One of Freud's famous quips was that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Presumably this was his way of cautioning his followers not to overinterpret every little action and preference, such as Freud's own famous love of cigars. (Freud's biographers have made much of the similiarity between his personal life and his main theories, e.g., his apparently oedipal relationships with his own parents.) This might be good advice for therapists, especially those working in the Freudian or "psychoanalytic" tradition. But is it consistent with Freud's larger theoretical view that everyone is determined by unconscious instinctual strivings that are shaped in childhood and then triggered by various social circumstances in our adult lives?

My own answer to this question reflects my "organic" metatheoretical view of Freudian theory and its relationship to practical life in general and psychotherapy in particular. I think Freud was not consistent, either in the above-cited advice about cigars or in many other respects, but I also think that his inconsistency should not be held against him. For centuries the unconscious had been chugging away, so to speak, right under the noses of philosophers and scientists, but hardly anyone noticed it until Freud came along (well, it was the unconsciousness, after all). It's true that a few earlier theorists had inklings of a subterranean dimension of human experience -- Schopenhauer and maybe Nietzche should be mentioned here -- but virtually all modern theorizing about human nature stuck with the Cartesian model of a transparent self even though amazing discoveries and paradigm shifts about the external world were taking place throughout the modern era.

What does this tell us about philosophy and other large-scaled visions about the nature or reality, especially human reality? It tells us that the people who have these visions, no matter how brilliant they are, are still just people. They aren't omniscient knowers, godlike intellects who theorize from some cosmic perspective and draw perfect pictures of "the way" things are. A brilliant theorist like Freud will have a few controlling ideas and a host of smaller ideas (including practical ideas about how to treat patients) that fit more or less snugly with the bigger theoretical ones. As a great theorist develops his or her paradigm-breaking-and-making theory, more new ideas will emerge, sometimes requiring radical changes in the big picture but more often enriching it and at the same time creating a host of tensions that will keep later generations of intellectuals busy trying to decide whether this or that apparent inconsistency is only a superficial problem (e.g., a semantic issue which can be resolved by distinguishing between two or three senses of some key term) or a really nasty incoherence that was wallpapered over.
Is this a picture of a man fixated at the oral stage, someone just enjoying a good cigar, or (oh dear!) perhaps both?

Supplemental Reading:

Civilization and Its Discontents (ch. 7): This is proably Freud's most famous work, as well as one of his more philosophical statements. The whole book is less than 100 pages long and you should read it all if possible. The point of the title is that civilization (the superego) is a necessary but nonetheless repressive force that keeps our pleasure-seeking and destructive tendencies (the id) in check by means of guilt feelings.

Think about your own experiences in writing essays and term papers. Weren't there ideas that you left out, not because of space limitations, but because you weren't sure how to work them into your paper? Or perhaps you did squeeze those ideas in and just hoped the teacher would grade you on originality rather than consistency (or wouldn't read the paper too carefully...)? This feeling of being inadequate to the issue is not something you'll outgrow, such that by your senior year your better papers won't have any soft spots. On the contrary, if you're really good you'll become increasingly aware of the gap between your vision (or the written expression thereof) and the reality you see. Call me in a decade or two and tell me if I'm not right.

So that's why I am not upset about Freud's remark about the cigar even though I think it's inconsistent with his psychologial determinism. It's a pity, though, that he smoked so heavily. He died from a very painful case of cancer of the jaw...

The usual reminders:

Assessment Quiz for Ch. 9

I give up on the laundry and room-cleaning reminders. But have you talked with your parents about going to Rome next year? Examined the summer school bulletin? Applied for a passport? Started to get ready for the winter break? Renewed your driver's license? Read a poem lately? Called your grandpa?