Abstraction and Objectivity in Freud

Graphic by Zawar Ahmed

All representations of things in the world rely on abstraction. Abstract representations deal with concepts rather than things themselves. For instance, in making a visual representation, we can’t depict something with all of its detail, so we are forced to abstract away from its specific qualities. The notion of abstraction and specificity is analogous to a fundamental problem in the field of philosophy: reconciling objectivity and subjectivity. Examining visual representation throughout Sigmund Freud’s career sheds light on how the perceived purposes of a representation impact how the representation is received by the public.

Freud used drawings to visually represent his models. Throughout his career, we see a shift from traditionally scientific, anatomical accounts of the brain to more abstract pictures of our mind’s machinery. For about a decade from 1876 to 1886, Freud focused on drawing neurons, nerves, and larger brain structures. These objects were the least abstract visual representations he created, as they were verisimilar to the biological structures in our brain. Anatomy allowed Freud to study materially how psychological processes occurred in the brain. This level of specificity is found in the neurological sciences today, as they often use  unaltered photographs of objects in the world. They are said to represent the object itself (specifically and objectively), rather than the concept or idea behind it.

Science aims at understanding objective aspects of the world, while art consists of purely subjective expressions of the mind. Both lenses of looking at the world function through some level of abstraction, though scientific abstractions purport to apply to all instances (i.e. an abstract biological model will hold true for every biological instance it applies to), while artistic abstractions make no such claim. Science aims to create models that can apply broadly to many specific instances, and the facts that drive this abstract model are regarded as objective truth. However, one’s own subjective experience deals exclusively with the biases, notions, and viewpoints of the individual; we interpret according to our nature and can only represent precisely according to the purposes of that representation. This question of purpose is central to understanding whether Freud should be criticized for his incredibly subjective models.

Freud’s interest eventually grew beyond the material realm of verisimilitudes. After a hiatus beginning in 1887, Freud began to pen a different kind of model, one that depicted a kind of “anatomy” of the mind. From around 1893 onwards, Freud’s diagrams stopped representing objects themselves, and began depicting concepts that cannot be observed visually. Examples include a diagram of “psychichal locality” in dream analysis (Fig. 1) and a depiction of traumatic amnesia (Fig. 2). Freud no longer seeked to make a specific copy, but rather to create an abstract visual representation of an idea: a model of how the mind works.

Freud’s psychoanalytical models are arguably works of art as much as they are science. Their symbols and aesthetic layout certainly convey an artistic feel, though—as part of the broader field of science—they are understood as aiming to demonstrate some objective phenomena of our subconsciousness. What was the purpose of Freud’s abstract psychoanalytical models? Does it make sense to criticize Freud for drifting into abstraction and imbuing his work with his own subjective bias? Freud’s models sought to bring concrete visual diagrams to the field of psychoanalysis, a practice that has come under immense critique and has been eclipsed by modern cognitive psychology and therapeutic methods. Freud’s lack of dissociative studies and falsification of evidence have left all of psychoanalysis open to objection. Yet, the observations inherent to the discipline of psychoanalysis speak to some truth about human nature. Inherently, the purpose of psychoanalysis was to help patients construct a narrative for their psychology. In some senses it was more literary or artistic than scientific. The purpose of Freud’s drawings was to form visual narratives that could resonate with people. Criticism of Freud’s drawings can thus be traced back to criticism of psychoanalysis, to the idea that this inherently abstract and subjective practice branded itself as a science.

 Throughout Freud’s career, he shifted from anatomy to psychoanalysis, more specific to more abstract, and more objective to more subjective. As a result, he has received criticism from the scientific community. However, just because psychoanalysis branded itself as a science and failed as a science does not mean it should be dismissed entirely. All representations are abstract on some level, and Freud’s drawings simply claimed to aim at a certain specificity and objectivity that they could not attain. Freud would not receive so much grief for his drawings if we accept that they are meant to represent an abstract work of art. These visual narratives resonate with people. They express some subjective truth that, scientific or not, can change peoples’ lives.