Freud Among the Great Books

This essay first appeared on The Imaginative Conservative.  Thanks to Winston Elliott at TIC for permission to re-post it here. The graphic is by Hillsdale artist Bryan Springer.

Freud Among the Great Books:
Beyond a Monolithic “Freudian Theory”[1]

I find myself for a moment in the interesting position of not knowing whether what I have to say should be regarded as something long known and self-evident or something completely new and strange.  I suspect, however, it is the latter.  (Sigmund Freud)[2]

When Sigmund Freud wrote these sentences in the late 1930’s, he was referring specifically to some findings on a more focused topic.  They may be taken, however, as an expression of a thought which apparently occurred to him often through the course of his career.  I also take them as expressing my own sense about the impressionistic report that I intend to provide in what follows.  I have understood myself as having a basic working grasp of Freud’s thought ever since I was an undergraduate.  For my first ten to fifteen years of teaching in sociology and philosophy, I continued to operate on this assumption, though Freud and psychoanalytic thought did not occupy a central place in my inquiry or my teaching.

I would guess that most of us have had the experience of actually meeting and getting to know individuals whose reputations “preceded them,” as we say.  I would guess, further, that most of us have experienced profound, unsettling surprise or even shock at how the person we have gotten to know differs from the reputation that preceded him.  It is my purpose here to report on how this has happened to me as I have begun to read carefully the writings of Freud in the last five to seven years.[3]  As I first got to know a Freud who is quite different from the man I thought I knew about, I often had the sense that I was simply discovering what most other people (those who actually paid attention to Freud, anyway) already knew.  But forays into secondary literature, and conversations with colleagues, have led me to suspect that this is not necessarily the case, especially among English-speaking academics.

Knowledge of Freud among English-speaking readers is heavily influenced by James Strachey’s “Standard Edition” translations of Freud’s works, and by their central place in shaping institutionalized psychoanalysis in English-speaking countries.  While there have certainly been voices complaining about significant translation issues in the Standard Edition for decades (probably the best known being that of Bruno Bettleheim[4]), I have been amazed how many well-educated friends are surprised by my reports of what I am finding in Freud’s writings, and sometimes rather profoundly so.  This is particularly true among my friends who identify with Kirk- or Burke-inspired conservative thought.  Hence, my inclination to offer this particular report, especially in light of Mortimer Adler’s inclusion of Freud’s works among The Great Books.[5]

What did I think I knew about Freud?  I thought that I knew him as one of the paradigmatic reductionists of the early 20th century.  I “knew” not only that he reduced to human psychology practically everything important to anyone of broadly (classically) humanistic sensibilities, but also that he related everything important to the physiology of human sexuality, and expected all of the phenomena with which he dealt to be explainable ultimately in biological/physical terms (though admittedly this might take a while).  I “knew” that his focus on individual psychology put his thinking in some tension with the insights of sociology (which have been a primary interest of mine), perhaps even making his thought incompatible with a sociological perspective (despite some major figures, like Talcott Parsons, who were overtly interested in relating their work to his).  I “knew” that Freud often particularly emphasized the role of one’s mother in psychosexual development, and that many had taken Freud’s relationship with his own mother as casting a suspicious shadow over this emphasis.  (One of the most popular short definitions for “Freudian slip” is that you mean one thing, but say your mother.)  I “knew” that Freud himself was dogmatic and autocratic, and frequently viewed criticism of psychoanalysis as itself symptomatic, leading to the common charge of scientifically and logically vicious non-falsifiability.  And perhaps most significantly, I “knew” that Freud’s thinking was understood in the social sciences as having been refuted or at least surpassed, regardless of its ongoing popularity in some particular streams within a few (nonscientific) disciplines.  I “knew” all of these things, yet the Freud whom I have met and gotten to know since I began reading him in earnest, comparing multiple translations and his original German, has constantly challenged and sometimes even blown apart major elements of the reputation that – in my own experience, and apparently that of many others whom I encounter – “preceded” him.

Now, it is clearly possible that I am reading Freud wrongly, perhaps “finding” fulfillments in his writings of my own wishful thinking.  But the only way to figure out if that is true is to read Freud’s texts.  It is THAT which I most clearly wish to promote in this essay, as opposed to giving decisive support to a particular reading of them.  When I talk about “reading Freud’s texts” here, I mean entering into them in a way that I had not done when I was younger.  Oh, of course I had “read” (meaning I had been assigned) both The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents when I was an undergraduate.  I hope you will not tell my students, but I was one of those undergraduates who figured out early on that having reading “assigned” to me meant (pragmatically) that I was responsible for the content of that reading, in the sense that I could be tested on it.  It was only later that I began fully to appreciate how far “being responsible for the content” could be from actually reading a text.  I now take it as one of my primary duties, as a teacher in a liberal arts setting, to help students understand that looking at all of the words in a text, from beginning to end (to say nothing of leaning on secondary summaries), is not reading.  It is not that I did not have some grasp on this even as an undergraduate, but my sense in recent years (to my chagrin) is that there were too many of my undergraduate texts about which I was able to “pass” as knowing without doing a careful reading.[6]

