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FREUD, SARTRE, R. D. LAING - the philosophy of mind

written by: Stanley Wilkin




Freud has raised his handsome, not insignificant head again, as his ideas do on a regular basis, invariably by commentators to claim or debate their relevance or lack of it. Without doubt Freud was often absurdly wrong, as in the notion of sexual stages. Nevertheless, although that is the case-his clients tended to be Jewish women who constantly experienced problems with their menfolk, and to whom, at times, he was a surrogate lover/husband, providing him with a narrow view of individual sexuality-he managed to place sex as an important part of personality construction. Although not alone in doing so, he helped encourage debate on the mind, started in the 17th century by Descartes and Locke, asserting that it has a hierarchical, interdependent structure. This doubtful idea, based upon his reading of the classics, gained considerable traction and still has many supporters. And no, many modern thinkers do not agree that the unconscious exists, asserting that that is just a romantic fallacy. Whatever the truth of the above, it all has made people think.

Although it is now easy to dismiss Freud, he had/has an effect on art (Surrealism), on writing (James Joyce and Eliot), cinema (Hitchcock), and, as this paper will consider, philosophy. No mean achievement. But this perhaps demonstrates Freud’s real achievement. He was a brilliant creative writer, a constructor of extremely relevant modern myths and cultural symbolism-usually gleaned from the classics- and in that way his contribution to the modern world has been vast. Lastly, although the statement  “(T)here is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas” is justified it compares well to psychiatry with its controlling impetus, its wanton use of dangerous, addictive, personality-altering drugs, its largely unscientific premises and refusal to validate itself.


This article will consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s rejection of Freud’s concept of the unconscious and the effect this may have had on therapy and the role of the psychotherapist. Thereby I will prove, from an existentialist viewpoint that there are inherent problems with Freud’s concept that the mind is split into several integral if independent parts. I suggest that Freud’s concept aids Freud’s authoritarianism. Here, I will set out to prove the unified nature of human personality through the use of existentialist ideas. I will in addition consider how authoritarian constructs of mental health, a consequence of the 19th century and early 20th century development of its major concerns, have determined our perceptions of mental health. To do this, I will consider the ideas of R.D. Laing.

The idea of repressed memories is crucial to Freud’s concept of the unconscious. Work on the subject has been done by Michael Eysenck (1977) and Baddley (1990). Eysenck made experiments to test Freud’s theories. The views of the above I will then compare with those of Freud and Sartre, contrasting the results of theory and experimentation.


Freud considered the mind to consist of two separate parts, the conscious mind, or Ego, the reasoning part of human nature which allowed the individual to integrate within society, and the unconscious mind, the Id, which contained the sexual needs and instinctive parts of human nature. The latter can be judged uncivilised. The Ego censored the Id, or unconscious, while an extension of the Ego, the Super-Ego represented the externalisation of Self. As Freud believed the unconscious also contained the repressed memories of childhood traumas, it too consisted of two functioning parts, increasing the number of interconnected parts that the mind was split into. According to Freud, the Id and the part of the unconscious which contained repressed memories could combine to produce the challenging and bizarre behaviour that is mental illness.

Seen clearly, Freud postulated that the evidence for the existence of the unconscious relied on repressed memories but in addition advanced ideas on the permanent storage of experiential memories and their probable uncontaminated nature upon retrieval. Unlike Sartre, Freud is not concerned with the nature of experience, except where it involves associated trauma. He fails to separate autobiographical memory from environmental and cultural memory, holding that the mind is strictly informed by individual experience.

Modern Research into Memory:

Here I will consider the nature of memory and the credibility of Freud’s perceptions.
Eysenck looked at Freud’s ideas of memory repression within the context of storage and retrieval. Freud held that trauma ensured the storage of experiential memories, while also initiating conscious retrieval. He believed this was particularly evident in children. He seemed to have ignored the normal vicissitudes of memory, especially where information retention is concerned and the problems associated with mood, age and environment. He seemed also to have allocated no place for other forms of memory.
Freud perceived retrived memory as, once given a psychoanalysts benediction, was pure and uncontaminated. His changed views on the validity of childhood abuse, introducing the Oedipus complex instead, effectively removed the patient’s right to the validity of their own experience, and also the right to understand their own experiences. This became the preserve of psychoanalysts or professionals in general.

Eysenck demonstrates that while there is evidence that stimuli can retrieve memory, the veracity of the memories is disputed. The evidence also suggests that while intense experiences can inhibit the retrieval of information they do not inhibit recall of past events. What is recalled is nevertheless invariably contaminated by internal and external factors. Baddeley (1990) suggests there are extensive alterations to experiential memory over time. Intense emotion facilitates recall, not suppresses it. Where childhood events are concerned brain development can by itself cause loss of memory or changes to memory.
It may be that experiential memories operate differently to other forms of memory, involving both the retrieval of objective data and the creation of further data that is imaginary in substance and based upon a subjective reaction to an original event over a period of time. While the original event may be corroborated by others the further data is the subjective preserve of the individual involved, perhaps the means by which the original event is negotiated or stored. When traumatic events appear not to be recalled, it is because of insufficient corroboration from others or of denial by others. Other’s psychology is involved, not just the individuals.

