Freud’s Permanent Revolution

The Mind and Its Depths

by Richard Wollheim
Harvard University Press, 214 pp., $24.95

Great intellectual revolutionaries change the way we think. They pose new questions and devise new methods of answering them—and we cannot unlearn those forms of thought simply by discovering errors of reasoning on the part of their creators, unless we persuade ourselves that the thoughts are identical with the errors. There is something strange about recent debates over the evidence on which Freud based his theories. His influence is not like that of a physicist who claims to have discovered a previously unobserved particle by an experiment which others now think to be flawed. Whatever may be the future of psychoanalysis as a distinctive form of therapy, Freud’s influence seems to me no more likely to be expunged from modern consciousness than that of Hobbes, for example, or Descartes. Such thinkers have an effect much deeper than can be captured by a set of particular hypotheses, an effect that would not go away even if, in a wave of Europhobia, their writings should cease to be read.


The correct interpretation of Freud’s influence, and the way we should evaluate it, is a common theme of the two books under review, and The Mind and Its Depths provides in addition a leading example of that influence. It is a collection of essays on art, morality, and the mind written by Wollheim during the period when he also published The Thread of Life (1984) and Painting as an Art (1987), books whose subjects overlap with the essays. In The Mind and Its Depths we encounter one of the most psychoanalytic of contemporary thinkers. Wollheim has a strong sense of the reality and pervasive influence of the unconscious, and of the impact of infantile sexuality on the rest of mental life. His book offers an excellent introduction, in relatively brief compass, to the thought of a highly unorthodox and original philosopher.

Wollheim holds that what Freud achieved was a vast expansion of psychological insight, rooted in commonsense psychology and employing some of its concepts, but going far beyond it. Psychological insights are not unusual, since we spend our lives trying to understand ourselves and each other, but the scope and imaginative character of Freud’s methods of understanding create a special problem of interpretation and evaluation.

The problem is this. As Wollheim observes, common-sense explanations are a form of understanding “from within”; even when they provide insights into the mind of another, they depend, in part, on self-understanding, since they interpret the other person as another self. To understand someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior requires that we make sense—even if only irrational sense—of his point of view, by using our own point of view as an imaginative resource. Imagination enables us to make internal sense of beliefs, emotions, and aims that we do not share—to see how they hang together so as to render the other’s conduct intelligible. But Freud’s extension of this form of insight to unconscious thoughts, motives, and fantasies, and into the minds of infants, threatens to deprive ordinary psychological concepts, like belief, wish, and desire, of their familiar empirical support in the common experience and understandings of everyday life.

Some, like Sartre, have felt there was an outright contradiction in the idea of a thought of which one is not aware; but Freud could deal with that objection. In metaphysical outlook he was a sophisticated materialist; he believed that even conscious mental processes were also physical events in the brain, though we know almost nothing about their physical character. If that is true, then it makes sense to ask whether there may not also be other brain processes that are analogous to the conscious ones in physical structure, that have recognizably psychological causes and effects, but that are not conscious. Their reality would be physical, even though we could know about them only through their psychological manifestations, just as we can at present, with very limited exceptions, refer to conscious brain processes only in psychological terms.1 So the main problem about the unconscious is not metaphysical. The problem, rather, is whether the evidence supports such a vast extension, by analogy, of mental concepts to the unconscious, and the concomitant growth of psychological explanation.

Common-sense psychology allows us to identify the experiences or deliberations that have led to a belief, or the emotions expressed by a particular reaction, or the aims or values behind a course of conduct. Causal judgments of this kind are largely automatic; they fill our lives and our relations with others, and are heavily supported by their usefulness, although they can also lead us astray. When we interpret other people in this way by making sense of their point of view, we are not merely imagining things, as when we see animals in the clouds or ascribe malice to a defective toaster. Rather we are trying to understand, within the limits of a nonscientific psychology, what really makes people tick, and we often hope to be confirmed by the person’s own self-understanding.

