?

The solution lies in the rejection of mind-body dualism. The Hegelian philosophy is entirely monistic, and its method is dialectic. In this perspective, subjectivity and substance (nature, materiality) are dialectically interpenetrated such that the progress of Spirit (Mind) towards freedom is a progress from substance to subject. In other words, when subject recognizes nature as its own externalized self, spirit will have returned to its beginning prior to its own self-diremption (splitting into Nature and Mind). There is no dualism, then, because subject and nature are ontologically the same. Thus, physicalist reductionism (or positivism), the view that there is a nature that exists entirely independently of subjectivity, is untenable within the Hegelian monistic perspective. Importantly, however, Mills cautions that he does not advocate acceptance of Hegel’s entire system. For example, we need not accept Hegel’s notion of all of human history as the odyssey of Spirit towards Absolute Knowledge, i.e., freedom consequent upon Spirit’s reconciliation with its own alienated self, Nature.

What follows is an example of the method of explication that Mills uses in his frequent, extended, detailed readings of Hegel and Freud.

II: The Unconscious Abyss

What is the unconscious abyss? A grasp of this phenomenon can be developed through consideration of some of its characteristics. First, the abyssal character of the unconscious means that the unconscious, which is always individuated, is ungrounded, i.e., it is self-grounded—it is not grounded by anything outside of itself. It is therefore a “singularity.” “For Hegel, the abyss is thus also the ego.” However, Mills emphasizes Hegel’s and Freud’s view of the origin of the ego out of the instincts or the materiel embodiment: “In its [the ego] self-identification it becomes opposed to its mere bodily form and thus constitutes its immateriality.” The ego, “this abyss…of all presentations, as what is thoroughly simple, as singleness, is set in absolutely stark opposition to matter, i.e., to the many, to what is composite.” Here, Hegel equates the abyss with the unconscious ego which is a singularity and set against its material instantiation.

Secondly, the unconscious abyss is the repository of all presentations—i.e., experiences, perceptions, imaginings, fantasies, repressed thoughts, drives, instincts, and so on. Mills develops these ideas in reference to Hegel’s comment on “magnetic somnambulism,”

“ …a form of amnesia Freud would probably describe as hysterical repression. Hegel refers to this as a form of “disease” in which the “soul is aware of a content it has long since forgotten, and which when awake it is not longer able to recall consciously…” Hegel notes that this type of forgetting is the result of “deposited…knowledge into the abyss [Schacht] of our inner being “which we have no power over” nor are we “in possession of.” These repressed contents “have gone to sleep in our inner being [and] often come forth during illness”

Mills points out that the two senses of unconscious abyss as both singularity or ego and as unconscious repository of all presentations indicate that there is an unconscious agency which his beyond conscious control for “how could one explain forgotten memories coming to light if there was not an inner unconscious agent guiding such processes?”

Mills discusses a third manifestation of the unconscious abyss as disclosed in Hegel’s discussion of mental derangement where Hegel specifically refers to a process of “fixation” where psychic organization cannot progress past a particular stage of development. This occurs in the “self-absorption” of natural spirit when it acquires a particular content that becomes a “fixed presentation”: “This fixation takes place when spirit which is not yet in full control of itself becomes as absorbed in this content as it is in itself, in the abyss of its indeterminateness. ”

Thus, the unconscious abyss is a singularity, i.e., it is self-grounded; it is the repository of all presentations; it is as ego an unconscious agency; and in its primordial origin, under adverse circumstances, capable of fixation. Mills goes on to maintain that several key psychoanalytical concepts are present in Hegel’s formulations, such as “self-absorption of primary narcissism, the fixation of the drives, and psychotic regression to a symbiotic and undifferentiated indeterminateness of the natural soul.” (All of the quotations above are from pages 59-61 of The Unconscious Abyss.)

As noted above, Mills does not expect, nor does he think it desirable, that psychoanalysis embrace Hegelianism tout court. From this point of view, the heart of The Unconscious Abyss is just Mills’ showing that Hegel did anticipate Freud to a remarkable degree, and, as I mentioned above, it seems to me that in this respect the book is an unqualified success. Furthermore, Mills’ claim that supplementing Freud with a philosophical stance that elucidates the prehistory of the psyche and the dialectical movement from that prehistory to mature self-consciousness gives greater credibility to the Freudian perspective seems to me to be a valid claim. However, I ask, does this conceptual state of affairs go far enough? In order to grapple with this, it is necessary to revisit Mills assumption that Freud was not a physicalist reductionist and some of the implications of that claim.

