What Freud Got Right

The New Republic recently retrieved from their archives a classic essay by W.H. Auden on Freud’s enduring insights. Auden, writing in 1952, claimed that even if his specific theories were disproven, Freud “would still tower up as the genius who perceived that psychological events are not natural events but historical and that, therefore, psychology as distinct from neurology, must be based on the pre-suppositions and methodology, not of the biologist but of the historian.”

AmaliaFreud (1)As a child of his age who was consciously in a polemic with the “idealists” he may officially subscribe to the “realist” dogma that human nature and animal nature are the same, but the moment he gets down to work, every thing he says denies it. In his theories of infantile sexuality, repression, etc., he pushes back the beginnings of free-will and responsibility earlier than even most theologians had previously dared; his therapeutic technique of making the patient relive his past and discover the truth for himself with a minimum of prompting and interference from the analyst (meanwhile, one might add, doing penance by paying till it hurts), the importance of Transference to the outcome of the therapy, imply that every patient is a unique historical person and not a typical case.

Freud is not always aware of what he is doing and some of the difficulties he gets into arise from his trying to retain biological notions of development when he is actually thinking historically.

For example, he sometimes talks as if civilization were a morbid growth caused by sexual inhibition; at other times he attacks conventional morality on the grounds that the conformists exhaust in repression the energies which should be available for cultural tasks: similarly, he sometimes speaks of dream symbolism as if it were pure allegory, whereas the actual descriptions he gives of the dreaming mind at work demonstrate that, in addition to its need to disguise truth, it has an even greater need to create truth, to make historical sense of its experience by discovering analogies, an activity in which it shows the most extraordinary skill and humor. In a biological organism, everything was once something else which it now no longer is, and change is cyclical, soma-germasoma; a normal condition is one that regularly reoccurs in the cycle, a morbid one is an exception. But history is the realm of unique and novel events and of monumentsthe historical past is present in the present and the norm of health or pathology cannot be based on regularity.

(Photo of Freud in 1872 at age 16, with his mother Amalia, via Wikimedia Commons)