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…

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