That Freud’s discourse was “mixed,” i.e., that Freud at times espoused views in the language of physicalist reductionism and that at other times his discourse used the language of disclaiming physicalist reductionism is generally accepted. As mentioned above, it is quite plausible to infer that Freud, or much of his work, reflects the disclaimer. On the other hand, Freud declared himself to be a Darwinian and, as far as I am aware, this aspect of his thinking has not been controversial, even though Freud at the same time indicated adherence to aspects of Lamarckism. No doubt Freud was an intelligent Darwinian, and, as a scientist, did not have a simplistic understanding of the theory of evolution. One of the implications of Darwinism is that the overriding drive of all living things is survival, survival of the species in and through survival of individual members of species, not through some group entelechy (although the notion of group entelechy is being revisited in some aspects of neo-or post Darwinian evolutionary biology.). In this sense, Freud’s perspective is incompatible with that of Hegel. For Hegel, the overriding goal of life, and of history as the expression of human life, is what Hegel referred to as absolute freedom, the very aspect of Hegelianism that Mills wishes to eschew. Indeed, the dialectic itself is the implicit means through which we progress towards freedom.

There is no evidence at all, and this is not at all surprising, that Freud believed, as did Hegel, that history is meaningful. Put another way, we can say that there is no recognition whatsoever by Freud that human existence reflects a movement of transcendence, of that which is not merely non-reducible to materiality, but which in addition transcends survivalism. When Freud wrote that life seeks to return to non-life, organic being to inorganic being, however the notion of inorganic being is construed, he was expressing the complete absence of any consideration of life as a movement towards transcendence, or of the humanity’s ongoing creation and bestowal of meaning for human existence. Whether Freud was a materialist reductionist is one question; the other question concerns another form of reductionism: reduction of human life to overt or covert survivalism, and whether or not the two reductionisms imply one another.

Given this, what are the consequences for the contribution that a Hegelian dialectical process view can make to psychoanalysis? Or, put another way, the question I wish to ask is this: isn’t it necessary for psychoanalysis to construe itself as a perspective that is at the very least does not foreclose consideration of meaning and transcendence? However, the Hegelian perspective does foreclose the question of meaning and transcendence by proposing that Spirit or Mind in its movement towards absolute freedom constitutes the entire meaning of human existence, i.e., we are the means by which Spirit attains its goal inscribed in its being at its very inception. That this goal is absolute freedom rather than mere survival is valuable indeed; nevertheless, Hegel, as commentators have pointed out, professed to knowledge of the ultimate purpose of human existence that seems to be precluded by human finitude. On the other hand, so too, it seems to me, did Freud do the same, as did Darwin. How can we know that survival of the species is the ultimate meaning of the existence of life? This too seems to posit a knowledge that discounts the existential actuality of the finitude of life.

What is needed, it seems to me, is a perspective that has at its root recognition of our being as human and recognizes that finitude is not a restraint upon but is the very condition of our humanness. This was the view of the philosopher who brought forth a philosophical view that he called phenomenology. The phenomenology of Husserl is not a version of Hegelianism (one of Hegel’s greatest works is called The Phenomenology of Spirit and his philosophical stance is usually referred to as Objective Idealism. Rather, the phenomenology of Husserl begins with the actualization of a method—the epochç or suspension of all ontological commitments—that precludes lapse into false transcendencies grounded in claims for absolute knowing. It seems to me that psychoanalysis, in its sense as a means of alleviating unnecessary human suffering, is better served by a phenomenological method that enables investigation of the meaning creating and bestowing functioning of human life (which may include dialectical processes, and most certainly recognizes developmental processes) shorn of the baggage of claims the validity of which is unknowable. Authentic science demands no less. (I have written extensively on the relevance of Husserlian phenomenology to psychoanalysis. For references check my website: marilynnissim-sabat.com.)

Reviewer Note

Marilyn Nissim-Sabat is Professor Emeritus and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Lewis University, and is a clinical social worker in private practice in Chicago.

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