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Darwin, Marx, Freud: The Foundations of the Human Sciences

by Robert M. Young

My purpose today is to raise issues in order to stimulate or catalyse a worthwhile discussion. I shall try to do so by means of pointing to controversies while making my own views as plain as I can. I have points to make about recent scholarship but want to keep these for the discussion.

It will be more or less obvious to everyone here - more or less, depending on his or her ideological framework - that every word in my title (with the possible exception of 'of' and 'the') is highly controversial in many overlapping, interacting and mutually constitutive ways. For example, are the works of Darwin, Marx and Freud the right ones to place at the foundations of the human sciences? I would say yes and find it difficult to imagine other candidates. Indeed, I thought for some time after writing that sentence, and could not come up with anyone else of the stature of any of those three thinkers. I have in my time been a close student of the works of Franz Joseph Gall and of Herbert Spencer, each of whom was in his day considered the most profound thinker about human nature, and the claims of each had its merits. It is important to remember, however, that neither they nor others for whom I can reach with little conviction - for example, Schutz, Vygotsky, Watson, Pavlov, Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, - have reputations, or have inspired enduring traditions which approach those of the founders of the modern theory of evolution, of historical materialism, and of psychoanalysis. Their influence has the further historical merit of setting a framework outside of which it is difficult to think. Moreover, when people formulate their oppositional views, they always do so in the light of the concepts of these dramatically profound figures in the history of theory, of research, and of practice. As I think back on my own work as a reader, scholar, teacher and practitioner, theirs are the ideas with which I have increasingly and persistently found myself preoccupied.

Of course, each has his vehement enemies and gainsayers. This is least true of Darwin, about whom few would disagree, since his work knitted together everything living and placed history at the heart of the study of life, the environment and human nature, and their interrelations. On the other hand, few in the West would agree about Marx and few in the East about Freud. Of those who would place one or other or both in his or her pantheon, disagreements would begin very quickly about readings of their works. I am thinking of Marxist humanists who emphasise the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and who read the later Marx in the light of those Hegelian and Feuerbachian reflections. This approach is opposed by those who would posit a more or less sharp version of an epistemological break after which Marx was said to be a scientist focussing on putatively objective concepts like exploitation and surplus value rather than humanistic and subjective ones like alienation (sometimes translated as 'estrangement') and 'species being'. There are both nineteenth and twentieth century

versions of the humanistic or utopian versus the scientific or scientistic Marxists. There are, of course, many nuanced positions on either side of these broad dichotomies, just as there are reflexive and hermeneutic positions which emphasise the scientificity of Marxism while placing humanistic categories at the heart of their concepts. Indeed, some would argue that psychoanalysis, not physics or physiology, is the paradigm science.

There are broadly similar controversies about Freud - scientist versus humanist - and if scientist, do we refer the scientificity to his physiological and biological work, thereby grounding psychoanalysis in biology a la Sulloway; or do we seek the foundations in the study of language a la Lacan? If we adhere to the humanistic side of the divide, do we take a tough line a la Marcuse and Bettleheim or a soft one a la Fromm? Other versions of this dichotomy lie between scientistic ego psychology and humanistic traditions such as the Middle or Independent Group of the British Psychoanalytical Society, embracing the theories of, for example, Winnicott and Rycroft.

There are also strict and reductionist Darwinians, for example the militant reductionism of Frances Crick or the positivistic and decontextualised thinking of Ernst Mayr and Michael Ghiselen. There is an existentialist version of Darwinism in the writing of Jacques Monod. There are also scientistic Darwinians of the right such as Michael Ruse and humanistic ones of the left, among whom I would count myself and Jim Moore, while seeing the work of John Greene and John Durant as centrist.

Just as the meanings of Darwin, Marx and Freud are problematic so are the other terms in my title: foundations, human and sciences. Controversies rage on the locus of the foundations of the human sciences. Are they biological, political, cognitive, cultural? Which comes first and how do they interrelate?

The concept of 'human' is fragility itself - forever in danger of being reduced to the biological or, latterly, to the linguistic. To argue for the primacy of the personal, the evaluative and the humanistic and to assert that these categories are epistemologically prior to body or mind, that is, to biology or psyche, has until recently been seen as naive. A related way of putting this point is to say that a human science is a contradiction in terms. In so far as something is scientific, it is reducible to the physico-chemical or (if only temporarily) to the physiological, the operant and/or the genetic. In so far as it is human in the humanistic sense, it is derivative of historical, social and biographical modes of discourse. How, if at all, can we reconcile these?

