A reply to Matt Cooper on the brain

Submitted by martin on 29 June, 2021 - 3:20 Author: John Cunningham

In response to my posing the question is there a Marxist analysis of the brain, and the answer to my own question, "probably not", my old friend Matt Cooper argues that we need to be "much clearer".

He then goes on to be distinctly unclear about almost everything under discussion. I state that "everything in the head is material" (actually a quote from the book I was reviewing). If Matt thinks this is in some way a dubious proposition then he needs to explain why.

I wasn’t talking about human behaviour but about the brain; and as for me denying that Freud and Pavlov are materialists, the former certainly is not and the latter probably is, although why Matt links them together is a mystery as their work is so drastically divergent.

I know Trotsky once discussed their work and was favourably inclined towards Freud, at least in the sense that he defended him against Pavlov’s followers who were dismissive. Trotsky even went so far as to state that Freud’s teachings were inherently materialistic (quoted by Isaac Deutscher in the second volume of his biographical trilogy, The Prophet Armed, page 179), but this was when both researchers’ work was only just starting to be discussed in Russia and can hardly be regarded as Trotsky’s last defining word on the topic. Today I think anyone would find it hard to link the two except in the vaguest way possible.

Matt refers to Freud’s "psychodynamic approach". which he appears to favour, and it is worth spending a bit of time on this because, whatever the label, Freud’s ideas are fundamentally erroneous and, anyway, as I stated in my review, he says virtually nothing about the brain in his writings.

Overall, the problem with Freud is that his work is thoroughly unscientific. Take for example his famous case studies. These are all totally subjective. The so-called notes he took at his sessions with "Dora" and all the others are not even verbatim accounts of what was said. They are summaries, précis, written in Freud’s own words. Therefore, as scientific documents they are of very limited use.

Freud is reductionist in the extreme. Everything comes down to the Id, Ego, and Superego, the Oedipus complex and so on. He is deterministic – everything in a person’s life is decided, more-or-less by the time he or she is five or six years old (if I remember correctly this was one of Melanie Klein’s criticisms of Freud).

He says virtually nothing about environment, class, social background, genetics. It needs to be stressed that this isn’t just some oversight on the part of Freud. There are serious consequences: he said nothing about the phenomenon of violence against women in immediate post-war Vienna which reached alarming proportions (see Maureen Healy’s essay in Gender and war in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe, Indiana University Press, 2006). His response to the rise of fascism was at best muted.

Freud did once suggest that "The motive of human society is in the last resort an economic one" (in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis) but he linked this to the repression of the so-called "pleasure principle" by the "reality principle" and did not link it to a socio-economic analysis.

Furthermore, Freud verges on the dishonest in at least one essay. In A Child is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origins of Sexual Perversion, Freud describes the development of his patients’ fantasies in three distinct phases. The problem is that he invents the second phase in order, basically to make his analysis convincing. He writes,

This second phase is the most important and momentous of all. But we must say of it in a certain sense that it has never had a real existence. It is never remembered, it has never succeeded becoming conscious. It is a construction of analysis, but it no less a necessity on that account (Vol 2. of Freud’s Collected Papers, p. 179-80).

There is much more that could be said about the so-called "father" of psychoanalysis, but it will have to wait for another time.

I want to finish by asking a question: Why is research into the brain (whether it be a human brain or that of a Drosophila maggot) considered by Matt to be "crude materialism"? If I take my car to the garage and the mechanic fixes a dodgy brake-lining I don’t accuse him of "crude materialism". He or she knows how the car works, and we need to be in a similar position with regard to the brain.

To be blunt, I prefer scientific research to "broader theorising" about "the brain’s internal workings (feelings, ideas, motivations)" partly because we don’t understand how these feelings, ideas and motivations are created, triggered or conveyed. I’m not against broader theorising but with regard to the brain nothing can replace the hard slog of research.

Matthew Cobb, the author of the book I reviewed, has worked for years with a team of researchers across the world attempting to understand the Drosophila maggot’s brain, and states that there are still a few years of research ahead before it will be fully understood. This is how research works, and there are no short cuts. (I leave aside the writings of T S Kuhn – another discussion for another time).

Certain varieties of "broader theorising" have let humanity down badly. Sometimes "broader theorising" simply means talking a load of bollocks – the cabal of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Judith Butler, Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze etc. have not produced anything that has contributed to the liberation of the oppressed.

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