Freud extended the range of such explanation to unheard-of lengths, to cover not only memory lapses and slips, but jokes, dreams, neurotic symptoms, and the substructure of erotic life and family ties—with forays into morality, politics, art, and religion. About some of these phenomena, no adequate psychological understanding was available at all; about others, he proposed to add a deeper level of understanding than that provided by conscious psychology. And he did it in many cases not by offering insights that others could easily evaluate from their own experience and observation, but by appealing to evidence gathered under the highly unusual conditions of psychoanalytic treatment, evidence that could be understood only by those familiar with the process.

Yet the entire system remained psychological in the sense Wollheim has specified. It sought to provide an understanding of human beings “from within,” so that we could put ourselves in their shoes and make sense of their symptoms and responses by attributing to them beliefs, desires, feelings, and perceptions—with the difference that these were aspects of their point of view of which they were not consciously aware. What reason is there to believe that such a vast extension of psychological interpretation is not merely a fantasy, like seeing animals in the clouds, rather than genuine knowledge?

It is a familiar fact that people can be unaware of their true motives, and that we often understand others better than they understand themselves. (Anyone knows this who has listened with embarrassment to a flagrant name-dropper making what he think is just amiable conversation.) But Freud carried this idea so far that he could not defend it just by appealing to common sense. He insisted on the scientific character of his findings and their support by clinical observation—meaning not controlled experiments, but the data that emerge in the analytic process. The analyst’s sustained and unique interaction with the neurotic patient supplies him with much more extensive and systematic evidence for interpretation than is available to someone who merely observes the patient’s symptoms—even someone who knows the patient well in the ordinary way.

Freud’s confidence can best be understood, I think, as the belief that exposure in a great many cases to the various extremely detailed accounts of experience that emerge in analysis enabled him to see a deeper psychological coherence in phenomena that, taken in isolation, seem meaningless and inexplicable. No doubt such coherence can be misleading. One can imagine, for example, that a drug-induced mental disorder might produce elaborate patterns of thought and feeling that seem to point to a psychological, not a chemical, cause. In general, it is important to keep in mind the real possibility that a syndrome which makes psychological “sense” may nevertheless have a purely physiological explanation. But that means only that psychoanalytic evidence, like most evidence, is not conclusive.

Richard Wollheim’s most direct comments on this matter appear in an essay called “Desire, Belief, and Professor Grünbaum’s Freud.” It is a response to Adolf Grünbaum’s The Foundations of Psychoanalysis,2 a book that takes the scientific claims of psychoanalysis seriously but interprets them in a curiously external way, neglecting the distinctively inner character of psychological insight. Toward the end of the essay Wollheim remarks tellingly,

If…psychoanalytic theory is an extension of commonsense psychology, perhaps we should begin by asking, How is commonsense psychology tested?

I take it the answer is that the evidence for common-sense psychology, instead of being the result of controlled experiments, is complex and widely dispersed. Wollheim charges Grünbaum with having an impoverished conception of how psychological explanation works, and with neglecting the essential role of psychological structure—i.e., the need to use psychological categories of some kind—in both psychoanalytic and common-sense understanding.

If what the patient says or does is to be brought to bear upon the hypothesis under consideration so that it, the hypothesis, can then be said to have been tested on the couch, the patient’s material will in most circumstances have to be subsumed under categories deriving from psychoanalysis…. In saying or doing what he does, the patient has to be identified as, say, presenting anal material on a massive scale; resorting to phantasies of omnipotence; assaulting, or fragmenting, or idealizing, the analyst’s interpretation; acting out; and so on. In other words, the patient’s material must be subsumed under transference categories: that is, categories which capture what the person is doing vis-à-vis the analytic situation as he phantasizes it.

