by Till Wagner

Amy Allen is a professor of philosophy at the Pennsylvania State University specializing in Continental Philosophy, Feminist Theory, and Critical Social Theory. Till Wagner has spoken to her about her two major monographs: Critique on the Couch (2020) and The End of Progress (2017), which re-examine the thought and contemporary legacy of the Frankfurt School. This is Part I of the interview.

Till Wagner: Before we discuss the content of Critique on the Couch (2020), I want to ask about its relationship with your previous work. In The End of Progress (2017), you examined and criticized the meaning of the concept of “progress” in Critical Theory; in Critique on the Couch, progress also plays a major role. What is the relationship between the two book projects? Was Critique on the Couch the logical consequence of The End of Progress?

Amy Allen: You are quite right to notice that the two books are very closely connected. In fact, I had initially planned to write a single book arguing that the way forward for Critical Theory was to go back and recover some crucial insights from the first generation of the Frankfurt School, particularly those found in that generation‘s seminal text, the Dialectic of Enlightenment. My original aim was to write a book that explored two interconnected themes from Dialectic of Enlightenment—the Nietzsche-inspired critique of historical progress and the psychoanalytically grounded critique of the bourgeois rational subject—and developed its vision of Critical Theory as a compelling alternative to the more rationalist and progressivist vision offered by Jürgen Habermas and taken up by many of his followers. I was awarded a Humboldt fellowship for that project in 2009, and for several years, including while I was in Frankfurt on the Humboldt in 2010 and again in 2012, that was my plan. But, after several years of work, I realized that I was trying to do too much in a single book and that if I kept that structure, I might never be able to finish the book. And even if I did, the book would almost certainly be too long for anyone to publish, let alone read! So, I decided to split the project into two books: the first of which would recover the early Frankfurt School’s critique of historical progress and the second of which would focus on reanimating the relationship between Critical Theory and psychoanalytic drive theory.

TW: Psychoanalysis has lost its central status in psychology and, academically, has survived almost only in humanities departments. What motivated you to write about its indispensability to Critical Theory?

AA: First, there is, as I have just alluded to, its central importance for early critical theory. Indeed, I do not think it is oversimplifying matters too much to say that the original Frankfurt School approach to Critical Theory was a combination of Marxism and psychoanalysis that aimed to develop a critical diagnosis of the times. The early Frankfurt School theorists quite rightly realized that for such a diagnosis—one that could make sense of the failure of the workers’ movement in Germany and the subsequent rise of fascism and descent into barbarism—social, political, and economic theory was not sufficient. They also needed a social psychology and a philosophical anthropology that could help them understand why, for example, the Marxist historical vision had not only failed to materialize but had run so horribly aground. Given that my project aimed to recover the insights of the first generation of the Frankfurt School and use them as the basis for a new vision of Critical Theory today, there would have been no way to avoid grappling with the role of psychoanalysis.

To be sure, to some extent, the early Frankfurt School’s turn to psychoanalysis was only natural since, at the time, it was considered a cutting-edge approach to psychology. The situation is very different for us now, given the dramatic paradigm shifts in the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry over the last fifty years: the sustained assault on psychoanalysis as unscientific quackery from some quarters of academia, and the resulting lack of public awareness of and appreciation for it. Consequently, the return to psychoanalysis must be a repetition with a difference, one that is aware of and responsive to the very different historical, social, and cultural context of today.

That said, for the most part, my book sidesteps debates about the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Although I think that the wholesale dismissal of psychoanalysis as unscientific goes too far, my own interest in psychoanalysis has more to do with its value as a theory of the person or an interpretation of the human psychic (and therefore also social) condition—in short, as a philosophical anthropology. To those arguing that such a theory has no value because psychoanalysis has been clinically superseded by approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy or psychopharmacology, I would reply that these different therapies are not different means to the same end. Even if all these practices share the aim of alleviating psychological suffering, psychoanalysis also aims at something more. As my dear friend Mari Ruti argued so beautifully and persuasively throughout her work, psychoanalysis addresses itself to the classical philosophical question of the good life. Perhaps this is why psychoanalysis has survived and even thrived in humanities departments.

