The Emotions of Family Life

The Wish to Be Free: Society, Psyche, and Value Change

by Fred Weinstein and Gerald M. Platt
University of California Press, 330 pp., $3.85 (paper)

In the first of these articles (NYR, Nov. 13, 1975), I reviewed a number of studies that attempt to establish the size of the average household at various periods in history and to trace changes in household size and family structure. The controversy about the emergence of the nuclear family, which has inspired most of these researches, remains inconclusive in spite of them. Even if we accept the finding that the nuclear family prevailed in many areas of Western Europe, long before the industrial revolution, it is still not clear what we should make of this information. It is not even clear that the information is of any importance. If the structure of the family persisted essentially unchanged, through centuries of economic and political upheaval, changes in family structure can no longer be regarded as an accurate reflection of other social changes. The more we learn about the size and composition of the household of the past, the more the significance of these statistical studies recedes.

The study of family structure is of no importance unless it can be shown that an extended family—a household containing two or more conjugal units—“creates…a radically different set of emotional arrangements” from the ones fostered by a nuclear family.1 The attempt to quantify the history of the family by fastening on the most easily quantifiable part of its history, changes in the size of the household, reveals the limitations of a purely statistical approach. Without giving it up, scholars need to turn to more interesting issues, the ones that presumably drew them to the study of the family in the first place. In particular they need to study changes in emotional life and character structure, the contribution of the family to those changes, and their relation to changes in the organization of political and economic activity.

Recent studies have begun, however tentatively, to address these issues. Investigations of childhood and child-rearing, although based on psychological theories that are themselves open to question, have examined shifting patters of socialization. Some of the recent contributions to the history of women have shed light on changes in modes of thought and feeling and the family’s role in bringing them about. These issues are most directly addressed, however, in the synthetic works by Edward Shorter2 and by Fred Weinstein and Gerald Platt. Without these ambitious interpretations of the history of personal life, the field of family history would be even more of a shambles than it is. Whatever can be said against them—and a great deal will be said against them here—they raise the central questions with which historians of the family must henceforth contend.

The Wish to Be Free, the product of a collaboration between a historian and a sociologist, is a more elegant and probing work than any of the others under consideration. It does not come out of the “new social history” but out of Parsonian sociology, and it has all the virtues as well as the defects of the tradition of Talcott Parsons—theoretical inventiveness struggling unsuccessfully to escape the confines of a crudely linear and undialectical view of history, a sense of the interconnections between society and culture struggling to escape the prison of functionalism.

Weinstein and Platt analyze the writings of the French Enlightenment, the theories of the French Revolution, and certain products of what they call the “introspective revolution”—notably works by Freud and Kafka—in order to trace “the movement toward autonomy and inclusion.” On the assumption that changes in family structure underlay these essential elements of “modernization,” they have a good deal to say about the history of the family. Unfortunately they have not consulted either the documents that might illuminate this history or the secondary literature on the subject. They have simply extrapolated Parsonian theory into the past. This procedure is bound to lead to serious mistakes, but at least it raises important questions. Indeed the mistakes of Weinstein and Platt are far more illuminating than the accomplishments of demographic and quantitative historians.

The preindustrial family, they argue, performed a variety of functions, whereas the modern family specializes in childrearing. As the basic unit of production, the “traditional” family required women as well as men to engage in productive labor, while men as well as women took part in childrearing. Both sexes performed “expressive” as well as “instrumental roles,” in Parsonian terminology. Only when industrialism removed work from the household did a clearly marked differentiation of masculine and feminine roles develop; this “separation of emotional from abstract factors” is one of the outstanding characteristics of the modern family. “Business generally became the special province of men, while women were confined to the household.” The father, as exclusive provider for the family, played the instrumental or “abstract” role, while the mother became the exclusive source of emotional support.

