About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Plato, Freud, and the roots of our discontent

I'm doing some research for a new book I might be writing (more on this in the near future), and I happened to be mulling over the fairly well known relationship between Plato's idea of the tripartite soul and Freud's theoretical framework for understanding our mind.

Plato, in his most famous dialog -- the Republic -- thought that the human "soul" (we would say mind) is made of three parts: the appetitive soul is where our basic desires (food, sex, etc.) originate from; the rational soul is the seat of our (alleged) rational abilities; the third part, what Plato called the spirited soul, was supposed to be sort of an intermediary between the two, where moral reasoning occurs (for Plato moral judgment is neither an instinct, like the search for food and sex, nor a province of exclusive rational thinking).

Freud, in turn, built his system around the comparable ideas of the id (analogous to the appetitive soul), the ego (the rational part of the mind), and their intermediary, the so-called superego, which plays much the same role as Plato's spirited soul.

Interestingly, for both Plato and Freud, trouble in the human soul/mind arises when the three parts don't work in harmony with each other. Plato thought that the key to such harmonious relationship was to yield control to the rational soul -- after all, he was the founder of the rationalist program in philosophy. Freud, on the other hand, concentrated on dealing with the id by means of psychoanalytical techniques.

I'm not suggesting that either theory gets it precisely right, but it is interesting to note that modern neurobiologists such as Antonio Damasio (see his delightfully written The Feeling of What Happens) also submit that the proper balance in a functional human being is achieved when we recognize the importance of emotions and "appetites" in human nature. For Damasio the rational brain is important, but in a different sense from what Plato intended. Rationality may be -- as Aristotle maintained -- what distinguishes us from most other animals, but it is futile to attempt to put it in complete control of things. Our emotions and feelings are simply too powerful, and they, not rationality, give us a "reason" to do anything at all. (Remember David Hume, when he said that "reason is and ought to be the slave of passions.")

Rationality, according to Damasio, ought to be used to balance the emotions, so that a functional human being can derive her ends from what she cares for and her means from working out the smartest way to achieve them. Sounds to me like a nice enough synthesis of Plato and Freud via Hume, and a sensible model of human happiness.


  1. Of the limited knowledge I have of psychology, and of the non medication/non surgical treatment methods I'm aware of, Albert Ellis's Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy seems the best form of using rational thought to help us achieve our emotional needs.

  2. And both Freud and Plato understood the political nature of the conflict within the soul.


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