Arrogant Philosophers

I have spotted a certain propensity for arrogance amongst philosophers and creatives, particularly amongst the most studied or celebrated ones. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, of course, but even doubting Descartes and gentle Hume appear to have had their moments.

Here is a list of some of the most arrogant or downright offensive offerings ever to come out of some of the greatest philosophers and creatives. Needless to say, I do not in any way condone or subscribe to these positions—or, at least, not to the vast majority of them… Some may raise a laugh, others are nothing but distasteful.

And here are some questions that I pondered whilst compiling the list.

What is arrogance?
How, if at all, might arrogance be helpful?
Can arrogance ever be excused or justified?

Your answers on the back of a card, please.

1. ‎I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery. —Descartes

2. Philosophy must indeed recognize the possibility that the people rise to it, but must not lower itself to the people. —Hegel

3. Mark this well, you proud men of action! you are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought. —Hegel

4. I’m not ugly, but my beauty is a total creation. —Hegel

5. Democracy… is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.—Aristotle

6. Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar. —Aristotle

7. I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle. —Descartes

8. As a consequence of her weaker reasoning powers, woman has a smaller share of the advantages and disadvantages these bring with them. She is, rather, a mental myopic… —Schopenhauer

9. Only a male intellect clouded by the sexual drive could call the stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged sex the fair sex … More fittingly than the fair sex, women could be called the unaesthetic sex. Neither for music, nor poetry, nor the plastic arts do they possess any real feeling of receptivity: if they affect to do so, it is merely mimicry in service of their effort to please. —Schopenhauer

10. Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent. —Nietzsche

11. A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. —Nietzsche

12. After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands. —Nietzsche

13. ‘Evil men have no songs.’ How is it that the Russians have songs? —Nietzsche

14. It is a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave. —Hume

15. I have written on all sorts of subjects… yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians. —Hume

16. I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. —Freud

17. To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful. —Jung

18. I don’t do drugs. I am drugs. —Dali

19. My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso. —Picasso

20. There was a time when I was running about the world, fancying myself to be well employed, but I was really a most wretched thing, no better than you are now. I thought that I ought to do anything rather than be a philosopher. —Socrates

21. Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul? —Socrates

22. …if you mean to share with me and to exchange beauty for beauty, you will have greatly the advantage of me; you will gain true beauty in return for appearance—like Diomede, gold in exchange for brass. —Socrates

23. Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive. —Nietzsche

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Intellectualization

Isolation of affect – the dissociation of thoughts and feelings, with the feelings then removed from conscious attention to leave only the thoughts – is closely related to intellectualization. In intellectualization, the uncomfortable feelings associated with a problem are kept out of consciousness by thinking about the problem in cold, abstract, and esoteric terms. First example: I once received a phone call from a junior doctor in psychiatry in which he described a recent in-patient admission as ‘a 47-year old mother of two who attempted to cessate her life as a result of being diagnosed with a metastatic mitotic lesion’. A formulation such as ‘…who tried to kill herself after being told that she is dying of cancer’ would have been much better English, but would also have been all too effective at evoking the full horror of this poor lady’s predicament.

Second example: An ambitious medical student once asked me whether she should take up a career in academic medicine, despite (or so it seemed) having already made up her mind on the matter. I raised some arguments in favour and then some arguments against such a move, in particular that only a very small number of people engaged in medical research ever make a significant discovery. As she did not seem to be taking this argument on board, I asked her to name just one major breakthrough from the past 50 years in the life of a particular top-rated medical research department. Instead of accepting that the department had not made a single major breakthrough in 50 years of publishing one academic paper after another, she resorted to questioning the definition of a breakthrough and then the value of making one.

Third example: After being discharged from hospital, a middle-aged man who had almost died from a heart attack spent several hours a day on his computer researching the various risk factors for cardiovascular disease. He typed out long essays on each of these risk factors, printed them out, and filed them in a large binder with colour-coded dividers. After having done all this, he became preoccupied with the vitamin and mineral contents in various kinds of food, and devised a strict dietary regimen to ensure that he took in the recommended amounts of each and every micronutrient. Despite living on a shoestring budget, he spent several hundred pounds on a high-end steamer on the basis that it could preserve vitamins through the cooking process. Although he expended an inordinate amount of effort, time, and money on his persnickety diet, he did not once consider even so much as cutting back on his far, far more noxious smoking habit.

