Two recent Freud-inspired exhibitions in New York, Freud: Conflict and Culture, sponsored by the Library of Congress, at the Jewish Museum, and Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections,1 at the Guggenheim Museum, suggest that Freud still commands considerable interest and esteem. Both exhibitions sought to com-municate key Freudian ideas with maximum visual impact—obviously so in the case of the Surrealism show, but also in the Library of Congress display, which included film clips, home movies of Freud himself, a re-creation of Freud’s study, and artfully contrived displays that formulated Freud’s characteristic doctrines.

Freud’s impact has indeed always been larger in the arts than the sciences. The Surrealism exhibition did not, however, seek to assess the cogency of Freud’s doctrines, and the pictures (by Magritte, Dali, and others) can obviously have artistic value independent of the truth of those theories. Freud: Conflict and Culture attracted some controversy while it was being planned, mainly owing to what was seen by some as a partisan endorsement of Freud’s theories; essays by several of Freud’s recent critics were then added to the accompanying volume.2

But that controversy was merely the most recent in the history of debate over psychoanalysis, which began with many of Freud’s own closest colleagues, and no doubt his work will remain controversial for years to come. For there are two sharply conflicting images of Freud’s status as a thinker and innovator: Is he a bold and brilliant scientist who challenges orthodoxy and thus invites calumny, or an opportunistic founder of a crack-brained cult with little or no intellectual credibility? Or does the truth lie between these two extremes?

I have no vested interest in the answer to this question. Like many another child of the twentieth century I have absorbed Freudian lore from the culture, and in my late teens I was fascinated by Freud’s writings. But I have never had psychoanalysis; nor, unlike a good many other philosophers, have I ever taken a stand on the truth of Freud’s theories in print. Freud: Conflict and Culture presented an opportunity for me to reread Freud’s work with a critical eye. What follows is an evaluation of Freud’s ideas from what I hope is an impartial perspective.


In order to understand the speculative innovations Freud introduced into the study of the human mind it is necessary to understand the normal way we explain human behavior, because Freud’s explanatory structures are basically extensions of this normal way. The core of our ordinary psychological understanding revolves around the notion of motive—desire, want, wish, reason. We understand an action when we know what motivated it. The motives for action are usually clear, since action itself usually indicates the motive that prompts it. Why am I paying money to the cashier in a supermarket? So that I can buy food and eventually eat it. We generally act in order to fulfill our manifest wishes. Sometimes the motive for action can be obscure, as when you see me searching frantically in a drawer and don’t know that I left a lot of money in there and now can’t find it. Motives are internal mental states that cause action and that make sense of action; action is seen as rational in the light of the motives that lead to it.

We clearly have a great many motives of many different kinds, and they constitute the explanation of what we do. Action is fundamentally the attempted satisfaction of desire. Moreover, we typically know what our motives in acting are: we are self-conscious beings, aware of the internal mental states that move us. We thus have a large degree of self-understanding: we know the explanation of our own actions simply because we have awareness of our motives. As we say, these motives are conscious. This is a peculiar feature of us: objects do not know what it is about them that causes them to behave as they do—planets or plants, say. Of course, we don’t know the full explanation of everything we do. We all have had the experience of inexplicably forgetting things or losing things, for example, and we may assume that some unconscious processes are involved. But we typically know the central part of the psychological explanation of our actions. We have motivational self-knowledge.

It is essential to Freud’s conception of human psychology that these two features of our minds—the existence of motives and our awareness of them—can come apart: there can be motives for action operating within us of which we are not aware. Precisely by severing motive from self-conscious understanding Freud radically extended the field of motive-based explanation. His idea of the unconscious is the idea of a reservoir of motives that explain and give sense to actions but are not part of the subject’s self-understanding. There are three main kinds of experience in which this extension of motive-based explanation is exploited by Freud: dreams, the slips of the tongue or bungled actions he called parapraxes, and neurotic symptoms.


In each of these, Freud speaks repeatedly of giving sense to phenomena that otherwise appear senseless—that appear not to serve any recognizable motive of the agent’s. When we examine a dream or a slip of the tongue or a neurotic symptom such as obsessive handwashing we often can discern no motive that is served by these occurrences—no wish that is being fulfilled. They seem meaningless, random, pointless. The person who experiences them can seldom supply us with a motive for producing these odd phenomena. Freud’s master thesis is that this is a superficial appearance: there are in fact motives here that make perfect sense of such seemingly chaotic events, but they are not motives that are consciously present to the subject. All of Freud’s basic ideas stem from this fundamental assumption—the universality of motive-based explanation. And in my view their weaknesses and implausibilities trace back to this initial starting point, with some help along the way. Moreover, it is an assumption that Freud never seriously questioned; to him it just seemed obvious that there is always some kind of rationality to human action. Hence his central guiding principle that wish fulfillment is at the root of every mental product.

