Separated by millennia, Aristotle and Sigmund Freud gave us disparate but compelling pictures of the human condition. But if, with Jonathan Lear, we scrutinize these thinkers' attempts to explain human behavior in terms of a higher principle--whether happiness or death--the pictures fall apart.
Aristotle attempted to ground ethical life in human striving for happiness, yet he didn't understand what happiness is any better than we do. Happiness became an enigmatic, always unattainable, means of seducing humankind into living an ethical life. Freud fared no better when he tried to ground human striving, aggression, and destructiveness in the death drive, like Aristotle attributing purpose where none exists. Neither overarching principle can guide or govern "the remainder of life," in which our inherently disruptive unconscious moves in breaks and swerves to affect who and how we are. Lear exposes this tendency to self-disruption for what it is: an opening, an opportunity for new possibilities. His insights have profound consequences not only for analysis but for our understanding of civilization and its discontent.
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Jonathan Lear is John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.From Publishers Weekly:
Originally presented at Harvard as a three-part Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Lear's (Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul) latest book meditates on life's meaning. "What difference does psychoanalysis make," Lear asks at the outset, "to our understanding of human existence?" Drawing on both psychoanalytic theory and the history of philosophyAby way of Aristotle and FreudAhe teases out a usable answer to this question. Treating, one by one, the subjects of happiness, death and everything elseAthe "remainder" of lifeALear, a philosopher at the University of Chicago as well as a practicing psychoanalyst, reconsiders along the way Freud's theory of the unconscious, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and a host of the classic philosophical notions. Freud's idea of the unconscious, Lear argues, offered a radically new idea of human characterAone that could finally compete with that described by Aristotle. But because of the teleological weak spots (which he considers at length) in both theories, neither thinker alone provides a sufficient guide to living or to thinking about life. Aristotle, he argues, skirts around the explicit idea of happiness; Freud, he incisively suggests (turning Freudian critiques back on their inventor), repressed his own insights into the death urge. In the end, Lear ties the ideas of these two rather different thinkers together in a cogent, if not necessarily revelatory, way. Complex in theory and filled with dense language ("enigmatic signifiers," "the metaphysics of aggression"), this text is more suited to an academic than a popular audience. (Sept.)
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