The focus on abstract notions and trivial footnotes often belies a sort of ‘flight into reason’; the emotionally loaded event or situation is thought of in terms of an interesting problem or puzzle, without any appreciation for its emotional content or personal implications. Instead of coming to terms with the problem, the person may split hairs over definitions; question reasonable assumptions, facts, and arguments; and preoccupy himself with abstruse minutiae. By failing to perceive the bigger picture, he also fails to reach the appropriate conclusion or conclusions, which, as with our medical student or heart attack victim, may hit him very hard come five, ten, or fifty years’ time. Intellectualization can also underlie a number of logical fallacies and rhetorical blind alleys, such as raising irrelevant or trivial counter-arguments, rejecting an argument on the basis of an inaccurate example or exceptional case, using exact numbers for inexact or abstract notions, and ‘blinding with science’. In short, the person appears to be engaging with, and even to be excited by, a certain problem, but without ever truly getting to the bottom of it.

Isolation of affect and intellectualization should be distinguished from plain and simple isolation, which can be thought of as the inverse of intellectualization. Whereas intellectualization involves repressing the emotion but not the thought, isolation involves repressing the thought but not the emotion. The person feels a strong emotion, often breaking down in tears, but is entirely unable to point to its cause. After regaining his composure, he is likely to repress the emotion or its memory until – if he should be so lucky – it returns with a vengeance several years later.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Splitting as an ego defense

Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil. – Nietzsche

Splitting is a very common ego defense mechanism; it can be defined as the division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes. This is often seen in politics, for example, when members of the Labour Party portray members of the Conservative Party as narrow-minded and self-interested, and conversely when members of the Conservative Party caricature members of the Labour Party as self-righteous hypocrites. Other examples of splitting are the deeply religious person who thinks of others as being either blessed or damned, the child of divorced parents who idolises one parent and shuns the other, and the hospital in-patient who sees the doctors as helpful and dedicated and the nurses as lazy and incompetent. An example of splitting in literature can be found in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The main protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is mystified by adulthood. To help cope with his fear of becoming an adult, he thinks of adulthood as a world of entirely bad things such as superficiality and hypocrisy (‘phoniness’) and of childhood as a world of entirely good things such as innocence, curiosity, and honesty. He tells his younger sister Phoebe that he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play, and himself as the ‘catcher in the rye’ who stands on the edge of a cliff, catching the children as they threaten to fall over (and presumably die/become adults).

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

In contrast to JD Salinger, Miguel de Cervantes uses splitting to great comical effect as his main protagonist, the self-styled Don Quixote de la Mancha, guides us through a world that he has repopulated with heroes and villains, princesses and harlots, giants and dwarves – with the heroes being the greatest, the villains the most cruel, the ladies the fairest and most virtuous, and so on. ‘Take care, your worship,’ cries Sancho Pancha, Don Quixote’s peasant-turned-squire, ‘those things over there are not giants but windmills.’ Splitting diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying and schematising the situation and thereby making it easier to think about; it also reinforces our sense of self as good and virtuous by effectively demonizing all those who do not share in our opinions and values. On the other hand, such a compartmentalization of opposites leaves us with a distinctly distorted picture of reality and a restricted range of thoughts and emotions; it also affects our ability to attract and maintain relationships, not only because it is tedious and unbecoming, but also because it can easily flip, with friends and lovers being thought of as personified virtue at one time and then as personified vice at another (and back and forth). Splitting also arises in groups, when members of the in-group are seen to have mostly positive attributes, whereas members of out-groups are seen to have mostly negative attributes – a phenomenon that contributes to groupthink. Finally, it is worth noting that both fairy tales and the Church feature a number of sharp splits, for example, heroes and villains, good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, and saints and sinners; and that the greatest characters of literature, such as the Achilles or the Odysseus of Homer and the Anthony or the Cleopatra of Shakespeare, contain large measures of both good and bad, with the one being intimately related to the other.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Inauthenticity

Everything has been figured out, except how to live. - Sartre

Inauthenticity involves pretending to be something other than one is and so, by implication, casting off the freedom to create, express, and fulfil one’s own self. Inauthenticity is often reinforced by sociocultural forces such as peer pressure and advertising, and is motivated by the subconscious desires to fit in, avoid criticism, and minimise or put off the existential anxiety associated with choice and responsibility. Examples include the teenager who acts ‘cool’, the person who takes an interest in something because others do, and the person who gets married because he has arrived at the ripe old age of 30, 35, or 40 years old.

