Psychoanalytic theory, whether in Sigmund Freud’s original version or in the reconstruction of it by French thinkers since the 1950s, has become an inescapable feature of Western intellectual culture in the 20th century. Controversy has undeniably helped to keep it at the focus of public attention, but there are also two factors inherent in Freud’s writings which have contributed to maintaining that interest. One is the intellectual appeal (in a scientific age) of an integrative theory of mind and human creativity; the other is Freud’s skill as a presenter of his own insights. For, as his supporters and critics alike have acknowledged, he could write very attractive German prose.
It is not clear that Freud ever followed a particular literary model in his writing, although he did admit to a special affinity with Lessing (the “father of modern German literature”). However, his works abound with quotations from literary authors—from Goethe and Heine, E.T.A.Hoffmann and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and the Austrian dramatists Franz Grillparzer and Johann Nestroy, as well as Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Virgil—and it is likely that such reading helped him to develop his ease of expression as well as providing him with corroboration for some of his key psychological insights. In his technical papers, as in his public lectures and his well-known brochures (on jokes, on religion, on the psychopathology of everyday life), he used an idiom which was readily intelligible to any educated German speaker. That lucidity largely survives in the English Standard Edition of his works, even if some of the central concepts which Freud expressed in simple and familiar German terms have been rendered into an artificial medicalese (“ego,” “id,” “parapraxis”). Freud’s own Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse (1916; Introductory Lectures on PsychoAnalysis) remain the most readable introduction to his system of thought.
Freud seems to have avoided the term “essay” when describing his own works, and in the early stages of his career, at least, this may have been in order to avoid the impression that his argument was in any way imprecise. In the Standard Edition there are just two works that are so described—the Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (1905; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality) and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion (1939; Moses and Monotheism)—and even here the German word that Freud preferred was Abhandlung, which is suggestive rather of “treatise” or “discourse.” The distinguishing features of his writing are nevertheless recognizably the techniques of a skilled essayist, regardless of whether as readers we accept them as convincing or reject them as fanciful and beguiling. His case studies, for example, invariably provide an exposition of the patient’s personal situation which is at once vivid and painstakingly constructed, as well as containing moments of calculated surprise when particularly revealing information is disclosed. (Freud himself likened these studies to novellas.) Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams), notwithstanding its character as a scholarly dissertation, makes for lively reading because of the way that empirical experience, whether clinical or personal, is extensively described in illustration of its central propositions. And precisely when he is developing his most speculative arguments, in his cultural and metapsychological writings of the 1920s and 1930s, Freud is usually careful to anticipate likely objections on the part of the reader, and to be frank about the incomplete or insecure nature of the supporting evidence for his views.
The intellectual basis for Freud’s mature writings can be found in the works he published between 1900 and 1905. That basis is the notion of an “economy” of libidinal energies at work in the unconscious mind, energies with which each of us is born and which require to be “discharged,” but which become disposed in particular ways under the influence of external conditioning factors as we grow from infancy to adulthood. His central thesis in The Interpretation of Dreams, for example, is that every dream is an expression of wish-fulfillment, but that the wish is made manifest only in disguised forms because the original impulse from which it derived is being prevented from entering consciousness. It is a model of the mind which enabled Freud to suggest that there is a universal system of psychic mechanisms at work in the production of neuroses, dreams, and creative acts, as well as the commonplace aberrations of everyday life. It allowed him to develop a taxonomy of personality types related to the phases of physiological and psychological development in early childhood. And it permitted him to argue in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality that all forms of sexual behavior, including bestiality, fetishism, and homosexuality, share a common source—a bold and liberalizing argument in the circumstances of 1905, when “deviant” sexuality tended to be automatically attributed to genetic disorders or “degeneracy.” The mechanism which confines the determining impulse to the unconscious Freud calls “repression.” His explanation for it centers on the “Oedipus complex,” the notion that the growing male child, on his progress to adulthood, must pass through a phase in which he perceives his father as a threatening rival for the affections of his mother. Freud sees the internalization of the father’s authority (as a power which is simultaneously terrible and admirable) as the means by which the individual acquires a sense of social restraint, a conscience; he later gives it the name “superego.”
