biology of freedom

Adventures in philosophy of mind

Over the course of this semester I’ve been working on becoming more familiar with issues in philosophy of mind. In the past I’ve been hesitant to delve into the whole philosophy and neuroscience thing. My reluctance came largely from a suspicion that the average undergraduate finds neuroscience appealing for bad reasons – ‘Science’ is now the great subject supposed to know.

Rather than starting with introductions or classic texts, I decided to enter the conversation through the literature dealing with psychoanalysis and neuroscience. I’d already encountered some of this in the work of Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou, but I’d largely read those texts with an eye on their respective readings of Hegel and contemporary philosophy. Going back and working through the material on neuroscience has been intriguing, but has left me with a few question.

Ansermet and Magistretti’s Biology of Freedom is a prime example of a text that is informative, but failed to answer a key question. They spend a great deal of time summarising the Ansermet and Magistretti strangely reach the conclusion that

the work of psychoanalysis is to decode internal reality by including the processes peculiar to somatic states, that is, by referring in a fundamental way to the drive dimension, so as to allow for direct access to external reality and make possible an action free of fantasy constructions that so greatly interfered with it (178).

My first reaction was to assume that Ansermet and Magistretti might be working with a different understanding of psychoanalysis, but their text contains numerous references to Lacan. Of course, they could still refer to Lacan without adopting his psychoanalytic method tout court, but it’s odd that they refer consistently to Freud and Lacan without serious qualification. For Lacan, the goal of psychoanalysis is the traversal of fantasy, not accessing a world without it. To attempt to access reality ‘behind’ fantasy is to reinscribe and naturalise a particular fantasy. Freedom is not the absence of fantasy, but a particular relationship to fantasy in which we assume a degree of creative control – we learn to collaborate with desire.

The final chapter actually lays out at a similar understanding.

The fact that the inscription of experience by the mechanisms of plasticity creates a distance from experience paradoxically offers a person freedom. It is what gives him [the text constantly uses masculine pronouns – I’m not sure if this a feature of the translation, but it’s weird to see a text published in 2007 that doesn’t use inclusive language] room to move around, an ability to transform himself, to change, to become the author and actor of a process of becoming different from what was programmed by his determinants. Neural plasticity is thus a condition of a possible plasticity of becoming. Plasticity, finally, is what makes it possible for a person in analysis to free himself from the constraints of a rigid fantasy scenario or to make different use of the way it function as a solution, to sue the fantasy instead of being used by it (239).

Here Ansermet and Magistretti offer an understanding of the end of analysis that is closer to the one I describe above, but don’t address how this definition squares with the earlier discussion.

This conclusion also touches on an issue that crops up throughout the book – the relation of plasticity and freedom. Neural plasticity provides an understanding of the malleability of our brains. This ability to change, even at a physiological level, does not equal the ability to intentionally bring about these changes in ourselves. I’m sympathetic to Ansermet and Magistretti’s overall framework for connecting psychoanalytic and scientific understandings of subjectivity, but the book might be more accurately entitled Biology of Change rather than Biology of Freedom. Put another way, the possibility of change is necessary for the possibility of freedom, but that doesn’t mean that the possibility of change equals freedom.

I don’t think understanding the biology of freedom entails rejecting Ansermet and Magistretti’s argument – it’s an issue of going back and supplying a more detailed understanding of plasticity as the ground of freedom. Over the break I’m going to take a crack at Damasio as well as Wexler’s Brain and Culture. Hopefully they’ll help me fill in some of these gaps.