The 20th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls such inauthenticity mauvaise foie, ‘bad faith’. His paradigmatic example of bad faith is that of a waiter who does his utmost to conform to the archetype of the waiter, that is, to everything that a waiter should or is expected to be. For Sartre, the waiter’s exaggerated behaviour is evidence that he is play-acting at being a waiter, an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. By sticking with the safe, easy, default ‘choice’ and failing to entertain or even recognise the multitude of other choices that are open to him, the waiter places himself at the mercy of his external circumstances. In this important respect, he is more akin to an object – ‘a waiter’ – than to a conscious human being who is able to transcend his existence to give shape to his essence. As Freud himself commented in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, ‘Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.’

The concept of authenticity does not begin with Sartre or Freud, and stretches at least as far back as Plato. In the Greater Alcibiades, Socrates asks a young and foolish Alcibiades how one is to go about gaining self-knowledge. Socrates maintains that, if one were to say to the eye, ‘See yourself,’ the eye should look into a mirror to see itself. Since the pupil of the eye is just like a mirror, the eye could see itself by looking into an eye. Similarly, the soul can see itself by looking into the soul, and particularly into that part of the soul which has most to do with wisdom and which is therefore most akin to the divine. Self-knowledge, Socrates concludes, is, in fact, no other than wisdom; unless Alcibiades finds wisdom, he will never be able to know his own good and evil, nor that of others, nor the affairs of states. If Alcibiades were to become a statesman – as indeed he intends – without first having found wisdom, he would fall into error and be miserable, and make everybody else miserable too. What is more, he who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom; since that which is better is also more becoming, slavery is more becoming to such a person. Socrates’ conclusions may seem abhorrent to modern sensitivities, but it does stand to reason that the person who unconsciously defines himself according to the likes and expectations of others and, by extension, of society also condemns himself to by far the most dishonourable kind of slavery, the slavery of the mind.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

– William Blake, London

As noted by the 20th century psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm, the authentic person does not necessarily need to resemble some kind of freak outsider. If a person engages in a frank and thorough appraisal of the universal and personal implications of the prevailing social norms and then decides to adopt some or most of them en toute connaissance de cause, then he cannot be taxed with inauthenticity. Conversely, it should not be assumed that every eccentric is an authentic. Genuine authenticity lies in the method and not in the madness.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Jean-Paul Sartre on Bad Faith

Jung in a Nutshell

There is no coming to consciousness without pain. - CG Jung

Carl Gustav Jung was born in 1875 in the canton of Thurgau to Paul Jung, a poor rural pastor in the Swiss reformed Church, and to Emilie Preiswerk, a melancholic woman who claimed to be visited by spirits at night. His paternal grandfather Carl Gustav Jung, after whom he was named, was a physician who was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Goethe, and who rose to become Rector of Basel University and Grand Master of the Swiss Lodge of Freemasons. His maternal grandfather Samuel Preiswerk was an eccentric theologian who had visions, conversed with the dead, and devoted his life to learning Hebrew in the belief that it was the language spoken in heaven. He used to make his daughter Emilie (Jung’s mother) sit behind him while he composed his sermons, so as to prevent the devil from peering over his shoulder. When Jung was three years old, his mother had a nervous breakdown for which she needed to spend several months in hospital. In his autobiography of 1961, Memory, Dreams, Reflections, he wrote ‘From then on I always felt mistrustful when the word ‘love’ was spoken. The feeling I associated with ‘woman’ was for a long time that of innate unreliability.’ Jung’s father was kind but weak-willed, and all too accepting of the religious dogma in which he had long lost all faith.

Jung was a solitary and introverted child who imagined that he had two personalities, that of a typical schoolboy of his time (Personality No 1), and that of a dignified, authoritative, and influential man from the past (Personality No 2). He once carved a tiny mannequin into the end of a wooden ruler, which he kept together with a painted stone in a pencil case in his attic. He periodically returned to the mannequin, bringing to it scrolls inscribed in a secret language of his invention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was not popular at school. At the age of 12, he received a blow to the head and for a moment was unconscious. He lay on the ground for much longer than necessary and thought, ‘Now you won’t have to go to school anymore’. For the next six months, he avoided school by fainting each time he was made to go, an experience which gave him an early insight into hysteria.

