Friday, June 4, 2010

Is anatomy destiny?

On Sun, May 30, 2010 at 14:03:20
Will asked this question:

Hello, I need a bit of guidance in regards to Freud. Could you please tell me what is meant by 'anatomy is destiny' and do you think he proves that anatomy is in fact destiny?

I think it might just be to do with the developmental stages that Freud theorised about and how these affect us when we grow and so affects our behaviour and thoughts.

Searching for "Anatomy is destiny" in Google I quickly found an answer to Will's question in the Online Glossary of Psychological Terms from Athabasca University:

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) claimed that anatomy is destiny, that is, one's gender determines one's main personality traits. Karen Horney (1885-1952), while considering herself a disciple of Freud, disagreed. Beginning in 1923, she began publishing papers arguing for culture over biology as the primary determinant of personality. Thus, if a woman feels inferior to a man, it is not due to some universal process such as penis envy. Rather, she wrote, '[t]he wish to be a man... may be the expression of a wish for all those qualities or privileges which in our culture are regarded as masculine, such as strength, courage, independence, success, sexual freedom, right to choose a partner' (New ways in psychoanalysis New York: Norton 1939, p. 108). For Horney, the reason psychoanalysis appears to understand men better than women is that the field, from the beginning, has been dominated almost exclusively by male thinking and thus has evolved into a masculine enterprise.

Disentangling the strands of nature and nurture with respect to human sexuality is an incredibly difficult undertaking. But Freud wasn't simply guessing in the dark or expressing common prejudices of his day (or indeed ours). He made his judgement on the basis of many hundreds of hours of analytic practice.

— But then, so did Horney.

I don't have an axe to grind in defending Freud. It seems to me perfectly possible that like many researchers Freud discovered what he was looking for. As this is a question for Ask a Philosopher and not 'Ask a Psychoanalyst' or 'Ask a Social Psychologist' I don't want to get bogged down in that debate.

However, I do have experience of my own to call upon. I am male, and a philosopher, and many hours of following, or attempting to follow the Socratic maxim 'know thyself' has naturally led me to reflect on the role of my sexuality in relation to my chosen calling.

A couple of months ago, in my post on Knowing the limits of knowledge I wrote:

One might observe that the attitude which Santayana describes of opening ourselves up to experience the wonder itself shows something of the aspect of 'the feminine'. By contrast, the thought of adventurously penetrating to the heart of reality has a resolutely masculine appeal.

I go on to cite one of my favourite quotes from Hegel, from the Preface to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1825-6) where he says that 'The Being of the universe... has no power which can offer resistance to the search for knowledge; it has to lay itself open before the seeker — to set before his eyes and give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.'

Even though the words make me cringe, just a bit, I recognize that, fundamentally, that is how I feel about philosophy. It's not that I've never experienced the 'opening up' feeling Santayana describes. But far more often my thoughts dwell on the challenge of honing and sharpening my intellect in order to get down into the recalcitrant roots of reality.

At this point, you might accuse me of focusing too narrowly on a single image. What about the competitive nature of philosophical debate?

I've been witness to some comic scenes in Oxford academic philosophy seminar rooms, where professors high on intellectual vanity and testosterone have tussled like angry bulls. — And they wonder why there are fewer female academic philosophers!

Glass House Philosopher Notebook II, p. 46

Yes, there is that aspect too. But I think that it is less fundamental. How else to you behave when philosophy seminars are organized as bull rings? There is another way, where debate is co-operative rather than competitive, but to make this happen you have to do some radical thinking; about ways to overcome the inherently competitive nature of a career where in order to rise to the top you have to prove yourself to be better than the next philosopher.

Oh, I just remembered something:

And have you ever thought about the strange phenomenon of books? why they are made the way they are? why scholars love to pore over them? Because what they are secretly after is a woman's...

Glass House Philosopher Notebook II, p. 134

The year was 1977, my first year as a graduate student at University College Oxford. On my wall, in my room at Merton Street, was an Athena poster of a Modigliani nude. I'd just woken up from a nap. Glancing up at the painting, I caught myself in the act of daydreaming, about a book — that wasn't a book. I've never fully been able to shake that image from my mind.

But this isn't a psychoanalyst's couch, and the evidence of dreams or daydreams is flimsy at best. What I know is how I think, how my mind typically works, whatever the topic or problem. An attitude, a sense of conviction which colours everything that I do.

Then what is there — down there?

I remember seeing a quote from a review of Iris Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil (1998) where the main protagonist, a philosopher called Rozanov says something to the effect that, 'When you dig down — and that's not very far down — all you find is jumble and rubble.' That depressed, and depressing thought was quite sufficient to put me off reading the novel.

I don't mind that there is jumble and rubble in me, I accept Murdoch's view that when we 'tell our story' we always idealize, we avoid looking at the bits of the jigsaw that don't fit together. That's about the self, the jumble and rubble in us. But what I can never accept is that that's how it is, at the very roots of reality.

In the past, I've referred to this piously as 'the faith of the philosopher', but that makes it sound as if I'm searching for God. And what if I met up with my quarry? — 'If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!' (Sheldon B. Kopp, Bantham 1976: a brilliant take on the aims and practice of psychotherapy.)

It's not God, not destiny or faith, but just resolute determination not to be illuded, to ask questions where no-one else sees a question, to 'break on through'.

The point is that I can. I am free, and that is what freedom ultimately means to me. I don't know what's 'down there'. If I did, there wouldn't be a question. I may never know. But whatever the chances, even if there are none, I will continue digging. It's a matter of pride; arguably, male pride.

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