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. In the spirit of that tradition, he 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

Should we take Freud’s conclusions as factual? Extensive correlative evidence seems to support them. However, strictly speaking, no true experimental research supports his work. This is because his cases are not repeatable. 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 support any scientific conclusions, relative to the model that rests upon it. To claim that his models are scientific, rather than 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.

Why Freud is not a Scientist

"Portrait of Sigmund Freud," by Max Halberstadt, taken from [Wikipedia.Com]; this image is in the public domain. Freud had a different take on love.
“Portrait of Sigmund Freud,” by Max Halberstadt, taken from [Wikipedia.Com]; this image is in the public domain.
While Freud’s ideas are insightful and predictive, they are not factual in a scientific sense. That’s not to say that one should dismiss them; one should interpret it as a kind of experimental philosophy. One should approach Freud as applied phenomenological empiricism.

Freud’s work is a comprehensive philosophy. Metapsychology has supplanted Metaphysics; epistemologically (by this model), we can draw no conclusions about existence outside of how we experience it. Biological scientism has supplanted ethics. 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

One should read Freud as a philosopher first, and a scientist second; even though this is an opinion of his work he would not have been happy with. This reading equips us to grapple with his ideas on their own terms. Otherwise, one must reject his ideas within the context of the projection of scientific standards of experimentation, theory, and knowledge. Furthermore, this reading 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; ultimately, the experience reduces 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. However, it is not possible to measure love in clear and distinct terms.

Love Does not Reduce to Narcissism

Love is distinct from libido. In love, both libido and affection combine 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. By this evaluation, both libido and affection respond as a joint impulse. In such a case that, biologically, a man’s libido takes 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; ailment, biologically, causes a feeling of being under the threat of death. This 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. 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, 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, can a man possibly 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 typically causes a decrease in responsive libidinal impulse. There are two exceptions. This will not happen if the receiver views himself/herself as worthy of that evaluation; or if the receiver experiences a similar impulse toward the one expressing it. In the former case, the libidinal impulse response will increase; however, affection, and therefore love, will not be experienced. In the latter case, both individuals will experience something that transcends romantic love. 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. The ideal-ego regulates this. To the extent that the ego perceives that it matches the ideal-ego, it allows the narcissistic impulse to express itself on the pre-conscious level. To the extent that it doesn’t, it represses the narcissistic impulse. “Head over heels” mutual romantic hero-worship can only take place when the ideal-ego sets a very high standard, and the ego comes very close to satisfying it, 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 that the romantic hero-worship impulse requires. 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. When the ego allows a man to feel that he is genuinely good, it is possible for him to experience romantic love. The individual cannot lie to his or her ego; the individual must satisfy the standards set by the ideal ego 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 ultimately falsifies and nullifies the love impulse. 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 the other will perceive this, and, eventually, her romantic impulse may decrease as well. But to the extent that both individuals’ narcissistic impulses are intact, the mutual romantic hero-worship can last indefinitely, and even deepen over time.

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