Inspired by a dream, Jung entered the University of Basel in 1895 to study natural science and medicine. His father’s premature death one year later prompted his mother to comment, rather eerily, ‘He died in time for you’. During his early years at the University of Basel, Jung had a dream in which he was making painful headway through dense fog, with a tiny light in the cup of his hands and a gigantic black figure chasing after him. When he awoke he realised that the black figure was his own shadow, brought into being by the light that he was carrying: ‘…this light was my consciousness, the only light that I have. My own understanding is the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest.’ After presenting a paper on The Limits of the Exact Sciences, he spent two years attending and recording the séances of a young medium, his cousin, Hélène Preiswerk. He submitted his observations in the form of a doctoral thesis entitled On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.

Towards the end of his studies, a reading of Krafft-Ebing’s textbook of psychiatry led Jung to choose psychiatry as a career. The Preface alone had such a profound effect on him that he had to stand up to catch his breath: ‘Here alone the two currents of my interest could flow together and in a united stream dig their own bed. Here was the empirical field common to biological and spiritual facts, which I had everywhere sought and nowhere found.’ Jung was taken on at the renowned Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital in Zürich as an assistant to Eugen Bleuler, who went down in history as the man who coined the term ‘schizophrenia’. Bleuler set Jung to work on Galton’s word-association test, and in 1906 he published ‘Studies in Word Association’, which he thought provided hard evidence for the existence of unconscious complexes. He sent a copy to Freud, and on their first meeting in Vienna the two men conversed without interruption for thirteen hours.

Jung needed a father as much as Freud needed a son, and Freud formally anointed Jung his ‘son and heir’. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that Jung was unable to accept Freud’s assumptions that human motivation is exclusively sexual, or that the unconscious mind is entirely personal. For Jung, sexuality was but one aspect or mode of expression of a broader ‘life force’, and beneath the personal unconscious there was a deeper and more important layer that contained the entire psychic heritage of mankind. The existence of this ‘collective unconscious’ had been hinted at by Jung’s childhood dreams and experiences, and confirmed by the delusions and hallucinations of psychotic patients which contained symbols and images that occurred in myths and fairy-tales from all around the world. In his book of 1912, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido, Jung replaced Freud’s concept of libido with a much broader concept of undifferentiated psychic energy, arguing that undifferentiated psychic energy could ‘crystallise’ into the universal symbols contained in dreams and myths, for example, into the hero’s slaying of the dragon, which represents the struggle of the adolescent ego for deliverance from parental dominance. For Jung, the purpose of life was ‘individuation’, which involves pursuing one’s own vision of the truth and, in so doing, realising one’s fullest potential as a human being. If this meant disagreeing with Freud, then so be it. In 1913, on the eve of the First World War, Jung and Freud broke off their relationship.

Once again Jung was alone, and he spent the next few years in a troubled but highly creative state of mind that verged on psychosis and led him to a ‘confrontation with the unconscious’. By then Jung had had five children with his wife Emma Rauschenbach, the daughter of a rich industrialist. Despite being happily married, he felt that he needed a muse as well as a home-maker, observing that ‘the pre-requisite of a good marriage … is the license to be unfaithful’. The marital strife that resulted from his affairs, and particularly from his affair with a former patient called Toni Wolff, contributed to his troubled state of mind, and Emma accepted Toni as much from a concern for Jung’s sanity as from a desire to save her marriage. During his confrontation with the unconscious, Jung gained first-hand experience of psychotic material in which he found a ‘matrix of mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age’. Like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Heracles, Orpheus, and Aeneas before him, he travelled deep down into an abyssal underworld where he conversed with Salome, a beautiful young woman who was the archetype of the feminine, and with Philemon, an old man with a white beard and the wings of a kingfisher who was the archetype of the wise old man. Although Salome and Philemon were products of his unconscious, they had a life of their own and said things that he had not previously thought. In Philemon, Jung had at long last found the father-figure that both Freud and his own father had singularly failed to be. More than a father-figure, Philemon was a guru, and the projection of what Jung himself was later to become – the ‘wise old man of Zürich’. At the end of the First World War, Jung re-emerged into sanity, and considered that he had found in his madness ‘the prima materia for a lifetime’s work’.

