A compilation of the Tanner lectures, recently delivered at Cambridge University, in which Lear (Philosophy/Univ. of Chicago) offers a provocative alternative to what he considers the flawed understanding of the meaning of life of Aristotle and Freud.
These three lectures (entitled “Happiness,” “Death,” and “The Remainder of Life”) form a cogently argued rebuttal of Aristotle and Freud—the two men whose ideas about the meaning of the human condition have long dominated western thought. Quoting liberally from their writings, and those of other scholars, Lear refutes Aristotle’s proposition that “happiness is the organizing principle of human teleology.” For Lear, the pursuit of happiness, rather than being an end in itself, only creates further discontents. In “Death,” he argues that Freud’s belief in death as the logical aim in life explains the mind’s capacity for creation and destruction, but similarly fails (like Aristotle’s emphasis upon happiness) to address the sense of something existing “beyond” ethical virtue. Both men sensed this “beyond,” but were prisoners of their own theories and could not move beyond them. Referring to his experience as a psychoanalyst, Lear explores what he calls “the remainder of life,” a place in which two kinds of unconscious mental activity (“breaks” and “swerves”) occur, creating new directions and opportunities for the mind to pursue and explore. In this third lecture, he argues that psychoanalysis offers a way out of Aristotle’s and Freud’s philosophical dilemmas—for psychoanalysis (he offers examples from his own practice) can teach us to live with the wealth of possibilities that being human entails. It can also help us tolerate a “peculiar kind of theoretical anxiety: the willingness to live without principle.”
A cogent if sometimes dense and partisan assertion of a role for psychoanalysis in enlarging the human capacity for thought and understanding.