Consider Freud’s theory of dreams. It consists of a number of tightly linked propositions: Sleep is a desired withdrawal from the world. We wish to preserve sleep against internal and external disturbances. The function of dreams is to preserve sleep. Freud writes:

A need for food makes itself felt in a dreamer during his sleep: he has a dream of a delicious meal and sleeps on. The choice, of course, was open to him either of waking up and eating something or continuing his sleep. He decided in favor of the latter and satisfied his hunger by means of the dream—for the time being, at all events, for if his hunger had persisted he would have had to wake up nevertheless.3

We have desires that might disturb sleep and dreams enable us to fulfill these desires in fantasy without waking up. It is not always obvious, however, what the wish is that a dream fulfills. So to explain the dream the wish has to be an unconscious one, not apparent from the content of the dream. The dream must therefore have a latent as well as a manifest content.

But why should there be this distinction in the content of dreams? Because, according to Freud, some wishes are repugnant to the subject’s conscious mind, on account of their sexual nature. In dreams, then, the standard repression of these taboo desires is partially lifted, the “censor” that is part of our makeup is evaded, and the wish becomes fulfilled in a distorted symbolic form. So dreams must incorporate symbols for the objects of repressed sexual desires. These desires spring from childhood, a period of experiences now safely repressed, at least most of the time, and they reflect the sexual feelings of that period. Dreams are thus essentially the distorted fulfillment of repressed infantile desires.

What underlies this theory is the assumption that dreams are invariably wish fulfillments, actions with a motive behind them—as it might be, the desire to have sex with one’s mother. To “interpret” a dream is to discern this unconscious motive. But this theory raises a number of troubling questions: Why do dreams sometimes wake us up if their function is to preserve sleep? How can it be that a dream can fulfill a potentially sleep-disturbing desire without actually doing anything to satisfy that desire—a wish for food or sex, say? What about common anxiety dreams that represent something feared, not wished for?

Freud’s belief that wish fulfillment always accounts for the content of dreams lies behind each of these questions: the wish to sleep is the reason dreams occur to begin with; dreams are said to fulfill wishes by means of fantasizing their fulfillment; there have to be unconscious wishes behind even the most obvious anxiety dream. But none of these Freudian claims is really plausible. We could certainly sleep without dreaming—we often do—so that dreams are hardly required to sustain sleep (or is it that when we are not dreaming our unsatisfied desires go into some kind of quiescence?). Dreams may be necessary for mental health, but not for the possibility of sleep itself. It is strange to suppose that merely dreaming that your wish is fulfilled is a way of fulfilling your wish. If I daydream about a hearty meal when I am feeling hungry this is liable to make me more hungry, not less so. And don’t sexual daydreams inflame sexual desire rather than satisfy it? Dreaming that a wish is fulfilled is not at all the same as having a wish fulfilled in your dream—any more than believing I am Jesus Christ is a way of being Jesus Christ.


Why, moreover, insist that all dreams are dreams of wishes fulfilled when so many are plainly not? It is this insistence that leads to the hunt for unconscious wishes, dream symbolism, and all the rest. Why not simply accept that some dreams represent conscious wishes and some represent conscious fears? People may dream both about passing exams at school and also about failing them. And they can have many obscurer kinds of dream whose relation to the dreamer’s waking life and past experience are far from clear. Why, for example, do we sometimes dream of bungling school exams that occurred long ago? May it be that a current state of anxiety gets attached to an early instance of it?

But why should the puzzling nature of many dreams be taken as evidence of hidden wishes being fulfilled? True, we would have to give up the thesis that the function of dreams is to preserve sleep by satisfying desires; but haven’t we just found a straight counterexample to that theory in the shape of simple anxiety dreams? Freud’s theory imposes a psychic unity on dreams that just isn’t there.

Furthermore, why is the mechanism of repression so feeble during sleep when it is so powerful during waking hours? We would expect that an efficient repression mechanism would simply block all access of the unconscious to consciousness; but during sleep it mysteriously loses its iron grip and lets material through that is normally repressed. Is it that the censor itself falls asleep during sleep and allows desires through that it normally catches and prohibits?

