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Lecture on Freud

... for the course unit A105 Structure, Thought and Reality: 18 April 1994

In the context of 'inscribing reality,' and of structure, thought and reality, I'll suggest that Freud continues to be a powerful influence in the way we think, particularly about the nature of the human mind. I'll then offer as a case study the history of the 'seduction theory,' and finally refer to some dangerous implications of Freud's theories, referring to Thomas Szasz.

Thank you for allowing me to attend and to speak at this meeting. My name is Garry and I am a Freudaholic.

I can't manage without reaching for a Freud; I think I can have one just Freudian analysis and stop, but I can't: I just have to go on analysing until I'm dead Freuded. My Freudian habit has made me lose my friends: and anyway they're all neurotic, and obsessed with sex. My love for a Freud is disrupting my family life: my children are in the grip of œdipal desires either to murder or to mate with me. And it's damaging my brain: I can't think clearly and simply any more, I keep forgetting what it was that I was going to do, my conscious mind keeps being overtaken by my unconscious (or maybe I should say 'undertaken'); my life is a mess; I've hit bottom. I am a Freudaholic. Perhaps you are too.

No-one readily likes to accept a dependency of this kind. People prefer to believe that they can make one or two Freudian references to relax after work, with the occasional analytic binge on the weekend without it meaning that they are dependent on the stuff, without it meaning that they are Freudaholics to any degree at all. People like to believe in their own free will, in their individuality, that they are in charge of their own destiny, owing nothing to a narcotic of this kind. And yet I suggest that many more people than are prepared to confront it are actually in the grip of a dependence on Freud. Perhaps some of you here today are still resisting admitting to yourselves the extent of your dependency, perhaps you are still in what therapists call 'denial'.

Well, it's understandable, it's forgivable. Freud is still the ideology of choice for a great number of social consumers of ideologies. It's not one of the new designer ideologies, like pomo, and poco, and poststructuralist neomarxism (could we call that 'poneo'?) But it is still an ideology whose use is widespread but whose baleful effects we have yet still to come to terms with.

But your presence here I take to mean that you are prepared to admit the possibility that you are dependent on ideas, on ideologies, on your chosen modes of analysis, conscious or not. For those of you who may still be in denial, or for others of you who want to come to terms with your problem, ask yourselves these questions, and answer them truthfully in the quiet of your own consciousnesses:

• Do you believe that part of your mind contains an unconscious in which is stored a whole lot of pretty yucky stuff which, thank Goodness, we are only dimly aware of?
• Do you believe that sexuality is a basic drive which governs much of our lives? Do yo think about sex a lot of the time?
• Do you believe that repression is a force which controls our more unacceptable desires and helps us behave in socially beneficial ways?
• Do you believe that our dreams and the little 'Freudian slips' we make betray the existence of these desires, and that they usually have something to do with sex?

If you find it difficult not to answer 'yes' to some of these questions, then perhaps you too should confront the possibility that you too are a Freudaholic.

The point I'm trying to make with this figure of speech is that a belief in the reality of the thought of Freud is rather like a drug dependency. I'm trying to suggest in this way that Freudian ideas are not only very generally accepted, but that most of us are unaware that they are part of the Freudian ideology, and take them for facts which have been accepted as such for a long period of our culture. We have become habituated to them to the extent that we are dependent on them. We can't do without them. They have been inscribed in us as 'reality'. Members of the Freud Fan Club Nicholas Rand & Maria Torok write:

We live and breathe Freud's discoveries, as it were. Our emotional and theoretical heritage is unimaginable without Freud's key ideas, for example the systematic introduction of sexuality into psychic life; the importance of the child in understanding the adult; the deep-seated or latent meaning of mental phenomena; transference in the psychoanalytic situation; civilization and its discontents, that is, the uneasy intersection of sexuality and society; without all these and other discoveries by Freud, we would be trying to breathe without actually inhaling air.[note 1]