Each of these categories, or hypotheses explaining the patient’s behavior, has to find its empirical support in countless other applications to other patients in other settings. In other words, psychoanalysis makes use of a complex network of interpretations, just as common-sense psychology does when it allows us to understand someone’s reactions by referring to an interconnected network of desires, beliefs, emotions, memories, obsessions, inhibitions, values, and identifications. And Wollheim observes that even where Grünbaum proposes a more or less common-sense alternative to psychoanalytic explanation, namely that the apparent clinical evidence for psychoanalysis is the result of suggestion by the analyst, he sees no need to make the dynamics of such suggestion psychologically comprehensible or to explain the mental processes through which it operates. The hypothesis of “suggestion,” after all, is an alternative psychological explanation, and has to be evaluated by the same standards as the explanations it is called on to refute.

How do we know whether a psychological explanation is correct? Although statistical analysis is not needed to prove that someone put on a sweater because he felt cold, one could easily imagine an idiotic psychological experiment statistically confirming the likelihood of a causal link in such cases. But the more interesting the case, the harder it is to reproduce it. What experimental evidence, for example, would help us to answer the question why Mikhail Gorbachev began the dismantling of the Soviet empire? Anything we can say about this will have to depend on the application of a variety of forms of human understanding to the unique circumstances of the case.

Much of human mental life consists of complex events with multiple causes and background conditions that will never precisely recur. If we wish to understand real life, it is useless to demand repeatable experiments with strict controls. (The same problem arises with regard to historical explanation, since historical events are, if anything, even less reproducible.) That doesn’t mean that explanation is impossible, only that it cannot be sought by the methods appropriate in particle physics, cancer research, or the study of reflexes. We may not be able to run controlled experiments, but we can still try to make internal sense of what people do, in light of their circumstances, relying on a general form of understanding that is supported by its usefulness in countless other cases, none of them exactly the same.

Explanations that refer to unconscious mental processes should be evaluated by the same standard. There may be some psychoanalytic explanations so simple that they can be tested by experiment or statistical analysis, but most are certainly not like that—rather they are applications of psychological insight in highly specific circumstances, which go beyond the bounds of consciousness. When we come to a brilliant and circumstantially rich conjecture like Freud’s attribution of the forgetting of the word in a Latin quotation to the subject’s anxiety that his mistress might be pregnant,3 statistical confirmation is completely impossible, and we simply have to decide whether this is an intuitively credible extension of a general structure of explanation that we find well supported elsewhere, and whether it is more plausible than the alternatives—including the alternative that there is no psychological explanation.

The same problem arises for more general proposals, like Freud’s hypothesis that in cases of melancholia an object-loss (such as the departure of a lover) is transformed into an egoloss (the sense that one is worthless or despicable) through identification of the ego with the object of love by which it has been abandoned; the selfhatred that results can be understood as abuse by the ego of the internalized object. There seems no way to evaluate such a proposal experimentally—yet it is an empirical hypothesis about a psychic process which certainly appears to shed light on what goes on in some cases of acute depression.4

For most of those who believe in the reality of repression and the unconscious, whether or not they have gone through psychoanalysis, the belief is based not on blind trust in the authority of analysts and their clinical observations but on the evident usefulness of a rudimentary Freudian outlook in understanding ourselves and other people, particularly erotic life, family dramas, and what Freud called the psychopathology of everyday life. Things that would otherwise surprise us do not; behavior or feelings that would otherwise seem simply irrational become nevertheless comprehensible. You feel miserable all day, and then discover that it is the forgotten anniversary of the death of someone who was important to you; you find yourself repeatedly becoming absurdly angry with certain women in your professional life, and come to realize that your anger is a throwback to a childhood struggle with your mother. In the end, if we are to believe that Freud was getting at the truth, we must be able in some degree to make use of his approach ourselves. Since controlled and reproducible experiments are impracticable here, the kind of internal understanding characteristic of psychoanalysis must rely on the dispersed but cumulative confirmation in life that supports more familiar psychological judgments.5

The question is not whether Freud got it exactly right, or whether strong criticisms cannot be made of some of his case histories, but whether the types of explanation he introduced substantially amplify the understanding of ourselves and others that common-sense psychology provides. I believe that the pervasive Freudian transformation of our modern working conception of the self is evidence of the validity of his attempt to extend the psychological far beyond its conscious base. Common sense has in fact expanded to include parts of Freudian theory. This in turn makes it credible that more extensive and systematic insights of the same type can be developed by analysts who probe far more deeply and uncover far more material for interpretation. To many of us it certainly feels as if, much of the time, consciousness reveals only the surface of our minds and, for many, this feeling is confirmed by their dreams.