Freud in a Nutshell

Review of ‘The Talking Cure – Wittgenstein’s Therapeutic Method for Psychotherapy’ by John Heaton

John Heaton is, amongst others, a practising psychiatrist and psychotherapist, a regular lecturer on the Advanced Diploma in Existential Psychotherapy programme at Regent’s College, London, and a long- and some-time editor of the Journal for Existential Analysis.

This is Heaton’s third book with Wittgenstein in its title. In it, he applies the great philosopher’s insights to the psychotherapeutic process in all its forms. Heaton’s principle thesis is that many of our deepest and most intractable problems find their roots in linguistic confusions and limitations, and are resolved not by the search for causes inherent in the various pseudo-scientific doctrines and theories of the mind (such as those of Freud and Klein), but by careful attention to the use of language. This is particularly true in neurosis and psychosis in which language is used not so much to clarify and to communicate as to deceive and to obfuscate.

Like all the best things, the talking cure has its roots in ancient Greece with such luminaries as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic (see my post on Diogenes here). Upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, Diogenes replied ‘parrhesia’ (free speech, full expression), and his intransigently courageous and sometimes delightfully shocking behaviour consistently accorded with this, his, truth. The self-understanding that underlies parrhesia is revealed not in reductionist propositions based on questionable pictures of the mind, but in the singular use of language – both by the expression and by its truthfulness. In short, it is revealed not in causes, but in reasons, with all their multiplicities and particularities.

For Wittgenstein as for Heaton, the talking cure is, like philosophy itself, a battle against the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language, for it is not knowledge but understanding that is needed to live an integrated, productive, and, dare I say it, happy, life. To date, this important, indeed, devastating, critique has had little or no impact on psychotherapeutic practices, and Heaton’s revolutionary book requires and deserves to be read not only by psychotherapists and psychiatrists but by every mental health professional. Although the book is not difficult to leaf through, she with little more than a scientific background may find it difficult to understand, accept, or come to terms with certain concepts. As Lichtenberg tells us, ‘A book is like a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out … he who understands the wise is wise already.’

Neel Burton

NB: This review has also been published in the September issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Freud in a Nutshell

People with a high level of anxiety have historically been referred to as ‘neurotic’. The term ‘neurosis’ derives from the Ancient Greek neuron (nerve) and loosely means ‘disease of the nerves’. The core feature of neurosis is anxiety, but neurosis can manifest as a range of other problems such as irritability, depression, perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and even personality disorders such as anankastic personality disorder. Although neurosis in some form or other is very common, it can prevent us from enjoying the moment, adapting usefully to our environment, and developing a richer, more complex, and more fulfilling outlook on life. The psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) believed that neurotic people fundamentally had issues with the meaning and purpose of their life. In his autobiography of 1961, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he noted that ‘The majority of my patients consisted not of believers but of those who had lost their faith’. Interestingly, Jung also believed that neurosis could be beneficial to some people despite its debilitating effects.

The most original, influential, and contentious theory of neurosis is that of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud attended medical school at the University of Vienna from 1873 to 1881, carrying out research in physiology under the German scientist Ernst von Brűcke and later specialising in neurology. In 1885-86 he spent the best part of a year in Paris, and returned to Vienna inspired by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s use of hypnosis in the treatment of ‘hysteria’, an old-fashioned term referring to the conversion of anxiety into physical and psychological symptoms. Freud opened a private practice for the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders but eventually gave up the practice of hypnosis, instead preferring the method of ‘free association’ which involved asking patients to relax on a couch and say whatever came into their minds. In 1895, inspired by the case of a patient called Anna O, he published the seminal Studies on Hysteria with his friend and colleague Josef Breuer. After publishing The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901, both public successes, Freud obtained a professorship at the University of Vienna where he began to gather a devoted following. He remained a prolific writer throughout his life, publishing (amongst others) Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905, Totem and Taboo in 1913, and Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920. After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, he fled to London, where he died the following year of cancer of the jaw. His daughter, Anna Freud, became a distinguished psychoanalyst who developed the concept of ego defense mechanisms (see other posts on this blog).