Again, this problem arises because Freud is assuming that there must be a wish behind every dream, which compels him to postulate unconscious wishes that are partially manifest in the content of the dream. It is not that dreams lead one inexorably to the idea of the unconscious; rather, that idea is forced upon us once we make the initial assumption that there must be a motivating wish behind every dream, whether it is apparent to the subject or not. We don’t need an unconscious to interpret an anxiety dream if we simply take it that the dream is about what it seems to be about, for example, something we are, or were, anxious about, such as passing an exam. Fears prey on the mind in sleep as in wakefulness; anxiety dreams are therefore not a way of satisfying some further hidden wish I have—they are just the fear itself dominating my mind.

Consider animal dreams: for Freud they presumably do not involve repressed infantile sexual desires, so are they all of the conscious wishes of the animal being wonderfully fulfilled? Clearly not: it can be apparent from the behavior of a sleeping dog, say, that it is dreaming of something that causes it anxiety, and it would be silly to suppose that this must be a mere manifest dream content that masks an unconscious wish that the dog is dreamily satisfying. Why shouldn’t the same be true of us? And notice again that if we do accept the heterogeneity of dreams the need for the unconscious disappears; nothing about dreams themselves forces us to accept the unconscious and its repression mechanism. A patient of Freud’s once pointed out to him that she had an anxiety dream of something she very much wanted to avoid, so that his wish-fulfillment theory of dreaming had to be wrong. His reply was that she had dreamed this in order to refute his theory, the wish to discomfort him being unconscious.4 Clearly that is not a good way to argue that dreams always represent the fulfillment of unconscious wishes.

The Freudian unconscious is not to be confused with the preconscious—which is his term for such mental phenomena as memories not currently present to the mind but capable of being recalled on demand—or with the kind of subconscious mental processing favored by contemporary cognitive science, the processing, for example, by which we convert the patterns of light and darkness into intelligible visual images. Indeed, there are unconscious processes at work in all cases of mental functioning, as the brain works subconsciously to generate our conscious mental life. In the case of the conscious understanding of speech, for example, Noam Chomsky has argued convincingly that there is a highly structured system of unconscious representation of the rules of grammar in our heads. Memory itself operates by means of processes of which we are not consciously aware. But these kinds of unconscious processes are different in kind from Freud’s conception of the unconscious. The Freudian unconscious is essentially a system of actively repressed desires, memories, and feelings—those charged with “negative affect,” by which Freud meant emotional distress of one kind or another. We have become so accustomed to this idea of repression that we tend to take it for granted as an established mental mechanism, but in fact it is full of difficulties.

Of course, we are all familiar with the mental act of suppressing a desire, of rendering it inactive. This occurs when we have a (conscious) desire that we desire not to have—say, a desire to eat lots of ice cream combined with a desire not to have this desire. But there is nothing unconscious about any of this: we know what we desire and we knowingly set about suppressing this desire, decoupling it from action. Mental life is overflowing with such deliberate acts of desire suppression. But Freudian repression is not meant to be anything like this; it is meant to be totally unconscious. Freud’s thesis is that when a desire or memory is felt as unpleasant or shameful or in serious conflict with other desires there is a mechanism in our heads that works to render this mental state unconscious to us. Nor is it the case that we are always initially conscious of such a mental state and then consciously render it unconscious. Sometimes the whole operation occurs unconsciously—in fact, most of the time, since repression works constantly in us to keep unpleasant mental states from consciousness.

This is a very puzzling idea when you consider it closely. In the first place, it appears to be simply not true that unpleasant desires and memories are subject to repression as a matter of course. We all have many painful memories and shameful desires of which we are persistently and naggingly conscious. Why do some get repressed and some do not, according to Freud? The presence of “negative affect” cannot be the explanation.5 So far as I can see from my own introspection, it is quite impossible for me to render unconscious these disturbing mental states—if only it were possible!

