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A Freudian Misinterpretation

ISSUE:  Summer 1980
Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend. By Frank J. Sulloway. Basic Books. $20.00.

The thesis of this book, which the author introduces as a “comprehensive intellectual biography of Sigmund Freud,” is that Freud’s psychology is founded essentially on pedestrian late 19th and early 20th-century evolutionary biology, and that Freud was, in effect, a “crypto-biologist” (the author’s term). Moreover, the author asserts that the popular view of Freud as a pure psychologist, addressing essentially psychological puzzles and formulating entirely novel and original psychological solutions to these puzzles, is a distortion intentionally contrived by Freud and his followers to separate the master from the biologists and to reinforce his claims of originality. Finally, the author implies that, as Freud’s psychology is founded on a now outmoded biology, his psychological models must likewise be regarded as outmoded and untenable.

Sulloway elaborates on these themes through some 500 pages, of which the first 400 deal with the development of Freud’s theories and the last 100 address the issue of Freud’s popular image and its sources. The former section is an amalgam of standard views on the development of Freud’s theories, as reconstructed over the past three decades by writers such as Siegfried Bernfeld, Peter Amacher, and Henri Ellenberger, together with Sulloway’s own views regarding the fundamental role played by evolutionary biology in shaping Freud’s thinking. Here Sulloway adds to the earlier literature on the work of Freud’s friend Wilhelm Fliess by demonstrating the degree to which Fliess’s own biological theories were congruent with currently popular concepts. Sulloway also considers at length the theories of sexual biology offered by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Albert Moll, Havelock Ellis, and others and demonstrates how their work, like that of Fliess, was profoundly influenced by current evolutionary concepts. Sulloway’s discussions, in these chapters, of some of the influences of evolutionary concepts on medical thinking at the end of the last century, are an important contribution to the as yet largely unexplored history of the impact of evolution theory on medicine. These discussions are probably the most significant contribution of this book, and it is in some respects unfortunate that they should be buried in a book on Freud.

This material is introduced by Sulloway in the context of establishing his thesis that Freud’s thinking was likewise essentially biological and was founded on concepts drawn from evolutionary theory. But in following Sulloway’s arguments, one is struck by his failure to convey any sense of Freud’s special contribution, to convey any understanding of why his theories have had such a dramatic and unique impact on our age and on our image of ourselves. Sulloway repeatedly assures us of Freud’s greatness and his genius, but he never convincingly explains to us wherein that greatness and genius lie. Certainly, this is not a very unusual phenomenon in intellectual biographies. In some cases this absence of any sense of the subject’s special contribution is simply a matter of poor organization. In other cases, the author has focused so single-mindedly on the subject’s intellectual predecessors that he or she has neglected to articulate what the subject added to the work of those predecessors. But in the present book, the difficulty is a more fundamental one and concerns the author’s basic thesis. For those elements of Freud’s theories which are indeed firmly rooted in biology, particularly in late 19th and early 20th-century evolutionary biology, are separate and distinct from those elements of his work which have accounted for his special contribution and have had such a profound impact on this century. In pursuing his argument that Freud is a crypto-biologist, Sulloway focuses on these former elements and, rather than presenting a comprehensive intellectual biography of Freud, presents in effect an intellectual history of the detritus of Freud’s corpus.