When one does read Freud’s own texts in English, one is still presented most commonly with Strachey’s Standard Edition, which I have already suggested is problematic.  How So?  As others have noted and I have found myself, these translations deliberately and uniformly adopt a technical vocabulary that does not reflect Freud’s use of ordinary, non-technical German.  The technical vocabulary includes pseudo-classical coinages (anaclisis, cathexis, parapraxis) where Freud is using non-technical phrasings (“leaning-upon,” “investment,” “failure” or “misstep”), or sometimes substitutes a more superficially precise-sounding phrase such as “deferred action” where Freud is rather playfully and less precisely talking about “afterwardsness” (as Nachträglichkeit has been more recently rendered).  This vocabulary, together with a tone suggesting a more scientistic and narrowly medicalized approach, presumably helps to make the text sound (feel?) more like legitimate science to English readers.  The German word, ‘Wissenschaft,’ as has often been emphasized, has much broader connotations and application to various forms of rigorous inquiry than the English ‘science.’

Of course, Freud did officially approve these translation decisions, perhaps motivated by the push for scientific legitimacy, among other things.  But it is certainly nothing new to suggest that an author is not automatically the best judge of a translation, even if he knows the destination language.  Of course, Freud did insist that what he was doing was rigorously scientific, and of course he had medical and physiological training and drew upon it constantly.  But my suggestion is that a careful reading will watch for how the text itself tends to strain against the confines of our expectations regarding what we “know” about it.  And do not mistake my intent here; I would not claim that the Standard Edition should not be read at all.  Rather, the translations in the Standard Edition have felt very different to me when I return to them from consultations with other translations – most notably the Penguin series for which translators have been chosen deliberately for their facility with German to English translation as opposed to their immersion in psychoanalytic theory – and from consultations with the German originals.  Though arguably somewhat muted, Freud’s highly literate voice is far from silenced in the Standard Edition by the translation problems noted.

So, precisely how has my supposed “knowledge” about Freud been challenged?  To be clear, what I intend to offer here are not detailed discussions, but relatively brief provocations.  The goal, as I have said already, is to provoke you to read Freud’s own texts yourself.

First, I have had to discard the popular impression that, for Freud, everything is about sex (and perhaps by extension, given Freud’s understanding of psychosexual development, about toilet training).  It is frequently explicitly stated that Freud understood sexuality in a very broad sense, but reactions from others when discussing this have strongly reinforced my suspicion that it is not widely understood or appreciated (outside of explicitly psychoanalytic circles) how and to what extent this is so.  What I am referring to here is even deeper than the essential insight that Freud is thinking of bodily sensuality in general in a way that extends far outward, in our experience, from reproductive, genitally-focused impulses. While I am still very much in the process of digging into Freud’s texts, and am especially aware how superficial remain my attempts to enter the thicket of the (in)famous Three Essays on Sexual Theory, I have become convinced that a reversal of the standard caricature is in order.  For Freud, it is not that everything is about sex, but that sexuality is about everything.

The reversal here reveals a double-meaning that I think is a crucial key to understanding his thinking.  On the one hand, rather than everything else being meaningful only with reference to sex (usually understood narrowly in genital terms, despite Freud’s constant gestures to the contrary), it is much closer to the mark to say that sexuality itself has meaning that is inextricably intertwined with the whole of human experience.  The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty took care to distance himself from a presumably reductionist psychoanalytic view, yet in considering affinities between his thought and Freud’s, he offers an especially striking statement of what I have in mind:  “De la région corporelle qu’elle habite plus spécialement, la sexualité rayonne comme une odeur ou comme un son.[7] [“From the bodily region that it especially inhabits, sexuality radiates like an odor or like a sound.”]  On the other hand, we may rephrase “sexuality is about everything” as “sexuality is always lurking in the neighborhood of everything else.”  “About” can be taken as “around,” “close to,” “in the vicinity of,” or “not far away from.”  Sexuality is always about, in the sense that we might ask if a particular person we know “is about” today, the realization that she is about perhaps eliciting joy, or dread, or some combination.  Seen in this light, “everything is about sex” (read: “each thing means sex”) shows itself clearly to be the wrong way to state the point.  The Freud of popular culture, for whom anything appropriately shaped just is a phallus, in terms of its meaning, is easily portrayed as disingenuous if he says that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”  The initial claim, however, is not that a cigar just is a phallus, but that a cigar (or similarly shaped object) is always in a phallic neighborhood, it is always in the vicinity, never far away.  The latter is not for Freud a dogmatic pronouncement, but an empirical generalization based on extensive observation in therapeutic settings, and in the analysis of dreams and of missteps (Fehlleistungen, “parapraxes,” including slips of the tongue).

