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“Freud” by Jonathan Lear
11 September 2005
Written as a review for Amazon.com

As soon as I heard that Jonathan Lear was writing “Freud” for the Routledge Philosophers series, I pre-ordered a copy. I am sorry it’s taken me so long to post a review, but I have been savoring the book since it arrived, re-reading portions and making notes . . . as I’ve done with most of Lear’s previous offerings, which have proved invaluable in my own philosophy-psychology study project going back at least 15 years.

The point behind Lear’s books, if I may be so bold as to seek out a ruling idea, is that, and I quote, “In general, in the English-speaking world, there has been a regrettable tendency for philosophers and psychoanalysts to ignore each other.” And Lear explains why they shouldn’t. If I may paraphrase: Psychology without philosophy is personally rewarding and beneficial but limited in scope; philosophy without psychology may be enlightening but personally non-transformative, which is to say that the “great” philosopher may be a wretch whose vast knowledge does nothing to promote inner harmony or expand personal freedom; indeed, his entire study project may be nothing by a psychological aberration!

Lear goes on to say: “Philosophers take seriously such notions as autonomy, authenticity, freedom and happiness in their accounts of human life and its possibilities. But it is difficult to see how these notions can be adequately addressed without taking into consideration” accounts of how individual psychology develops and influences all we think and do. Conversely, psychologists tend “to be ignorant of all the work done by philosophers on the nature of happiness and freedom.” Lear aims to heal the “intellectual splitting that has lead to impoverishment on both sides.”

KNOW THYSELF

Lear wonderfully launches his project by citing Socrates’ motto, “Know Thyself,” as a starting point for bringing the two camps back together, not that he believes it is likely that anyone can really know himself in any once-and-for-all manner, but because he believes understanding the genesis of the self is fundamental, that without it the philosopher mistakes knowledge for wisdom and forgets ignorance and complexity.

Remember, Socrates is also known (some say disingenuously) for widely proclaiming his ignorance, which starts with the limits of knowing himself. He is, in effect, humbled in the face of his personal complexities in ways that most philosophers are not, and this brings out, I believe, a crucial difference between knowledge and wisdom. Philosophy means, “love of wisdom.” But it seems to have become more about knowledge and truth. In other words, it’s not uncommon for the philosopher, like the religious fundamentalist, to think he has some absolute knowledge about the world and to make bold claims about those “facts.” Wisdom makes no such claims, and therefore comes closer to a way of life than a body of knowledge.

PHILOSOPHY AS A WAY OF LIFE

That philosophy started out with wisdom and care of the self is wonderfully illustrated by Pierre Hadot in his, “Philosophy as A Way of Life.” I could write pages on Hadot’s wonderful book, (as I could about Lear, too) but one quote from Epicurus will do: “We must concern ourselves with the healing of our own lives.” Then we may try to learn about the world but with less likelihood of getting waylaid by our hidden agendas. I think Epicurus sums up Lear’s project, which is to show that we err when we split psychology and philosophy.

To come back to the book at hand: It goes without saying that Lear writes brilliantly about Freud. The chapter on transference – and the whole idea of the transference world, in which we’re all caught – is worth the price of admission alone. “Freud” by Jonathan Lear is highly recommended for insights into the first psychoanalyst and for healing the split between two important disciplines!

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