19. The Scientistic Model: Freud and Empedocles*

Preliminary remark

A dichotomy is introduced into the analysis of any object of study. The phenomenon studied is situated along a line of evolution. Given the goal of assigning meaning, this dichotomy produces a division between anticipation (or “intuition”) and primitivism, between “going beyond” and “falling short.” In fact, it is only a matter of separating those aspects of the object that have been assimilated to subsequent knowledge by critical work—and falsely valorized, since modernity legitimizes the object—considering the value that the institution attributes to them. But this leaves a remainder, which cannot have been assimilated and valorized. Operating from the standpoint of an outcome that transcends the work, as if the work were, or could have been, conceived in view of an unknown endpoint, brings about a qualitative dissociation. Historicization globalizes from the outset. In historicizing, one renounces the option of proceeding to reconstitute a scientifically provisional totality. Historically, such totalities have been conceived and constructed in relation to other totalities, each equally self-contained and no less provisional, each entering into competition with the others at the moment of genesis, and, in the same way, each will itself be disintegrated and replaced in turn. The very “project” of historicization, anchored in a particular form, will be abandoned in that form. The moment of stoppage and concentration, marked by the work or the system that one is deciphering, constitutes its own temporality; we have to yield to the rhythm of that temporality if we want to grasp the “sense” of the work or the system, that is, the sense that the elements take on in the structure as a whole, emitting their own language and determining the nature of the utterance. It is this structure as a whole that makes sense, starting from its center; in a second phase, the structure can be questioned as to its signification—or its import—in itself, apart from the conditions of its deciphering, with respect to other prior or subsequent thoughts, and with respect to ourselves.

Reading of “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (“Die endliche und die unendliche Analyse”), section VI, on Empedocles [1]