Freud’s gift for imaginative intellectual constructions is most clearly apparent in Totem und Tabu (1913; Totem and Taboo), where he draws on the writings of Darwin and of contemporary anthropologists in order to make connections between the characteristic mental patterns of neuroses and those of “primitive” cultures. That same internalization of paternal authority which determines compulsive behavior, he now argues, also governs the incest taboo and the worship of totem animals in animistic societies. On the basis of this parallel he develops his famous scenario for the origin of social morality and monotheistic religion in the killing of the “primal father” by a band of young males previously excluded from sexual enjoyment of the females of the tribe: their act of parricide eliminates the physical presence of the dominant male, but his authority lives on in their subsequent codification of sexual behavior and in the notion of a “father in heaven.” It is a scenario which Freud expressly characterizes as an intellectual scandal and a “just-so story,” but it provides the foundation for his discussion of the seemingly ineradicable antipathy of human beings toward their own cultural institutions in Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930; Civilization and Its Discontents) as well as for his later essays on the psychological origins of religion in general and of Judaism in particular, Die Zukunft einer Illusion (1927; The Future of an Illusion) and Moses and Monotheism.
Freud is at his least persuasive in Jenseits des Lustprinzips (1920; Beyond the Pleasure Principle), the text in which he sought to adjust his conception of the unconscious mind to clinical evidence arising from World War I. The recurrent nightmares of shell-shocked soldiers could not be accommodated within his earlier theory of wish-fulfillment, and in order to account for them Freud suggests that alongside the “erotic” drives of the libido there is a set of conservative drives in the mind which aims at the reduction of displeasure. He calls the second set the “death instinct” because he claims that, left to itself, it would ultimately aim to restore the organism to an inanimate state; and he attributes the phenomena of sexual violence and sadism to the “death instinct” because, he says, it defies reason to attribute them to “Eros.” It may be possible to see in these arguments an expression of Freud’s temperamental pessimism, which is similarly apparent both in his later comments on society and culture and in his public exchange of letters with Albert Einstein in 1932. on the question of why societies go to war. But they can equally be seen as an illogical attempt to conserve the integrity of his psychological theory in the face of an empirical challenge.
Freud’s theories have come under attack for a variety of reasons. He has been accused of selecting, and even suppressing, evidence in order to maintain the plausibility of the arguments he favors. He has been criticized as manifestly one-sided in his concentration on sexual energy as a determinant of human activity, and in the way he bases his account of culture exclusively on the psychology of the male. The very conception of his therapeutic regime has been attacked as oversystematized and authoritarian, entailing as it does the notion that a patient’s “resistance” may be interpreted as confirmation of the accuracy of the diagnosis. Most damaging of all for Freud’s psychological views, the principle of energy discharge on which he initially based his thinking has been shown since his time to be neither adequate nor accurate for a proper understanding of the nervous system.
What Freud’s writings do offer is (in Wittgenstein’s phrase) a“powerful mythology,” a body of arguments which uses the analytical language of scientific rationalism to express a conception of human identity determined by irrational impulses, by desires and anxieties. His works have retained their provocative vigor because of the skepticism they bring to bear on the comfortable notion that thinking is a wholly rational activity.
Sigismund Solomon Freud. Born 6 May 1856 in Freiburg, Moravia. Brought up in Vienna. Studied medicine at the University of Vienna, 1873–79, M.D., 1881; neurology with J.M.Charcot in Paris, and H.Bernstein in Nancy, 1885–86. Worked at the Physiological Institute of Vienna, 1876–82, Brücke Institute, Vienna, 1881–82, and the General Hospital, Vienna, 1882–85; lectured at the University of Vienna, 1885. Private practice in Vienna, 1886–1938. Married Martha Bernays, 1886: six children. Cofounder, Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und Imago, and the Jahrbuch der Psychoanalyse (Yearbook of psychoanalysis); editor, Intago journal, from 1912. Left Vienna to escape the Nazi regime, 1938, and lived in London, setting up a private practice.