We believe above all in The Unconscious, 'the cellar or cupboard,' as Gregory Bateson calls it, 'to which fearful and painful memories are consigned by a process of repression.' [2] Freud came to believe that the mind was structured into three parts: firstly 'das Ich'—'the I', our ordinary self, the part that deals with everyday experiences, and is unaware of repressed feelings and ideas, secondly, 'das Es'—'the It,' the part of the mental apparatus full of desires of which we are normally unconscious. 'We approach the id with analogies,' writes Freud in 1933, 'we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations. … It is filled with energy from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.' [3] Thirdly, Freud had to invent what he called 'das Überich'—'the Over-I', because he had to explain how there could be a part of the mind which maintained ethical control over the other parts without their being aware of it. Incidentally, if you don't recognise these terms I'm using, 'the I', 'the It,' and 'the Over-I', it's simply because Freud's translator, James Strachey, wanted to use more impressive terms, so he chose the Latin equivalents: the ego, the id and the superego. I'm sure you'll recognise them.

I said just now that Gregory Bateson called the unconscious a 'cellar', and this might indeed give us a clue as to where Freud got the idea of dividing the mind into three parts, an upper and lower parts as well as a ground floor. George Steiner thinks he got it from the typical turn-of-the-century middle-class Viennese house.

I put forward with hesitation [writes Steiner], but with, I hope, some seriousness, the suggestion that the famous division of human consciousness—the id, ego, superego—has in it more than a hint of the cellar, living quarters, attic anatomy of the middle-class home in Vienna at the turn of the century.[4]

The point I'm making here is that structures are in themselves not necessarily ideologically innocent: there is no structure without thought; there can be leakage from one ideological system into another via a homology or similarity between the structures of the two.

A very good example of this may be found in Freud's invention of the 'new science of psychoanalysis,' as he called it. In setting up this so-called 'science' he naturally took his basic principles from existing sciences. He himself began his professional career as a neurologist, and the foundational modes of thought he brought to his new endeavour came from 'hard' sciences such as physics, with some practical input from engineering, and from hydraulics in particular. So that we find Thomas Szasz writing in The Myth of Mental Illness that '[t]he conceptual scaffolding of medicine … rests on the principles of physics and chemistry,'and that '[t]he psychoanalytic theory of man was fashioned after the causal-deterministic model of classical physics.'[5] Szasz concludes, following Karl Popper, that 'The psychoanalytic theory of behaviour is, therefore, a species of historicism,'historicism being 'a doctrine according to which … [h]istorical events are viewed as fully determined by their antecedents …'(Popper's models of historicist social thinkers are Plato, Nietzsche, [and] Marx …) And he writes: 'It really looks as if historicists were trying to compensate themselves for the loss of an unchanging world by clinging to the belief that change can be foreseen because it is ruled by an unchanging law.'[6]

Freud developed his new theories in association with his very good friend Wilhelm Fliess. Fortunately for the record, Fliess went off to practice in Berlin while Freud remained in Vienna, so that the two had to write each other. The Freud papers have been preserved, although what Fliess wrote is gone. Freud was in the habit of systematically clearing out every now and again, so that we don't have most of his case histories, for example. I'll come back to this. Freud and Fliess used to meet about once a year for what it pleased them to call 'congresses,' but most of their communication was by letter. It is due to this fact that we have what the editor called the Project for a Scientific Psychology when it was published in 1950 after Freud's death.[7] It was published in what was called The Origins of Psychoanalysis, although it was just Freud's letters to Fliess: that's how important these letters are thought to be.[8] Now this Project was intended to be the beginnings of research into the nature of mind—not brain—mind as a biochemical organ; and the pages are full of little drawings showing the location and directionality of various forces with Greek names like phi and chi.

Pribram & Gill—Pribram is an eminent neurologist—conducted an important study of the Project and came to these conclusions.

It is our opinion … that Freud felt

1) that psychoanalysis had to become established as a purely psychological discipline using behavioural observations and the analysis of verbal reports as its techniques;

2) that ultimately this psychoanalytic science could be rejoined to its biochemical and neurological origins, but a) the time was not right and b) this rejoining would not be a simplistic 'taking over' or 'reductive explanation' of psychoanalytic knowledge in biochemical or neurological terms.