Grünbaum’s view is quite distant from the basic Freudian outlook that is such a familiar feature of modern culture. Wollheim, by contrast, is at home in a rich undergrowth of psychoanalytic categories, some developed by Melanie Klein. He puts special and interesting emphasis on the phenomenology of the unconscious—i.e., the subjective feelings and fantasies the unconscious includes, which he argues are essential to its explanatory power. For example, Wollheim puts forward the thesis of the “bodily ego,” according to which we conceive, when we are very young,

of mental states on the model of corporeal entities,…of a thought as a piece of food in the mouth, or as faeces, and we conceive of accepting the thought as swallowing the piece of food, or of rejecting the thought as excreting faeces.

Because they incorporate these fantasies, the Freudian mechanisms of defense are not abstract forces but have a highly specific subjective (though unconscious) character.

It is difficult for an amateur to evaluate such claims; even when the subject matter is more familiar, the difficulty remains. The psychoanalytic understanding of morality is an interesting example. The story of the formation of the superego, “the internal version of the father in the Oedipal drama,” has passed into popular psychology. But Wollheim resists this conception of morality, holding with Melanie Klein “that the injunctions or fulminations of internal figures not lying at the core of the ego play at best an unreliable, at worst a deleterious, role in the moral life.” He thinks of the superego, in other words, as a threatening, punitive, and alien incorporated object, rather than as a better self with which the person comes to identify. Instead of basing moral development on the internalization of the disapproving father, Wollheim, following Klein, bases it on the reconciliation of much earlier feelings. After the first year of life the infant discovers that the object it loves and the object it hates are both its mother; the infant then struggles to repair, preserve, or revive the loved object which it has injured in omnipotent fantasy. In time the infant will be led to integrate the good self and the bad self, the one that loves and the one that hates.

Wollheim describes the process, which is considerably more complicated than my brief sketch here, in an essay called “The Good Self and the Bad Self,” which compares Klein with the philosopher F. H. Bradley,6 who also held that morality must offer a form of harmonious self-realization. Wollheim is a naturalist about morality, in the sense that he believes that to have a claim on us it must be rooted in our earliest and most basic feelings. He urges us to avoid “the phantasy that morality marks the spot where human beings discard human nature.” This appears to mean that we should not try to understand morality as a radical transcendence of infantile needs and wishes, and of the mental structures established before the age of two. Unless morality is rooted in those very needs and wishes, it will be superficial.

I cannot evaluate the Kleinian theory of infantile development even if I am an instance of it; but apart from that, I do not see how a theory of this kind could by itself explain more than the very beginnings of the complex system of restraints on aggression and self-interest, acknowledgment of formal obligations and of the rights and claims of others, that make up a fully developed morality. The same could be said of the more familiar Freudian superego theory. Even if it starts with a family drama, morality in the strict sense requires forms of thought that are much more impersonal than fear of, love for, or identification with particular external or internal “objects,” whether fathers or mothers. It aims to supply objective standards in the realm of conduct, which will allow us to justify ourselves to one another and to agree on what should be done.7

Wollheim’s attitude toward morality is far more radical than Freud’s, and closer in spirit to Nietzsche’s. His naturalism is applied in a startling way in an essay called “Crime, Punishment, and ‘Pale Criminality,”’ which suggests that human beings have a disposition “bound up with what is deepest in us, to do what is forbidden, and to do it for that reason”; and that if this is so, then the criminal justice system is based on a flawed understanding of human nature: what it forbids, it makes more attractive. Many social institutions, such as the criminal law, “imply a particular psychology,” Wollheim writes, and if that psychology is false about human beings, “then the institution is at fault because instead of facilitating, it impedes, self knowledge.”