Freud, from his first writings on the neuroses (1886), focused his attention primarily on developing psychological explanations of neurotic symptoms. Yet, throughout his career, he also maintained that there were aspects of the neuroses which would have to be interpreted in somatic rather than in psychological terms. For example, in his earliest work he suggested that patients’ predisposition to neurosis, as well as some particular neurotic symptoms, required physiological rather than psychological explanations. Soon after, he argued that a physiological explanation would also be required to account for why patients develop different neuroses in the wake of similar pathogenic experiences. Later, when he began to de-emphasize predisposition and to accept the more popular view of the role of sexual experiences in generating hysteria and related neuroses, (Sulloway asserts that sexual theories of the neuroses regained their popularity at the end of the last century after a period of disrepute; but in fact such theories, attributing hysteria and related neuroses both to particular patterns of sexual experience and to abnormalities of the genitalia, were popular throughout the 19th century) Freud proposed that neuroses are to be traced specifically to sexual experiences in childhood, and he maintained that an explanation for the unique pathogenicity of early sexual encounters must come from physiology rather than from psychology. Later still (1897), when he abandoned the childhood seduction theory in favor of the theory that neuroses are the result of vicissitudes of normal childhood sexual development, he insisted that the course of normal development—the sequential expressions of early sexuality, the repression of sexuality during the latency period, and the emergence of a reorganized sexuality at puberty—would have to be explained in terms of sexual biology. Still, Freud continued to focus his greatest efforts on psychological explanations for those aspects of his subject which seemed amenable to such explanations. He elaborated on his psychodynamic theories of the neuroses, he wrote a number of books and papers demonstrating how this psychodynamics can also be used to explain normal psychic phenomena, he formulated theories establishing the psychological ramifications of childhood sexuality as the foundation of his psychodynamics, and he developed his system of psychotherapy. It is these psychological theories which have had such a profound impact on our age and which account for Freud’s unique popularity, and the historical roots of these theories lie not in biology but primarily in 19thcentury medical and nonmedical psychologies, psychologies which Freud adapted and refined in the light of his clinical experiences.

Those problems for which Freud hoped to find biological explanations, and to which he devoted considerable effort in a search for such explanations, were: 1) accounting for the normal developmental course of childhood sexuality; 2) explaining the mechanism of the abandonment, or the physiological repression, of primitive forms of sexuality in the course of development (Freud believed that an understanding of this was crucial for a comprehensive understanding of psychological repression); 3) elucidating the somatic, particularly hereditary, factors at work in determining one’s susceptibility to neurosis and in determining which neurosis a susceptible person will develop. To find solutions for these problems, Freud appealed to the work of his friend Fliess, to neurophysiology, to endocrinology, to evolutionary biology, and to anthropology. It is Freud’s appeals to evolutionary biology and to anthropology, in his efforts to resolve these problems, that Sulloway traces in his book and uses as the foundation for his claim that Freud was a crypto-biologist.

But Freud’s work on these problems has essentially been discarded and plays no significant role in his surviving legacy. Insofar as we accept his notions concerning the normal development of childhood sexuality, we do so on the basis of supporting observations and not because we give any credence to his theories of the evolution of human sexuality. Insofar as we recognize repression as an important psychological phenomenon, we do so without accepting Freud’s tentative biological speculations on the nature of the developmental, physiological repression of primitive sexual drives, and without accepting his anthropological accounts of the evolution of psychological repression. With regard to the problems of predisposition to neurosis, etiology of neurosis, and choice of neurosis, our interpretations emphasize the effects of environment and early experiences; and while we acknowledge the likelihood of somatic predisposing factors, we neither focus our efforts on elaborating these factors nor accept Freud’s various elaborations. Insofar as we accept Freud’s vast generalization tracing all of both normal and pathological psychodynamics to vicissitudes of psycho-sexual life, we do so in large part, it is true, on the basis of a broadly held biological premise: the premise that all of our higher modes of adaptive functioning, including our cognitive functioning, evolved as mechanisms for more effectively satisfying our biological needs. This premise, together with the observation that sexual drives are unique among basic biological drives both in being intrinsically social and in being capable of broad distortions without threatening the life of the organism, contribute substantially to our willingness to accept Freud’s generalization and to our preference for his thesis over others that would, for example, trace all psychodynamics to a drive for power and mastery. Theories of the latter sort merely raise in us the question of power to what end, power to serve what basic biological needs; and this in turn casts us back onto something approaching Freud’s solution. But even though our receptivity to this aspect of Freud’s work is influenced by assumptions drawn in part from evolutionary biology, Freud’s generalization regarding the significance of sexuality was not originally inspired by evolutionary biology. Rather it was inspired by his desire to offer a general formula and by the convergence of his clinical experience with views held almost universally in the medical profession regarding sexual sources of the neuroses, especially the role of sexual frustrations and inhibitions in generating hysteria.