In attempting to do so, I would ask what is the meaning of history, by which I mean historicalness or historicity. This was a question for Darwin, for Marx and for Freud. Another form of the question is, 'What is the meaning of experience?' How can we learn from experience? In each case, there was a depressing alternative, since their enemies were, respectively, fatalistic loss of faith in progress, fetishism or the treatment of social relations as though they were relations between things what we now call reification; and (in Freud's case) the pessimistic belief that although we can understand unconscious motivation, we may not be able to change it in the individual or the culture. Freud once told Jones, his biographer, that he had been half-converted to Bolshevism. A Bolshevik predicted great carnage followed by universal happiness. Freud said he believed the first half.

How do these questions bear on the discussion at this conference? These are clearly vital issues for many scholars. They are vital for one's sense of self in theory and in practice. In my own case they could not be more urgent. I consider myself a Darwinian and have done research in that tradition for three decades. At present, illiberal and reductionist notions of Darwinism are rampant in sociobiology, in genetic engineering and in social Darwinist political and ethical philosophies which are prevalent in countires in the first and third worlds. I am also a Marxist at a time when one is hard pressed to point to regimes anywhere in the world where Marxism is promoting human liberty and progress. I like to think that this is so in Nicaragua. It's all too easy to point to Marxist sects in the first world which are utterly out of touch with political reality and Marxist regimes which are out of touch with the aspirations of their poeple and are sources of shame to Marxists throughout the world. It is also hard - though not impossible - to point to Marxist groups and scholars of whom one is proud.

Finally, I am a psychoanalytical psychotherapist at a time when the social location and beliefs of most professionally trained analysts are far from the social, political and ideological issues which must be addressed if psychoanalysis is to contribute towards a better world.

From where I sit and think and practice, there is more movement towards enlightenment among dissidents in and around psychoanalysis than among Darwinians or Marxists. I don't wish to denigrate those who hold high the banners of enlightenment in biology or Marxism, for example, Lewontin, Levins, Williams or Eagleton. But I would say that there are more promising stirrings among people who are trying to extend psychoanalysis in to the area of thinking about our species, about society and about culture and politics.

Examples which I would cite are:

1. The Kleinian and Winnicottian attempts to link culture - including science itself - to our most primitive psychological functions and to point out the persistence of the primitive in our most putatively mature cultural creations. Much of this work is occurring under the influence of Wilfred Bion's psychoanalytical epistemology and Donald Winnicott's concepts of transitional objects and transitional phenomena as the fundamental particles of culture.


2. The attempt to look at war and aggression in psychoanalytic terms is beginning to bear fruit. This is occurring in the work of Barry Richards, Karl Figlio, F. Fornari, G. Bovensiepen and Hanna Segal. I regret that I cannot say the same of psychoanalytic approaches to racism, although there are stirrings in this direction, as well.


3. The attempt to unify the psychoanalytic study of biography with large scale historical and cultural forces in a Marxist perspective. The work of Victor Wolfenstein has set new standards in integrating psychobiography with history. Standards in psychobiography and psychohistory need considerable attention and rigour before the scepticism with which they have justifiably been met should be relaxed. Wolfenstein is my own best example, while the recent writings of Peter Gay seem to me to be worth critical examination.

4. There is a need to broaden and deepen the meaning of the human spirit for both psychoanalysis and Marxism. Both have a tendency to reify - to reach for laws when solidarity and will stop. Liberation theology is an area which is challenging both psychoanalytic and Marxist limitations. Having done notable work in criticising facile tendencies in psychotherapy and in writing about racism, Joel Kovel is now at work on the bearing of liberation theology on psychoanalysis and Marxism. I agree with him that this is a profound movement in theory and practice.


5. My last growth point offers a chance to bring together the perspectives of Darwin, Marx and Freud. It leads us to the question at the foundations of the human sciences: what is basic, how amenable to change is human nature and how can we bring about more humane human relations? As I see it, all these matters come together in the problematic Marxist notion of 'second nature'. First  nature is the biologically given - a domain whose boundaries have themselves never been clearly drawn and are now quite open as a result of the phenomena of pharmacology,biofeedback (intraditional and modernforms) and genetic engineering (an areain which the future is open in both positive and alarming senses).