Goethe Prize, 1930; honorary degree from Clark University. Corresponding member, Royal Society, London, 1936; also member of many psychiatric and psychoanalytical societies and associations. Died (of cancer) in London, 23 September 1939.
Essays and Related Prose
Die Traumdeutung, 1900; as The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by Abraham A.Brill, 1913, and James Strachey, 1955
Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie, 1905; as Three Contributions to the Sexual Theory, translated by Abraham A.Brill, 1910; as Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, translated by James Strachey, 1949
Über Psychoanalyse: Fünf Vorlesungen, 1910; as Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, edited and translated by James Strachey, 1957
Totem und Tabu: Über einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker, 1913; as Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, translated by Abraham A.Brill, 1918; as Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, translated by James Strachey, 1950
Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse, 3 vols., 1916; as A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, translated by Joan Riviere, 1920; as Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, translated by James Strachey, 1963
Das Unheimliche, 1919
Jenseits des Lustprinzips, 1920; as Beyond the Pleasure Principle, translated by C.J.M.Hubback, 1922, and James Strachey, 1950
Die Zukunft einer Illusion., 1927; as The Future of an Illusion, translated by W.D.Robson-Scott, 1928, and James Strachey, 1962
Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, 1930; as Civilization and Its Discontents, translated by Joan Riviere, 1930, and James Strachey, 1967
Neue Folge der Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse, 1933; as New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, translated by W.J.H.Sprott, 1933, and James Strachey, 1964
Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion, 1939; as Moses and Monotheism, translated by Katherine Jones, 1939, and James Strachey, 1974
The Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay, 1989
Psychological Writings and Letters, edited by Sander L.Gilman, 1995
Other writings: many works on psychology and psychoanalysis, case studies of patients, diaries, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Gesammelte Werke, 17 vols., 1940–52; The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, general editor James Strachey, 24 vols., 1953–74; Studienausgabe, edited by Alexander Mitscherlich, Angela Richards, and James Strachey, 10 vols., 1969–89.
Grinstein, Alexander, Sigmund Freud’s Writings: A Comprehensive Bibliography, New York: International Universities Press, 1977
Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel, The Freudian Subject, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988; Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989 (original French edition, 1982)
Bouveresse, Jacques, Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995 (original French edition, 1991)
Clark, Ronald W., Freud: The Man and the Cause, London: Cape, and New York: Random House, 1980
Forrester, John, Language and the Origin of Psychoanalysis, London: Macmillan, 1980
Fromm, Erich, “Freud’s Theory of Aggressiveness and Destructiveness,” in his The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1973;
London: Cape, 1974
Gay, Peter, Freud: A Life for Our Time, New York: Norton, and London: Dent, 1988
Jones, Ernest, Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, London: Hogarth Press, and New York: Basic Books, 3 vols., 1953–57
Kitcher, Patricia, Freud’s Dream: A Complete Interdisciplinary Science of Mind, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992
Kline, Paul, Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory, 2nd (expanded) edition, London and New York: Methuen, 1981 (original edition, 1972)
Mahony, Patrick, Freud as a Writer, 2nd (expanded) edition, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1987
Marcus, Steven, Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis, London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1984
Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff, Freud: The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, and London: Faber, 1984
Meisel, Perry, editor, Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1981
Ricoeur, Paul, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1970 (original French edition, 1965)
Rieff, Philip, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, New York: Viking Press, 1959; London: Gollancz, 1960
Schönau, Walter, Sigmund Freuds Prosa: Literarische Elemente seines Stils, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1968
Storr, Anthony, Freud, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989
Sulloway, Frank, Freud: Biologist of the Mind, New York: Basic Books, and London: Deutsch, 1979
Wallace, Edwin R. IV, Freud and Anthropology: A History and Reappraisal, New York: International Universities Press, 1983
Webster, Richard, Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, London: HarperCollins, and New York: Basic Books, 1995
Wollheim, Richard, Freud, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990 (original edition, 1971)
Wollheim, Richard, and James Hopkins, editors, Philosophical Essays on Freud, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982
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