According to Weinstein and Platt, the specialization of the family’s functions and the resulting differentiation between men’s and women’s activities encouraged the growth of personal “autonomy.” In the premodern family, “child-rearing was a family project and not related to specific, sexually differentiated roles.” The child internalized his parents “as a collective unit” and “developed a less complex and less differentiated superego structure” than his modern counterpart. Since the father provided no model of “abstract” authority, the child’s superego could not “achieve the abstract quality that allows for the implementation of personal morality and the relaxation of external controls.” Oedipal authority, which is based on internalizing the father in the form of conscience, “did not exist in traditional systems.” Authority both inside the family and elsewhere took the form of external demands, and obedience meant not submission to an inner moral authority but “passive compliance with dictates.” Not only children but all subordinate members of society bowed to these dictates because those who imposed them also provided nurture and protection.

When fathers and father-figures lost their “nurturant” role, the legitimacy of paternal authority—both in the state and later in the family—collapsed. Fathers could no longer love, they could only punish, and their demands came to appear unjustified and oppressive. The sons rebelled. Their demands for autonomy, which began to be heard in the eighteenth century with the decay of royal paternalism, became irresistible in the nineteenth century, when those demands came to rest on changes in family structure brought about by the industrial revolution. Enlightenment thinkers, followed by the French revolutionaries, expressed the individual’s “wish to be free” in a rudimentary form, but their fear of its consequences made them shrink back into various forms of authoritarianism. The eighteenth-century program of political freedom lacked an adequate psychological basis, either in fact or in theory.

Since neither Helvétius nor Holbach conceived of a conscience, the mode of control over human activity,” Weinstein and Platt argue, “had to take the form of psychic manipulation.” Rousseau wanted the individual to be “wholly sufficient to himself” but failed to conceive of a society “not profoundly dependent on the binding character of affect.” He and Robespierre proposed to substitute nationalism, a civic religion, for paternalism. In effect they wished to withdraw libidinal energies from individuals and to redirect them to the state. Sade and Helvétius went so far as to propose the abolition of marriage and kinship as impediments to the consolidation of state power.

The eighteenth-century demand for autonomy was premature: only the changes in family structure brought about by the industrial revolution could provide a solid foundation for the rebellion against paternal authority. Without this foundation, rebellion raised so many feelings of guilt and ambivalence in the rebels that they quickly drew back from the struggle they themselves had begun.

The struggle between fathers and sons became fully conscious only in the nineteenth century. As the rebellion against paternalism shifted from the state to the family, men discovered the inner life and abandoned the crude psychology of interests, the pleasure-pain calculus that had prevented the eighteenth century from understanding the dynamics of internalized obedience. The nineteenth-century “introspective revolution,” as Weinstein and Platt call it, culminated in the work of Freud, who “codified the demands of the individual for autonomy on the personal and familial levels.” Psycho-analysis gave expression to the longdeferred demand for “the rights of the individual in the family [and] the rights of the ego within the individual”—the “psychological equivalent” of the struggle for equal political rights and unfettered competition in the economic arena. As the son’s dependence on the father decreased, it became possible to articulate the hitherto repressed conflict between them.

Nevertheless the “introspective revolution” remains incomplete, according to Weinstein and Platt. The discovery of the child’s psychic dependence on the mother—intensified by the father’s withdrawal into industry—had to wait for post-Freudian ego psychology. Freud himself, writing at a time when the struggle against the father monopolized the attention of all observers of the family, “repressed” the pre-Oedipal mother. He took a “masculine, paternal view of the world,” colored by his “middle-class background.” In attempting to explain why the psychic development of women differed from that of men, he resorted to an “anatomical interpretation,” whereas in fact the little girl’s identification with her mother, in a world where mothers play the expressive rather than the instrumental role in the family, deprives her of a model “for autonomous ego behavior.”

The little girl’s position in the modern family resembles the position of both sexes in the traditional family, where both parents, not just the mother, performed expressive as well as instrumental roles—where the father himself was “maternal” and therefore provided no model of autonomy. For modern women, if no longer for men, “the family is the dominant institution in the West that still imposes several dependency relationships.” For that reason, Weinstein and Platt hint in footnotes, the struggle for autonomy may “one day” require its destruction and the substitution of more “fraternal” and “collegial” forms of authority.