TW: In Critique on the Couch, especially in the first chapter, you trace how Critical Theory, which was initially closely associated with psychoanalytic drive theory, has gradually distanced itself from it. Now, it plays only a comparatively marginal role in contemporary Critical Theory. Can this growing distance be traced back to incompatibilities between the normative foundation of Critical Theory and the theoretical underpinnings of (Freudian) psychoanalysis?

AA: I do think that is an important part of the story. Here, it is worth noting that Habermas himself was initially quite receptive to (a certain reading of) Freudian psychoanalysis. In one of his early books, Knowledge and Human Interests, Habermas developed a detailed analogy between critical and psychoanalytic methods, where both are understood as processes of transformation that are rooted in communicatively achieved rational insights. Even if, in my view, this interpretation of psychoanalysis is overly rationalistic and insufficiently attentive to the crucial role of transference in psychoanalytic theory and practice, it is at least a serious engagement with Freud’s work. But, as Joel Whitebook has argued, even that highly cognitivist interpretation of Freud ultimately proved to be incompatible with the theory of communicative action that Habermas developed in the early 1970s. I take it that the main issue here is not so much the theory of drives but rather the very notion of the unconscious. Whether one understands it in drive-theoretical terms or not, the idea of the unconscious is radically out of step with Habermas’s worldview. After all, the unconscious does not countenance the law of the excluded middle (meaning that, from the point of view of the unconscious, a proposition and its negation can both be true); it cannot be fully translated into rational, linguistic terms; and it has a timeless, ahistorical character. As such, the unconscious both resists and subverts the very ideas—rational linguistic communication and progressive social evolution—on which Habermas’s normative vision rests.

TW: Noticing this gradual distancing, you argue vehemently for a return to psychoanalysis, especially to a psychoanalysis based on drive theory. Why do you consider the incorporation of psychoanalytic thinking and understanding as indispensable to the project of a contemporary Critical Theory?

AA: Following Axel Honneth, I contend that psychoanalysis provides Critical Theory with a realistic theory of the person, or philosophical anthropology. “Realism” here does not refer to metaphysical or scientific realism, but rather to a social or political realism. A realistic theory of the person, on this view, is one that takes seriously the persistence of irrationality, unreasonableness, destructiveness, and aggression in human social life and the implications of these aspects of the human condition for our social and political theorizing. A realistic conception of the person can, as Honneth points out, counteract the tendencies in contemporary Critical Theory toward a kind of normative idealism—an idealism that is rooted in the assumption that human beings are more rational than they actually are. The point is not to say that human beings are irredeemably irrational and destructive and thus that there is no hope of ever making anything better. Rather, the point is that to deny the persistence and intractability of irrationality and aggression—and to base our social and political theories on such a denial—is to engage in a kind of wishful thinking that undermines our best theoretical and practical efforts. The challenge is to think through what conceptions of normativity, critique, and progress can be compatible with the more realistic conception of the person offered by psychoanalysis.

I would also say that, precisely because of its emphasis on the irrational, unreasonable, and affective bases of human action, psychoanalysis remains indispensable for a contemporary diagnosis of the times, just as it was for the early Frankfurt School theorists. Indeed, it should be no surprise that over the last decade, as right-wing authoritarian populism has returned around the globe with a vengeance, critical theorists have returned to psychoanalysis with renewed interest. I think this is because psychoanalysis remains the best theory of human irrationality we have at our disposal. Even if fields such as behavioral economics and social psychology attempt to explain human irrationality, too, they do so by focusing narrowly on irrational choices or decisions, whereas psychoanalysis illuminates the irrationality of entire ways of structuring or organizing our experience.

Till Wagner holds a bachelor’s degree in history and political science and recently completed his master’s studies at the Berlin Center for Research on Antisemitism with a thesis on the thought of Hannah Arendt and Jean Améry. He currently works in public history.

Edited by Jonas Knatz and Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Book Covers of The End of Progress (Columbia University Press, 2017) and Critique on the Couch (Columbia University Press, 2020).