Sigmund Freud Today: What Are His Enduring Contributions?

Donald L. Carveth, Ph.D.



 Lecture presented to the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006


After several decades of increasing attacks on Freud and psychoanalysis in the public media by a wide range of scholars that resulted, for example, in the Library of Congress bowing to pressure from angry anti-Freudians and postponing a major exhibition concerning his work, the
November 29th, 1993, cover of Time Magazine asked "Is Freud Dead?"  But the  reading public got an indication that Freud was not going quietly into that good night when, two years later, distinguished University of Chicago Professor of Philosophy, Jonathan Lear, published in The New Republic his essay "A Counterblast in the War on Freud: The Shrink is In."  By March 27, 2006, the cover of Newsweek could assert that "Freud is NOT Dead" and go on to claim that nowadays "everyone loves Sigmund" (accompanied by a picture of an analytic couch going UP not DOWN an escalator).  Most recently, in connection with an article it ran by my colleague, Dr. Norman Doidge, Maclean's magazine (May 5th, 2006)  announced that Freud is back "in" and that on his 150th anniversary, "science is proving him right."

This, of course, is journalistic hyperbole, though it is true that science is now lending some support to certain of his ideas. For example, FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) indicates that passion, reason and conscience involve different areas of brain activity, a fact that lends some support to Freud's differentiation between id, ego and superego. Similarly, according to Doidge, “Brain scans now show that thought processing goes on beyond awareness, and desires, emotions and emotional conflicts can actually be unconscious. This means we can, for example, have guilt without being aware of it, or anger or attraction toward others that we dare not face.” These data are important in establishing the credibility of basic psychoanalytic concepts.

But, at the same time, we who are standing on Freud’s shoulders can see with 20/20 hindsight that, like most bold and creative thinkers, Freud was quite wrong about a lot of things. I won’t attempt to give you a “catalogue of errors” because today’s topic concerns his enduring contributions, not his mistakes. But I will briefly mention his theory of religion. As my colleague Dr. Janice Halpern (herself an Orthodox Jew) has argued, Freud’s love for his devout father was expressed in the pride he took in his Jewishness and his love for Jewish culture. On the other hand, his unresolved anger at his father manifested itself in his contempt for his father’s faith and for religion as such.

Although, as Erik Erikson has argued, Freud’s overall approach to psychology is “epigenetic”—tracing psychological states to their origins in the various stages of child development—in the field of religion Freud abandons this approach in favor of a dogmatic reductionism.  He does not distinguish different types of religion reflecting different levels of psychological development.  He does not distinguish mature religion from the faith of the infant or the child, nor that of the mentally healthy from that of the neurotic or psychotic.  He has no conception of the “faith journey” in which one’s religious and ethical understanding is progressively transformed as one advances toward maturity. For Freud, all religion, religion as such, is infantile wish-fulfillment, a wishful illusion, a projection onto the universe of the child’s wish for the protection of a loving father (and why not a loving mother we may ask?), essentially a crutch that any mature and realistic person must outgrow.

I am in no way denying that some, even a great deal, of religion corresponds to Freud’s theory. I am only arguing that the theory overgeneralizes; it is too sweeping in its claims. While it applies pretty well to fundamentalist, literalist and magical types of faith, not only is it restricted to god-centered faiths while ignoring altogether religions such as Confucianism and Buddhism that posit no god, but it fails entirely to grasp the mature spirituality of those whose understanding of Holy Scripture rests upon a “demythologizing” approach that, as in the thought of the distinguished Canadian literary critic and Biblical scholar, Northrop Frye, regards the Bible as “a tissue of metaphors from beginning to end”—but metaphors pointing towards profound existential, moral, psychological and social truths that the secular social sciences have as yet failed to adequately grasp.