But without pushing those boundaries between the voluntary and involuntary nervous system and between mere inheritance and manipulated inheritance, we have a large scope for deep reflection and serious practice. Historians of the human sciences will know that belief in the extreme plasticity of human behaviour has been held by behaviourists, operant conditioning theorists and those thinking in the related tradition of Pavlovian conditioning. At the other extreme, behavioural geneticists and sociobioligists have held relatively pessimistic views on the potential for change in human behaviour. Moreover, the sociobiologists have made various takeover bids into ethics and the social sciences, although these seem under control for the present.

There is a similar continuum on the optimism/pessimism axis among psychoanalysts. Does psychoanalysis or psychoanalytical psychotherapy change the self or merely adapt it to the given of the inner and outer worlds? Second nature is history experienced as if it were unmodifiable - as though it were not amenable to change through practice and enlightenment. Belief in the ability to learn through practical experience is the sine qua non of an enlightened human science, however onerous and slow the process of change. Those of us in the East and West who reached for rapid change in the nineteen-sixties have learned a lot about the pace that one can hope for.

Neurosis is a perfect example of second nature. On a larger scale so is racism. On a still larger scale so are capitalism and eastern European socialism. Beyond these in a degree of generality lie hierarchy and patriarchy. An important desideratum for a human science is the study of the relative refractoriness to change of various aspects and levels of human nature.

The writings I have found most helpful in understanding second nature are both Freudo-Marxist. They are the works of Herbert Marcuse and Russell Jacoby, although other members of the Frankfurt school, as well as the Lukacs of History and Class Consciousness, and various Hungarian philosophers, have also thought about it. Both Marcuse and Jacoby have written widely against various reductionisms - Darwinian, vulgar Marxist and biologistic Freudian. They have also essayed against extremes of voluntarism and Dionysiac Freudianism. Both have been concerned to pay due respect to the given in biology, economics, culture and therapy while striving for a better psychic and social order. Both have de-emphasised traditional notions of class struggle as the key to social change and have focussed more clearly on cultural and other political processes. Their perspectives are complemented by the writings of Gramsci on the subtle ways in which consent is organised. In addition to his concept of hegemony, I have benefitted from Raymond Williams' writings on cultural materialism. His critique of the base-superstructure model of vulgar Marxism stresses the complexity of mediation between culture, on the one hand, and the production and reproduction of real life on the other. Indeed, he adds the crucial insight that culture is in the base - a material, that is, spiritual need. Raymond Williams died between the delivery and the publication of this talk. His voice - its substance and its tone - are central to my conception of humanity, and I wish to dedicate my remarks to his memory.

This brings us back to basics. Look how Darwin, Marx and Freud are mutually constitutive. Darwin brings historicity to the heart of the sciences linking life to the earth and our humanity to both. Teleolgical and anthropromorphic concepts lie at the basis of his concept of natural selection. Marx teaches us the historicity of all - including scientific - concepts and points out that there is only one science, the science of history. Freud teaches us that all of history and culture continue to be mediated by basic human drives and that no matter how high we reach into abstractions, our thought remains rooted in primitive psychic mechanisms.

It would seem, then, that our conception of a human science must always draw on these three dimensions of what Marx calls our species being. The historical, conceptual and practical tasks that follow from this will surely occupy all of at least to the retiring age.

We have in these three thinkers - at first glance -biology, economics and the psyche, but looked at more closely each takes us to history and historicity, to culture and its roots and to the question of the nature and extent of what is distinctly human - the limits, the realities, the visions, aspirations and achievements now and in the future. As I read them, each offers us a conception of the disciplined study of humanity which always retains a notion of human values in action as the central guiding conception. None will do alone, while the task of integrating them in historical studies and in theory has hardly begun. Their writings span the century between about 1840 and 1940. Darwin (1809-82) and Marx (1818-83) were - how easily we forget this - near contemporaries and published their main works almost simultaneously. They died within a year of each other just over a hundred years ago. (Indeed 1986 was the centenary year of Darwin's Life and Letters.) Freud was a toddler of three years when The Origin of Species and An Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy appeared in 1859. The problematic of his life's work makes little sense without seeing both Darwin and Marx as providing the framework of ideas and aspirations about nature and human nature which he addresses. All three are very much alive today - vivid - providing us with the terms of reference for both a realistic and a cautiously hopeful view of our humanity.

This is the text of a talk delivered to CHEIRON, the international society for the history of the human sciences, Brighton. It appeared in the newsletter of the society, Spring 1988, pp. 7-12.

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Rd., London N7 9RQ


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