Love According to Freud

Sigmund Freud made some interesting observations about love that were highly reductionist. He saw himself as a scientist in the tradition of Francis Bacon, and, in the spirit of that tradition, attempted to describe the operations of the human mind in Cartesian terms – meaning that he made an attempt to reduce the human psyche, including love, to scientific (clear and distinct) terms. If we take the conclusions Freud draws in his work as factual, then it becomes clear that most popular models of moral outlook are based on highly unstable foundations.

Freud’s Work in Perspective

"Freud," by Max Halberstadt. This photo was taken in 1921, and is in the public domain. Freud thought love was projected narcissism.
“Freud,” by Max Halberstadt.

Should we take Freud’s conclusions as factual? They seem to be supported by extensive correlative evidence, but, strictly speaking, one cannot say his work is backed by experimental research. Furthermore, he has an extensive epistemological and meta-psychological model that he uses to explain the findings he has uncovered from observational research, whereas the evidence it’s based on, while compelling, cannot conceivably be conclusive in any scientific sense, relative to the model that rests upon it, because for his ideas to be thought of as scientific, as opposed to philosophical, one would have to be able to reproduce his results in a clear and distinct manner – but his subject matter – the human mind – is inherently not clear and distinct insofar as it can be observed by us at this time.

Why Freud is not a Scientist

It seems clear to me that, while Freud’s ideas are insightful, and perhaps even predictive, they cannot be thought of as factual in a scientific sense. That’s not to say that they should be dismissed – far from it – but that they should be interpreted as a kind of experimental philosophy. Freud should be approached as applied phenomenological empiricism. And it can be thought of as a comprehensive philosophy. Metaphysics has been supplanted by metapsychology, because, epistemologically (by this model), we can draw no conclusions about existence outside of how it is experienced. Ethics has been supplanted by biological scientism (actually, Freud owes his principles of ethics to Descartes; that is, ethics understood in terms of the pleasure and pain principle of Res Extensa, and an understanding of regression as a means of social survival and success). His epistemology he owes to Kant; it is essentially Kantian, except that, on the level of the Id, the apriori conditions of space and time do not apply.

Why it Makes Sense to Think of Freud as a Philosopher

When we understand Freud as a philosopher first, and a scientist second (an opinion of him he would not have been happy with), we find ourselves much better equipped to grapple with his ideas on their own terms, instead of being forced to reject them within the context of the projection of scientific standards of experimentation, theory, and knowledge. Furthermore, it frees us to reinterpret his findings with other comprehensive models which may more fully explain them.

Narcissism as Love

For example, in his article, On Narcissism, Freud says:

It is universally known, and we take it as a matter of course, that a person who is tormented by organic pain and discomfort gives up his interest in the things of the external world, in so far as they do not concern his suffering. Closer observation teaches us that he also withdraws libidinal interest from his love-objects: so long as he suffers, he ceases to love. The commonplace nature of this fact is no reason why we should be deterred from translating it into terms of the libido theory. We should then say: the sick man withdraws his libidinal cathexes back upon his own ego, and sends them out again when he recovers.”

But I would submit that he has over-reduced the human experience of love. Love, as he has defined it, is the transference of the narcissistic impulse toward an object toward which the (male) subject experiences overvaluation as libidinal interest – and, ultimately, the experience is reduced to libidinal interest. The reality does not reduce to this. That’s not say that his interpretation is wrong; much to the contrary, I believe his interpretation to be right on target – but it is very much incomplete. Here, Freud is trying to create a Cartesian reduction of the concept of love, but love cannot be measured (with any form of measure presently at our disposal) in clear and distinct terms.

Love Does not Reduce to Narcissism

Love is distinct from libido in that, in love, both libido and affection are joined in what he (in some cases, at least) falsely labels as “overvaluation.” When an object invokes a desire for partnership such that it can be called “love,” a massively positive evaluation (and, yes, sometimes overvaluation, but not always) takes place. In this evaluation, both libido and affection respond as a joint impulse. In such a case that, biologically, a man’s libido is made to take a backseat (such as, in the case of ailment), the impulse of affection is still very much present, as well as the accompanying desire for physical and psychological closeness; in fact, that impulse tends to be intensified in the absence of the libido, since ailment, biologically, causes a feeling of being under the threat of death, which makes a man seek support and care.