In the mid-19th century, Kierkegaard pointed out that at the centre of the sickness of the psyche is a sickness of the spirit; that at the root of emotional disturbances we find narcissism, greed, envy, hatred and related perverse and destructive attitudes and aims. Psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis have sought to cloak themselves in a “scientific” attitude of value neutrality and objectivity. But this is pseudo-objectivity and pseudo-neutrality at best. For, deny it as we may, psychotherapy is a moral enterprise.  It has to be, for at the centre of emotional “illness” (observe the quotation marks indicating ironic distance from this concept) are real and imagined sins, real crimes and thought-crimes, rational and irrational guilt. The overcoming of emotional disturbance requires us to face our guilt, to sort out how much of it stems from acts and how much from wishes, feelings and fantasies, how much of it is merited and how much is irrational and undeserved and, where necessary, to acknowledge wrongdoing, experience contrition, repent, make reparation and seek atonement. To the extent that it pretends to be a morally neutral, medical enterprise, psychoanalysis has still not caught up with Kierkegaard.

I recently wrote a re-interpretation of "The Case of Harry Guntrip" (Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis, forthcoming) who, himself a psychotherapist, late in his life wrote an account of his own analyses with two prominent psychoanalysts, W.R.D. Fairbairn and D.W. Winnicott.  After all this analysis and years of practice and self-analysis, by the end Guntrip had come to an understanding that his life-long periodic attacks of "exhaustion illness" were associated with the childhood trauma in which he observed his dead brother Percy in his mother's lap.  Guntrip concluded that both Percy's death and his own neurosis were due to their mother's inability to mother, to a maternal coldness that literally killed Percy and left Harry with a core of inner deadness that surfaced from time to time in his attacks of depletion and exhaustion (a kind of depression).  Despite his years of involvement with psychoanalysis as both a patient and a practitioner, Guntrip seems never to have faced the distinct possibility that his states of fatigue represented an identification with his dead brother driven by a talion law ("eye for an eye") need to be dead like the brother whom, in his early sibling rivalry, he imagined he had killed.  Of course, unlike Cain, Harry had not actually killed his brother. But simply realizing this would in no way constitute a cure, for he had, like most brothers, wished his brother dead.  Most of us are fortunate enough not to have our death-wishes realized in childhood.  Percy's death left Harry feeling like a murderer and needing to murder himself symbolically in his states of inner deadness. If Harry had been able to acknowledge his competitiveness, rivalry and murderous wishes toward Percy instead of scapegoating their mother as the murderer, he might have been able to exchange the self-torment at the root of his symptoms for genuine feelings of guilt.  He might then have been able to recover his love for his brother, restoring him as a good object or presence in his internal world, and through identification with his loved and restored brother, to forgive and love himself.     


 *    *    *


But apart from the oversimplifications and errors in mapping that are unavoidable in the work of the discoverer of a new continent, what today appear to be some of Freud’s most enduring contributions? First and foremost there is his revolutionary exploration of the unconscious.  While he was not the first to discover it, he went further in understanding its laws and mechanisms than anyone before him.  He taught us to distinguish the manifest content of dreams, for example, from their latent or unconscious meaning; and he taught us how to decode the former in order to get at the latter. (Significantly, as David Bakan pointed out in Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, Freud’s method of dream interpretation appears to bear significant resemblances to certain Kabbalistic themes.) Freud later extended the manifest/latent distinction to neurotic symptoms, the slips and errors of everyday life and, eventually, to all human experience and behavior. It has usefully been applied in the analysis of literary, cinematic and mythological narratives.

In so doing Freud mounted a major challenge to rationalism and its notion of a reasonable ego at the centre of the self, conscious of itself and of its purposes and aims.  Instead, Freud confronts us with our “decentered ego”: there is no unitary self; we are not one, but at least two (manifest and latent). In 1923 he extends this duality into a trinity: id, ego and superego, representing even the normal mind as pulled in three directions by the claims of passion, reason and morality. It is interesting to observe that, although a Jew, here Freud’s thinking is more Hellenistic than Hebraic: he is essentially a Platonist and, like Plato, he seeks to establish a “dictatorship of the ego,” of reason, over the other two parts of the soul, and he aims to do so though “gnosis,” knowledge, psychoanalytic insight.  Freud, like Plato, was no democrat: he agreed that philosophers should be kings and kings philosophers, and he sought to establish a kind of elite of analyzed people who in mastering themselves through psychoanalytic self-knowledge will have earned the right to master others. Regrettably, the history of the psychoanalytic movement offers little support for faith in salvation through psychoanalysis, any more than the history of the Church or the Party validates their utopian claims.   