Children are supposed by Freud to be particularly adroit at this operation of repression. But why can they achieve easily what I am unable to bring about as an adult? Am I not usually more in control of my mental life than a mere child? I am sure I have forgotten much that I once knew, but I have to report that I don’t know of a single desire or memory I have ever repressed, in Freud’s sense. I have no evidence, either from manifest gaps in my memory or from the testimony of other people, that any such motivated forgetting has occurred in me. Freudians would say that such a statement misses the point, and that what is repressed generally cannot be remembered, unless one is analyzed. But the question of repression is not that simple. We should not, of course, confuse knowing I have forgotten something with actually remembering that which is still forgotten. It is perfectly possible to have indirect evidence of memory lapses of various kinds, and hence knowledge that something has been forgotten. For example, suppose you and I both see the same movie and years later you remember it and I do not; you might then inform me that I must have forgotten what you remember me observing, and so I come to know that I have forgotten seeing the movie.

My point then is that I don’t know of any case in which such a lapse of memory on my part is attributable to repression. Some memories or desires fade through time, some retreat in centrality; but I don’t know of any case in which I once had a desire or memory and now have it safely repressed. Surely if repression were as pervasive as Freud suggests, I should occasionally think: “I used to have a very bad memory about X, but now I can’t remember it at all”—just as I now know that I used to have a good knowledge of Italian but can remember very little of it today. In fact, painful memories seem to me particularly insistent and consciously present.

Nor do I find that specifically sexual desires that I would prefer not to have ever become repressed, just (at best) suppressed, that is, kept from being acted on. I suspect that the whole idea of Freudian repression is a myth, despite its popular currency. But if repression is a dubious postulation, then so too is the Freudian unconscious, since it is defined as the sum total of what has been repressed: the idea of the bubbling mental cauldron with the lid half on is also a myth. The bubbling is all out in the open, just where it seems to be.

Secondly, there is a deep conceptual problem with the very idea of unconscious repression, as Sartre pointed out long ago in Being and Nothingness.6 Freud believed there was a special agency of repression, which he called the censor, rooted (like all his other constructs) somewhere in the nervous system. The censor has to detect which desires to repress and which to admit into consciousness, as when it works to determine the content of dreams. Revealingly, Freud writes:

Let us…compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like separate individuals. Adjoining this entrance hall there is a second, narrower, room—a kind of drawing room—in which consciousness, too, resides. But on the threshold between the two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing-room if they displease him. 7

But how can the censor do this without itself being conscious of the desires it represses? A real-life censor is aware of both what he passes and what he prohibits, but Freud’s censor is somehow supposed to know what to prohibit and simultaneously not to know it. The idea of repression thus appears incoherent. This argument about the contradictions of the censor may seem based on purely logical analysis. But the more you think about it the more you see that the idea of unconscious repression is impossible: you cannot repress something whose existence is not known to you, but if you know of it then it is not unconscious. And if the censor must be aware of the contents of the unconscious, then what is the point of repression after all—wasn’t it meant to block such awareness? Or does the censor itself contain a repression mechanism to protect it from the desires it represses? But then the same question would arise again about this censor within a censor. The idea of the unconscious cannot be made to cohere with the idea of the censor, and hence with the Freudian concept of repression.

But repression is precisely what is supposed to give rise to the unconscious. There is no Freudian unconscious without repression, but repression entails consciousness, so the concept is contradictory. You might think you could avoid this problem by distinguishing the ego—the conscious self—from the censor, so that the latter is conscious of repressed desires but the former is not. But the censor is at the service of the ego, protecting it, so it cannot be cut off from the ego’s preferences. And what is the point of protecting the ego from these unpleasant mental states if the censor has to endure awareness of them anyway? Not to mention the bizarre character of a theory of several centers of homuncular consciousness in each person’s head.

Then, too, there is the fallibility of repression, even by Freud’s own admission. Why is it so poor at its job? It can make desires unconscious, but it cannot prevent them from erupting in dreams, parapraxes, and neurosis. That is no way to build an efficient repression mechanism. If we are biologically equipped with such a mechanism, then Mother Nature has given us a very shabbily designed piece of mental equipment. As soon as we start dreaming it becomes foiled, leaking great clumps of material into our accessible mental life, desperately covering its ineptitude with symbols and distortions.

The only answer to this question that can be discerned in Freud is that unconscious desires have a kind of mental energy attached to them that presses for release, like steam in a defective pressure cooker. But this kind of energic model is little more than a metaphor (in what units is such energy to be measured?), and anyway it invites the question of how repression can take some of the energy out of these forbidden desires but not enough of it to keep them under full control. How is it that repression has the amazing power to render a conscious mental state unconscious and yet cannot manage to prevent that mental state from causing slips of the tongue? I myself find that I can quite easily prevent my conscious mental states from causing slips of the tongue, but I am quite powerless to make them unconscious. The strengths and lapses of the repressing censor are peculiar and unexplained, dictated more by dogmatic theory than by actual observation and internal coherence.