Love is Related to Narcissism

That being said, romantic love is related to narcissism; Freud is very much on point, there. But not merely in the sense that he means. There are many strata of psychological experience that come together in love, and narcissism as self-libidinal impulse plays a relatively small (but important) part. Love (in terms of impulse) is an impulse to share oneself with a deeply, positively evaluated, desired object. It is both highly biological, and highly trans-biological (psycho-spiritual). In order to have the impulse to share oneself (without which, one can be capable only of pure libidinal impulse, and not love), one must see oneself as worth sharing. The ability to experience romantic love requires one to first see oneself as both sexually desirable, and psycho-spiritually worthy of affection. Once that condition is met, then, and only then, is it possible for a man to look outside of himself for someone worthy of his highest esteem and deepest potential for desire. And to the extent that his ego will honestly allow him to see himself as worthy (and this is governed by the level of excellence set by the ideal-ego and the extent to which he can honestly say he has achieved it) – to that extent, and only to that extent, is he capable of experiencing romantic love for another.

Love Beyond Narcissism

In some cases, one’s evaluation of another may exceed the governed limits upon romantic love set by the ego on the basis of the ideal (that is, in Freudian terms, the extent to which the narcissistic impulse may be satisfied), and in such a case, what is experienced is beyond romantic love, and has crossed over into a form of sexually charged hero-worship. When romantic hero-worship is perceived and received by the other, what typically happens is a devaluative response. The receipt of romantic hero-worship causes a decrease in responsive libidinal impulse unless one or both of the following are true – that the receiver views himself/herself as worthy of that evaluation, or that the receiver experiences a similar impulse toward the one expressing it. In the former case, the libidinal impulse response will increase, but affection, and therefore love, will not be experienced. In the latter case, what will come to be experienced by both individuals will transcend what is normally thought of as romantic love, and the two of them will have the sensation of being “head over heels.”

Love as Hero Worship

But bear in mind that, in Freudian terms, romantic love correlates to narcissism according to a direct proportionality, which is regulated by the ideal-ego; to the extent that that the ego sees itself as matching the ideal-ego, it allows the pre-conscious expression of the narcissistic impulse, and to the extent that it doesn’t, the narcissistic impulse is repressed. “Head over heels” mutual romantic hero-worship can only take place when the standard set by the ideal-ego is very high, and very close to being satisfied, such that the individual has a very high sense of self-esteem. When this is the case, when the romantic impulse exceeds the allowed narcissistic impulse, the individual sees himself as generally worthy, and therefore, potentially able to attain to the level of worthiness asked of him by the romantic hero-worship impulse being experienced – and this must likewise be the case with the mutually hero-worshiping recipient.

Romantic Hero Worship and Self Esteem

When this overflowing (in the sense of being beyond the allowed narcissistic impulse) experience of romantic love is shared by two people, it can last indefinitely. It can only be experienced when the ego allows a man to feel that he is genuinely good – and the ego cannot be tricked or lied to, so whatever standard is being set by the ideal ego must be actually satisfied in good faith. It is precisely this satisfaction of the ideal ego that, over time, supports the mutual response of the positively evaluated other, and vice versa. A failure to actually satisfy the conditions of the ideal-ego manifests itself in ways that, ultimately, cause the love impulse to be shown to be false. As weaknesses in the individual’s sense of narcissism become apparent, a correlative weakening of the romantic impulse toward the other will take place; and this will be perceived by the other, and, eventually, her romantic impulse may decrease as well (although, tragically, this is not always the case). But to the extent that both individuals’ narcissistic impulses (understood more broadly as “self-esteem”) are intact, to that extent, the mutual romantic hero-worship can last indefinitely, and even deepen over time.

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