Sartre and the unity of the personality:

While Freud insists on the two-fold nature of the personality, suggesting splits that determine mental health, Sartre suggests this is ‘Bad Faith’. By this he means a lack of honesty or authenticity. Sartre believes that Freud encouraged ‘Bad Faith’ in others, removing them from responsibility for their own actions by encouraging them to blame parts of their personality over which they have no control. Sartre accuses Freud of ‘Bad Faith’ through insisting on beliefs that suited his own roles of physician and authority figure. If someone has no access to important areas of their personality than clearly a second party may be required to provide it.

Sartre criticises Freud for establishing a field of specialisation for the purposes of self-aggrandisement and remuneration. His theories merely substantiate his claim to these specific areas by emphasising his personal, oracular authority. Sartre saw psychoanalysis as representing an authoritative approach to others that limited other’s humanity for the sake of the one holding authority. Sartre emphasised the unity of the personality, which meant being true to oneself and the humanity shared with others.
Authenticity is lost through the processes of mental health diagnosis, the power play of psychiatrists and psychotherapists, and the dominant viewpoint of both.

R.D. Laing:

Laing viewed the schizoid or schizophrenic patient as expressing existentialist concepts through their illness. He believed they were depersonalised by the psychiatric institutions where they were treated, creating splits within their personalities as a defence against the contradictory nature of the world in an attempt to preserve their ‘autonomous identity’ from annihilation.

Laing, from this, concluded that the world is mad and that normality is another expression of madness. Many of the world’s conventions encourage mad behaviour. Psychotic individuals were simply unable to engage in ‘bad faith’ but were being true to their experience of the world, exhibiting the courage that Sartre recommended for living a fulfilling life.

While the above view gives value to the experiences of the mentally ill, allowing their experiences to be considered as within the range of human experiences rather than depersonalised as seen as abnormal, it doesn’t appear to provide a way for them to live fulfilling lives but validates their isolation and suffering. For Laing, Schizophrenia is an alternative perspective on the world rather than a disabling illness that its sufferers would perhaps be happy to dispense with.

There is evidence that medical intervention turns positive experiences into negative ones. The state of mental health sufferers, often entrenched in poverty and without ambition, angry and frustrated, is a consequence of the medical treatment they receive. Psychiatrists are from the middle-classes, with that group’s historical separation from other members of the community. After all, professionalism is a middle-class construct.


Freud, through his concept of the unconscious, developed the notion of the fragmented personality, split into interrelated but independent compartments fixed upon time and in particular the past. He posited, as part of his pragmatic argument, the debilitating power of the past and of memory manipulation. Autonomy and self-healing became impossible, as any little incident required a therapist or the deliberations of some expert or another. The positive force of self-discovery was rejected for the unsubstantiated claims of overweening professionals.

Laing stressed individual experience and the importance of individual understanding of that experience. This is known as the ‘ontological approach.’ Without such an approach original thinking is jettisoned. We can longer tolerate mystics or outsiders. Unfortunately, Laing did not acknowledge ordinariness and ‘normalcy’ as equally legitimate experiences, producing equally potent insights. Mental health professionals tend to want to control other’s experiences.

Freud was primarily focused upon the individual, by doing so declaring his debt to the period of his education and the romanticism of the 19th century. He appears to have seen the individual engaging with the external world on a small number of levels, while Laing saw them in frequent engagement. The greater problems of the psychotic are due to that engagement. Laing’s positive approach to mental health balances the negative approach to mental health sufferers of the ‘caring’ profession.

Freud and Laing’s understanding are both constructed upon the nature of power. While Freud allows his subjects very little, Laing wants all power relationships to be eliminated. He would prefer everyone to experience life not to engage in power games, which, for him negate life and its meaning.
Any attempt to understand mental illness is destroyed by the inclusion of authority which constructs the other in order to best identify its own nature. Anyone working for any time in mental health sees that there is a symbiotic relationship between professionals and the people they deal with. Often the professionals project dangerous motives onto the patients. Those who construct sanity, psychiatrists etc, may be the least sane.

Sartre perceives as inauthentic any personality integrated to daily employment or specific roles. On one level, this can, outside the philosophical parameters, be connected to his war experiences. Under German occupation during the 2nd World War, while a small number of French intellectuals joined the resistance, Sartre employed the time to advance his career. After the war, he created the myth of his personal and artistic resistance. His own courage failed him. He was unable to act on his principles. The war also made him realise that people act according to current perceptions, and in war, good people can act badly. Normal life could be a kind of insanity. Splits in individual behaviour were connected to the environment, and changes that occurred there, not internally.

Like Laing, Sartre saw that authority created its own world, imposing it on others. In that sense, madness and normality are connected through choice. Nevertheless, the notions of mind of psychiatrists and psychotherapists do not reflect the work presently done in scientific and philosophic circles, retaining many archaic elements. Often, both disciplines trundle along within their own managed and distorted paradigms in perpetual intellectual gloom rather than yielding to the occasional glimpse of light.

Stanley Wilkin

Stanley Wilkin

Stanley Wilkin is a freelance lecturer and education consultant working in London
Stanley Wilkin

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