Was Freud a Crypto-Biologist?

Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend

by Frank J. Sulloway
Basic Books, 612 pp., $20.00

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud; drawing by David Levine

Freud, Biologist of the Mind is not a modest work. With four appendices and a compendious bibliography it runs to over six hundred pages. Nor is its author, Frank J. Sulloway, a modest writer. In the “Preface and Guide to the Reader” he tells how in writing the book he “aspired to mark a watershed in the history of Freud studies.” His ambition has led him to combine four distinct themes.

First the book sets out to be “a comprehensive intellectual biography of Sigmund Freud.” No one would take on such a task if he didn’t think that there was something wrong with the existing literature. But Dr. Sulloway is not one of those historians who are content to put their predecessors right on this or that small or medium-sized point. The book—and this is its second theme—offers a radically new interpretation of Freud. Contrary to “the Freud legend,” Freud was not, Sulloway claims, the solitary inventor of a pure psychology. His work is fundamentally the application to the human mind of nineteenth-century biological ideas. Freud was a biologist who passed as a psychologist. He was, in Sulloway’s words, a “crypto-biologist.”

Thirdly, the book turns to examine the Freud legend itself, and here there is a subtle but significant change of emphasis. For if the legend presents Freud as a hero within the tradition of psychology rather than as a co-worker within the biological tradition, Sulloway is less concerned with the way the legend misidentifies the tradition that is Freud’s, and more concerned with its aggrandizement of his status. This aspect of the legend, he seems to believe, has most to tell us about how we choose to record our past—in particular our scientific or ideological past. And so this leads to the fourth theme in Freud, Biologist of the Mind, which concerns the sociology of historical knowledge. From a proper understanding of the Freud legend the book promises the reader important insights into the mythic ways in which we inscribe intellectual revolutions. There is an evident bonus in all this, and when our author reviews his book as a whole, he does not conceal his satisfaction at the outcome. “I see,” is how he puts it, “that one of the major achievements of this work is the construction of a natural history of history itself.”

Freud, Biologist of the Mind is impressively erudite. Sulloway has read widely in the scientific literature that provides the background to Freud’s thought. He has also read with care much of the polemical literature that surrounded the publication of Freud’s own work. The result is that we can now see Freud against the intellectual thinking of his age; and we no longer have to take on trust Freud’s own rather bitter account of the progress of his influence and reputation. However, on this last point Sulloway is insensitive to the difference between how a man…

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