3) Furthermore [and this is the most important point], we feel that Freud often recognized that his metapsychological propositions were based on neurological and biological assumptions but sometimes failed to recognize this and even explicitly disavowed that it was so.[9]

(I should probably explain that 'metapsychological propositions' are propositions about the structure of the mind.) Well, what Pribram & Gill are saying there is that throughout his career Freud continued to base his work in psychoanalysis on biology and neurology, and that sometimes he knew he was doing it and sometimes he did not. Pribram & Gill's 1976 work thus supports the assertions in the 1961 book by Thomas Szasz from which I quoted earlier.

But I want to go back to the relationship with Fliess for yet another example of the structures and assumptions of one theory was imported into another. Fliess had some ideas about periodicity, about numbers and their influence on human behaviour, and some of these ideas were quite mad—although perhaps his maddest ideas concerned the connexion between the nose and the sexual organs.[10] I wish I had more time to tell you more about this bizarre idea and its part in the history of the development of psychoanalysis, but it's not part of my main point. Perhaps I could just tantalise you with this quotation from Fliess's 1902 book On the Causal Connection between the Nose and the Sexual Organ:[11] 'Unmarried women who masturbate normally suffer from dysmenorrhea [painful menstruation]. They can only be finally cured through an operation on the nose if they truly give up this bad practice.'[12] This passage was marked in Freud's copy of the book, Jeffrey Masson tells us.[13]

The main reason for mentioning Fliess is in order to make the point that 'It was Fliess, not Freud's self-analysis or his patients, who convinced him that infantile sexuality was prevalent and normal and thus that the belief in an early sexual grounding for neurosis could be sustained without recourse to a "seduction theory".' [Crews, 14] So what was this "seduction theory," and why did Freud discard it?

There is a moment in the development of the thought of Freud where it comes into conflict with reality, or where two alternative views of reality come into conflict with each other. It's convenient in this context to say that Freud attempts to solve the problem of this contradiction as if it were a structural problem. So this is a key moment in Freud where structure, thought and reality have to been investigated together, in their relationship with each other. It is also a point which is still subject to a very lively debatein books, journals and newspapers articles. It is one idea in Freud which is still having a marked effect in our daily lives. Let me try and explain.

I am taking as my example the so-called 'seduction hypothesis' in Freud. This was a hypothesis, a theory, that hysteria, obsessive or uncontrollable behaviour, was caused by sexual interference of some kind in childhood.

It was a theory that Freud was developing in the mid 1890s, and that culminated in his 1896 paper, 'The ætiology of hysteria.'[15] At this point in time he believed he had established on the basis of the eighteen cases of hysteria he had studied that in each case the 'neurosis' was the direct result of sexual seduction by an adult. In that paper, he writes

If you submit my assertion that the ætiology of hysteria lies in the sexual life to the strictest examination, you will find that it is supported by the fact that in some eighteen cases of hysteria I have been able to discover this connection in every single symptom, and, where the circumstances allowed, to confirm it by therapeutic success. … These eighteen cases are at the same time all the cases on which I have been able to carry out the work of analysis. …[16]

It seems quite clear that Freud is saying that all of the eighteen people whose cases he was studying at that time were hysterics, and that, in every case, he had discovered that these people had been sexually interfered with as children. We no longer have any way of knowing, because, as I said, Freud destroyed his case notes, but it seems likely that most if not all of these clients were women.

By the end of the following year, 1897, however, he appeared to have completely changed his opinion (as we know from his letters to Wilhelm Fliess), and he now thought that the symptoms were derived from fantasies, and that the seductions did not take place at all in any of the cases.

This is now he tells the story in the Autobiographical Study he wrote much later, in 1924:

Before going further into the question of infantile sexuality I must mention an error into which I fell for a while and which might well have had fatal consequences for the whole of my work. Under the influence of the technical procedure which I used at that time, the majority of my patients reproduced from their childhood scenes in which they were sexually seduced by some grown-up person. … I believed these stories, and consequently supposed that I had discovered the roots of the subsequent neurosis in these experiences of sexual seduction in childhood. … When, however, I was at last obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction had never taken place, and that they were only phantasies which my patients had made up or which I myself had perhaps forced on them, I was for some time completely a loss. … When I had pulled myself together, I was able to draw the right conclusions from my discovery: namely, that the neurotic symptoms were not related directly to actual events but to wishful phantasies, and that as far as the neurosis was concerned psychical reality was of more importance than material reality.[17]

He thought that the production of these fantasies in turn were driven by an unconscious drive to repress the memory of the sexual experimentation of the earlier years of life, as he writes in his 'history of the psycho-analytic movement,' which was published in 1914.

