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 might perceive the way he is received by the world—if, that is, he sees things clearly—and how he actually perceives it. Freud was not the first person to exaggerate criticism, nor would he have shown himself particularly mythopoeic in doing so. Finally Sulloway has examined with evident profit much of Freud’s personal library and he has noted the marginalia.

Not surprisingly this literary diet has taken its toll, and after long stretches of Sulloway’s prose the reader will find himself longing for the sprightlier style of the septuagenarian Ernest Jones. However, not merely does Sulloway relate Freud’s ideas to those of his period, which Jones was never concerned to do, but in very many cases his account of the evolution of Freud’s ideas is more coherent and detailed than that of Jones, with its commitment to rather Procrustean categories of thought and life. In very many cases, but not in all. Because as the work draws to a conclusion, and (presumably) Sulloway gains in confidence about his interpretation of Freud, he begins to lose interest in resuming Freud’s ideas, and in consequence with the final phase of Freudian theory the book abandons its claim to comprehensiveness. Freud’s revised theory of anxiety is, for instance, allowed a short paragraph.

Nor is Sulloway always an accurate reporter of what Freud actually said. One example should suffice. Toward the end of the book he asks, rhetorically, “Had not Freud himself explicitly instructed his followers to treat all their scientific critics as they would an unanalyzed patient offering ‘resistance’?” He refers the reader to a letter written to Jung. What Freud wrote is this:

Don’t sacrifice anything essential for the sake of paedagogic tact and affability, and don’t deviate too far from me when you are really so close to me, for if you do, we may one day be played off against one another. In my secret heart I am convinced that in our special circumstances the utmost frankness is the best diplomacy. My inclination is to treat those colleagues who offer resistance exactly as we treat patients in the same situation.

But these are peripheral points, and a book as ambitious as Sulloway’s deserves to be judged by reference to its boldest claims. We should ask two questions. Does Sulloway succeed in showing that Freud was essentially a biologist of the mind? And is he convincing in the historical mission that he assigns to the Freud legend? The reader will not be surprised to learn that neither question is as straightforward as at first sight it seems. Nevertheless he would be right to feel that he is owed some sort of answer to each.


An initial problem with Sulloway’s interpretation of Freud is that, if Freud is to be thought of as a biologist throughout his career, the term must be used in changing senses. This is not a fatal objection to the interpretation, and Sulloway himself more or less concedes the point. But as the term changes in meaning the implications of the interpretation shift. And since central to Sulloway’s argument is a contrast between biology and psychology or, more precisely, between psychobiology and pure psychology, the negative implications of the interpretation, or his conclusions about what Freud was not and never was, need careful watching.

Freud’s first teacher was Ernst Brücke, director of the Institute of Physiology in Vienna, and through Brücke, who had belonged to the famous Berlin circle of scientists of the 1840s that included du Bois-Reymond and Helmholtz, Freud inherited a strict materialism, rejecting anything other than chemical-physical forces.

However, as an aspiring specialist in nervous diseases he came across many phenomena that witnessed to the role of ideas in bodily functioning. So in his consulting room he saw patients with symptoms that were demarcated not according to the laws of neuroanatomy but in line with our ordinary concepts: a hysterical woman, for instance, would suffer from a paralysis of the arm, meaning that part of the body exposed by a sleeveless dress, even though this paralysis does not correspond to the anatomical distributions governing organic paralysis.

In Paris, working with the great Charcot at the Salpêtrière medical complex, Freud had regularly observed symptoms identical with those of hysterical sufferers artifically induced by hypnotic suggestion—in other words, by the insertion of a well-chosen idea into the subject’s mind. And, finally and most significantly for his future development, Freud recalled having been told by an older colleague and friend, the distinguished Josef Breuer, of a remarkable patient who had some years before come to him for treatment. The patient was riddled with symptoms each in its content recording some painful moment in the nursing of her dying father, and the treatment had consisted in getting the patient to trace back the symptoms, one by one, to the event in which it had initiated and to re-experience the event, after which the symptoms lifted. This was Anna O, the case was written up in a joint publication of Freud’s and Breuer’s, and what Anna O herself called the “talking cure” exercised a powerful influence on the form psychoanalytic therapy was to take.

