Philosophy with Paul and Freud

Before laying out the philosophical possibilities of Paul and Freud, it should be noted that both provide a peculiar impetus for engaging in philosophical discourse: people are sick and philosophy is a means of aiding the diagnosis. Philosophy is not a realm apart from what it means to be human but is a concentrated articulation of this predicament. The reason for taking up philosophy with Freud and Paul is not the reason with which philosophy tends to justify itself – as a quest for ultimate reality, the articulation of what is ontologically the case. Philosophy puts on display the failures we all experience but it also provides an alternative means of understanding the needed cure. So, the point of delving into philosophy in this instance (which is not every instance), is primarily theological. Philosophy provides alternative access, a well-articulated demonstration, a clear presentation of the human disease addressed by the Great Physician.  

The Apostle and the founder of psychoanalysis describe the human subject as consisting of three registers, which are simultaneously interdependent and antagonistic, and these registers not only pertain to the (sick) individual but describe the three possibilities of philosophy. This philosophy in three parts revolves around three facets or three surfaces created by language functioning as prime reality. Philosophy, like the human subject, consists of language as a medium, language as providing an object, or language as a mode of negation. Paul refers to these three parts as the ego, the law, and the body of death, and Freud references the same basic parts as the ego, the superego, and the id (or it). The English word “ego” is a transliteration of the Greek word Paul deploys to refer to himself, and he situates this “I” as an effect of its relation to law and death (thus he will speak of the dissolution of the “I” as a cure).

Freud, in his final period, arrives at his three-part construct with his recognition that Eros (sex, life, pleasure) is inadequate to explain the sickness of the subject, so he posits Thanatos or death as a second instinct, and with his positing of this death instinct he arrives at the tripartite subject. This would amount not only to a new topography of the Subject but a different understanding of the energetics at work in the Subject. No longer did Freud see mankind as controlled by one goal, rather man seemed bound towards death in and through the detour that is life. It was not that death as a force (independent of man) overwhelms man, but that man stands opposed to himself and brings about his own destruction. He takes death up into himself, all the time imagining that it is the means to secure or save the self (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 54). Jacques Lacan will note that with this positing of a second instinct, all of Freudian theory can be translated from the biological into a linguistic realm. He pictures the three parts of the subject as three sides of a primordial or founding linguistic construct (a lie). In this sense (and Lacan notes as much), it is a spreading out of the Pauline category of law, and the human problem with the law, to include language per se.

How we read Paul in regard to the law will determine the role accorded to language and philosophy. If we read Paul and the New Testament as primarily concerned with reconciling us to the law, this is an indicator of the philosophical stance that will result. It is no accident that it is Anselm, who posits the definitive nature of the law in our approach to God and in the meaning of the atonement, while at the same time incorporating Platonic philosophy into theology. The point is not to blame Anselm but to point to his founding of scholasticism (the fusion of theology with Greek thought) as the end point of a process in which language per se (in the law, in his description of the subject, in his description of reality) becomes primary. Thus, the philosophical/theological task is, like the job of every good lawyer, to describe/prescribe the law of the Father (Anselm pictures it as a zero-sum game in which there is a precise logic at work). This is the Aristotelian Philosopher king sort of philosophy in which there is an unquestioning wisdom attached to this order of knowing, not perhaps so much in the details as in its very authoritative status as an order of wisdom.

In this understanding, determining reality and how it is to be negotiated is the joint undertaking of philosophy and theology as both are engaged in the same discourse (law, logic). The law of the Father gives us metaphysics, Newtonian science, and consists of a singular (conscious) surface which prevails from Plato to Descartes. Anselm’s law of the cross is precisely a philosophical, legal, requirement and his approach to God is through a linguistic formula (the ontological argument). Everything is ontological, or in Freudian terms “phallocentric,” so that theology is an extension of philosophy (ontotheology) as language puts all things in our grasp. The law is the logos is the Logos without interruption.

On the other hand, if we recognize that Paul is actually suggesting that the law is in no way normative or even regulative but is, in fact, enmeshed in contradiction (due to sin), our philosophical stance will be a turn from metaphysics (concerned as it is, primarily, with how to describe a harmonious reality). Now we have to do with a discontinuity, a questioning of the law, and a turn to the human subject. Paul describes two contradictory laws at work in the mind and body and we are, according to Paul, ruled by a law that, by definition, we do not know. Sin has deceived us with regard to the law and we do not any longer have control or understand what law is at work within us. Now our concern is not so much with keeping the law, describing the law, extending the law, but there is a questioning of the law.