… analysis had led back to these infantile sexual traumas by the right path, and yet they were not true. The firm ground of reality was gone. … If hysterical subjects trace back their symptoms to traumas that are fictitious, then the new fact which emerges is precisely that they create such scenes in phantasy, and this psychical reality requires to be taken into account alongside practical reality. This reflection was soon followed by the discovery that these phantasies were intended to cover up the auto-erotic activity of the first years of childhood, to embellish it and raise it to a higher plane. And now, from behind the phantasies, the whole range of a child's sexual life came to light.[18]

But although he claimed to have concluded that 'hysterical' 'neurosis' was a result of fantasies, there is evidence that he was never able to give up what appears to be a diametrically opposed explanation—and one which would appear to us in 1993 to be much more likely—that these symptoms appeared as a result of sexual traumatisation: assaults, forced sexual penetration, and other kinds of interference. In 1896 these experiences are heavily stressed by Freud, conveyed in the most poignant terms—and we can therefore say that in the oscillation between reality and fantasy that this represents the point of his greatest 'over-valuation' of the former. Listen to this moving description from 'The ætiology of hysteria' of a sexual relationship between an adult and a child.

All the strange conditions under which the incongruous pair continue their love relations—on the one hand the adult, who cannot escape his share in the mutual dependence necessarily entailed by a sexual relationship, and who is at the same time armed with complete authority and the right to punish, and can exchange the one role for the other to the uninhibited satisfaction of his whims, and on the other hand the child, who in [her] helplessness is at the mercy of this arbitrary use of power, who is prematurely aroused to every kind of sensibility and exposed to every sort of disappointment, and whose exercise of the sexual performances assigned to [her] is often interrupted by [her] imperfect control of [her] natural needs—all these grotesque and yet tragic disparities distinctly mark the later development of the individual and of [her] neurosis, with countless permanent effects which deserve to be traced in the greatest detail.[19]

I think it is easy to imagine that at about this time Sigmund Freud was about as helpful as anyone could then have been in listening sympathetically to the appalling things these young women were telling him. At least we can assume that he would have conveyed to them his belief that what they were telling him was the simple truth, which would have been a good first step in assisting them. But the passage I've already quoted from his Autobiographical Study represents the other extreme; there this belief is seen as a technical error, and the scenes had never taken place: Freud is even prepared to admit that he himself might perhaps have forced them on the patients—a rare admission, which might even be unique in Freud's work.[20] Freud needed the theory of wishful fantasies so much, partly to gain the approval of his very good friend Wilhelm Fliess, and partly as a foundation of 'the new science of psychoanalysis,' that he was at some points prepared to deny the reality of all the traumatic experiences reported by his patients under analysis, in free association and so on. At other moments, however, he seems to have to continue to admit their reality. For example, in Lecture 23 of the 1916-17 Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, where Freud has begun to find a way of having his fantastic cake and really eating it as well. He writes this.

If the infantile experiences brought to light by analysis were invariably real, we should feel that we were standing on firm ground; if they were regularly falsified and revealed inventions, as phantasies of the patient, we should be obliged to abandon this shaky ground and look for salvation elsewhere. But neither of these things is the case: the position can be shown to be that childhood experiences constructed or remembered in analysis are sometimes indisputably false and sometimes equally certainly correct, and in most cases compounded of truth and falsehood. Sometimes, then, symptoms represent events which really took place and to which we may attribute an influence on the fixation of the libido, and sometimes they represent phantasies of the patient's which are not, of course, suited to playing an ætiological role. It is difficult to find one's way about in this.[21]

However, these moments of doubt or balanced consideration are relatively rare; it is usually in Freud's interests to stress the importance of the fantasy rather than the reality. What, then, does Freud think is the cause of these alleged fantasies? In 1912, this was his view of what might have caused the fantasies that he had come to believe were the cause of the 'hysteria'. I expect some of you will be as scandalised as I am about this passage, which is not in the Standard Edition of Freud's work, and is much more flatly specific than anything in it, not having been intended for publication.