The Empedoclean doctrine of Love and Strife is at the center of what Freud calls “our interest” (unser Interesse), based on the “psychoanalytic theory of the instincts” (SE 23:245). The assimilation is so tempting, he notes, that one could almost speak of identity, if there were not the cosmic, non-scientific imagination on the one hand, and a scientific limitation on the other, validity in psychoanalysis being restricted to the biological domain (“the Greek philosopher’s theory is a cosmic phantasy while ours is content to claim biological validity” [SE 23:245]; “während unsere [Phantasie] sich mit dem Anspruch auf biologische Geltung bescheidet” [GW 16:90]).
However, this difference is immediately abolished, or at least reduced, on the basis of a theory of universal animation, a pan-psychism that strongly influenced positivist or scientistic descriptions of pre-Socratic thought at the beginning of the century, before the rehabilitation of a more ontological position by phenomenology and the later reintroduction of a more logical point of view. Even Wilhelm Capelle, the compiler whose text Freud followed, [2] made this assumption here, based on the attribution of the name “daimons” (daimones) to the forces at issue; no one really raised any questions about what type of transposition or transference Empedocles had in mind. The primitivist phenomenon effaces a border and erases distances, and produces a backlash in favor of a scientific approach. On this point, Freud refers directly to Capelle, who is anxious to limit the effect of the demonic personalization of the two forces and opts for a new opposition in which he stresses their status as “natural forces,” devoid of intelligence, according to Aristotle’s critique, and thus devoid of teleological import; furthermore, equally under the influence of the Aristotelian critique, he considers their function “mechanical,” sees them in deterministic terms, and deems their causality fortuitous.
Freud’s presentation is closely tied to this summary. On the one hand, he turns Capelle’s words to his own purposes with the adjective triebhaft (instinctual), which Capelle uses in a physical sense (the de-divinized sense of physics) to characterize these powers, which he represents as mere “forces.” Freud’s attention had been caught by this phrase, which he cites: “natural forces operating like instincts” (SE 23:246; “triebhaft wirkende Naturkräfte” [GW 16:91]); on the other hand, slightly transforming the source, he retains the role of chance in a description that he classifies among “modern ideas,” in particular evolutionism, with the role it attributes to chance and with a history he tinges with Darwinism: the development of living beings in stages, or even the survival of the fittest, which he found formulated in Capelle [3] ; however, Theodor Gomperz had already indicated, in his Griechische Denker: Eine Geschichte der antiken Philosophie (1896–1909), [4] that this progression through stages translated the profundity of the naturalist’s intuitions.
In this assimilation to later or even contemporary doctrines, the fact that evolution was in no sense open was not taken into account. Evolution was inscribed within a fixed framework: its point of departure and also its endpoint were known in advance, so that the stages along the way, with the cosmic events that served as milestones, drew their signification from a premise. Furthermore, both Freud and Capelle, like almost all critics of the time, acknowledged double, competing versions of evolution, one under the sign of strife—a version that was not only gratuitous (and perhaps unfeasible, or unthinkable) in itself, but in even more pronounced contradiction (given the reversibility at work) with the evolutionism that was being discovered or otherwise extrapolated.
In the context of “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Freud is still more interested in the definition of the two forces, one of which tends to bring the constitutive particles together into “a single unity,” while the other seeks to undo these compositions by freeing the primal components.
With the antagonists distinguished in this way, the adversarial positions are set up as a confrontation between equal principles, with no qualitative differences; a catastrophe taken to be essential is capable of imprinting on future developments a structure comparable to that of demiurgic power—a becoming by way of a de-becoming? In this formal dualism, Freud reproduces the opinion (predominant at the time, and not yet abandoned even today) that there are two parallel evolutions (one pointing to the triumph of Love, the other to the triumph of Strife). The defective logic of this system does not manage to hold his attention (had it done so, he would have been struck by it): it is the very duality of these separate instincts that he seeks to impose or to make credible: “I am well aware that the dualistic theory according to which an instinct of death or of destruction or aggression claims equal rights (gleichberechtigt) as a partner with Eros as manifested in the libido, has found little sympathy and has not really been accepted even among psychoanalysts” (SE 23:244). It is to combat this deficiency (and this reticence) that he invokes the authority of Empedocles.
Freud does not hesitate to situate himself under the protection of this guarantee. To be sure, the theory of the double instinct is his own (it is the one he is developing in this essay). However, considering the full extent of his readings (especially in the earlier years), there is no reason to rule out the possibility that he is already professing Empedocles’ opinion—or that of Empedoclean criticism—by virtue of a phenomenon of cryptomnesia, even before he has acquired additional credibility for his thesis—or his hypothesis—in the face of his collaborators’ doubts, through testimony invoked in support of the defense. He was perhaps drawing on elements of Empedoclean language to testify in favor of Empedocles. Nothing was to stop Freud, nothing could have stopped him, in this context; nothing could have prevented him from proceeding to an assimilation (if the idea in question was perhaps, even probably, generically the same). Philia, Love, was one of our two “primal instincts”; Neikos, Strife (or Hatred) was the other. Didn’t they have the same functions—on the one hand, Love, that of combining the matter present (das Vorhandene) in sets of ever-increasing size, like an expanding, unifying dynamism; and, on the other hand, Strife, that of annihilating the formations produced by the action of the antagonistic principle?