This, he says, raises a further question:

How much security from criminal behavior are we entitled to expect? How much protection can we rightly claim from those with whom we share our psychology? If, not criminality, but the seeds of criminality, are, in some identifiable way which the science of mind can make clear, present in all of us, how far are we right to distance it from us?… How far, if the need arose, should we be prepared to sacrifice security for self-knowledge?

But how is that need going to arise? Perhaps the human disposition to do what is forbidden causes some prohibitions to heighten the appeal of crime; but that only means that if we want security, we should take this into account in designing the criminal law. Where is the sacrifice of self-knowledge in this? I suspect that Wollheim is talking about something deeper than self-knowledge. He asks for a form of self-affirmation which is incompatible with rejecting anything at the core of the self; and this explains his distrust of conventional morality.

Art is different. Wollheim writes,

It seems to me natural to think that art is more deeply rooted in human nature than morality, and I am surprised that philosophers make little of the fact that, though good art is more likeable than bad art, virtuous people do not enjoy this same advantage over those to whom we are drawn primarily for their charm, or their gaiety, or their sweetness of nature, or their outrageousness.

A number of Wollheim’s essays discuss artistic expression, perception, and style, and here too Wollheim is committed to psychological naturalism: “The broad characteristics of art, including expressiveness, originate outside art.” Wollheim emphasizes the psychological importance of the phenomenon of “projection,” the infusion of our perceptions of the outer world with inner mental states, which he believes is at the heart of the aesthetic response. Art gives meaning to our lives by its expressiveness, which creates a fit between our deep inner feelings and our external perceptions, and makes us at home in the world. Here again, as with the analysis of morality, a question arises whether such a personal theory doesn’t make aesthetic response too subjective and idiosyncratic—but that will depend both on how objective we take such responses to be and how universal are the mental structures responsible, according to this theory, for the projections called forth by art. Wollheim himself believes that there is a universal human nature which all art, “or at any rate all great art,” presupposes.

Both art and nature can be targets of projected feelings: both a real and a painted landscape can be seen as melancholy, for example. But with a work of art, Wollheim believes that the right response is determined by the artist’s intention: the work has been created in order to evoke certain projections, and if the intention is fulfilled, that is what the spectator will see in it. Wollheim rejects the view “that criticism is at liberty to project on to a work of art whatever it wishes.” He argues that the artist’s own projective response to the work as he is creating it—his dual role as creator and spectator—has an essential part in the creative process: “the central fact about art [is] that it is an intentional manifestation of mind.”

Painting as an Art contains many applications of this idea. For example, Wollheim attributes the uncanny effect of Caspar David Friedrich’s great landscape, The Large Enclosure near Dresden, to the presence of an invisible “spectator in the picture,” whose viewpoint does not have a natural relation to the landscape. When we look at the picture we are led to identify with this disembodied spectator inside it; we find ourselves both standing before the picture and floating above the landscape which extends under the invisible spectator, and we are drawn into the attitude of detached but absorbed contemplation of nature expressive of Friedrich’s early nineteenth-century Pietism. (On the only occasion when I saw it, the picture induced a strange spiritual disorientation, as if I had lost my self and were viewing the world sub specie aeternitatis; so I found Wollheim’s account convincing.)

How much background knowledge we need in order to see the work as it was intended to be seen by the artist is another question. To perceive the meaning of a work of art generally requires some prior knowledge beyond what is needed to find a natural landscape beautiful: even to perceive a work’s formal and non-representational properties requires that the work “be perceived as part of an aesthetic tradition.” But if the work is successful, understanding it will consist not in a deliberate act of inference and interpretation but simply in perceiving it as it was intended to be perceived. The essence of aesthetic understanding is to be found in experience not theory. It is not to be found in social or economic explanation or in symbolic decoding.