This leads to a second broad way in which my “knowledge” about Freud has been challenged, namely, in the understanding of his work as a monolithic scientific theory, which has been surpassed and is now primarily an historical curiosity.  There are actually three central questions here, the first regarding the adequacy of our image of Freud (and possibly even his own self-image) as having a Theory (upper-case ‘T’ and singular), the second regarding the status of Freud’s work as empirical science, and the third regarding the degree to which it is (or should be) considered refuted or discredited.  The first of these is, I believe, the most important to consider in the present context.  The image of Freud as advancing a single unified Theory under the name ‘psychoanalysis’ was strongly reinforced both by the early history of psychoanalytic sectarianism and by the trajectory of institutionalized psychoanalysis through most of the twentieth century in English-speaking countries.  This image changes quite noticeably when attention is given to the ongoing influence of Freud in so-called “Continental” philosophy.  There, both within and beyond the streams of psychoanalysis that pass through the complicated medium of Jacques Lacan’s teaching and writing, Freud’s work is generally considered not so much as a body of explanations, but more as an inexhaustible resource for understanding.  To oversimplify in the interest of provocation, I would suggest that internationally (borrowing Isaiah Berlin’s distinction[8]), Freud is read more often as a fox than as a hedgehog.  His innovation is much more a matter of conceptual and paradigmatic transformation than straightforward “discovery.”  There is not a single Theory which has been falsified or overturned.  Rather, there is a remarkable archive of rigorous inquiry and speculation based upon that inquiry (the speculation usually carefully distinguished and labeled as such by Freud in his writings).  The oft-repeated accusation that Freudian Theory is “unfalsifiable” in a vicious sense, since resistance to it is putatively always presumed to be symptomatic, is belied by Freud’s constant explicit consideration in his writings of questions regarding the empirical and phenomenological warrant for his claims.

Third, I have been challenged in the assumption that Freud is consistently committed to a physicalistic reductionism, perhaps a forerunner of what would more recently be called “eliminative materialism.”  I do not mean to suggest that Freud was not broadly a materialist.  He was clearly initiated by his teachers into a strong expectation that explanation for the entire range of human phenomena with which he concerned himself must ultimately be in physical terms.  It is not at all difficult to detect in Freud the thoroughly mechanistic understanding of universal causality (i.e., efficient causality) that was so arrestingly captured by the astronomer, Pierre Simon Laplace:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.[9]

However, what seems to have affected Freud about this understanding, more profoundly than its reductionistic character, is its monism, its implication that everything is ultimately and inextricably connected. Because everything is causally connected, the early Freud concluded that everything may be considered meaningfully connected.  If nothing is accidental, strictly speaking, it follows that nothing is insignificant.  The claim that the content of a slip of the tongue (what is actually said as opposed to what is supposedly “really meant”) has no meaning is thus automatically suspect, and turns out upon examination to be false.  The success of the technique of free association overturns any claim to mere randomness, providing the linchpin for Freud’s first revolutionary book (The Interpretation of Dreams), which he continued throughout his life to consider his most important.

It is precisely because Freud understood universal causal connectedness in terms of meaning that he actually struggled his entire career against reductionist tendencies.  Even while Freud continued to expect explanation in the long run to be physical, his primary fight was for a psychology that refuses to leap dogmatically towards reduction while the phenomena continue to resist it.  His conviction may be seen, again, as drifting in the direction of Merleau-Ponty, who insisted that our embodied life constitutes an insistently holistic Sinnzusammenhang, a hanging-together of sense, such that we are in the latter’s phrasing (playing on Sartre), “condemned to meaning.”  Witness the way in which Freud distances himself from reductionism in the opening paragraph of his last summary of psychoanalysis, written in 1938:

We know two kinds of things about what we call our psyche (or mental life): firstly, its bodily organ and scene of action, the brain (or nervous system) and, on the other hand, our acts of consciousness, which are immediate data and cannot be further explained by any sort of description.  Everything that lies between is unknown to us, and the data do not include any direct relation between these two terminal points of our knowledge.  If it existed, it would at most afford an exact localization of the processes of consciousness and would give us no help towards understanding them.[10]