Repression and sex go tightly together in Freud. His entire theory of sexual development is based on the claim that the infant is a sexual being who is brought to repress its sexuality through mainly parental forces. Here we find the famous oral, anal, and genital phases, the Oedipus complex, castration anxiety, penis envy, the latency period—the psychodrama of the child’s early sexual life that results either in mature healthy sexuality or in neurosis. Reading Freud’s own presentations of the reasons for proposing this elaborate theory one is continually struck by the warping of language, the unwarranted speculative leaps, and the sheer implausibility of many of his claims.

It is not the thesis that the child is sexually active that causes offense; it is the contortions of theory that Freud indulges in, and the lack of any convincing evidence for his very bold claims. It is a crucial claim of Freud’s that the genitals are not the sole site and point of sexual satisfaction for the infant: the mouth and anus also are sexually charged.

The natural objection to this claim, which Freud anticipated in his discussions, is that it seems to conflate pleasure in general with sexual pleasure specifically. Granted that the child obtains pleasure from its mouth and anus, during sucking and defecation; but why insist on calling this sexual pleasure, especially when the genitals are not yet supposed to be involved in the infant’s sexual feelings and activities? The obvious alternative description is that the mouth affords the pleasure associated with eating and the anus with the pleasure of release. These pleasures are not in adulthood sexual in nature, so why are they in the infant? They are pleasures associated with bodily organs, indeed, but they are not specifically sexual pleasures in any interesting sense of the term.

Freud never explains satisfactorily why he insists on calling these oral and anal activities phases of sexual development; the best you get is the lame suggestion that babies look as if they have had an orgasm after they contentedly finish sucking.8 It can hardly be because the mouth and anus can be deployed during adult genital sex, since Freud is sensible enough to acknowledge that this cannot be part of the world of the infant; his claim is rather that the infant is engaged in non-genital sex when it sucks and defecates. Freud simply refuses to distinguish between sexual pleasure and other somatically based pleasures, apparently out of a misplaced desire for theoretical unity (as he also does with dreams and wish fulfillment).

Freud suggests that children go into a sexual latency period as a result of repression, this being occasioned by the notorious Oedipus complex. He cites childhood amnesia—the forgetting of the early years of life—as evidence in support of his idea of repression, not noticing that most of our memories from this period will not be of the kind that call for repression. Surely there is no reason for the child to repress memories of every experience in the first three or so years of life. The Oedipus complex that is said to precipitate this alleged repression has so permeated ordinary thought about childhood and sex that it is difficult now to stand back from it and examine it critically; but if we do, I think it must strike us as a farfetched and unsupported conjecture. Is it really true that little boys desire—consciously desire—sexual relations with their mother and believe that their father intends to castrate them for harboring this desire? Here is a typical formulation from Freud:

When a boy (from the age of two or three) has entered the phallic phase of his libidinal development, is feeling pleasurable sensations in his sexual organ and has learnt to procure these at will by man-ual stimulation, he becomes his mother’s lover. He wishes to possess her physically in such ways as he has divined from his observations and intuitions about sexual life, and he tries to seduce her by showing her the male organ which he is so proud to own…. At last his mother adopts the severest measures; she threatens to take away from him the thing he is defying her with. Usually, in order to make the threat more frightening and credible, she delegates its execution to the boy’s father, saying that she will tell him and that he will cut the penis off…. But if at the time of the threat he can recall the appearance of female genitals or if shortly afterwards he has a sight of them—of genitals, that is to say, which really lack this supremely valued part, then he takes what he has learned seriously and, coming under the influence of the castration complex, experiences the severest trauma of his young life.9

What is the evidence for this amazing suggestion? (Note that all of these thoughts and emotions are held to be conscious in the child; it is only when castration anxiety eventually sets in that these mental states are repressed into unconsciousness.) At the least one would want to see a careful empirical investigation into the desires and fears of male infants, which should not in principle be too hard to obtain. It is not enough to erect this hypothesis merely upon the basis of what neurotic adult Viennese patients at the turn of the century suggestibly say to their theoretically committed analyst.