The appeal of Wollheim’s position lies in its insistence that what is important about a work of art is directly perceptible in it. What is harder to accept is his claim that the goal of aesthetic perception is always to experience the projection intended by the artist. This implies that a work of art cannot mean more than the artist intended it to mean, or knew that it meant, and that historical and symbolic and formal interpretation cannot produce a perceptual understanding of the work that interprets it as more than a product of the artist’s purposes. A view contrary to Wollheim’s might even include the possibility that the meaning of a work may develop over time, as the background of interpretation changes. I am drawn to Wollheim’s emphasis on aesthetic experience. On the other hand, his theory may go too far in reducing aesthetics to psychology. The dominant role it gives to both intention and projection means that the work of art is not a free-standing creation whose aesthetic characteristics transcend both those psychological facts. I doubt that even great artists always know in all respects what they’re doing, even if it is no accident that their works produce the effects they do.


Wollheim’s diverse and unusual writings on many different subjects exemplify the influence of psychoanalytic modes of thought beyond therapy, and such influence is emphasized by Paul Robinson in his forceful response to three recent commentators on Freud: Frank Sulloway, Jeffrey Masson, and Adolf Grünbaum.8 Freud and His Critics contains interesting general reflections on the significance of recent reactions to Freud as well as a dissection of these three writers. Robinson argues persuasively that none of the three makes a good case for their most distinctive claims about Freud, and, further, that they all miss the real significance of Freud’s intellectual contribution.

Sulloway is a historian who presents himself as a reinterpreter of Freud, not as one of his critics. But Robinson believes he diminishes the interest and originality of Freud’s ideas by exaggerating their biological content at the expense of the psychological. Freud’s conviction that the mind, being a function of the brain, is a product of biological development, and that its structure is subject to evolutionary influences should be evident to any reader of his writings, and Sulloway provides a very detailed account of the biological and neurological background to Freud’s intellectual development. But to treat this as the essence of a Freudian understanding of the mind is to read Freud much too reductively. The mind may be a biological product, but biological concepts can provide us with only a superficial understanding of its content and workings. Sulloway magnifies the influence on Freud of the crackpot theories of his early confidant Wilhelm Fliess, even though they left their traces. It is true that Freud corresponded with Fliess about the effects on the mind of biological calendars, the sense of smell, and the evolution of upright posture. But it is not possible, Robinson argues, to replace psychological insight—an understanding “from within” of the type that engaged Freud’s real genius—with such hypotheses.

Robinson turns next to the egregious Masson, who accuses Freud of being a liar and a coward because he abandoned the claim that his early patients had been victims of real sexual abuse as children, and explained their symptoms instead by the theory of infantile sexuality and fantasy. Masson believes Freud thus missed the chance to be a great crusader against child molestation and that his theory became a means for blaming innocent victims. Robinson demonstrates that Masson’s claims that the patients had in fact been sexually abused are simply unsupported assertions. And he adds:

The most powerful objection to Masson’s thesis of moral cowardice is that Freud abandoned the seduction theory only to embrace an idea that was even more offensive to the prejudices of his culture, the theory of infantile sexuality.

Freud always recognized the existence of child abuse. His doubts had to do with its extent. But the claim that some accusations of childhood seduction are the product of fantasy provokes extreme resistance, and not only from Masson. I believe this insistence on the innocence of childhood and the evil behavior of adults covers up deeper feelings, which then surface in an emotionally delicious blend of prurience and moral outrage. The recent popular obsession with child molestation owes a good deal to such feelings.9 Robinson persuasively identifies Masson as a representative of the new puritanism which emerged in the Eighties as a reaction to the sexually expansive Sixties. Masson’s view of sex as joyless and charged with aggression belongs to an anti-liberal tendency that has been gaining strength recently. It fits well with the outlook of those who see in pornography only an instrument for the subjection of women. Freud is a natural target for such enemies of self-knowledge.