The Wish to Be Free has many admirable qualities. By focusing on the psychic repercussions of family structure, it lifts discussions of the family out of the realm of the trivial and helps to reveal their underlying significance. It grasps the connection between the development of democracy and the emergence of an autonomous, internally regulated character structure. It points up the importance of these themes in the work of the philosophes and their successors, the makers of the “introspective revolution.” Instead of dismissing the history of ideas as superficial and unimportant—the fashion among social historians today—Weinstein and Platt use intellectual history to illuminate changes in social structure. They know that certain problems in thought can arise only when social changes make their solution imperative or, as Marx put it, that men set themselves only such problems as they can solve. Although they too eagerly pronounce on the “limitations” of past thinkers and too readily assume the superior wisdom of our own times, their understanding of the interplay between ideas and material life distinguishes them at once from the “new” social historians. So does their respect for theory—the most valuable part of their Parsonian inheritance.

Unfortunately they have taken from Parsons not only his insistence on the primacy of theory but his conceptual categories. These lead them to argue, among other things, that sex roles in the “traditional” family were undifferentiated. They provide no evidence, however, that fathers ever played a “nurturant” part in their children’s early life. On the contrary, most of the evidence suggests that infants in pre-bourgeois society were left exclusively to the care of women. It is true that the family as a whole performed a variety of functions and that women as well as men engaged in production; but this did not prevent precapitalist societies from making a sharp distinction between woman’s work and man’s work.

Indeed they imposed a high degree of sexual segregation. The young, boys and girls alike, were raised by women, in many precapitalist societies in the women’s quarters; and this period of female nurture continued well beyond the age of the Oedipal crisis. In ancient Greece, “the child’s world before the age of six or seven was an almost entirely feminine one.”3 In India, children even today are reared almost entirely by women, and “the close contact between the child and the mother, other females, mother-surrogates, and [nannies] continues for much longer than in many other cultures.”4

In seventeenth-century France, a boy left childhood only when he moved “out of the hands of women” into “the hands of men.”5 At adolescence the sexes were separated and trained for their respective duties in convents, sexually segregated schools, or segregated institutions of apprenticeship. From the time boys were seven or eight, adult males (not necessarily the father) thus played a larger and larger part in training them. The practical instruction they offered, however, can by no means be described as “maternal,” nor can it be interpreted as a pre-Oedipal intervention in the child’s development on the part of a “nurturant” father. Its consequences, which were undeniably important, can be understood only if we abandon the entire Parsonian emphasis on roles and role-models.

In adapting psychoanalysis to his own purposes, Parsons minimized the erotic element in the child’s identification with his parents and thus robbed the concept of identification of its meaning. Parsons confused identification with imitation. In Freudian theory, the child incorporates the mother as a lost love-object and the father as an internalized conscience; the child’s image of both parents is made up largely of fantasies. In Parsonian theory, the child merely patterns his behavior on the parent of the same sex. Not only does this interpretation eliminate sexuality and the unconscious (since socialization is now seen as a process of conscious learning), it also eliminates psychic conflict from the individual’s development. Such “autonomy” as we manage to attain, according to Freud, comes after terrific struggles to overcome inferiority and dependence, and lapses into infantilism remain an ever-present possibility. Autonomy is based on intense emotional identification with parents, in the Freudian view, not on literal imitation of them.

Contrary to Weinstein and Platt, men do not “wish to be free.” They wish to remain dependent; only the renunciation of the mother and the internalization of the father’s authority forces them to overcome this dependence. This struggle is one of Freud’s most important discoveries, and the failure of Parsons and his followers to understand it prevents them from understanding the real importance of the bourgeois family in the historical development of autonomy. Their talk of “role models” is superficial and trite. What mattered was the emotional intensification of family life, which strengthened the child’s identification with his parents. This at once sharpened the struggle necessary to achieve autonomy and gave it a stronger basis by forcing the individual to develop inner resources instead of relying on external direction.