Since childhood masturbation is such a general occurrence and is at the same time so poorly remembered, it must have an equivalent in psychic life. And, in fact, it it found in the fantasy encountered in most female patients—namely, that the father seduced her in childhood. This is the later reworking which is designed to cover up the recollection of infantile sexual activity and represents an excuse and an extenuation thereof. The grain of truth contained in this fantasy lies in the fact that the father, by way of his innocent caresses in earliest childhood, has actually awakened the little girl's sexuality (the same thing applies to the little boy and his mother). It is these same affectionate fathers that are the ones who then endeavor to break the child of the habit of masturbation, of which they themselves had by that time become the unwitting cause. And thus the motifs mingle in the most successful fashion to form this fantasy, which often dominates a woman's entire life (seduction fantasy): one part truth, one part gratification of love, and one part revenge.[22]

There is, however, something fairly close to this in the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. There we may read this.

… if in the case of girls who produce such an event in the story of their childhood their father figures fairly regularly as the seducer, there can be no doubt … of the imaginary nature of the accusation or of the motive that has led to it.[23]

In plain terms, Freud is saying that some girls masturbate when young and later feel guilty about it. They then mask the memory of the masturbation with a fantasy of someone else having caused the sensations they still remember. And they put the father into the role of the person interfering with them.

It's worth pointing out, by the way, that the female patients whom Freud saw would have had the 'treatment' paid for by their husbands or their fathers: the men would have been the ones who brought the women to Freud for normalisation. And I think it is important to put forward the suggestion that psychoanalysis tends to have a pathological complicity with the process of social construction, in that an essential part of its reason for existing is to maintain the status quo, to round off the square pegs so that they can be put back into their round holes. This is the result of the operations of what I call the 'mind-culture system,' the process that keeps things the way they are.

What are some of the practical implications of what I've been saying? What is the relevance of something that Freud thought nearly a century ago to the way people are treated today? Well generally it should be clear to you—and it certainly will be if you have read Szasz—that if there is someone who is set up as an expert on fantasies and who is therefore in a position to rule that something that happened did not happen and is only something that you imagine, the consequences can be disastrous for your confidence in your own state of mind.

More specifically, if such an expert is authorised by society, partly—and I stress the 'partly'—on the basis of Freudian ideas, to make such decisions in relation to certain people and then on the basis of those judgements deprive them of some aspect of their freedom, then it may be a question of injustice rather than assistance. So I conclude by referring you to The Myth of Mental Illness, and to these excerpts from his own summary of the book [overhead]. [24]

For discussion in tutorials, from Szasz's summary:

1. Strictly speaking, disease or illness can affect only the body; hence, there can be no mental illness.

2. 'Mental illness' is a metaphor. Minds can be 'sick' only in the sense that jokes are 'sick' or economies are 'sick'.

3. Psychiatric diagnoses are stigmatizing labels, phrased to resemble diagnosis, and applied to persons whose behaviour annoys or offends others.

5. 'Mental illness' is not something a person has, but is something he does or is.

10. There is no medical, moral, or legal justification for involuntary psychiatric interventions, such as 'diagnosis', 'hospitalization', or 'treatment' They are crimes against humanity.


1. Rand, Nicholas & Torok, Maria 1993, 'Questions to Freudian psychoanalysis: dream interpretation, reality, fantasy', trs. Nicholas Rand, Critical Inquiry, 19, Spring: 568. 'Yet,' as Rand & Torok also write, 'we have grave reservations about some Freudian concepts, for example, penis envy in women, the death drive, frustration as a rule of therapy, and the universal complexes.' Ibid.

2. Bateson, Gregory 1987 [1972], Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, Aronson, New York, (orig. publ. Chandler, San Francisco, 1972): 135.

