Category: Philosophical theories

Psychoanalysis and Plato

Basic theories of Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and of other important figures, such as Jung and more recently Lacan and Kristeva, admit as a source of their inspiration many aspects of platonic philosophy, developing further new means of interpretation of platonic texts.

Psychoanalysis is the group of psychological theories and practices towards a therapeutic orientation which Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud introduced in the Studies on Hysteria (1895); it consists of the emergence of unconscious causes of psychical dysfunctions through dialogue between analyst and analysand. Although in its evolution, from Freud to nowadays, psychoanalysis acquired several forms according to the various theories or the explanatory and therapeutic tools used by its most important representatives, it preserves a lot of its initial distinctiveness.

Freud (Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939) was the undisputed founder of psychoanalysis and its techniques; he was the first to examine the unexplored until then components of unconscious, of dreams and sexuality. In Interpretation of Dreams (1900), dreams are being interpreted as manifestations of unconscious, repressed desires, an insight found in the Republic (571c-d). Moreover, sexuality subordinates, according to Freud, to the most significant encompassing forces of the human being that aim at its biological conservation and development: the life drive (Eros). Freud, admitting his debt to Plato, remarks in many of his references that platonic ἒρως in Symposium, the all-embracing world force, coincides with the psychoanalytic notion of libido. Furthermore, the platonic division of the soul in three parts, appetite (επιθυμητικόν), spirit (θυμοειδές) and reason (λογιστικόν), in the Republic (434d-444e) may have been the inspiration source for the three-partite distinction – albeit not in absolute corresponding – into it (Es), ego (Ich) and superego (Über-Ich). According to Plato’s view, the three parts of the soul not working harmoniously will cause injustice, while in Freud such an effect can be the cause of neurosis.

Jung (Carl Gustav Jung, 1875-1961) an initial supporter of Freudian psychoanalysis, soon differentiated from it and molded his own version. He focused specifically on primordial images and myths of traditions and language that disseminate from collective unconscious and govern from the very beginning individual behavior. He named these primordial types archetypes and although he acknowledged their origin in the platonic ideas, he simultaneously pointed explicitly their differences: archetypes are not unconscious ideas, nor eternal, transcendent forms, determined in regard to its abstract content. Instead, archetypes are empirical conceptions determined and individualized by their spontaneous manifestation in each personality they may arise.

Lacan (Jacques Lacan, 1901-1981) introduced his own psychoanalytic theory and method, although he declared the necessary return to Freud. He had also pursued platonic dialogues in a multilateral, albeit occasional, way except for Symposium to which he devoted the entire Seminar VIII 1960-1961: The transference (1991); there he interprets Alcibiades and Socrates affair in the light of his conception of desire: Alcibiades desires the knowledge of desire that he assumes that Socrates possesses. That is to say, desire means primarily lack, inequality and alienation from the subject; its projection to the other is represented in the signifier ἄγαλμα, the rustic box of Silinos which contained an inestimable treasure, the ἄγάλματα θεῶν (215a4-217a2), the marvel that Alcibiades would like Socrates to cede to him as acknowledgement of his desire. But Socrates claims that he knows nothing and that he is nothing (219a3-4): there is no ἄγαλμα and the object of desire consists of a tragic annulment; it is the impossible, the non-being. According to Lacan, Symposium describes for first time the transference, the libidinal bond between the analysand and the analyst and Socrates is a quasi-analyst.

Finally, Kristeva (Julia Kristeva, 1941–) in her basic study Revolution in poetic language (1974) attempts a psychoanalytic-semiotic interpretation of the platonic chora in Timaeus. In order to differentiate from the notion ‘sign’, Kristeva uses the term chora as semiotic (sémiotique) because it is not yet a ‘sign’ nor a ‘signifier’ but a rhythmic space which has no thesis; a process by which, through ordering of presymbolic functions via mediation of the mother's body, the subject is consisted. It involves discharges of energy in the body of the subject in an ambiguous, both assimilating and destructive, direction – the drives and their stases – that orient the body towards the mother and are imposed by family and social structures.Therefore, the mother's body becomes a mediate in the ordering of semiotic chora, a non definitively posited totality formed and regulated in a motility; chora is the place where the subject is both generated and negated.

Thus by showing his object as castrated, Alcibiades presents himself as he who desires – a fact that does not escape Socrates’s attention – for someone else who is present, Agathon, whom Socrates, the precursor of psychoanalysis, and confident of his position in this fashionable gathering, does not hesitate to name as the object of the transference, placing in the light of an interpretation a fact that many analysts are still unaware of: that the love-hate effect in the analytic situation is to be found elsewhere (Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. B. Fink, New York 2002, p. 825).
Author: Vassilios Lorentzakis
  • Tourney, G. "Freud and the Greeks: A study of the influence of the classical Greek mythology and philosophy upon the development of Freudian thought." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 1 (1965)
  • Balmer, H. Die Archetypentheorie von C. G. Jung. Eine kritik. Berlin, 1972.
  • Henrion, J.-L. La cause du désir — l’agalma de Platon à Lacan. Paris, 1993.
  • Juranville, A. Lacan et la philosophie. Paris, 1984.
  • Lear, J. Open Minded. Working out the logic of the soul. Cambridge/Massachusetts & London, 1998.
  • Shelburne, W. A. Mythos and Logos in the Thought of Carl Jung. Albany, 1988.
  • Lorenzo, C. "Le ressort de l’amour." Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 11 (2006)


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