The great novels dealing with nineteenth-century families—Fathers and Sons, Buddenbrooks, The Way of All Flesh, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel—recorded the attempts of the young, never wholly successful, to free themselves from intense emotional entanglement with their parents. Few themes appealed more strongly to the bourgeois imagination than the son’s struggle to surpass the father or the daughter’s determination to marry the man she loved, struggles that gave the most immediate and personal expression to the bourgeois belief in progress, personal freedom, and social mobility. Even when the young revolted against the bourgeois way of life, their cause, or the fictional representation of it, enlisted the sympathy of middle-class readers who believed, whatever their practice, that the right of the young to find their own way took precedence over any claim their elders could make on their respect or devotion.

If the nuclear family served the needs of a market society based on competition, individualism, and Emersonian “self-reliance,” it did so, as the novel makes clear, not by providing sons with appropriate “role-models,” but by cutting itself off from the extended kinship group and the world of work. The family’s isolation gave the relations between parents and children a new intensity, which enabled the young to become more fully autonomous than before even as it increased the psychic costs of socialization. It was not so much the internal structure of the family that changed as its relations to the outside world. As an institution defined above all as a refuge, a private retreat, the family became the center of a new kind of emotional life, a new intimacy and inwardness.6

The isolation of the bourgeois family, however, was precarious from the beginning—something we would never learn from Weinstein and Platt, or for that matter from recent criticisms of the family which stress the bad effects of “privatization.” From the moment the conception of the family as a refuge made its historical appearance, the same forces that gave rise to the new privacy began to erode it. The nineteenth-century cult of the home, where the woman ministered to her exhausted husband, repaired the spiritual damage inflicted by the market, and sheltered her children from its corrupting influence, expressed the hope on which bourgeois society has always rested—that private satisfactions can compensate for deprivations suffered in the realm of work. But the machinery of organized domination, which had impoverished work and reduced civic life to a competitive free-for-all, soon organized “leisure” itself as an industry. The so-called privatization of experience went hand in hand with an unprecedented assault on privacy. The tension between the family and the economic and political order, which in the early stages of bourgeois society protected the members of the family from the full impact of the market, gradually abated.

Today the peer group introduces the child to the illusory delights of consumption at an early age, and the family, drained of the emotional intensity that formerly characterized domestic relations, socializes him into the easygoing, low-keyed relationships that predominate in the outside world as well.7 Capitalism in its advanced stages has reduced conflict between society and the family to a minimum. Whereas in earlier times the family passed on the dominant values but unavoidably provided the child with a glimpse of a world that transcended them, crystallized in the rich imagery of maternal love, capitalism has now eliminated or at least softened this contradiction. The family, assisted by the health industry, the mass media, the monolithic national culture, and its mirror-image the counterculture, produces a type of personality primed not for “achievement,” as the Parsonians would have it, but for immediate instinctual gratification—the perfect consumer, in short.

If the emotional intensity of bourgeois family life encouraged the child’s identification with his parents, the father’s withdrawal into the world of work created conditions that weakened this identification in the long run. The significance of a father’s training his children for work, in societies where the family still serves as a center of production, is that it tempers the child’s fantasies with practical experience, softening the early impression of an omnipotent, wrathful, and punitive father. If the son is to overcome his jealous hatred of the father, the terrifying figure of the father has to be reduced by daily contact, in the course of which the father establishes himself in his son’s affections by his mastery of the skills and techniques the son also needs to master if he is to get along in the world. The modern father finds it difficult to provide this information. Such skills as he possesses are likely to become technologically obsolete in his own lifetime, and there would be little point in transmitting them to his children even if there were an opportunity to do so.