Awareness of these and related phenomena did not alter Freud’s ontology. He saw no need to introduce or recognize new forces. But he apprehended that questions of ontology and questions of explanation can be considered separately, and throughout the 1890s—a period that is, rightly, of prime interest to Sulloway—Freud experimented with a number of different patterns of explanation, which were devised to cohere with strict materialism but at the same time to do justice to the newly established place of what Freud’s philosophy teacher, Franz Brentano, called “intentionality” in neurotic disorder. Of the various efforts made in this direction the most spectacular is the “Scientific Project” communicated to Freud’s intellectual aid and ally of the time, Wilhelm Fliess, in a letter written in the autumn of 1895 and only retrieved after Freud’s death.

Now the issue of Sulloway’s interpretation of Freud as far as these early years are concerned—and of whether during this period he is rightly viewed as a psychobiologist rather than as a pure psychologist—comes down to what we make of these various explanatory models and how far they go in trying to accommodate intentionality. The issue in effect breaks up into two distinct questions. The first is, What actual models of explanation did Freud devise in these years, and in particular which ones had an enduring influence upon his thinking? And the second is, How ought we to apply the contrasting concepts of the “biological” and the “psychological” to models of explanation, and specifically at what point should we draw the line and have to think that Freud left biology behind?


The surprising thing about Freud, Biologist of the Mind is that, though Sulloway addresses himself energetically to the first question, and accumulates much material, some of it new, he is casual in his approach to the second question. Yet the issue of demarcation is vital to his thesis. At one point, for instance, in considering the lasting influence of Wilhelm Fliess and his theories of biorhythm upon Freud—a fascinating topic—Sulloway notes that Freud continued to ascribe a considerable importance to biological periodicity in psychic life. This, he implies, suffices to secure Freud for the biological cause. But does it? Surely a crucial factor here is how Freud thought that the periodic cycles of human biology are internally or mentally represented in the psyche, or whether indeed they operate on the psyche directly and without any mediating idea. (Sulloway’s position on this issue seems to be very close to that of Jacques Lacan and his followers, who believe that, once any internal or mental representation of biology is conceded, the status of psychoanalysis as a psychology is lost.)

It is true that, for much of the time, as I have indicated, Sulloway prefers the opposition of psychobiology and pure psychology to that of biology and psychology, which at one point he says imposes a “rigid dichotomy.” But this does not meet my objection. For just the same question arises how Sulloway’s preferred pair of terms apply to models of explanation such as those the early Freud produced; and it might not be wild to think that the subtler contrast which Sulloway prefers is best understood through grasping the cruder contrast of which it is a refinement.

But suppose we permit Sulloway silence on this vital methodological point. There is still something which we might expect from a man of his particular scholarly interests and that is an account of how the categories of the psychological and the biological were actually used in Freud’s own day, and in particular how they were applied to explanations of mental disorder. Such an inquiry would throw light on how Freud saw the possibilities that were open to him, and it is obviously crucial if we are to understand the ways in which he characterized his own efforts. For instance, the estrangement between Freud and Breuer is often said to have come about because Freud saw the necessity, which Breuer denied, of a more psychological approach to the psychoneuroses. Sulloway has missed the opportunity of providing us with the philological materials for understanding what was at issue here between the two men. Had he done the appropriate research, not only might he have had something more substantial to tell us about the nature of the breach between Freud and Breuer—a matter on which he is scornful of the conventional explanations—but he might have clarified his own thesis as far as Freud’s early years are concerned.*

However for the later years of Freud’s career Sulloway’s interpretation of him as a biologist rests on very different kinds of evidence, and it seeks to relate Freud’s thought to an altogether different aspect of biology—that is, evolutionary biology. Freud’s mature theory is biological, or psychobiological, in that it is constructed around the fundamental biogenetic law, which in Ernst Haeckel’s slogan asserts that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” In other words, the life-history of the individual reproduces the life-history of the species. However, this recapitulation is not to be thought of, scientifically speaking, as a mere coincidence. The life of the individual is to be understood through the history of the species. In adopting the biogenetic approach, Freud, according to Sulloway, effects a shift in the pattern of explanation he prefers. “Proximate” explanations give way to, or are supplemented by, “ultimate explanations,” and what in Freud’s earlier phase was thought to derive from the individual’s infantile experience is now recognized to be fundamentally the residue of archaic deeds and impulses. In Sulloway’s words, “Human prehistory holds the final key to understanding human behavior.”

