Wahl. William H.

Pathologies of Desire and Duty: Freud, Ricoeur, and Castoriadis on Transforming Religious Culture

Review by Jennifer Coleman, 2008

Wahl, William H. “Pathologies of Desire and Duty: Freud, Ricoeur, and Castoriadis on Transforming Religious Culture.” Journal of Religion & Health 47 (2008): 398-414.

This article uses Freudian psychoanalytic theory, specifically the concept of the unconscious, to launch a review of the theology/philosophy/psychology of Ricoeur and Castoriadis. Wahl first posits that properly understood Freud’s opposition to religion was first and foremost opposition to the compulsive means by which religion pursued its religious, moral and cultural views, rather than to religion’s aims, per se. In fact, Wahl sees psychoanalysis and authentic religion as seeking the same goals: “to cultivate a less compulsive relation towards religious, moral and cultural values… [and] to instill greater autonomy and flexibility towards the humanitarian aims religion has historically pursued.” [399]

Freud employed psychoanalysis to mediate “pathologies of duty” he viewed as arising from religious and cultural compulsions and fixations. One performed his/her duties out of an unconscious ambivalence to authoritative others, a desire to win their approval, and fear of their disapproval with subsequent loss of their love and protection. The problem with religion (and religions) is its fixated mode of attachment to objectives, arising largely through coercive methods. Wahl maintains that Freud’s objections to religion were meant to challenge “its overly restrictive cultural horizon in relation to the individual’s capacity for freedom and inquiry.” [400] He views Ricoeur and Castoriadis as further elaborating on that challenge.

Wahl positions Ricoeur as engaging Freud from the perspectives of phenomenology and hermeneutics. Ricoeur views psychoanalysis as arising from a combination of the real and the ideal, as a “mixed discourse” he calls a “semantics of desire.” Ricoeur distinguishes ethics and morality. Morality is aligned with culturally enforced prescriptions for behavior deemed necessary to uphold sanctioned ideals. Ethics involves a capacity for reflective engagement with those same ideals. Reflection mitigates the authoritarian nature of the ideals and is a hallmark of psychological development.

Wahl finds similarities between Freud’s underappreciated view that healthy ego development requires interaction with others, and Ricoeur’s emphasis on the intersubjective context of psychological development. Both parental and religious authority demands deference to its authority, with independent reflection and conduct discouraged or even outlawed. Ricoeur identifies the demands of culture as a “pathology of duty,” often counterbalanced by a corresponding “pathology of desire.” Wahl finds that both Freud and Ricoeur agree that attenuating the “duty” side of the struggle is most often needed.

Wahl claims that although Ricoeur finds value in Freud’s “hermeneutics of suspicion,” that agreement comes with limitations, stating: “he endorses this perspective mainly insofar as it supplies resources for his own related yet more far-reaching task: transforming our relation to meaning – a project that is only advanced by the freedom to call any foundational standpoint into question.” [402] For Ricoeur one must go beyond merely altering the compulsiveness in the relation to his/her cultural forms, one must move beyond the careless acceptance of tradition more generally. Meaning must be constituted through on-going self-interrogation, leading from a simple faith to a “rational faith,” hard-won and rooted in unremitting reflection. Ricoeur relies on Freud to claim that it is possible to displace existing ego fixations to prescribed symbolic forms, and that alteration of the philosophical ego is possible.

Ricoeur rejects Descartes and Kant insofar as each reduces ethical reflection to mere epistemology, outside temporality and the alienation of lived, social experience. In this he also rejects Freud’s revised perspective that the unconscious is its own realm and source of transpersonal meaning. For Ricoeur meaning is displaced if separated from lived existence. An ethics of reflection cannot be separated from an ongoing interpretive relation to the world.

