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Adolf Grünbaum, University of Pittsburgh

(Presented as an invited paper for the Philosophy of Psychology session at the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, August 10, 1998.
Forthcoming in the Proceedings of the 20th World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, 1998.
To appear also in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
To be published as well in the Proceedings of the International Conference "Freud at the Threshold of the 21st Century," held in Jerusalem, Israel, December 1999.)


II. Critique of Davidson's Freudian Plaidoyer

Importantly, Davidson (1982, p. 290) characterizes the supposed logical status of his triplet within Freudian theory as follows: They are elements in Freud's thought, "elements that consist of a few very general doctrines central to all stages of Freud's mature writings" [italics added], and he adds:"I conclude that any satisfactory [explanatory] view [of irrationality] must embrace some of Freud's most important theses" [italics added]. By way of clarification, he issues a caveat:"It perhaps needs to be emphasized that my "defense" of Freud is directed to some only of Freud's ideas, and that these ideas are at the conceptual, in contrast to the empirical, end of that vague spectrum."

Davidson is not content to point out that his triplet is "found" in Freud's theoretical edifice. The thrust of his insistence on its supposed centrality therein and on its explanatory indispensability is to confer distinctive explanatory merit on psychoanalytic theory as an account of irrationality: "I hope it will be agreed that these doctrines are all to be found in Freud, and that they are central to his theories" (1982, p. 291). Davidson thus asserts centrality, even though in the very next sentence, he reiterates correctly that the members of his triplet are logically "far less strong and detailed than Freud's views."

The notion that a particular hypothesis, or specific hypotheses, is "central" to a theoretical system is at the very core of Davidson's recurring explanatory tribute to Freud's structural theory of the mental apparatus. He apparently reasoned that it deserved this encomium, because Freud's highly specific compartmentalization of the mind entails the logically far weaker triplet, which Davidson had teased out from the topmost hallmark principles of Freud's successive bipartite and tripartite models of the mind. And, as we saw, Davidson had argued, in turn, that his triplet is indispensable to any theory aiming to explain irrationality.

Alas, he seems to take the notion of centrality for granted, offering no articulation of his construal of it. More seriously, he leaves us completely in the dark as to how he proposes to license the cardinal inference of his Freudian plaidoyer. That crucial inference starts from the sound premise that the compartmentalization of the mind featured by Freud's successive structural theories is "central" to them in the sense of being their hallmark vis-à-vis rival theories.

Give this premise, Davidson believes he can validly infer that his logically much weaker, "very general," and "highly abstract" triplet should also be deemed "central" to Freud's theoretical edifice!

Yet, absent any statement from him of a putative license for this key inference, its conclusion is logically ill-founded.

If Davidson had in mind a cogent sophisticated licensing rationale for his vital inference, he presumably would have–and surely should have–stated it explicitly. To assume that he did have such a valid rationale, but simply left it unstated, strains charity beyond the breaking point. And to suppose, furthermore, that Davidson knowingly did himself the disservice of silence strikes me as preposterous. Thus, let me reconstruct his reasoning accordingly, while being mindful that the responsibility for the explicative and probative gaps in Davidson's argument belongs squarely on his shoulders, not on mine.

For argument's sake, let us grant Davidson (1982, pp. 303-304) that any satisfactory account of certain important species of irrationality must indeed feature his triplet. Then I claim that his characterization of it as "central" to Freud's edifice rests on a specific fallacious inference. Moreover, its conclusion is refuted by the fact that the triplet is simply not distinctively Freudian, since it is likewise instantiated by an array of diverse philosophies of mind in the history of Western philosophy.

Thus, Davidson's arrogation of explanatory merit for understanding irrationality to Freudian theory as such, merely because it affirms the triplet, will turn out to be a non sequitur with a false conclusion.

I shall argue that two sets of errors undermine Davidson's case:

(i) As I shall explain, the "central" theses of a theory are presumably, in the first instance, those of its fundamental postulates that constitute its distinctive hallmarks vis-à-vis different or rival theories pertaining to the same domain of explananda. Yet, without any supporting argument, Davidson seems to have reasoned fallaciously that the centrality of the distinctive hallmarks of a theory is preserved under logical deduction. That is to say, he infers without ado that, in the case of Freud's structural compartmentalization of the mental apparatus, centrality is deductively inherited from psychoanalytic hallmark postulates by his avowedly much less specific triplet. Yet Davidson reiterates that the members of the triplet "are . . . far less strong and detailed than Freud's views" (1982, p. 291). Furthermore he emphasizes that his triplet-based "theory [of irrationality] is acceptable" (1982, p. 304) without any assumption of unconscious components of the mind.

I contend, however, that the triplet itself is far from central to Freud's theory.