It is certainly true that Freud and many of his followers have often been overzealous in their claims for Freud’s originality. Freud was not the first to discover childhood sexuality nor the first to discuss unconscious psychological processes. But I believe that Sulloway’s thesis of a carefully choreographed plot to glorify the master is a distortion. I also believe that the emphasis placed by the psychoanalysts on Freud’s psychology cannot be construed as motivated by a desire to blur Freud’s debt to biology. Psychoanalysts are concerned primarily with learning the rationale and technique of psychoanalysis. They lionize Freud because they are primarily occupied with his teaching, and they ignore his sources because they are not historians and have no professional need to familiarize themselves with his sources. This is basically no different from the way physicists perceive the history of their field or biologists the history of theirs. If the analysts tend to emphasize Freud’s psychology, they do so because that is the part of his work which they, along with the rest of us, most value. Had the aim of Freud’s proteges been to suppress his intellectual debt to others, emphasizing his psychology would hardly have served that purpose since his psychology is founded on the work of predecessors to no less a degree than his forays into biology.

Freud, in developing his formulations regarding psychic systems in conflict, psychic inhibition and repression, and unconscious ideation, had available to him a 19th-century psychological literature that was rich in its consideration of similar themes. Moreover, much of this literature had found its way into medical texts, both in the context of psychopathology and medical psychology and in the context of the ongoing efforts by neurophysiologists to correlate neural processes with popularly accepted models of psychic functioning. Freud’s familiarity with 19th-century theories of psycho-dynamics, obtained through his Gymnasium education, through his university education, and through his personal medical and nonmedical reading, has been well established by Freud scholars. These psychological sources, and the secondary literature concerning their significance for Freud, are largely ignored in Sulloway’s presentation. For example, he devotes only two brief paragraphs to the significance for Freud of Johann Herbart’s important work. Also he fails to include some of the major secondary material, such as the pioneering paper by Luise von Karpinska (“Ueber die psychologischen Grundlagen des Freudismus,” 1914) in his otherwise exhaustive bibliography.

Sulloway’s emphasis on those problems for which Freud sought solutions from biology, and his de-emphasis of Freud’s prevailing concern with formulating psychological models, leads not only to his failure to convey a sense of Freud’s contribution and the reasons for his special impact, but also to some significant misconceptions about the development of Freud’s ideas. An important example concerns the issue of Freud’s self-analysis. Sulloway points out correctly that there was at the end of the last century a substantial literature on childhood sexuality. He places particular emphasis on the work of Albert Moll, with which Freud appears to have been familiar prior to his self-analysis and his subsequent announcement of the universality of Oedipal impulses. Sulloway concludes that since Freud had already learned from others about childhood sexuality and perhaps even about Oedipal impulses—he notes that Fliess had told Freud of his infant son’s having become sexually aroused upon seeing his mother nude—the self-analysis really added nothing and has been made so much of in the psychoanalytic literature simply to glorify Freud and to deny his debt to others. But the self-analysis was important for reasons other than introducing Freud to childhood sexuality. It is certainly true that Freud was familiar with sexual phenomena in children prior to his self-analysis; he had, for example, written to Fliess about infantile erotogenic zones some time earlier. What Freud did not know was the relationship of childhood sexual impulses to sexual fantasies in later life, and neither the work of Fliess, nor that of Moll, nor that of the other sexologists or of the pediatricians casts any light on this issue. Freud had assumed that only exceptional childhood experiences could be the source of later fantasies. In his self-analysis, he correlated his own fantasies with what he believed to be accurate reports of his childhood sexual history, and the correlation suggested to him that even unexceptional early experiences, interacting with normal childhood impulses, will generate fantasies which play a major role in one’s later psychic life, and that consequently such fantasies must be a universal phenomenon. Perhaps the self-analysis seems of little importance when viewed from the perspective of its contribution to sexual biology; but, from the perspective of its significance in helping Freud define the relationship between childhood sexuality and the fantasy life of the adult, it was of major importance.

While Freud’s major preoccupation throughout his career was with his psychodynamic theories, and while he consistently recognized that his psychodynamics would constitute his most substantial legacy, he no doubt did attach considerable significance to those problems which he regarded as requiring physiological or biological solutions. He believed, in particular, that a biological explanation for why human sexual development takes the particular course it does would complement his psychology in a valuable way. Sulloway’s efforts to define the substance of some aspects of Freud’s tentative but repeated forays into biology are an important contribution to our fuller understanding of Freud’s intellectual aspirations, his conception of the system he was striving to complete, and his relationship to his intellectual milieu. But to present a history of Freud’s biological ideas as a comprehensive intellectual history of his work is to confound peripheral concerns with central ones and to misconstrue the nature of Freud’s undertaking, his achievement, and his legacy.


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