The Business of Time in Psychoanalysis: Between Kant and Freud

In “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” a paper published almost four decades after his Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud reflects on the development of psychoanalysis as a science and method, and discusses the perennial question that continues to haunt and make the practice of psychoanalysis so problematic:  “At which point, precisely, does psychoanalytic therapy end?”  This question concerning time, of termination—or perhaps the very termination of time? —takes on a particularly intractable knottiness with regard to psychoanalytic practice.  Freud begins his reflection with a rather matter-of-fact description:  “Experience,” he writes, “has taught us that psycho-analytic therapy—the freeing of someone from his neurotic symptoms, inhibitions and abnormalities of character—is a time-consuming business” (emphasis mine) [1].   What Freud knows from his experience, what he can share from what has become his life-long career, is that psychoanalysis, to use the colloquialism, “takes time.”  In fact, so much so that it appears as though its business is nothing other than time itself.  Psychoanalysis “takes time” because the treatment of neurotic symptoms involves the painstaking narration of dreams and memories, the very elements of mental life that seem to elude and to defy the very logic of time.  It “takes too much time” because it not only needs to treat the patient in the present time of the analysis, but also because it needs to transport the “now” of the present into another time, into the interior tempo and temporalities of dreams and memories.  Thus the transitivity of the relation of psychoanalysis to time presupposes that time be treated as though it were an object, that is to say, to treat that which binds psychic and phenomenal life into a narratable sequence as if it were something discrete, divisible, and therefore analyzable.  Yet, in order for it to make time its object, psychoanalysis needs to simultaneously inhabit the many “elsewheres” of time—the elusive interiority of psychic lives.
If Freud’s description—“a time-consuming business”—objectifies the idea of time as a specific problem which psychoanalysis needs to overcome, what is broached is also the irresolvable antinomy of time.  The unconscious, Freud announces elsewhere, is timeless: the processes of the unconscious system are “not ordered temporally, are not altered by the passage of time.”[2] This is something like a first principle in Freudian psychoanalysis.  What do we make of this definition of the unconscious as atemporal in its essence and its operations, given psychoanalysis’ ostensible preoccupation with time?  If the practice of psychoanalysis renders time as its problematical object, how can it produce a generalizable method if its scientific subject, the unconscious, is resolutely outside of time?
We can explore these questions regarding the antimony of time in psychoanalysis first by thinking through the aporias of temporality that emerge in Freud’s understanding of psychic life.  We will locate the emergence of this antinomy in Freud’s encounter with Kant, and specify the aporetic structure of what we may call Freudian time in its instantiations within the particular problem of memory in psychoanalysis. We will then very briefly conclude by addressing the issue of teleology in Freud, and understand how Freudian time may offer a potential critique of development.
Freud and Kant
It is well known that Freud had extensively read Kant, and that his engagement with Kant’s critical philosophy influenced his own studies on psychoanalysis, particularly his theorization of the unconscious.  The following citation from Freud’s “The Unconscious,” makes an explicit reference to Kant, and reveals the way in which Freud thought his work on psychoanalysis to parallel that of Kant’s work on metaphysics:
Just as Kant warned us not to overlook the fact that our perceptions are subjectively conditioned and must not be regarded as identical with what is perceived though unknowable, so psycho-analysis warns us not to equate perceptions by means of consciousness with the unconscious mental processes which are their object.  Like the physical, the psychical is not necessarily in reality what it appears to us to be.[3]
The parallelism here alludes to the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, which for Freud fits into his own psychoanalytic pairing of the conscious and the unconscious.  Freud’s theory of the psychic apparatus and Kant’s philosophical architectonic both seek to question and undermine any and all unmediated identification with what we perceive as reality, that is to say, what comes to appear to us as the “given.”  In this sense, what is common to both is a systematic critique of identity and equivalence.
Freud inherits from Kant the latter’s “Copernican turn” in theoretical philosophy, i.e., Kant’s definition of the external or phenomenal world as mere appearance, as well as the understanding that what lies behind the world of appearances are things-in-themselves, or the noumenal world, to which we, as finite human beings, cannot have access.  According to Kant, (noumenal) reality is greater than the world of (phenomenal) appearances, for there is a part of reality that consists in things-in-themselves.  The distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal is what supports Kantian metaphysics, a distinction, I want to suggest, which underwrites Freud’s own claims in The Interpretation of Dreams that “the unconscious is the true psychical reality,”[4] the knowledge of which, however, is “inadmissible to consciousness.”[5]
Where Kant splits our cognition of the world by way of a quasi-spatial distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, whereby noumenality becomes a kind of absolute other to the powers of human knowledge, Freud splits the human subject internally, between what is conscious and what is unconscious.  Just as the Kantian noumenal is that which we cannot know, but nevertheless as that which we must presuppose as the ground of all knowledge and experience, so the Freudian unconscious is that which determines our consciousness yet the full knowledge of which we cannot have.  The noumenal and the unconscious are figures of the impossible precisely in these senses.  There is thus a transposition that occurs in Freud’s own reading of Kant:  the radical alterity that Kant accords to the noumenal world becomes transformed in Freud as the radical alterity in our very psychic constitution.  Thus in Freud’s theory the absolute other becomes entirely within ourselves.
