Psychoanalysis as Ultimate Explanation

  • John Deigh
Part of the Claremont Studies in the Philosophy of Religion book series (CSPR)


Atomism offers ultimate explanations of the sensible events and processes of the physical world. It holds that such events and processes are ultimately the work of unseeable atomic particles of matter whirling about and colliding with each other in the void. Similarly, psychoanalysis offers ultimate explanations of human conduct and the conscious thoughts and feelings it manifests. It holds that such conduct, thought and feeling are the work of the subject’s unconscious mind, the thoughts and wishes it contains, and the inherited drives from which they derive their psychic force. To be sure, the analogy between atomism and psychoanalysis is imperfect. The explanations of the former are reductive, those of the latter causal. But this difference does not spoil the parallel. In either, the theorist, drawing on similarities and differences he observes in the behaviour of the objects or people he studies, posits states and activities of things that no one can perceive to explain sensible events and processes or conscious thoughts and feelings. Both thus follow the same form of abductive argument in reaching their theoretical conclusions. Both follow the same pattern of scientific theorizing and hold out their results as ultimate explanations of the phenomena they study.1


Human Mind Motivational Force Moral Motive Moral Psychology Mental Phenomenon 
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  1. 4.
    See, e.g., Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, essay IV, ch. VI; and Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. L.W. Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), p. 30.Google Scholar
  2. 14.
    See, e.g., Gerhardt Piers and Milton Singer, Shame and Guilt: A psychoanalytic and a cultural study (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1953), Part 1, ch. 3; andGoogle Scholar
  3. Richard Wollheim, The Thread of Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), ch. 7.Google Scholar
  4. 16.
    The possibility is contained in P.F. Strawson’s distinction between participatory and objective standpoints and can be traced back to Kant’s doctrine of the two standpoints, that of nature and that of freedom. See Strawson, ‘Freedom and Resentment’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 48 (1962), pp. 1–25;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. H.J. Paton (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1964), pp. 124–6.Google Scholar

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© The Claremont Graduate School 1996

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  • John Deigh

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