Robinson’s criticism of Grünbaum takes issue with the importance he assigns to therapeutic success as the empirical ground on which Freud’s theories must stand or fall. Freud at various times denied that effective therapy was the ultimate test of his theories.10 The theory of repression is an explanatory one, and the evidence for it comes from a variety of sources. I agree with Robinson that by insight and imagination it is possible, and sometimes even easy, to extrapolate from the conscious and familiar, and to discover unconscious psychological explanations in complex individual cases where statistical verification is impossible.

Only particular examples can provide evidence for this claim—examples which leave no credible alternative. Though some may find Freud’s famous case histories persuasive, I believe they are too complex and ambiguous to serve this purpose. It is not surprising that they have generated so much interpretive and historical controversy. The best evidence for skeptics is smaller in scale. Einstein once wrote, in a letter to Freud:

Until recently I could only apprehend the speculative power of your train of thought, together with its enormous influence on the Weltanschauung of the present era, without being in a position to form a definite opinion about the amount of truth it contains. Not long ago, however, I had the opportunity of hearing about a few instances, not very important in themselves, which in my judgment exclude any other interpretation than that provided by the theory of repression.11

But how could Einstein tell? What is it about a concatenation of circumstances that “exclude any other interpretation”?

Not knowing what Einstein’s instances were, I can only describe an episode I witnessed myself. At a dinner party, an elderly man of independent means, who had spent his life as a private scholar without an academic position, challenged a psychiatrist who was present to explain why, whenever he listened to the news on the radio, he fell asleep just at the point when the stock market report came on. The psychiatrist, knowing these facts, replied that it probably expressed difficult feelings about his father. “My father!” said the man incredulously, “My father has been dead for fifty years!” The conversation then went on to other things, but the next day, the man telephoned the psychiatrist to report that later in the evening the memory had come flooding back to him that when, in his youth, he had resisted going into the family business, his father had made him promise at least to listen to the stock market report on the radio every day.

Many people have been exposed to equally obvious examples—though most are not so cut and dried, and the material produced in psychoanalysis is much more complex and strange. Grünbaum is inhospitable to the use of psychological insight to extend familiar and basic forms of psychological explanation to radically unfamiliar situations. But this may be partly because he himself has a rather wooden psychological imagination. As Robinson points out, when Grünbaum tries to propose an alternative interpretation to Freud’s for the same data, the interpretation falls flat. (And his idea of a slip of the tongue that might be caused by a concealed but conscious thought is “the man who turns from the exciting view of a lady’s exposed bosom muttering, ‘Excuse me, I have got to get a breast of flesh air!”’)

Robinson concludes with an excellent statement of Freud’s true intellectual legacy, which these critics fail to recognize:

He is the major source of our modern inclination to look for meanings beneath the surface of behavior—to be always on the alert for the “real” (and presumably hidden) significance of our actions. He also inspires our belief that the mysteries of the present will become more transparent if we can trace them to their origins in the past, perhaps even in the very earliest past…. And, finally, he has created our heightened sensitivity to the erotic, above all to its presence in arenas…where previous generations had neglected to look for it.

The book is flawed, however, by one serious confusion, which crops up occasionally, as in the following passage:

One would simply never know from reading Sulloway, Masson, and Grünbaum that many of their contemporaries entertained profound doubts about science, objectivity, truth, and the possibility of achieving stable, irrefragable knowledge of the self and society.

Robinson describes all three writers as “positivists,” because of their innocent attachment to outmoded ideas of truth and objectivity, and he regards this attitude as itself a rejection of Freud’s outlook:

Modernism entailed a loss of confidence in the stability and transparency of the self. It also entailed the recognition that all human knowledge is subjective and indeterminate. Freud’s theory of the unconscious, which denies that the self is aware even of its own ideas, was the most powerful articulation of this modernist sensibility.