(ii) Davidson's belief in the deductive inheritance of centrality or hallmark-status seems false in the face of the venerable history of pre-Freudian philosophies of mind that differ in content from Freud's, and yet instantiate Davidson's triplet no less than psychoanalytic theory does. Major historical cases in point are the theories of the soul offered by Plato and Aristotle, as well as the faculty psychology of Leibniz's disciple Christian Wolff.

For example, Plato offers a tripartite structure of the soul akin to Freud's id, ego, and superego. And a residue of eighteenth century faculty psychology is even found in Jerry Fodor's (1983) account of brain organization, which features many "modules" of localized cells, each of which carries out a particular function, such as face-recognition.

Davidson cannot parry this historical objection by having distanced himself from the respective mental partitions avowed by the two historical doctrines he mentions. He rejects them as follows: "The partitioning I propose does not correspond in nature or function to the ancient metaphor of a battle between Virtue and Temptation or Reason and Passion. For the competing desires or values which akrasia demands do not, on my account, in themselves suggest irrationality" (1982, p. 301).

But his articulation of the flesh that he put on the mere bones of his triplet in his own explanation of irrationality clearly goes well beyond the triplet, whose centrality to Freudian theory is at issue here. Hence the details of his own partitioning cannot ward off the historical objection that the triplet is multiply instantiated in an array of otherwise diverse philosophies of mind, rather than being a badge of Freud's structural conceptions.

Now let me justify basically my statement that Davidson's peremptory assumption of the deductive heritability of centrality is fallacious.

What does he mean, in the first instance, when he says that a hypothesis H is "central" to a theory T, or that H counts as one of T's "core" hypotheses, or yet that H is one of T's "most important theses"? This question requires a precise answer. My answer will serve to reject Davidson's claim of the centrality of his triplet to Freudian theory. And thereby I shall undermine his special explanatory tribute to Freud's theory as an account of irrationality.

Following Tarski, I shall use the term "the consequence class of a theory T" to designate the set of all deductive consequences of T. Now, surely a statement S's mere membership of the consequence class of T does not make S "central" to T. It does not do so, if only because that class has some members which have watered down much of the content of T's axiomatic base, as in Davidson's triplet. And Davidson (1982, p. 300) himself characterizes the triplet as "highly abstract."

To render the intent of his statements containing the locution "central," or its equivalent, centrality apparently needs to be construed, in the first instance, as a property of those hypotheses that are characteristic hallmarks of T and identify it by distinguishing it from its known rivals or from different theories. In this sense of "central," a hypothesis H can be peculiar to T by being incompatible with T's rivals, or because one or more such rivals do not enunciate H.

Thus construed, Euclid's parallel postulate, for example, would be "central" to Euclidean geometry, because it is incompatible with both hyperbolic and spherical non-Euclidean geometry. On the other hand, Euclid's first four postulates do not distinguish his geometry from hyperbolic non-Euclidean geometry, although these postulates do collectively distinguish both of these geometries from spherical non-Euclidean geometry. Clearly, the notion of centrality requires refined statement, but no such nuanced formulation is found in Davidson's paper.

As we saw, he acknowledges (1982, p. 291) that his triplet of logical consequences of Freud's own formulations is "far less strong and detailed than Freud's views." How then does he reason that, despite this much weaker logical status, the triplet is nonetheless "central" to Freud's psychoanalytic edifice, presumably in the sense of still being distinctive to it vis-à-vis other theories?

Absent any statement by him as to a licensing rationale, I cannot escape the conclusion that Davidson relied on the following inferential principle: If H is a distinctive or "central" hypothesis of a theory T, then so is any of its deductive consequences, however much weaker than H. Note at once that this principle is not licensed by the following elementary logical fact: If any logical consequence of H, however weak, were false, then–by modus tollens–H itself and indeed T would also be false. Clearly this obvious fact does not vouchsafe that the centrality of a hypothesis to a theory is preserved under logical deduction. But this principle is untenable, if only because it would just trivialize the relevant notion of centrality to regard even some of the weakest, most general, nondistinctive abstract logical consequences of the hallmark postulates of T as central to it!

In short, Davidson reasoned fallaciously that Freud's distinctive compartmentalization of the mind into the ego, id, and superego licences the conclusion that the very abstract triplet is likewise distinctive to Freud's theory. This conclusion is false.

I have argued that Davidson's insistence on Freud à propos of the triplet is, alas, a case of special pleading: As I see it, Davidson should have been content to let his own theory of irrationality stand on its own feet, along with noting that the triplet on which it relies is likewise a logically very weak deductive consequence of Freud's psychoanalytic partition of the mind, whereby Freud also has the resources to explain irrationality in Davidson's sense. Yet paying tribute to the ill-begotten centrality of the triplet to Freud's theory is a recurring item on the agenda of Davidson's essay "The Paradoxes of Irrationality," which evolved from his 1978 Ernest Jones Lecture to the British Psycho-analytical Association.

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