Freud’s Kantian transposition signals the various ways in which Freud also sought to go beyond Kant.  We see that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud again references Kant, but this time to problematize Kant’s understanding of the spatio-temporal conditions of thinking by presenting his own dynamic topography of the psychic apparatus:
As a result of certain psycho-analytic discoveries, we are to-day in a position to embark on a discussion of the Kantian theorem that time and space are “necessary forms of thought.”  We have learnt that unconscious mental processes are in themselves “timeless.”  This means in the first place that they are not ordered temporally, that time does not change them in any way and that the idea of time cannot be applied to them.  These are negative characteristics, which can only be clearly understood if a comparison is made with conscious mental processes.  On the other than, our abstract idea of time seems to be wholly derived from the method of working of the system Pcpt.-Cs. [Perception-Consciousness] and to correspond to a perception on its own part of that method of working.  This mode of functioning may perhaps constitute another way of providing a shield against stimuli.[6]
In this passage, Freud seeks to draw from Kant’s theory of space and time in order to offer a specifically psychoanalytic understanding of time, distinct from Kant’s transcendental or what others have called Kant’s “faculty psychology” interpretation of time.  We will see how the difference between Kant’s understanding of time and that of Freud’s emerges when the ego is brought to bear.
But before specifying Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of time, it is important to note that Freud’s reference to Kant’s theory of space and time is significant because it is precisely where Kant begins his Critique of Pure Reason.  As we know, Kant opens his First Critique by submitting space and time into a series of transcendental deductions, by asking: “What are space and time?  Are they actual entities? Are they only determinations or relations of things, yet ones that would pertain to them even if they were not intuited, or are they relations that only attach to the form of intuition alone, and thus to the subjective constitution of our mind, without which these predicates could not be ascribed to any thing at all.”[7] By isolating and abstracting space and time, Kant argues that they are not general concepts or sensible properties, but rather are pure a priori forms of intuition.  According to Kant, space and time are a priori formal conditions in that they are what grounds any and all sensible intuitions and appearances.  Because space and time are a priori forms, they are prior to and precede all actual perception.  For instance, with regards to space, what we perceive as outer objects are nothing other than the mere representations of our sensibility, whose form is space.   As with time, it is nothing but the form of the intuition of our inner sense.  The “reality” of time is empirical only insofar as it regards how objects are given to our senses.  Thus, in Kant’s metaphysics, space and time are not properties of things; they come from the subject as a priori forms of intuitions, which the subject then projects onto something in order to constitute it as a sensible object.  Simply put, space and time are the grid through which anything can appear at all.   According to Kant, time is merely a subjective condition of our human intuition; if taken outside ourselves, time disappears, it becomes nothing.
Freud’s understanding of time is consonant with Kant’s, insofar as both restrict the experience of time within the subject, as the condition of human intuition.  Consequently, they delimit a realm which is not moored or affected by time: the noumenal for Kant, the unconscious for Freud, both are timeless in this sense.  According to Freud, time originates in the perception-consciousness system (Pcpt.Cs.).  Located at the border between the preconscious (Pcs.) and the conscious (Cs.), the Pcpt.Cs. is the system which receives perceptual data and sensual stimulation from the external world, which it then mediates between Cs. and Pcs. systems.  The Pcpt.-Cs. system functions a critical role in Freud’s metapsychological topography, in that it is responsible for managing the amount of stimulation to be processed and thus what is ultimately made conscious at the perceptual level.  Understood as a barrier or, better yet, as a filter, the Pcpt.-Cs. system helps to keep excitations at a minimum in order to protect the ego from what it receives outside.  This obviously becomes the model for his later reflections on trauma.  Here, the relation of the ego from external reality is understood in terms of the psychic processes in the Pcpt.-Cs. system.