But the exploration of the unconscious and the discovery of its key mechanisms—such as condensation and displacement—have enabled us to “listen with the third ear” and to decode unconscious communications and, thus, to help make the unconscious conscious. Gradually it was recognized that Freud’s “condensation” in which disguise is effected by substituting one thing for another on the basis of some point of similarity is simply metaphor, while "displacement" effects disguise by substitution not on the basis of similarity but of contiguity, as in metonymy. For example, the fact that I  spent all last night in a shop slipping my feet in and out of pair after pair of shoes obviously has nothing whatever to do with sex ("the old in-out"). Thank goodness the victim of the murder that took place on the Orient Express in my dream last night was not my mother, but only a woman of her age who happened to be wearing glasses resembling those she recently purchased. My dream of bacon frying on the stove, filling the house with that appealing smell, seems to have nothing whatever to do with eggs, though it's true that as soon as I thought of bacon eggs came immediately to mind as they go together.  But this is an unwanted association as it stirs my anxiety about that broken condom. Freud’s key clinical discovery, transference, in which we find ourselves feeling toward a person in the present as if he or she were a significant other from our past, is also a type of metaphor: the religious refer to God as “father” as does the Catholic his or her priest. The analysand comes to feel toward his or her analyst as if he or she were a mother, father or sibling. Such condensing or transferring of meaning appears to be a fundamental mechanism of the mind that plays a central role, not merely in neurosis, but also in creativity. 

While the foregoing concerns the ways the mind makes meaning, Freud also discovered and mapped the various ways in which we repress and resist knowing about such meanings.  We cling to the manifest, the conscious message: we ward off the latent meanings because of the mental pain, the anxiety and guilt, we would encounter should they become conscious. We are divided selves because we resist knowing about our dark side, just as those who have opted for darkness resist knowing the light. We seek to escape conflict through resolutely not knowing, not facing, contradictions that, at times, seem unbearable.  But the result is only a disguised return of the repressed. The unconscious, the repressed, leaks.  Freud writes: “He who has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret; if his lips are silent, he chatters through his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

While recognizing this truth with regard to patients, Freud and his colleagues were slow to recognize that it applies to them as well. Analysts leak, not just patients.  Today, we have a more relational or intersubjective understanding of the analytic process.  Still, the careful study of the mechanisms of defense—repression, reaction-formation, displacement, turning against the self, rationalization, intellectualization, isolation of thought and affect, reversal, denial, projection, introjection, identification, etc.—remains one of the most valuable contributions of psychoanalysis to psychology: the study of the processes of self-deception.  In the later years of his work, Freud’s interest shifted from the content of the repressed unconscious, to the mechanisms by which such content was kept unconscious—i.e., the mechanisms of defense. The analysis of such defensive maneuvers remains at the core of the best modern psychoanalytic technique. Ironically, in many textbooks of psychology, psychoanalysis is attacked and belittled and represented as passé, yet in a later chapter a good deal of discussion is devoted to the defense mechanisms, but without mentioning their discovery and exploration by Freud, his daughter Anna, and subsequent psychoanalysts.

In my own view, one of the main things defense mechanisms are directed against is guilt, by which I do not mean painful self-torment, but rather the operation of conscience in which we acknowledge wrongdoing, take responsibility, feel contrition, decide to repent and make reparation.  To do this is humbling and painful. The more narcissistic we are, the more we need arrogantly to view ourselves as blameless, the more difficult such guilt is to bear. Finding it unbearable, we repress it and, in my experience, such repressed guilt quickly ceases to be guilt at all; it turns into an unconscious need for punishment that finds outlets in self-sabotaging and self-tormenting behaviour of all types, including hysterical and psychosomatic symptoms that, on the surface, appear to have nothing whatever to do with guilt or wrongdoing.  For many years Guntrip unconsciously punished himself for death-wishes toward his brother by means of a chronic, low-grade depression that he warded off through overwork but that surfaced from time to time in his exhaustion illness. In my view, he would only have been able to overcome his unconscious need for punishment if he had finally become able to acknowledge and bear his guilt.