The weakening of paternal care—confusingly referred to by Weinstein and Platt as the father’s withdrawal from “nurture”—in the long run makes it more difficult than ever for the child to become an autonomous adult. The essence of the Oedipus complex and its resolution is that the son transforms the wish to get rid of the father into the wish to succeed him. Without by any means overcoming his original longing for the mother and hatred of the father, he transfers the maternal longing to another woman while redirecting many of his aggressive impulses against himself—against his own failures to live up to his father’s example and standards. The decline of the father’s participation in family life makes this identification difficult or impossible. The child no longer wishes to succeed the father; he wishes merely to enjoy life without his interference.

At the same time, his desire to get rid of authority, starting with the father, has grown stronger than ever, not only because authorities interfere with his pleasure (as always) but because he has probably formed an exaggerated idea of their power. The absence, remoteness, or inaccessibility of the father does not mean that the child forms no ideas about him, it only means that those ideas will seldom be tested against everyday experience. The child imagines a remote, vindictive father and comes to see the world as starkly divided between power and impotence. He reduces all questions of justice and morality to questions of strength.

Under these conditions the child remains the slave of pre-Oedipal desires and of external stimuli, with which he is bombarded by a culture devoted to the pleasures of consumption and immediate gratification. He readily resorts to violence in order to satisfy his desires. Wishing to get rid of his father instead of taking the father’s place, he has little incentive to grow up. Psychologically he remains in important ways a child, surrounded by authorities with whom he does not identify and whose authority he does not regard as legitimate—whose only importance to him is that they represent raw superior force, which is capable of thwarting his wishes. If he bows to those authorities, if for example he stoically accepts a punishment he regards as unjust or unfair, it is only because he has made a realistic assessment of the adversary’s superior force. Meanwhile he may harbor dreams of revenge, the most prevalent form of which, perhaps, is the fantasy of a general uprising of the young.

Like most other students of the family, Weinstein and Platt see only one side of the family’s historical development, the “privatization” of domestic life. Blinded by modernization theory, they ignore the more powerful forces tending to undermine privacy. This oversight leads them to an absurdly optimistic assessment of the family’s influence on character. According to Weinstein and Platt, modernization strengthens the ego “against impulse and the desire for immediate gratifications.” It thus makes possible, “in the most pluralized societies,” the gradual “relaxation of external controls, the increasing flexibility of social mandates, and the development of what has been called personal morality.” “The important development historically has been the strengthening of ego.”

On the contrary, the ego’s disintegration has become unmistakable. Weinstein and Platt’s own discussion of the “introspective revolution” reminds us that modern literature has made this disintegration one of its principal themes. Kafka, for example, wrote powerful fantasies depicting the ego’s confrontation with external forces bent on its annihilation, and his well-known “Letter to His Father,” analyzed at some length by Weinstein and Platt, lays bare the psychological basis of these fantasies—fantasies, as many commentators have remarked, that increasingly correspond to reality in a “Kafkaesque” world. Kafka reproaches his father with having been “completely tied to the business, scarcely able to be with me even once a day.” He describes his childhood as a “terrible trial.” In the apt paraphrase of Weinstein and Platt, “the father sat as judge but was himself unjust; not only that, he was as weak and deluded as the people he dominated.”

Kafka’s work, they argue, can be read as “a reaffirmation to himself and to his father that he…accepted his obligations to authority even when these were not warranted.” But it is a mistake to see this merely as “an expression of and a reaction to the wish for independence.” According to Weinstein and Platt, Kafka’s rebellion against his father inspired the same feelings of anxiety and guilt as the eighteenth century’s rebellion against absolute monarchy. The first rebels against paternal authority, in the state and later in the family, suffered the same “inability to tolerate personal freedom.” The submissiveness of Kafka’s protagonists, however, has another explanation. Having created in fantasies untempered by daily experience a remote, vindictive, and unforgiving father, Kafka could imagine no other form of authority than overwhelming force, to which his heroes submit in spite of their belief in its injustice and irrationality. It is significant that he describes his father as simultaneously punitive and weak. The father’s withdrawal from the family gives rise to a double image based on the accurate perception of his weakness and the fantasy of his omnipotence.