Robinson is referring to the facile subjectivism which now blights many of the humanities and social sciences. According to this view anyone who thinks that some questions have right and wrong answers, which can be confirmed or refuted by evidence and argument, is an epistemological caveman.

Robinson incorrectly attributes such a view to Freud. There is a vast difference between holding that we are not transparent to ourselves, and must discover our real mental nature by difficult and indirect investigative methods, and holding that there is no such thing as truth or objectivity. The unconscious does not abolish objectivity, even if it makes it more difficult to achieve. In Robinson’s sense, Freud was certainly a “positivist” and a believer in the pursuit of truth by the correct assessment of evidence.

That does not imply that what we believe to be true is immune to revision in the light of later evidence or argument; nor does it imply that everything can be known. But it does imply that, even though like any science psychology relies on imagination to frame its hypotheses, its aim is to discover objective truths about the human mind, and that if all Freud succeeded in doing was to develop a new way of talking or seeing things, he failed. That is what he meant by his repeated insistence that what he was doing was science. Freud would have been delighted to tangle with Grünbaum, and would have had no patience whatever with the attacks on objectivity which Robinson depressingly describes as “the most visible intellectual current of the age.” It is no service to Freud to defend him by appealing to this slothful outlook—let alone to ascribe it to him.


Freud’s Permanent Revolution’: An Exchange August 11, 1994

  1. 1

    This theme appears at various points in Freud’s writings, including the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895), “The Unconscious” (1915), and the Outline of Psychoanalysis (1938).

  2. 2

    University of California Press, 1984. Grünbaum argues that Freud rests his case for the theory of repression on the superior therapeutic effectiveness of psychoanalysis in treating neuroses, and that such evidence is not available. His reading of Freud, and of the evidence, clinical and extraclinical, has been extensively criticized, notably by David Sachs, “In Fairness to Freud,” Philosophical Review, Vol. 98, No. 3 (July 1989), and by various commentators in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 9 (June 1986). More recently he has published Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis (International Universities Press, 1993), a further discussion of these issues, which includes both new material and versions of previously published essays, some predating The Foundations of Psychoanalysis.

  3. 3

    The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), chapter 2.

  4. 4

    See “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917). Freud emphasizes that his proposal applies only to some cases of melancholia, and that others appear to be somatic in origin.

  5. 5

    So I regard as fatally benighted the epistemological position taken by Frederick Crews in three recent issues of this journal (November 18, 1993, February 3, 1994, and April 21, 1994). He treats psychoanalysis as if it were a free-standing explanatory system, rather than an extension of familiar forms of psychological insight to new domains and new phenomena.

  6. 6

    Bradley is the subject of Wollheim’s first book, F. H. Bradley (Penguin, 1959).

  7. 7

    A recent collection of essays on Wollheim’s work contains two valuable discussions of this question by Marcia Cavell and Samuel Scheffler. Both of them argue that a more objective and less “self” centered conception of morality may be consistent with a psychoanalytic theory of moral development. See Jim Hopkins and Anthony Savile, editors, Psychoanalysis, Mind and Art: Perspectives on Richard Wollheim (Blackwell, 1992). Scheffler develops his ideas on the subject further in Human Morality (Oxford University Press, 1992) and Cavell sets out her position in The Psychoanalytic Mind: From Freud to Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1993)—which includes a plausible critique of Freud’s theory of morality.

  8. 8

    In addition to Grünbaum’s 1984 book, he discusses Sulloway’s Freud, Biologist of the Mind (Basic Books, 1979) and Masson’s The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), drawing also on some of the responses these works have attracted.

  9. 9

    It has resulted in some dreadful persecutions of the innocent. For example The New York Times of November 21, 1993 (p. 29), reported the acquittal of a Sunday school teacher charged with lurid rapes and tortures on the basis of testimony elicited from his pupils, who were three or four years old at the time.

  10. 10

    For example in his 1917 Introductory Lectures (Standard Edition, Vol. 16, p. 255).

  11. 11

    Quoted in Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (Basic Books, 1957), Vol. 3, p. 203.