For Ricoeur, the psychoanalytic method promotes one’s reflective capacities through the encouragement of a neutral, supportive attitude on the part of the analyst, as mediated through the transference. In this relationship, the authoritarian directives and prescriptive solutions of the religious installation of values can be revised to meet the patient’s desires. If all goes well, the patient develops the capacity to make his/her own ethical decisions, and his/her compulsive relations are reduced. However, once outside the consultation room, the collective resistance against a rational ethic is more likely to falter. The eternal struggle between Eros and Thanatos comes to the fore. Without the analyst’s resources to help transform the relation to cultural forms, the “collective resistance against a more rational ethic is much more likely to falter.” [406]

Ricoeur evokes the notion of evil to overcome this impasse. Evil is a phenomenon never expressed in the language of rational knowledge, nor as something that knowledge can ever determine. For Ricoeur, evil is the ground from which human reflection begins. He “proposes a dialectic of symbolic forms that moves from a ‘first faith’ to a ‘rational faith,’ which he calls a ‘double illumination of a demystifying interpretation that places the birth of evil in the mind or spirit itself.’” [407] Wahl concludes however that evil is far too easily projected onto the other and has been an inadequate basis for repairing idolatrous relations to social norms. Wahl further finds that Ricoeur’s emphasis on the world of symbolic value and reflection, “does not attend sufficiently to the kind of social structure necessary for its existence.” [407]

It is at this point that Wahl turns to Castoriadis. Noting Castoriadis’ history as a “Marxist-inspired” philosopher, and psychoanalyst for 25 years, Wahl first discusses Castoriadis’ observations regarding independence as a therapeutic aim. Wahl identifies autonomy as Castoriadis’ principal concern in his writings. Autonomy for Castoriadis is a concept cutting across individual and social lines, for which Wahl finds a correlate in Freud. Individual autonomy is a psychological achievement that involves recognition of one’s desires while accepting the limitations within a particular social context. The ethical dimension limiting desires is more than mere internalization of a socially sanctioned moral code; that would be tantamount to a pathological ego structure dominated by repression. Castoriadis’ ethic of individual autonomy is self-generated. For Castoriadis, individual autonomy mandates political autonomy, to permit individual autonomy to have expression. Thus Castoriadis’ concern is individual and social.

For this reason Wahl finds Castoriadis’ thinking more fulsome than Ricoeur’s by drawing the individual into the role of citizen. For that, imagination – the capacity to envision what does not yet exist – is necessary. Castoriadis finds that Freud paid little attention to creative imagination and moves to the social political dimension of his work by proposing a three-fold revision of Freud: asserting the primacy of meaning, reconfiguring the nature of the unconscious, and embracing a broader concept of institutional religiosity. In this Castoriadis’ forward-looking social concern differs significantly from Ricoeur’s two-stage dialectic of destruction-reflection, which attends more to pre-existing cultural norms.

Castoriadis argues for the centrality of meaning-making by using the example of a psychotic. He notes that psychosis begins as mere “undecorated psychic activity.” But although psychotic thought begins as nonsensical, there inevitably comes a point where the psychotic individual “makes sense” of his/her thinking in a manner that is meaningful, if only to that person. For Castoriadis, this proves the existence and the primacy of the human need to make sense of one’s environment, i.e. to find meaning. Wahl emphasizes the fact that in Castoriadis’ paradigm, the need for meaning precedes the particular form that meaning will take. For Castoriadis underlying all forms of meaning is a primary “creative flux,” “a radically unstable matrix out of which all meanings emerge.” Applied beyond the individual, “we can say that, just as the created meaning of the psychotic is rooted here, so too is the ‘institution of society … arbitrary.’” [409] As summarized by Wahl, Castoriadis’ theory is:

The validity of one meaning over another is largely a matter of bringing soundness and compliance together. The psychotic’s meaning is only suspect on the basis of its disagreement with a wider consent. That of the “social imaginary,” on the other hand, remains unquestioned simply by virtue of this same consent. Apart from this, it can make no ultimate claim on ‘reality.’ [409]

For Castoriadis, all particular theoretical forms of the unconscious are secondary, or derivative, of the invariable and primary need for coherence. Before any other work of the unconscious or conscious mind, the individual must make sense out of the groundless, uncontainable Chaos into which we are each thrown at birth. The Abyss, or Chaos, does not imply transcendence. For Castoriadis, it merely means that there is:

