In a chapter from his forthcoming book, published in nlr 91, Sebastiano Timpanaro attacks the methods and conclusions of Freud’s chapter on ‘The Forgetting of Foreign Words’ from The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. His attack depends on a number of serious misconceptions.
1. Freud’s example of forgetting is not simply an example of inadvertent ‘textual corruption’ in the broad sense used by Timpanaro. It involved ‘tip of the tongue’ forgetting—the subject knew he had forgotten a word, and was worried by this. He was unable to remember it, though he knew it well and recognized it immediately with relief when it was supplied by Freud.
2. Freud was quite willing to accept the availability of other types of explanation, such as Timpanaro’s. He lists some in the Introductory Lectures and comments: ‘Observe that we are not denying these factors. It is in general not such a common thing for psycho-analysis to deny something asserted by other people; as a rule it merely adds something new—though no doubt it occasionally happens that this thing that has hitherto been overlooked and is now brought up as a fresh addition is in fact the essence of the matter’. It is perfectly possible to accept the points made by Timpanaro and still conclude that Freud’s explanation is necessary. Syntactic irregularity and semantic redundancy are contributing factors which, as Freud put it, ‘favour slips of the tongue’. But though they tell us something about the conditions in which a slip may take place, they say nothing about the dynamic cause, the agency involved in a specific slip by a specific subject.
3. Timpanaro gives a number of hypothetical examples of how other words, in his view, might also have been forgotten, as well as aliquis. But, of course, Freud held that the wish associated with an underlying repression would seek expression whenever it could, taking advantage of every opportunity. If it was aliquis that was in fact forgotten, rather than ossibus or ultor, this may well have been because the path for the wish (or counter-wish) was smoothed by the factors outlined by Timpanaro. The underlying repression itself was identified through the empirical chain of associations which Freud elicited and which his interlocutor then corroborated.
4. The chain of associations, leading from aliquis to the subject’s wish that his Italian friend should not have missed her period, is not, as Timpanaro appears to think, a causal chain. Freud is quite clear on this point. He thought it was ‘highly improbable’ that such a chain of associations could be passable in either direction, from symptom to source and vice-versa. Free association provided Freud with a method of investigation, an interpretative technique. By attacking this technique, Timpanaro misses the main issue. He fails to grasp that to undermine the explanatory basis of Freud’s thought, it would be necessary to attack, not the status of free association, but that of the primary process, and therefore of the pleasure principle, the mechanisms of the dream-work, the place of the repressed and its return, etc. These are understood in Freud’s illustrative account of the aliquis incident, but fully theorized elsewhere, in The Interpretation of Dreams, the later Metapsychology and other writings.
5. The aliquis example was in no way intended as an experimentum crucis. The findings of the Psychopathology are of course supported by a host of examples, presented by Freud and many others, discovered and corroborated in numerous instances within the analytic process. The ‘falsificationist’ arguments put forward by Timpanaro are particularly odd coming from a Marxist, since their champion, Popper—who Timpanaro cites without question as his authority—developed them in order to combat, not only Freud, but Marx. The epistemological status of either the Marxist or Freudian systems cannot depend on a type of empiricism which has been put forward explicitly as an ideology to exclude them from the sciences. Both theories, of course, contain their own necessary empirical component which cannot be reduced to or conflated with that of other sciences.
Psycho-analysis is a materialist system. It is based on a theory of the material representation of instincts. It confronts the problem of how biological individuals, with certain instinctual and anatomical configurations, are inducted into a society with a language and with specific social relations. It establishes the material foundation which underlies the highest flights of human mental activity, not only in their content but also in their form. In the same way that the scientificity of Marxism is superior to that of a naturalistic positivism, so psycho-analysis is superior to any type of behaviourism. This is not to discount the presence of idealistic and counter-empirical trends in psycho-analysis, as in Marxism. But it is necessary to insist that the much-needed debate over the relationship of Marxist and Freudian thought and practice is not best served by inapposite polemic, however mordant or caustic.