Freud Under Analysis

Two recent Freud-inspired exhibitions in New York, Freud: Conflict and Culture, sponsored by the Library of Congress, at the Jewish Museum, and Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections,1 at the Guggenheim Museum, suggest that Freud still commands considerable interest and esteem. Both exhibitions sought to com-municate key Freudian ideas with maximum visual impact—obviously so in the case of the Surrealism show, but also in the Library of Congress display, which included film clips, home movies of Freud himself, a re-creation of Freud’s study, and artfully contrived displays that formulated Freud’s characteristic doctrines.

Freud’s impact has indeed always been larger in the arts than the sciences. The Surrealism exhibition did not, however, seek to assess the cogency of Freud’s doctrines, and the pictures (by Magritte, Dali, and others) can obviously have artistic value independent of the truth of those theories. Freud: Conflict and Culture attracted some controversy while it was being planned, mainly owing to what was seen by some as a partisan endorsement of Freud’s theories; essays by several of Freud’s recent critics were then added to the accompanying volume.2

But that controversy was merely the most recent in the history of debate over psychoanalysis, which began with many of Freud’s own closest colleagues, and no doubt his work will remain controversial for years to come. For there are two sharply conflicting images of Freud’s status as a thinker and innovator: Is he a bold and brilliant scientist who challenges orthodoxy and thus invites calumny, or an opportunistic founder of a crack-brained cult with little or no intellectual credibility? Or does the truth lie between these two extremes?

I have no vested interest in the answer to this question. Like many another child of the twentieth century I have absorbed Freudian lore from the culture, and in my late teens I was fascinated by Freud’s writings. But I have never had psychoanalysis; nor, unlike a good many other philosophers, have I ever taken a stand on the truth of Freud’s theories in print. Freud: Conflict and Culture presented an opportunity for me to reread Freud’s work with a critical eye. What follows is an evaluation of Freud’s ideas from what I hope is an impartial perspective.


In order to understand the speculative innovations Freud introduced into the study of the human mind it is necessary to understand the normal way we explain human behavior, because Freud’s explanatory structures are basically extensions of this normal way. The core of our ordinary psychological understanding revolves around the notion of motive—desire, want, wish, reason. We understand an action when we know what motivated it. The motives for action are usually clear, since action itself usually indicates the motive that prompts it. Why am I paying money to the cashier in a supermarket? So that I can buy food and eventually eat it. We generally act in order to fulfill our manifest wishes. Sometimes the motive for action can be obscure, as when you see me…

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