Commentators on Freud have always experienced some difficulty in dealing with those views of his which are unashamedly Lamarckian and which credit the innate unconscious with the accumulated legacy of acquired characteristics. Sulloway deals with this embarrassment by boldly asserting that these views constitute the core of Freud’s final theory. The move is bold, and it certainly puts parts of Freud’s theory in a new light. It is, for instance, an interesting suggestion that it was biogenetic reasoning that sustained Freud in his equation of infantile sensuality with infantile sexuality.

But the interpretation needs to be assessed by the sense it makes of the later theory as a whole, and conveniently enough Sulloway proposes a way of testing his interpretation. He identifies three problems that remained intractable for Freud’s pre-1910 thinking. They are, first, the nature of repression; second, why the repression of sex?; and third, the choice of one neurosis rather than another. Sulloway’s identification of these problems is perceptive, and he then goes on to argue for his interpretation of Freud by maintaining, first, that evolutionary biology and only evolutionary biology could provide Freud with solutions to these problems, and, secondly, that these were just the solutions that Freud accepted. The test is set out in Chapter 10, and I doubt that a level-headed reader will find that Sulloway’s interpretation passes that test.

Let us take as an example the second problem that Sulloway picks out. The problem, spelled out, is, Why does sex, and sex alone, undergo pathological repression? Now, if it is correct to think that Freud’s final answer to this problem was a phylogenetic, or evolutionary, answer, then the answer lies in the hypothesis of “organic repression.” According to this hypothesis, man’s adoption of the upright posture led him to devalue the olfactory and to replace it with the visual, and with this evolution many aspects of sexuality become repellent (as well as remaining attractive) and so expose themselves to repression. In other words, the ancient connection between animal sexuality and pleasure in smell ensures that, when sexuality is rehearsed within humanity, it is exposed to the same condemnation as smell itself.

Now every reader of Freud knows that this hypothesis played a significant and enduring role in his thinking. It is already mentioned in the Fliess correspondence, recurs in the “Rat Man case,” and receives its most sustained treatment in Civilization and Its Discontents. But to place it in the foreground, as Sulloway does, seems unjustified for at least three reasons.

In the first place, the scope of the hypothesis is too narrow for the purposes for which it is required. If it can account for the condemnation of anal and (to some degree) genital sexuality, the repression of oral sexuality remains unexplained. Yet Freud was constantly being reminded of the pathogenic role of repressed oral impulses. Secondly, there is no sign of that effort to integrate this hypothesis with the rest of psychoanalytic theory which we might have expected of Freud, had the hypothesis been as fundamental to his thinking as Sulloway’s interpretation maintains. In particular Freud never tried to relate it to the revised theory of anxiety. Thirdly, and most tellingly, Freud never felt that he had a final answer to the problem, Why the repression of sex?—and, this being so, the raison d’être for Sulloway’s speculation lapses. In An Outline of Psychoanalysis, begun in 1938 and left unfinished at his death, Freud writes of this very problem, “The gap in our theory cannot at present be filled.”

With greater philosophical acuity about the relations between the biological and the psychological, with less dogmatic insistence upon a bright historical speculation, Sulloway’s interpretation of Freud could have permitted us fresh insights into the nature of his theory. Sulloway is absolutely right to insist against a number of contemporary commentators that for Freud the importance of biology in the psyche was and remained a central tenet. But Sulloway has failed to perceive that the crucial question is, How does biology assert and maintain its importance? It is only if we have an answer to this question that the issue of the extent to which Freud’s theory was biological and the extent to which it was psychological acquires an interest. And to answer this question analytical as well as archival industry is required.

The second issue on which Sulloway’s book should be judged is his examination of the Freud legend and the historical role he ascribes to it.

For Sulloway there are two crucial elements in the iconography of Freud. The legend presents Freud as a solitary figure who endured the scorn and indifference of his contemporaries, and it also credits him with absolute originality. Freud’s heroic status derives from the fusion of these two elements, and it is through fusing them, according to Sulloway, that the legend serves the interests of a revolutionary science which claims to have no past, no roots, and to owe its plausibility to a body of evidence which it is uniquely competent to elicit.

Obviously the historical truth of the Freud legend is not directly relevant to the historical mission that Sulloway ascribes to it. In principle the legend could accurately rehearse the events of Freud’s life and yet it could also have been devised to validate a revolutionary science, to place that science beyond the reach of contemporary criticism and to guarantee it unique attention. Nevertheless Sulloway recognizes that in such circumstances his hypothesis would be hard to establish against rival hypotheses. Why, for instance, should not the so-called legend have grown up because the early psychoanalysts wanted to record the truth as they saw it before it got forgotten, or because the dangers of incomprehension and misunderstanding seemed to them vast and imminent?

