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Not Freud’s Discovery

In response to:

Freud and the Imagination from the April 3, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

Charles Rycroft, in his article on “Freud and the Imagination” [NYR, April 3], writes that in his opinion “the most seminal, and the most revolutionary idea that Freud ever had was his idea that the human mind is capable of thinking in two different ways…one of which is characteristic of our waking life, the other characteristic of dreaming and neurotic symptom-formation; and that it is possible to define and describe these two modes by presenting them in antithesis to one another, so that each can be conceived of as possessing characteristics which are the opposite of the other’s.” Later, he speaks of this “idea” as Freud’s “discovery.”

Of all the myths about the history of psychoanalysis, this seems to be the most widespread, and it is odd that it continues to flourish in otherwise well-informed circles. The view which Rycroft summarizes above not only was not original with Freud, it was a commonplace conviction of British and European philosophers and psychiatrists before Freud was twenty. The vast nineteenth-century literature on the unconscious, and its dynamic role in dreaming, art, and mental illness, is amply documented in Lancelot Whyte’s The Unconscious Before Freud, readily available in paperback, and crisply summarized in Whyte’s article, “Unconscious,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious, enormously popular in Germany, was published when Freud was twelve.

William James, in his pre-Freudian Principles of Psychology, devotes many pages to arguing against those who, in his opinion, made too sharp a distinction between the conscious and the unconscious (James regarded the two as differences of degree along a continuum), and to discussing the role of the unconscious in such disorders as psychosomatic blindness. “The curative indication is evident:” he writes, “to get at the secondary personage [the unconscious], by hypnotization or in whatever other way, and make her give up the eye, the skin, the arm, or whatever the affected part may be.”

Indeed, the use of hypnosis to uncover repressed motivations was widely practiced by European and British psychiatrists before Freud, and by Freud himself until he abandoned it for what he considered better methods.

It is not a trivial matter. Freud’s contribution was not the recognition of the role of the unconscious in sleeping and waking life, but his theories about the nature and working of the unconscious, and his techniques for minimizing its baleful influence. That, of course, is another and more complicated story. The point is that the work now in progress of separating what is significant in Freud’s theory from what is worthless is not helped by a naïve idolizing of Freud as a greater revolutionary than he actually was.

Martin Gardner

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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