As for the claim that little girls suffer from penis envy and consequent resentment toward their mother for not giving them one, leading to a shift of sexual fixation onto the father, this must be one of the most questionable ideas ever seriously entertained by intelligent people. Again, what is the hard evidence from the observation of girl children for it? Freud offers none. And why not suppose that boys suffer from breast envy instead? Or indeed clitoris-vagina envy? Why is the penis thought to be the ultimate treasure? And do other female animals show the same feelings of genital inferiority? Do young female monkeys, say, suffer from penis envy when they observe male monkeys with their appendages dangling?

Freud would have done well to consider animal psychology more closely in developing a theory of sexual development; despite his avowed Darwinism, he presupposes radical discontinuities between human and animal psychology, especially in relation to sex. Surely it is far more reasonable to suppose that girls and boys are aware that as different sexes they naturally possess different kinds of genitals; it is not that somehow girls are natural castrati, bringing fear of castration to boys and resentment at their own deficiencies. Freud deserves credit for acknowledging that children are sexual beings, but let us not stuff their heads with erotic thoughts that they are not sophisticated enough to form and that we lack any evidence to believe they have.10 Nor is it at all credible to suppose, as Freud does, that such alleged psychic configurations lie behind all neuroses, even the likes of wartime shell shock. Here again Freud overgeneralizes wildly: yes, excessive sexual discipline and trauma can lead to neurosis in later life, but that is very far from the claim that all mental woes have a sexual basis in childhood.

What of the id, the ego, and the superego—weren’t these important discoveries? Freud’s expositions of this tripartite division within the mind tend to be unrelentingly homuncular: he speaks as if these were three full selves within the mind, each competing for attention, as if the mind were really a society of warring factions.11 This must presumably be taken as metaphor, however, and when it is so taken the division seems to me perfectly acceptable. We do indeed possess a reservoir of instincts or innate tendencies (an “id”), a self that responds to and negotiates external reality (an “ego”), and a conscience that governs our sense of moral worth (a “superego”). To say this may have been helpful to some people, but it is not clear that there was anything new or particularly interesting about it: of course human beings have a set of innate desires and a set of moral beliefs, which may come into conflict, as well as a self that oversees such conflicts.

But Freud has some distinctive ideas about the content and formation of these mental systems that are anything but banal. Among our instincts he supposes an instinct for death as well as for life (“thanatos” as well as “eros”); but this is scarcely credible on biological grounds, since an animal with a death instinct is hardly likely to do well in the game of survival and reproduction. And are other animals supposed to have such a death instinct? Insofar as we have self-destructive desires, how are we to account for them as part of our instinctual biological endowment? Also incredible is Freud’s theory of conscience, namely that it is the internalized result of parental and societal prohibitions. That may have some truth for the prerational phase of child development; and the prohibitions and punishments of our childhood obviously affect the formation of our personalities. But they surely do not account for all the moral choices made by the mature reflective beings most of us aspire to be. Our moral faculty is far more free of parental influence than Freud allows, which is why in adulthood we often reject the morality enforced by our parents and their generation. Once again, we see Freud overreaching, procrustean, forcing everything into his narrow theoretical frame. It is not, contrary to the Freudian view, that we don’t want to believe his theories; it is just that we don’t see why we should.

If Freud’s theories are so shaky in their foundations, why does he remain such a popular thinker? Where does his undeniable attraction come from? He is a highly seductive writer, alternately imploring and hectoring, easily able to make the reader feel that she is stodgy and prejudiced and afraid of the truth. He is also an inspired writer: he seems to open up a whole unseen world of drama and structure, an entire hidden layer to human life; under his scrutiny, we are so much deeper than we thought. He offers us, too, the heady joys of explanatory omniscience: we thought something was puzzling and lacking sense, but it turns out that our explanatory powers are far greater than we suspected—he makes us so much more knowing about people.

His emphasis on sex is itself highly seductive. Wittgenstein observed that there is an undeniable appeal in the very repulsiveness of Freud’s picture of the human soul.12 There is something reassuring in the idea that we are all a boiling pit of unspeakable urges which we strive ceaselessly to contain. And it is enticing to believe that one is fighting the forces of sexual suppression and dishonesty—as if to disagree with Freud is to endorse the sanitized vision of human psychology purveyed by sentimental Victorian morality. Freud makes us feel we are party to the dark and thrilling truth about ourselves, brave spirits in a blind world. It is all very appealing, very worldly and wised-up. But it may be that for all of his hold on the twentieth-century mind, for all his modernism and atheism and skepticism, Freud’s theories are just one more myth about human nature—an intoxicating mixture of truth, half-truth, and sheer invention.

This Issue

November 4, 1999