Freudian Time
But what happens to time in the Pcpt.Cs.?  From the point-of-view of this system, time is, to use Freud’s lexicon, something like the manifold stream of experiential stimulations.  Our feeling of time, in particular the sense of a linear succession that it impresses upon us, is merely an effect of what Freud calls “the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.”[8] This flickering up and passing-away is precisely the coming-to-be and the disappearance of time.  It is at this point where we can begin to better understand what differentiates Freud’s theory of time to that of Kant’s, and to understand what Freud meant when he explained that “our abstract idea of time seems to be wholly derived from the method of working of the system Pcpt.-Cs. and to correspond to a perception on its own part of that method of working.”  Kant begins his Critique of Pure Reason by proving first that time is an a priori form of intuition.  Kant concludes from this premise that although time in-itself (i.e., time outside the subject) is nothing, time is nevertheless something we must presuppose in order to cognize appearances, for all external objects of the senses must be in time, must stand in relations of time.
It seems to me that what Freud sees as a limitation in Kant’s theory of time is that it offers only a way for explaining the possibility of the act of cognition in general.  Although Kant’s theory demonstrates the ways in which time is perceived, it does not provide for Freud a way of concretely accounting for how time endures, especially with regard to the sense of temporal duration that the perceiving subject necessarily feels as an effect of its being in time.  For the ego must not only perceive time, it must necessarily remember time that has passed.  It is in this way that memory becomes necessary for the ego as a way to understand itself as a being in relations of time. Without a sense of its own duration, without its referencing its past to its present, it would be impossible for the ego to sense itself as something inhabiting time; it would merely intuit itself and then vaporize again and again in the infinitesimal intervals between “the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.”  This I think is the heart of the paradoxical antinomy of time that Freud encounters in his reading of Kant, which can be stated in the following way: while on the one hand, our faculty of cognition renders time as an a priori principle for subjective cognition, it must, on the other hand, understand time as that which objectifies the subject so that the ego can perceived itself as a being in time.[9] Time cannot be represented without recourse to space, a Kantian lesson.  And in order for the subject to represent it, time must be spatialized.  It is only by spatializing time that the self can perceive or project itself as an (objective) presence in temporal relations.  Moreover, Freud will want to insist that one must also posit a bounded ego-subject that would function like the Kantian principle of substance (“In all change of appearance, substance persists”[10]).  In order for temporal duration to be sensibly intelligible, there must be an ego that persists, an ego that is more than the ephemeral effects of “the flickering-up and passing-away” of time.  It is only in positing a bounded ego-subject whose substance endures that alterations can be cognized.  It becomes no accident then that Freud explained how time is perceived in the Pcpt.-Cs. by way of an analogy to the Mystic Writing Pad, which as Derrida would suggest became a way for Freud to materialize psychic presence via the metaphor of writing, or which is the same thing, the spatialization of temporal experience.[11] What can be seen from our account so far is that the aporetic structure of time, the inescapable contradictions that emerge between the laws of reason (in Kant) and the operations of the psychic system (in Freud), makes the thinking of time a constitutive problem of psychoanalytic practice.  Fundamentally, these problems of time underwrite the peculiar characteristics of psychic operations and mental events such as dreams and memories.
The question of memory lies at the heart of the difficulties Freud encountered in thinking about time and psychoanalysis.  Memories play an important role in psychoanalytic therapy because they are the raw material from which to reconstruct a narrative of one’s psychic life.  Memories are what give the ego’s mental events an order within relations of time.  They are what enable an enduring form to the manifold of experience of the ego-subject in time.  But, as importantly, memories are also what exceed the logic of time, insofar as the retroactive act of recalling a memory radically short-circuits the linearity of time’s successive movement.  The form of memory, therefore, has the potential for that Freudian motif—the “uncanny” –in one’s habitation in time.  Memory embodies both the “heimlich” and the “unheimlich,” that is to say, its form contains both that which is “familiar and agreeable” and that which is “concealed and kept out of sight.”[12] What makes memories uncanny is the constitutive split between what is familiar and what cannot be accessed, for memory can never provide an immediate experience of the past, but only a mediated one.   Yet, the aspect of memory that is “kept out of sight,” i.e., that which is left inaccessible to consciousness, what Freud called the mnemic trace of unconscious memory, is what interested him the most.  In Freud’s topography, memory is located in the Pcpt.-Cs., the psychic system in which, as we recall, time “happens.”  Because for Freud memory is temporal-perceptual, the retroactive recollection of memories occurs in this system.  The inscriptions that make up a recallable memory comprise only a part—a fragment, not unlike an anecdote—of what is received in the psychic apparatus.  The lasting impressions of these mnemic traces are left entirely in the unconscious, for it is in the Ucs. where the mind has stored all perception, the traces of which, like the wax in the Derridean Mystic Writing Pad, have left indelible, repressed marks.   The atemporality of the unconscious means that it is not affected by the passage of time, that is, it will never forget what it had once experienced.
