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Getting Past Freud

by Christopher Chantrill
February 07, 2005 at 12:04 pm


CONSERVATIVES have always had a problem with Freud. Liberals have not. “When I read Freud,” said the playwright, “the scales fell off my eyes.” Conservatives experience Freud as a charlatan; artists experience him as a revelation.

Freud’s psychology may seem to conservative Americans as a sudden, unlooked for outburst from Europe. But his psychology is a natural synthesis of Kant’s conscious ego, Fichte’s creative ego, Hegel’s stage theory of consciousness, and Schopenhauer’s theory of repression. The key link in this chain is Fichte, because he isolates a key component in the development of human knowledge: humans.

How does knowledge come into the world? Descartes thought that knowledge came from the scientist making logical inferences from known, indubitable facts to a necessary theory. But Fichte showed that facts infer nothing. It is the free imaginative act of the scientist that creates a new theory. And that act comes from impulse: “All our thought is founded on our impulses,” he wrote. Living a century after Fichte, could Albert Einstein have developed special relativity without bold leaps of impulse and imagination?

Of course Fichte’s discovery applies not just to scientists but also to artists, writers, and playwrights. In the nineteenth century Fichte’s ideas electrified a whole generation of them. In the twentieth century Freud’s ideas drove the whole artistic culture. Freud taught the young artist to regard his dreams as a holy font of impulse welling up from the unconscious id. And let him beware of repressing the unconscious impulse; that would make his creative soul sick with neurosis.

For the middle-class conservative, this all seemed crazy. Western religion emphasized the importance of commandments and covenants; democratic capitalism demonstrated the primacy of the rule of law, the sanctity of contract, and the value of cooperation and compromise. How could the untrammeled creative ego be reconciled with the rules? Surely it could not. And so conservatives brushed Freud aside.

But rejecting German psychology means going back to the psychology of Locke and Hume. All of that, any German will tell you, ended when Kant awoke from his dogmatic slumber over 200 years ago. Without an answer to the call of Freud conservatives cannot hope to graduate from their successes in politics and economics and start to influence the modern conversations in the arts and the humanities. Conservatives need a psychology that can meet and beat the insights of Fichte and Freud on creativity, an intellectual system that can reconcile conservative rules and tradition with liberal creativity and then go one better.

Fortunately, such a theory already exists. Developed by American psychologist Clare Graves in the 1960s and 1970s, it was published as Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. It’s a stage theory developed from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and brightened up with a bit of color. (Link here for more details.) Here’s how it tells the story of the American Dream.

America’s immigrants, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” arrive in the city barely able to function in the new land. They are “impulsive red,” knowing only power and powerlessness. Powerless victims, the impulsive reds spiral downwards until they find salvation in the life of rules, the One True Way, living as “purposeful blue” in the world of the enthusiastic Christian and the respectable middle class. But the children of the middle class want a little adventure. Finding that life in safe suburban Scarsdale a hell they discover that they can change the rules a little and treat life as an adventure. They become “creative orange,” playing the business game or the arts game to win the glittering prizes. But children of inventive entrepreneurs reject the hero’s journey of creativity. They choose instead the inner journey of spirituality and long to cooperate and share rather than create and compete. They become “communitarian greens.” Beyond green, of course is “integral yellow” where the compassionate conservative, shall we say, comprehends all the levels below and understands that each stage “transcends and includes” the ones before it. Above this ridge, of course, new peaks will rise.

The way to understand the power of this system is to put it to work. The enquiring mind might wonder whether it is a good idea for the welfare state to treat everyone as an impulsive red victim. Might not the red victim rise out of squalor to purposeful blue competence with a little tough love, say a time limit on welfare benefits? In the matter of education, might not a red immigrant mother choose a education in blue discipline for her children while the college professor might choose an education to encourage orange creativity and green cultural enrichment? And might we not respect the choice of each?

With a psychology like this conservatives can get past Freud and win the culture war.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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