As Freud sees it, what differentiates Empedocles’ thought from his own is related, in turn, to temporal evolution. The ideas are no longer the same. First, there is the disappearance of the cosmic dimension (“the restriction to the biophysical field, which is imposed on us” [SE 23:246]), which would presuppose—so that the difference between the domains can be maintained in these terms—that the cosmos is only an extension, a separable entity, as it were; but matter, the component particles, have also changed in nature; in order not to confuse the inanimate realm with life, as Empedocles did, one cannot continue to consider the “elements”; thus “we no longer think of the mingling and separation of particles of substance, but of the soldering together and defusion [Entmischung] of instinctual components” (SE 23:246). [5]
Furthermore, along the line of actualization, he adds that Strife (or Quarrel) has been demythified in yet another way; it has been endowed with a biological substratum, and the instinct of destruction has been conflated with the death instinct; now, that instinct (which is introduced in a dialectical relation with its opposite) is simply the impulse that pushes the living to rejoin the inanimate—as if the latter formed the inseparable counterpart of the vital impulse.
Destruction was thus reattached to the “biosphere” as a negation of life, accompanying the vital instinct. And at the same time Empedocles, the author of the Katharmoi (The Purifications), was purified and whitewashed, stripped of all his compromising functions as mystic and magician, sectarian, missionary in the service of a politics and of a religion, all this for the greater profit of science, whose domain had only to be circumscribed. By getting rid of certain speculative thrusts that were no longer in fashion, Freud had in Empedocles, against the detractors of duality, the sought-after scientific authority, archaic but modernizable—and metamorphosed, “reincarnated”—to borrow the terms of metempsychosis, which had been eliminated from the discourse.
Freud stressed the facets of Empedocles’ personality, presenting the figure as an exceptional being, Faustian and somewhat disturbing, someone who manifested in his person contradictory and irreconcilable “incarnations”: using our modern categories, we would call him a researcher, a thinker, but also a prophet and a magician, a politician, a doctor initiated into the arcana of nature (all these elements are drawn from the stories, more symbolic than anecdotal, found in Diogenes Laertius’ famous biography, a text that, before Hölderlin, had more strongly marked the figure of Empedocles than the fragments of the lost work). Here again, Freud was following a tradition of modern interpretation (the absence of unity is stressed in an article by Diels, but no less so by Gomperz or Capelle): in order to come to terms with regressions in progressivism, modern thinkers had constructed a complex character, a virtually proteiform nature, without questioning either the possible significance of the will to displace, socially and culturally, a discourse and the effects of a body of knowledge, or the means that might be connected with the realization of that ambition and might supply indices to it. However, rather than showing himself to be troubled, Freud fell back strategically on historical distance to excuse, or at least to explain, the richness of some aspects of the work by temptations that had been forbidden after Empedocles’ time: for “the realm of science was not yet divided into so many provinces” (SE 23:245). Everything that Empedocles had also been—in addition to being a doctor and a biologist—he would not have chosen to be in Freud’s day.
In fact, by firmly linking the death impulse to life, Freud has in a sense drawn closer to Empedocles, for whom Strife was inseparable from the creative movements of life (it is the condition of their partial existence—and the reign of absolute Strife existed only among nineteenth-century commentators). However, as if that definition or that approach to a definition still remained too close to an undemonstrable postulate (it still “convinces”), he adds at the end that he will not deny that an instinct said to be “analogous,” namely, an instinct of destruction unconnected with life, pushing toward its own end, could have existed independently of “life”: one cannot “assert that an instinct of this sort only came into existence with the emergence of life” (SE 23:246–47). Knowing that, by the limitation that is in harmony with his own ends, he has appropriated the testimony available to him, he goes back to his Greek authority to restore to him, integrally, his intuition (he thinks he is returning; in fact, he is moving further away). Freud’s procedure is rather remarkable. Should he not have left to Empedocles what was his due, if Empedocles was not Empedocles (a claim Freud actually made) but rather “truth,” a “kernel of truth” (ein Wahrheitskern), that future discoveries could enrich and clarify and that it was thus all the more important to conserve intact, in its original form, like a thought to be rethought?
When he comes back to this same point in Chapter II of the posthumous “Outline of Psychoanalysis,” by reminding the reader of the resistance he knows he will have to overcome among the analysts, the interaction of the fundamental instincts (the role of collaboration and struggle in the interplay of the antagonists, the “concurrent and mutually opposing action of the two basic instincts” (SE 23:149 [das Mit- und Gegeneinanderwirken]) is related to the more general laws of attraction and repellence that govern the inorganic world just as much as the organic. This last sentence opens the way not to a better understanding of Empedocles by the analysis of the distortions that have been imposed upon him—that is, fallacious expectations (this was not his concern)—but rather to a better comprehension of the thing itself. Empedocles shows the duality, he figures it impressively in the intuition of “love” and “strife,” an intuition that maintains its force whatever it may have been, designating a stronghold within which we shall indeed end up finding out exactly what to think of these two instincts.