But having recognized this, Sulloway is less than strenuous in showing how, or indeed that, fact and legend diverge.

An example: The legend has it that Freud alienated many of his scientific colleagues through his insistence on the role of sexuality. Sulloway, who in more than one place lets it be known that, if this was their reaction, he is in some measure of sympathy with them, starts with a half-hearted attempt to deny that this was their reaction. But then he shifts his ground and says that what alienated Freud’s scientific colleagues was not what he said but how he chose to say it.

Or, again, Sulloway thinks that the importance assigned to Freud’s self-analysis for his theory of infantile sexual impulses is intended to endorse Freud’s heroic status and to depreciate the influence of the sexologists of the day. But doesn’t something depend upon what happened in Freud’s self-analysis? The difficulty here, as Sulloway tries hard not to see, is that this question cannot be answered on purely historical evidence. It also requires an estimate of the psychoanalytic process itself and what it is likely to unearth.

But the most disturbing aspect of Sulloway’s treatment of the Freud legend is the arbitrary way in which he assembles the legend itself. It is with a highhandedness reminiscent of Lévi-Strauss that he collects material that comes from very different periods and variegated sources and, lumping it all together, claims it deserves a common functional explanation. This arbitrariness emerges forcefully when Sulloway toward the end of his book provides a “catalogue” of the various individual myths—he lists twenty-six—which make up the legend. Each myth is assigned a content, a function, and in the last column a set of texts which are its source. Casting his eye down the final column, the reader will notice such altogether different material as Freud’s Autobiographical Study, written in 1925 before the future of psychoanalysis could have been thought secure; the long life of Freud by Ernest Jones, begun over twenty-five years later and which looks back upon the establishment of psychoanalysis as a fait accompli; a number of popularizing books of the kind in which commonplaces are to be expected; and Fritz Wittels’s monograph on Freud, of which Freud said that it was “bad, unreliable and misleading.” In what sense does this heterogeneous mixture add up to a single legend? We need an answer before this part of Sulloway’s book can even be assessed.

Reading a very long book is an act of loyalty, and there are times when Sulloway strains the reader’s allegiance. This can happen simply because he allows the argument to drift in the eddies of freely associated scholarship. One example is to be found in the discussion of The Interpretation of Dreams, which Sulloway introduces as one of Freud’s “least understood” books. A few pages further on and the book has become one of Freud’s “most misunderstood” books. Both views are decidedly plausible, but either way around we should like to know just what aspects of the book Sulloway has in mind and how they were misread. Then he tells us. “Foremost” among the misunderstandings of The Interpretation of Dreams is the view that it was badly received at the time. The next thing we know is that Sulloway is off countering the myth and informing us that The Interpretation of Dreams and the companion essay On Dreams between them received at least thirty reviews totaling 17,000 words and averaging 570 words each.

If this is an awesome example of how to lose a train of thought, it is equally disturbing that certain trains of thought do not come to the surface at all. Sulloway writes as a revisionist historian of the psychoanalytic movement. A legitimate source of curiosity on the part of anyone reading such a work—or so it strikes me—is what kind of explanation its author would prefer to the psychoanalytic. No one, for instance, reading Paul Roazen’s gossipy Freud and His Followers could be in much doubt about how its author conceives human nature. Sulloway leaves us in the dark. Except, that is, for one footnote. This footnote struck me as so strange that for that reason as well as for fear of distortion I reproduce it verbatim:

If Freud displayed many of the qualities of a firstborn, as Ansbacher enumerates (on the basis of Adler’s own theories), Freud also possessed many important laterborn traits, such as his high degree of intellectual nonconformity. Freud was his mother’s firstborn child but his father’s third son; and until he was almost four years old, his two elder brothers lived nearby, as did his nephew and childhood playmate John. The latter, who was one year Freud’s senior, was Freud’s eldest brother’s son. When the Freud family moved to Vienna from Freiberg in 1859, the two elder brothers, along with nephew John, immigrated to Manchester, England. (For further details on Freud’s unusual family constellation, see Jones 1953: 8-14). In my view, to be elaborated more fully in a future publication on birth order and revolutionary temperament in science, Freud was a birth-order “hybrid,” simultaneously displaying qualities of both firstborn and laterborn temperaments….

This Issue

November 8, 1979