Philosophy played an important role in the early days of psychoanalysis, as Sigmund Freud was concerned with providing a solid foundation for this new science. At Wednesday evening meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Freud sometimes assumed that the unconscious could have something in common with Immanuel Kant’s thing-in-itself. After all, both are realities lying behind the phenomena that appear to our consciousness. When Freud was introduced to Otto Rank, he met a young philosophy and psychoanalysis enthusiast who was in a position to bridge the gap between psychoanalysis and philosophy while also covering literature and art. Thus, Freud funded Rank’s studies until the latter obtained his doctorate in philosophy.
However, while Freud considered that it was more appropriate for psychoanalysis to remain within the medical paradigm, Rank based his understanding of the world on the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, and Arthur Schopenhauer, without abandoning the therapeutic attitude of “talking cure” created by Freud.
Rank states in his books that what underlies the existence of the world and life is the will, this being a Schopenhauer contribution. Will is a broader concept than desire, being the engine of life, including the life of human beings. However, Schopenhauer’s view on it was negative because he felt it was a source of pain—a position based on the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism on his philosophy. Nietzsche, on the other hand, states that life needs to be an unconditional affirmation of the will—hence his admiration for the Greek tragedy, in which Apollo joins Dionysus in inviting the audience to appreciate the beauty of life, even if it includes pain and difficulties.
Therefore, Otto Rank considers that the true human values are the affirmation of life’s values, which must be made through the will. However, he realizes that the will initially appears as compulsion and that this means suffering. With Kant’s aid, he realizes that human beings need to build their dignity from within. On the other hand, the will, in its raw state, is the Barbarian Dionysus—only with Apollo, who can teach about the elegant balance, does it become the Hellenic Dionysus. The combination of Apollo and Dionysus makes life possible and beautiful through art—that is, through symbolic creation—which also becomes a means of affirming life, along with culture.
Clearly, the therapeutic and pedagogical efforts necessary for this affirmation are not limited to allowing for the expression of the will, but also embrace the task of abandoning painful compulsions in favor of the exercise of free will. It is a process of building the person.
In this process, the person is not alone because they have at their disposal the repertoire of culture (art, symbolism, mythology, religion, etc.), which enables them to make choices that are possible for a being who, despite their limitations, recognizes themselves as capable of using reason. Thus, morality exists a priori as an affirmation of life, protecting human subjectivity and its values.
When commenting on Kant’s statement about the two things that awe him most, “the starry sky above me and the moral law within me,” Rank states that we should not think that our moral law is a reflection of external laws that imposes itself on us; rather, the beauty and coherence we admire in the world are projections of the things that exist a priori in us but of which we doubt. That is, we become skeptical about ourselves, and we tend to consider the search for dignity, which is a truth in ourselves, false. We alienate ourselves and transfer the value judgment of our dignity to the ephemeral ideologies of society. Thus, it is necessary not only to teach human beings to want again but also to believe again:
“Psychotherapy does not need to be ashamed of its philosophic character, if only it is in a position to give to the sufferer the philosophy that he needs, namely, faith in himself.” – Otto Rank