In Studies on Hysteria, Freud and Breuer formulated the psychoanalytic theory according to which neuroses have their origins in deeply traumatic and consequently repressed experiences. Treatment requires the patient to recall these repressed experiences into consciousness and to confront them once and for all, leading to a sudden and dramatic outpouring of emotion (catharsis) and the gaining of insight. This can be achieved through the methods of free association and dream interpretation, and a relative lack of direct involvement by the psychoanalyst so as to encourage the patient to project his thoughts and feelings onto him – a process called ‘transference’ (by contrast, in ‘countertransference’ it is the psychoanalyst who projects his thoughts and feelings onto the patient). In the course of analysis, the patient is likely to display ‘resistance’ in the form of changing the topic, blanking out, falling asleep, coming late, or missing an appointment; such behaviour merely suggests that he is close to recalling repressed material but afraid of doing so. Other than dream interpretation and free association, other recognized routes into the unconscious are parapraxes (slips of the tongue) and jokes. For this reason, Freud famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke.’

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud developed his ‘topographical model’ of the mind, describing the conscious, unconscious, and a layer between the two called the preconscious which, though not conscious, could be readily accessed. Freud later became dissatisfied with the topographical model and replaced it with a so-called ‘structural model’ according to which the mind is divided into the id, ego, and superego (see figure). The id is fully unconscious and contains our drives and repressed feelings and emotions. It is dominated by the ‘pleasure principle’, and so seeks out immediate gratification. The id is opposed by the partly conscious superego, a sort of moral judge arising from the internalisation of parental figures and, by extension, of society itself. In the middle sits the mostly conscious ego. Dominated by the ‘reality principle’, the function of the ego is to reconciliate the id and the superego and thereby enable us to engage with reality. Neurotic anxiety arises when the ego is overwhelmed by the demands made upon it by the id, the superego, and reality. To cope with these demands, the ego employs defense mechanisms to block or distort impulses from the id, thereby making them more acceptable and less threatening. A broad range of ego defence mechanisms have since been recognised.

Freud's structural and topographical models of the mind

For Freud, the drives or instincts that motivate human behaviour (‘life instinct’) are primarily driven by the sex drive or ‘libido’ (Latin, I desire). This life-instinct is counterbalanced by the ‘death instinct’, the unconscious desire to be dead and at peace (the ‘Nirvana principle’). Even in children the libido is the primary motivating force, and children must progress through various stages of psychosexual development before they can reach psychosexual maturity. Each one of these stages of psychosexual development (except the latent stage) is focussed on the erogenous zone – the mouth, the anus, the phallus, or the genitals – that provides the greatest pleasure at that stage. For Freud, neuroses ultimately arise from frustrations encountered during a stage of psychosexual development, and are therefore sexual in nature. Freud’s stages of psychosexual development are summarised in the table below.

The Oedipus/Electra complex is arguably the most controversial of Freud’s theories, and can be interpreted either literally (as Freud intended it to be) or metaphorically. According to Freud, the phallic stage gives rise to the Oedipus complex, Oedipus being a mythological King of Thebes who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother. In the Oedipus complex, a boy sees his mother as a love-object, and feels the need to compete with his father for her attention. His father becomes a threat to him and so he begins to fear for his penis (‘castration anxiety’). As his father is stronger than he is, he has no choice but to displace his feelings for his mother onto other girls and to begin identifying with his father/aggressor – thereby becoming a man like him. Girls do not go through the Oedipus complex but through the Electra complex, Electra being a mythological Princess of Mycenae who wanted her brother Orestes to avenge their father’s death by killing their mother. In the Electra complex, a girl this time sees her father as a love-object, because she feels the need to have a baby as a substitute for the penis that she is lacking. As she discovers that her father is not available to her as a love-object, she displaces her feelings for him onto other boys and begins to identify with her mother – thereby becoming a woman like her. In either case, the main task in the phallic stage is the establishment of sexual identity.

Although much derided in his time and still today, Freud is unquestionably one of the deepest and most original thinkers of the 20th century. He is credited with discovering the unconscious and inventing psychoanalysis, and had a colossal influence not only on his field of psychiatry but also on art, literature, and the humanities. He may have been thinking of himself when he noted that, ‘The voice of intelligence is soft, but does not die until it has made itself heard.’ (‘Die Stimme des Intellekts ist leise, aber sie ruht nicht, ehe sie sich Gehör verschafft hat.’)

Jung in a Nutshell