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Silbermann, I. (1973). Some Reflections on Spinoza and Freud. Psychoanal Q., 42:601-624.

(1973). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 42:601-624

Some Reflections on Spinoza and Freud

Isidor Silbermann, M.D.


Both Spinoza and Freud showed that a mind that is filled with 'confused' ideas and overcharged with affects is a suffering mind: it is unable to put to use its actual capacities—to differentiate between past and present, between substance and semblance, between the rational and the irrational. Both insisted, moreover, that such confused or inadequate ideas could be made to give way to adequate or clear ideas; that was, after all, the 'proper' way for the human mind to behave, as can be seen from the fact that whoever has achieved it feels a deep sense of truth.

Yet Spinoza, partly as a result of his concept of thinking as the conatus of the mind, was led to believe that a mind that is given to proper thinking will, ipso facto, be balanced and productive. To Freud, however, such a conception could not be regarded as sufficient; despite the fact that clear thinking and reason are essential components of knowledge, he knew that they are not by themselves able to penetrate to the deepest layers of the mind, to the unconscious, and are therefore unable to unravel emotional disorders or to master man's emotions. It is not reason that is capable of subjugating emotion, he showed, but the other way around; that was why not thought but affect had to be the focus of scientific investigations of the mind, as well as of its treatment.

The direction and governance of the self are thus dependent, in Freud's view, not so much on the accumulation of knowledge and the enlargement of the understanding as on the liberation of emotions that have hitherto been incarcerated in false connections. Yet that liberation is rendered complete only with

their realignment with appropriate thoughts. Reason is able to act, Freud saw, only when thought and emotion have been properly linked; by way of that linkage, they lose their restless striving toward (and sometimes against) each other. Inappropriate links between thought and emotion are not only deficits with regard to the power of the mind; they are also more or less significant impairments of that power—which is why such links need to be undone and then replaced.

Spinoza's somewhat rueful comment had been that no one had 'so far determined the nature and strength of the emotions, and what the mind can do to master them'. More than two hundred years later, Freud was able to show what man can do to master his affects. By his creation of psychoanalysis, Freud brought into being the tool for the attainment of such mastery—a problem to which Spinoza had provided no answer, in large part because he had not even addressed himself to the question. Certain fundamental achievements by Spinoza were, as we have shown, the necessary presuppositions for Freud's tremendous leap forward; were it not for Freud's leap, however, mankind today would still be standing outside the door through which Spinoza had so boldly and cogently shown that it had the power to enter. Through Freud's demonstrations that there is reason in 'unreason', that the present is filled with the past, and that it is emotion rather than thought that is the ultimate determinant in man's ability to exercise his human powers fully and productively—through these, he charted the path to that human freedom that Spinoza had earlier envisioned.

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