An unfathomable underside to everything, and this underside is not passive, simply resistant, yielding or not yielding ground, to our efforts at understanding and mastery. It is perpetual source, ever imminent alteration, origin which is not relegated outside time, but rather is constantly present in and through time. It is literally temporality [understood as a] time that is creation/destruction, time as alterity/alteration. [409, quoting C. Castoriadis, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination (trans & Ed: Curtis, D. A.) Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press: 1997: 322]

Castoriadis’ notion of a “fluid phantasmic source” leads to a “dynamic unconscious that seeks both structure and process.” [409] Time is the means for evaluating various versions of the truth and judging their relevance. It generates the required distance necessary to reflect of claims of reality. By seeing the limitations of various versions of reality and social constructs over time, we come to recognize the limitations of any version of reality and to know that reality is both relative and vital.

Social forms of meaning-making follow the same process as individual meaning-making, and likewise originate in the Abyss. For Castoriadis, “social imaginary significations” are the most psychologically significant aspect of human reality: its social dimensions. By “imaginary,” Castoriadis means “contingent.” Every social imaginary that is instituted reflects a necessary combination of creation and closure, or imagination and reality. It must close off groundlessness to a certain extent in order to survive. With the passage of time, new perspectives allow transformation of that closure.

The Abyss or Chaos at the core of the individual and social psyche creates the necessity for signification, which has a necessary bearing on religious ideals. It gives rise to the compensatory need to attribute reality or being to signification as such. By taking Chaos into signification, signification is conferred on signification itself. This is always what the institution of society tries to affirm: that being is signification and that social signification belongs to being. “Such is the religious core of the institution of all known societies. . . (1997, p.316).” [411]

Societies must cover over their contingent character in order to function. Therefore, societies confer being upon it, together with their own social meaning of ‘being.’ These are the same practices identified with religion, and which also provide for its critique. Failure to see the psychological ground of religious truths (which is the same as the ground of all other meaning-making) leads to efforts at totalization. Totalization means that in order for a particular religious signification to become effective it must necessarily bind together the origins of the world with those of society. It becomes problematic when transcendence (immutability) is attributed to such totalizations and they are no longer seen as human creations. For Castoriadis, religion includes not only the major western monotheistic religions (“the greatest conspirators against revealing the constructed nature of transcendent realms”); it also includes ‘rational’ doctrines, such as the “laws of nature” or “laws of history.” Castoriadis’ opposition is not to religion per se, but to that which would arrest the constantly changing nature of significations and hold society together with an imaginary matrix.

To admit the Chaos, or Abyss, of which Castoriadis speaks, “is to face up to the realization that there is nothing beyond the human domain, nothing at least which could be characterized as Being.” [411] Wahl finds Ricoeur’s warning against reifying the unconscious is companionable with Castoriadis’ warning that conferring transcendence on the source of meaning-making is psychologically regressive, akin to Oedipal-based idolatry. Castoriadis notes that the need for religion corresponds to the refusal by human beings to recognize absolute alterity, the limit of all significations. In other words: “they cannot stand up straight and confront the Abyss.” For Castoriadis, one’s relation to the forms of signification must remain tractable. That can be realized best in an atmosphere of autonomy, including political autonomy, with social and political significations emphasizing equal rights, human rights, and the effective participation by all in the structures of power (what Castoriadis calls the “politics of autonomy”).

This lengthy review of the content of this article was necessary because of its density and complexity. Wahl successfully launches Ricoeur from Freud, and then moves beyond Ricoeur to Castoriadis. It is a slow read, requiring careful attention to the language used and the transitions among the three principle theorists (Freud, Ricoeur and Castoriadis). The effort is rewarded by apprehending interesting ideas about the unconscious and meaning-making, and exposure to creative analyses of the sources of individual, social and religious significations and meaning. Wahl makes Ricoeur and Castoriadis accessible by relating their thought to Freud, establishing a common ground from which the individual content takes root. In the end, it not a synthesis of the theories of Freud, Ricoeur and Castoriadis that emerges, it is more akin to an anthology.