3. Freud, 1933a, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, SE 22: 73.

4. Steiner, George 1974, Nostalgia for the Absolute, CBC, Toronto: 14.

5. Szasz, Thomas 1972, The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, Paladin, Frogmore, St Albans, Herts [first published Harper & Row, New York, 1961]: 20.

6. Popper, Karl R. 1957 [1944-5], The Poverty of Historicism, Beacon Press, Boston: 161; quoted in Szasz 1972: 23.

7. Freud, 1950a [1895], SE 1.

8. Freud, Sigmund 1950a [1887-1902]), The Origins of Psychoanalysis, trs. Eric Mosbacher & James Strachey from Aus den Anfängen der Psychoanalyse. Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess, Abhandlungen und Notizen aus den Jahren 1887-1902, 1950a , edited by Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud and Ernst Kris, Imago Publishing Co., London, Basic Books, New York. Partly, including A Project for a Scientific Psychology, in SE 1, 175.

9. Pribram, Karl & Gill, Merton 1976, Freud's Project Re-assessed, Hutchinson, London: 168.

10. Fliess, Wilhelm 1893a, 'Die nasale Reflexneurose', paper delivered at the 12th Congress for Internal Medicine in Wiesbaden, June, and printed in the Proceedings: Verhandlungen des Congresses für innere Medezin, 12th Congress, J. F. Bergmann, Wiesbaden, 1893: 384-394; and later published in 1893b; a French version (Autoreferat) was also published as 'Les réflexes d'origine nasale', in Archives d'otologie et de rhinologie, Archives de Laryngologie, 6 (1893): 266-269.

11. Fliess Wilhelm 1902, Über den ursächlichen Zusammenhang von Nase und Geschlectsorgan [On the Causal Connection between the Nose and the Sexual Organ], Carl Marhold, Halle an der Saale.

12. Fliess 1902: 8, quoted and trs. Jeffrey Masson. I have used parts of two different translations he provides. 'Women who masturbate are generally dysmenorrheal. They can only be finally cured through an operation on the nose if they truly give up this bad practice.' Masson 1984: 57. Masson mentions that this passage was marked in Freud's copy of the book. He translates it differently on page 77: 'Unmarried women who masturbate normally suffer from dysmenorrhea [painful menstruation]. In such cases, nasal treatment is only successful when they truly give up this aberration.' Masson 1984: 77. Emphasis added for reading the lecture.

13. Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff 1984, Freud: The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory, Faber and Faber, London: 57.

14. Crews, Frederick 1986, Skeptical Engagements, New York: 65-6, citing Sulloway, Frank J. 1979, Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend, Basic Books, New York: 192-3.

15. Freud, 1896c, 'The ætiology of hysteria,' SE 7: 187-222. Freud delivered the paper to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna on the evening of 12 April 1896.

16. Freud, SE 3: 199; Masson 1984: 259-260.

17. Freud, 1925d [1924], SE 20: 33-4.

18. Freud, 1914d, SE 14: 17-8.

19. Freud Sigmund 1896c, 'The ætiology of hysteria', trs. and quoted in Jeffrey Masson, 1992 [1990], Final Analysis: The Making and Unmaking of a Psychoanalyst, Fontana, London: 175 [replacing 'his' in Masson's translation by the more appropriate 'her'].

20. Frederick Crews claims that '[t]o the end of his life Freud maintained that since his first recourse to psychoanalysis he had never persuaded a single patient "to accept things which [I myself] believe but which he ought not to."' Crews 1986: 58; citing SE 23: 262.

21. Freud, 1916-17, SE 15-16: 367; Penguin 1974: 414.

22. This was reported in a meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, 24 January 1912. Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, ed. H. Nunberg & E. Federn, trs. Marianne Nunberg with Harold Collines, International Universities Press, New York, 1962-1975. The account of this meeting is in vol. 4: 1912-1918. Masson 1984: 11-12, and 194-5, n. 11.

23. Freud, 1916-17, SE 15-16: 370? Penguin 1974: 417. The Editor's note here directs the reader to Lecture 33 in 1933a.

24. Szasz 1972: 275-276.

Garry Gillard | New: 15 September, 2019 | Now: 16 September, 2019