With the passage through Luther and the philosophic shift from Kant to Hegel, philosophy as psychology comes to this second element of the subject. Prior to Kant it was just a matter of looking into the mirror of nature and allowing Being to disclose itself but now the categories of perception receiving the phenomena of the world are removed from the thing in itself (the noumena). Just as Kant notes that Descartes’ “I think” in no way discloses “the thing that thinks,” he notes that there is a necessary obscuring in perception of the reality which stands behind it. It is not that perception is an illusion but it contains apriori categories (the ontic) which do not coincide with the ontological. This difference is illustrated in a series of unresolvable antinomies: time and space are limited by a perceived beginning and yet are infinite and necessary categories; the world is composed of simple parts and yet these simple parts are nowhere in existence; spontaneity is part of the causality of the universe and yet the world takes place solely in accord with the laws of nature and without spontaneity; there belongs to the world a being that is absolutely necessary and yet this being nowhere exists. Where pre-Kantian philosophy would mark this up to the illusion of false appearances, which it is the task of philosophy to get beyond, Kant does not denounce this appearance of reality as secondary but he raises the question as to the very possibility of appearances.

With Hegel there is the presumption that the Kantian antinomies are not mere gaps in understanding but pertain to reality. Reality itself is incomplete, built on antagonism, and dependent on death and absence. God himself, in Hegel’s taking up of Luther, is made complete only in his dying on the cross. Sin and salvation, or good and evil (among other contrasting pairs), have the same ontological ground (to which there is no alternative), so the same structure and categories inform each. The goal is not to overcome the gaps or difference (to defeat evil) but to conceive the gaps, which seem to keep the subject from arriving at full self-identity, as the origin of the Subject (and thus to reorient the Subject).

Philosophy up to Hegel is seeking to harmonize reality, presuming that the gaps or antinomies can be explained or covered over. Kant posits the impossibility of this overcoming while Hegel begins with the necessity of this difference. Hegel too is presuming a comprehensive program for philosophy, but he presumes it is just a matter of counting in the antinomies, gaps, death, and nothing, as not only part of reality but productive of reality. The antagonism at the heart of identity through difference, the dialectic, is at the very center of the negative force generating reality.

In Lacanian terms, we pass from the masculine identity with the law to a feminine questioning of the law. The masculine-superego-metaphysical attempt to say it all is ruled out of court as the thing that thinks – the subject herself – eludes us. Thinking of Richard Rorty, nature turns out to be a mirror that excludes us from its reflection. The history of philosophy might be mostly reduced to one long gaze in the mirror, and with post-Kantian philosophy the mirror comes up for examination. The philosophic mirror stage was a long time in coming but now the phenomena of knowing becomes the primary concern as “taking a look” turns out to be inadequate.

Between this masculine, superego, law-based register and the feminine, ego, contradictory and inaccessible law-based register there stands the id or the real or the third phase in philosophy.  Here the focus is upon what underlies the difference between the masculine and feminine – the pure absence or nothing.  The Freudian, Lacanian place in philosophy would assign this idic or real the primary role.  If there is a positive unfolding of nous or spirit in Hegel, here there is no question that primacy is given to death and the power of death taken up in the negating power of a lie. Thus, this third phase is the necessary pointer to that which lies beyond the subject and the powers of philosophy. The atheism of Lacan and Žižek is a full-blown Pauline sort of recognition of the necessity of suspending the law and the God associated with this sinful orientation. The punishing effects of the sinful orientation to the law, or the disease of being caught up in the antagonism of dialectic, is the domain of this idic third phase in philosophy. Here philosophy becomes most theological as this diagnosis of the human condition is the proper realm of theology – a realm relinquished by theology and which thus made room for and gave rise to psychoanalysis.

I do not mean to suggest these three possibilities are exhaustive of the relation between theology and philosophy. This clears the ground though, for a different sort of exchange, neither masculine nor feminine nor idic, between philosophy and theology. This fourth way begins where Romans 7 and where Žižek and Lacan leave off, in that it proposes a dissolution of the real and a suspension of the power of death as the controlling third term in the subject and in philosophy.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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