Problems of a non-critical attitude in the face of cultural values

The doxography is adopted and integrated as such. This is because, while the work, which is being constructed, in which all creativity is being invested, forms the system of reference, all the rest, everything external, is either interpreted (in the light of the system) as a matter, or set into relation with elements internal to the doctrine, but not analyzed in its own “truth.”
  1. First, one cannot do otherwise (“materially”); one could at least, in principle, introduce a doubt.
  2. This attitude can be explained if the main scientific interest lies at the heart of an expansive activity apt to supply an understanding of things, of a virtually universal nature; it is then displaced onto a terrain that is taken for what it is and as it is—for what one thinks it is. There is an element of conformity, imposed, as it were, which is also found in other, similar positions—an absence of critique, the price of critique.
  3. One could doubtless go further and detect (through Freud’s recognition of the established or public values of art or history) the will to maintain elsewhere, in another domain, the monopoly on emancipation and demystification, perhaps even to institute, or to accept, a competing academic legitimacy, or some other—a moral legitimacy—that leaves in place the mechanisms that regulate social interplay, because these latter intervene, as such, in the field that gives priority, as one of the factors—and as a determining factor—to biological struggles.

Works Cited

Capelle, W. 1935. Die Vorsokratiker. Leipzig.
Freud, S. 1968-1978. Gesammelte Werke, chronologisch geordnet. 18 vols. Frankfurt.
Gomperz, T. 1896-1909. Griechische Denker: Eine Geschichte der antiken Philosophie. 3 vols. Leipzig.
Kofman, S. 1991. “Freud and Empedocles.” In Freud and Fiction, trans. Sarah Wykes, 21–52. Boston. Orig. pub. 1973.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Le modèle scientiste, Empédocle et Freud,” in: Jean Bollack, La Grèce de personne: les mots sous le mythe (Paris, 1997), pp. 105–106.
[ back ] 1. [TN: Citations from Freud in English are from the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth, 1953–66), hereafter SE; citations in German are from Freud, Gesammelte Werke, 1968–1978 (hereafter GW).]
[ back ] 2. Wilhelm Capelle, a well-informed academic, published his popularizing work devoted to pre-Socratic thought, Die Vorsokratiker; die Fragmente und Quellenberichte, in a widely-distributed collection, Die Vorsokratiker (1935), just before Freud made use of it (there were new editions in 1938, 1940, and again after the war). This seems to have been the only book Freud had in front of him as he wrote the pages on Empedocles.
[ back ] 3. See Capelle 1935:187, 215.
[ back ] 4. In English as Greek Thinkers: A History of Ancient Philosophy (London, 1901–1912). The first volume of this well-known book was initially published in 1895. Gomperz was a professor of philosophy and philology at the University of Vienna; his wife was among Freud’s patients.
[ back ] 5. If Freud was able to see (or believe) that his own principles had been mythically anticipated in Greek thought, after Freud some have been tempted to see the fragments from Empedocles’ work with the help of concepts used in psychoanalysis, in search of common intuitions, as Sarah Kofman does in her interesting study, “Freud and Empedocles” (Kofman 1991). Instead of exploring the difference that matters, Kofman treats the speculative construction globally (without taking particular bodies of knowledge, such as embryology, into consideration) as “mythical,” and she transposes the “psychobiological” truth as such: “Investigations by a specialist in one particular field are doomed to failure and can only help to keep mankind in a state of metaphysical illusion” (“Judith,” Kofman 1991:56).