In the twentieth century this divided impression of the father not only informs art and popular culture (as Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites demonstrated in their classic study of American film which relegates “manifest” fathers to the background only to make way for “latent” father-figures like the gangster), it spills over into politics. Our daily experience of authority as incompetent, ineffectual, and corrupt does not obliterate—on the contrary, it merely reinforces—the impression that shadowy powers control our lives from behind the scenes, anonymous authorities whose ruthless efficiency knows no limits.

To interpret all this in effect as an escape from freedom (in Erich Fromm’s all too memorable phrase) overlooks the central fact of recent history—that freedom and personal autonomy have become more precarious than ever. The same historical forces that provided the political, economic, and psychological basis of an unprecedented expansion of freedom and autonomy are now engaged in their subversion.

In The Wish to Be Free, this dialectic disappears in a unilinear interpretation of history as “modernization.” For Weinstein and Platt, occasional regressions, occasional retreats from the advanced position already staked out, interrupt but never turn back the upward march of the human spirit. It does not occur to them that Kafka, far from retreating to forms of submission and dependence that had become historically obsolete, provided an ominously accurate glimpse of the future. The same can be said of the eighteenth-century writers who saw “psychic manipulation,” in the words of Weinstein and Platt, as the only alternative to autonomy.

Here again, what appears to Weinstein and Platt as a craven retreat can better be seen as an accurate intuition of things to come. The “limitations of insight” to which they devote so much attention belong not to Holbach, Rousseau, Sade, Kafka, and Freud but to themselves. It is not the thinkers of the past who are blind but twentieth-century social science, which long ago committed itself to the view that things get better and better. No longer able to turn its back on the psychic devastation that surrounds us, as it formerly attempted to do, social science explains it away as the price of progress. It attributes the symptoms of a new psychic enslavement to freedom. It dignifies chaos as “pluralism,” moral collapse as an expansion of “personal choice,” narcissism as autonomy. In this way it attempts to assure itself and its readers that modernization is proceeding on schedule.

Notwithstanding the poverty of the conceptual scheme that underlies their argument, the poverty of social science itself, Weinstein and Platt have grasped the importance of large-scale value change in “modernization.” This is the subject also of Edward Shorter’s Making of the Modern Family, another unsuccessful attempt to provide a general interpretation of the history of the family, which in spite of its failures tells us more than most other books on the subject. I shall take up Shorter’s work in the last of these articles.

(This is the second of three articles on the family.)


Family Theory April 15, 1976

  1. 1

    John Demos, “Demography and Psychology in the Historical Study of Family Life,” in Household and Family in Past Time, edited by Peter Laslett and Richard Wall (Cambridge University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    The Making of the Modern Family (Basic Books, 1973).

  3. 3

    Philip E. Slater, The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family (Beacon Press, 1968), p. 10.

  4. 4

    Richard Lannoy, The Speaking Tree: A Study of Indian Culture and Society (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 90.

  5. 5

    David Hunt, Parents and Children in History: The Psychology of Family Life in Early Modern France (Harper Torchbooks, 1972), p. 183.

  6. 6

    Some of this can be understood without any fundamental revision of Parsonian theory. Instead of concentrating on role differentiation, Weinstein and Platt would have done better to follow the line of Parsonian thought according to which the outstanding characteristic of the modern family is its isolation from the kinship network—an idea that lends itself better to historical analysis. See Talcott Parsons, “The Kinship System of the Contemporary United States,” American Anthropologist, new series, Vol. 45 (1943), pp. 22-38.

  7. 7

    The following interpretation of the contemporary family, which will be elaborated in a forthcoming study of the sociology of the family, is indebted to, among other sources, Alexander Mitscherlich, Society Without the Father (Schocken Books, 1970); Herbert Hendin, The Age of Sensation (Norton, 1975); Geoffrey Gorer, The American People (Norton, 1948); Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Movies: A Psychological Study (Free Press, 1950); and David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd (Yale University Press, 1950).