In this connection, I offer the following vignette from my work with a patient.

Patient: “I feel terrible!  I feel so guilty about what I said to X the other day!”

Analyst: “You’re feeling awful, I understand, but is there more to it?”

Patient: “Like what?”

Analyst: “Well, do you have a plan for dealing with it?”

Patient: “Well … no … not really … that’s just the way I talk … the way I am.”

Analyst: “Oh, so you just feel badly.”

Patient: “Isn’t that what I said?”

Analyst: “Well, no … you said you felt guilty.”

Patient: “Isn’t that the same thing?”

Analyst: “Doesn’t guilt usually involve more than that?”

Patient: “Like what?”

Analyst:  (silence)

Patient: “You mean, like, for example, apologizing? Deciding not to do it again?”

Analyst: (silence)

Patient: “… I’m not sure I can do that … it’s just … me.”

Analyst: “Problem is, we know what happens, you feel terrible and then …”

Patient: “The headaches.”

Analyst: “… a migraine starts, or suddenly you’re into a squabble with your husband and then it starts ….”

Patient: “That’s true.”

Analyst: “Guilt is so unbearable and change is so frightening you’d rather escape them through punishing yourself instead?”

Freud’s discovery of the unconscious punitive superego and its manifestation in a wide range of self-tormenting conditions, together with subsequent analysts’ discovery of the loving superego that mediates comfort and forgiveness, are among the most important discoveries of psychoanalysis. Freud argued that the superego is “heir to the Oedipus complex.” Although his understanding of this childhood complex was too concrete in various respects (the child does not primarily desire to have sex with one parent and kill the rival other, but wishes to monopolize the love of one parent and competes with the other and the siblings as rivals who are both loved and hated), and although he downplayed the role of the parents (Laius and Jocasta in the original myth) in stimulating or exacerbating such feelings, the anthropological record supports the claim that this childhood complex of desire and aggression does exist universally, though it takes different forms in varying kinship structures. The fact is that the triangle truly is eternal: there is the child, her mother and her father, or if not father, her sibling, or if not her sibling, her mother's booze or pills, or her job, or her depression--anything or anyone who frustrates the child's desire for the exclusive love and attention of her mother. Although the superego is fed by earlier, “pre-oedipal” emotional conflicts as well as those of the oedipal phase as such, its central role in the lives of both the relatively mentally healthy and the emotionally disturbed is undeniable.

My clinical experience over the years has led me to believe in hell, understood as the psychic suffering endured by those whose inner demon (the punitive superego) judges them worthy of such torment.  And it has led me to believe in heaven, understood as the psychic salvation opened to those who repent and so deprive their demons of ammunition. By means of a fundamental turning or change, such patients sometimes manage to gain the approval and love of their conscience.  This is what true healing entails, in my view.

It is a healing brought about through speech. Freud’s “fundamental rule” for patients in analysis is simply to “say everything”—to, as far as possible, put all one’s feelings, impulses, phantasies and desires, not into action, but into language. Jews and Christians have sometimes been called “the people of the book.”  The Bible opens with an account of God bringing the world into being through his speech. Helen Keller describes her joyous awakening to language as simultaneously an awakening to guilt and awareness of death.  “They ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and knew they were naked and fashioned fig leaves to cover themselves.” While we certainly use language to cover-up, to lie to ourselves and others, cultivating what Freud called “free association” in the presence of a trained other often has the effect of bringing the truth to light. It promotes emotional growth through authentic self-discovery. What we learn about ourselves is not always pleasant, but it can have the effect of helping us exchange, in Freud’s words, our hysterical misery for ordinary human unhappiness.

But because I’m a more optimistic type than Freud, I have to add that in releasing us from neurotic bondage, psychoanalysis can sometimes liberate our power to love and in this way to find a degree of joy with which to balance the unhappy dimensions of human existence.

Donald L. Carveth, Ph.D.

Professor of Sociology & Social and Political Thought

York University, Glendon Campus

2275 Bayview Avenue

Toronto, ON M4N 3M6