It has been suggested that Freud’s understanding of memory and its relationship to the unconscious works on two temporal paradigms, linear determinism and retroactive constructivism, both of which presuppose a teleological understanding of time. [13] Because the unconscious retains the elements of the past, because, at its core, it “consists of repressed traces of factual occurrences,” the unconscious becomes a fixed and constant point of reference to which mental events are related and understood in terms of a succession.[14] Freud’s preoccupation with the primal scene, infantile sexuality, dreams, phylogenetic memories and his search for origins are all taken as an attempt to reconstruct a narrative of psychic life that is developmental.  In Time Driven, Adrian Johnston, for instance, argues that the temporal antinomy of psychoanalysis lies in the contradictory processes of interpretation and analysis: “While advancing a model of the psyche in which a linear determinism serves as the basis for interpretation—a chronological, developmental model, in which the past shapes the present—analysis simultaneously posits the activity of a retroactive constructivism.”[15]
But as we have seen, the antinomy of time is an inheritance from Kant, which is to say that it is an antinomy that stems not from a methodological procedure per se, but from the structures of thought.  While Freud conceded to Kant’s principle that time is an a priori form of subjective intuition, he qualified it in terms of the ways in which the subject also becomes objectified or bounded as an ego-subject in relation to the experience of time.  Freud’s ego-subject is the concretization of Kant’s transcendental apperception, if you will. The objective validity of the ego-subject in time is consistent with Kant’s insight that we cannot represent time, but only in terms of space, i.e., that “because this inner intuition [of time] yields no shape, we also attempt to remedy this lack through analogies, and represent the temporal sequence through a line progressing to infinity.”[16] The radical insight that Freud offers is that time and subjectivity have an immense plasticity when understood in relation to one another, which becomes more problematical at precisely the point at which time becomes spatialized.  Hence, the ego-subject in time is merely a binding-effect (or the synthesis) of “the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception,” and that the developmental framework we impose on it is necessary only insofar as it makes our being-in-time intelligible for us.  But this intelligibility is something like a teleology without a determinate telos, or the Kantian figure of the “infinite line” that is used to spatially represent time.  What may appear as teleological development in Freud is merely the general feeling of the linear succession of time that we represent to ourselves because we are finite beings incapable of intuiting or producing time in-itself.  In this understanding of time, memories are irruptions that attest to the plasticity and contingency in the ways we represent time.  “In mental life,” as Freud writes in Civilization and Its Discontents, “nothing which has once been formed can perish—that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances…it can once more be brought to life.”[17] Memories bear the burden of ethics, an accountability to the other that is time and its history.  In supplementing the Kantian transcendental idea of time with the psychoanalytic structure of the unconscious, Freud enables a conceptual space in which to ground a critique of dogmatic uses of time that treat temporality as though it were an absolute reality, as though it were unencumbered by subjective sensibility or psychic operations.  It is in this sense perhaps that we understand the business of psychoanalysis as one that is time-consuming.
— P.N.
(Photo:  Do Ho Suh, Staircase, translucent nylon, 2003.)
[1] Sigmund Freud, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” in Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1937), p. 216.
[2] Freud, “The Unconscious,” in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (London, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), p. 582.
[3] “The Unconscious,” p. 577, emphasis is mine.
[4] Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. J. Strachey (New York: Avon Books, 1965), p. 651.
[5] Ibid., p. 653
[6] Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. J. Strachey (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1959), pp. 31-32.
[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 157.
[8] Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19, trans. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), p. 231.
[9] Heidegger alludes to this discrepancy of representation between Freud’s and Kant’s views.  In Being and Time, Heidegger writes, “The psychological Interpretation according to which the ‘I’ has something ‘in the memory’ is at bottom a way of alluding to the existentially constitutive state of Being-in-the-world.  Since Kant fails to see this structure, he also fails to recognize all the interconnections which the Constitution of any possible orientation implies.”  See Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie, Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), p. 144.
[10] Critique of Pure Reason, p. 299.
[11] See  Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 196-231.
[12] Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), pp. 224-225.
[13] See for instance, Adrian Johnston, Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2005), particularly pp. 218-227.
[14] Ibid., p. 220.
[15] Ibid., p. 218.
[16] Critique of Pure Reason, p. 163.
[17] Freud, “Civilization and Its Discontents,” in The Freud Reader, p. 725.
This entry was published on November 5, 2010 at 6:43 AM. It’s filed under Critical Theory, Essays, Kant, Time and Temporality and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “The Business of Time in Psychoanalysis: Between Kant and Freud

  1. This is a very organized treatment, and no, I was unaware that Freud knew much Kant, or that I could communicate with Freudians in the language of Kant. This may help me in the future, thank you very much.

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