Fourth, and finally, I have been challenged to abandon my perception of Freud’s thought as narrowly “psychological” in the popular sense of being focused on isolated, self-enclosed individual minds.  The picture here is that of a multiplicity of “Cartesian theaters,” as philosophers have recently put it, or of “windowless monads” (Leibniz).  A presumed affinity with Descartes is reinforced by Freud’s explicit opposition of the psyche to “the external world,” if we are used to that phrase serving as shorthand for whatever is other than the mind, hence falling outside the realm of the knowable, properly speaking.  But Freud is no Cartesian dualist.  The division between the mind and the external world has an etiology, a “natural history,” so to speak.  Mental life emerges in the development of the individual in the context of a community of other individuals with mental lives.  Multiplicity and sociality constitute the individual psyche, and continue to saturate it even as it pursues the project of asserting its autonomy.[11]  When Freud suggests that the I (“ego”) is not actually master in its own house, he is sometimes taken as arguing that I am caused to do what I do by forces outside myself.  But that is not his message.  Rather, the message is that agencies or forces within myself are in conflict, and it is not a matter of deciding which one of them is “really me.”  All of them are “really me,” and that is precisely the problem, as I believe Saints Paul and Augustine both knew.  German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel, a contemporary of Freud, nicely summarizes this point:

The individual does not attain the unity of his personality exclusively by an exhaustive harmonization… of the contents of his personality.  On the contrary, contradiction and conflict not only precede this unity but are operative in it at every moment of its existence.[12]

It is important to admit, in closing, that I have by no means overturned all of the reasons for the reader of conservative temperament to be wary of Freud (especially of his uncritical modernist antagonism toward religious belief), and especially wary of some of his followers who have been even more dogmatic and radical in their rejection of the value of tradition and of ancient reservoirs of wisdom.  But there is a popular image of Freud that is much too easily dismissive of his genius and of his importance, and the remedy for this is continued careful attention to Freud’s own writings.

* * * * * *

Reading recommendations:

For accessibility, a good place to start is Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (not to be confused with the New Introductory Lectures, written later as a supplement), which are brilliantly designed by Freud to usher the non-specialist into what he takes to be his own central insights.  I also especially recommend, for any interested general readers, Freud’s first three books:  The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious.  Careful reading of these texts is one of the best ways to see how Freud’s understanding of causal connections leads him to an emphasis on meaningful connections, as well as how deeply he is aware of the problem of providing justification for his claims.  (As noted above, comparison of other translations and German original is recommended, rather than sole reliance on The Standard Edition.)


[1] This is adapted from a presentation, “Not Every Other’s Your Mother, or Why We Should Pay More Attention to Freud Than to ‘Freudians’,” recently given under the auspices of Mossey Library at Hillsdale College.  Thanks to Brenna Wade and Dan Knoch for the invitation to present in that context, leading to this written version.

[2] Sigmund Freud, “The Splitting of the Ego in Defence Processes” (1938-1940), in The Unconscious, tr. Graham Franklund (Penguin).

[3] Several factors have driven my explorations in this area.  Most importantly, I work extensively with what is usually (though often quite misleadingly) called “Continental” philosophy, and have been repeatedly struck by the ongoing proximity of Freud as a major interlocutor, both positively and negatively.  I’ve become convinced that the 20th century is impossible to understand apart from a thorough understanding of Freud.  More mundanely, my increasing interest was given a major push in recent years where I teach, with the retirement of the colleague most likely to offer courses on psychoanalytic thought, together with continuing student interest in such courses being offered.  All of this has been in addition to my simply finding Freud much more compelling and often convincing when I attend to his own voice.

[4] Bruno Bettleheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (Knopf).

[5] I owe thanks to Bradley Birzer for explicitly reminding me of this, and for helpful discussion feeding into these reflections.

[6]  I will now freely admit that “BSing” is an apt description for a major portion of what I was up to at that time.  I am profoundly indebted to the few of my professors who saw clearly that I was relatively good at this (in some areas, at least), and did not just let me get away with it.

[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Gallimard), p. 196.

[8] Elaborated in “The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History,” based on the ancient proverb that the hedgehog knows one thing, while the fox knows many things.

[9]Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, (Dover), p.4.

[10] Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis (The Standard Edition), tr. J. Strachey (W. W. Norton), p. 13, my emphasis.

[11] The conception of selfhood and agency I am alluding to here is broadly Hegelian, but arguably has strong affinities with Aristotelian thought and with the conservative intellectual tradition, as well as with the phenomenological movement.  An important contemporary thinker who is influenced by all of these streams, and who has long taken Freud very seriously, is Alasdair MacIntyre.  See the latter’s wonderful essay, “What is a Human Body?” in The Tasks of Philosophy (Cambridge), along with his The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis, Revised Edition (Routledge).

[12] Georg Simmel, On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings ed. D. N. Levine. (University of Chicago Press), pp. 71-72.

One thought on “Freud Among the Great Books

  1. Thanks. This is great. I have worked through probably about 10 or so of his works this year and love it. I would echo your comment about the cliche of Freud advocating for some sort of ‘individualistic’ psychology. As you said, he will travel any path related to given phenomena, this leaves itself wide open to social and structural thinking.


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