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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for the Writings of Sigmund Freud

Relates to: 

Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis and Civilization and its Discontents belong to two distinct phases of Freud’s thought—a thought which was always changing, expanding, and being revised , and which has as many discontinuities as continuities. Both texts rest written from Freud’s basic psychoanalytic perspective; each reflects the general historical, philosophical, and scientific movements in which Freud found himself when he developed psychoanalysis.

Freud’s Austria of the second half of the nineteenth century was characterized by an even more rigorous form of Victorian sexual morality than England, whose sexual delicacy and frigidity is often caricatured. This rigorous sexual morality did not, however, prevent Victorians from speaking about sexuality.

  Gustav Klimt’s Danae, 1907.  (Wikimedia Commons)   Klimt’s work captures visually many themes that preoccupied Freud in turn-of-the-century Vienna.  Gustav Klimt’s Danae, 1907. (Wikimedia Commons) Klimt’s work captures visually many themes that preoccupied Freud in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The large, urban, professional middle class—the bourgeoisie—had an intense moral preoccupation with sexuality, particularly in women and children. Their sexual interests, and sexual knowledge, were understood to be naturally limited; however, in the case of exceptions, this interest and knowledge were carefully regulated. Young women were expected to be chaste before marriage; and the private sexual experimentation of children and adolescents—for example, masturbation—were assiduously suppressed. Additionally, a growing knowledge of sexual diseases, like syphilis, created, in the public mind, an association between sexual promiscuity and catastrophic epidemics. Sexuality not only needed to be regulated by personal morality, or by the vigilance of the family, but, since it could affect entire populations, was a political and social concern.

At the same time the nascent field of sexology was developing. A number of medical researchers, like Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing—whom Feud knew and who publicly commented on one of Freud’s earliest papers—gave detailed and meticulous accounts of the forms and varieties of sexual behaviors and identities, regardless of their rarity or apparent perversity. They also tried to connect facts about sexuality to other facts, which had no self-evident relationship to sexuality; they asked, for example, how sexuality relates to class, or how sexuality relates to criminality.

The late nineteenth century was, therefore, characterized by an interesting constellation of trends: a personal, familial, and political regulation of sexuality, on the one hand, and a proliferation of scientific writing which showed how that problematic sexuality nevertheless had a secure and extensive place in human nature, on the other hand. This constellation served as an auspicious context for Freud to develop his theories. Freud described how all kinds of unusual, or “perverse,” sexual desires dominate the mind—in children, in neurotic adults, but also in normal adults. Freud also showed how the mind finds itself in an irrevocable conflict with its own sexuality: how it fears its sexuality, and tries to avoid and eliminate it, or, most importantly, how it tries to forget it, or remove it from conscious awareness. For Freud, this meant that unusual, “perverse” sexuality had a peculiar fate. Regulated by morality, removed from conscious awareness, but still very much extant, it became “unconscious”: no longer under the control of a person’s self-conscious and voluntary choices, it manifested in a person’s involuntary actions, like mistakes and slips of the tongues, as well as in mental pathologies, like obsession, paranoia, hysteria, and anxiety.

Freud’s psychoanalysis divided the mind between what it consciously acknowledges, and what it unconsciously is invested in. This division had philosophical precedents in the nineteenth century. The German Idealists Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel had maintained that the mind has perfectly transparent access to, and complete control over, its own thoughts, as well as the actions which those thoughts intend. In response to the Idealists, other philosophers—particularly Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche—developed a radically different conception of the mind. According to them, thoughts and actions are not under a person’s conscious and deliberate control. Rather, they arise from a person’s will, desires, and body, of which a person is not conscious, and which a person cannot deliberately control. Thought and action derive from a source which is not the “I,” but rather an impersonal, wild agency, at the heart of our being but radically distinct from what we take ourselves to be. Freud’s postulation of unconscious thought, and his contention that sufferers of mental pathology think thoughts and perform actions whose source is unconscious, can be understood to be an extension of this movement against German Idealism.

The idea that thought and action could have its source in something other than the “I”—in something wild and unknown to us—was also influenced by a theory which Freud vehemently affirmed and rigorously applied, and which nearly every innovative thinker in the nineteenth century adopted for their own purposes: Darwin’s theory of evolution. A major claim of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that the biological structures that govern the life of contemporary organisms have their source in biological structures which govern the life of organisms that existed in the archaic past. In the case of human beings, this suggests that the biological structures found in primitive humans, living thousands of years ago, are still operative in contemporary human beings. Many of Freud’s theories can be understood to be an expansion of this idea. The sexual desires which are manifested in mental pathologies, and which continue to exercise effects even in the most civilized human beings, do not derive from a person’s present interests, preoccupations, and decisions. Rather, they are inheritances from the archaic history of the human species, and a history over which, clearly, a person exercises no conscious control. Additionally for Freud, and at a much more local level, an adult’s sexual desires can also be understood to be an inheritance from his or her personal archaic past—from his or her childhood sexual desires, over which, once again, he or she does not exercise any conscious control.

 Freud on his visit to Clark University in the United States, 1909.  Front, from left to right: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, C. G. Jung; Back: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi.   (Wikimedia Commons) Freud on his visit to Clark University in the United States, 1909. Front, from left to right: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, C. G. Jung; Back: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. (Wikimedia Commons)

The use of a biological theory in order to explain psychological phenomena indicates another feature of Freud’s theories that was typical of the nineteenth century: the use, in psychology, of scientific paradigms which are not proper to psychology, but to other scientific disciplines. For example—and this is particularly evident in Freud’s earliest, never completed work, his Project for a Scientific Psychology—Freud understands the mind as a system in which discrete quantities of energy increase and decrease, in which the overall quantity of energy in the system remains constant, as well as a system in which, in order to ensure that constancy, quantities of energy can move from one part of the system to another. Freud here is applying models taken from physics, and especially discoveries in nineteenth-century thermodynamics, to the operations of the mind. Freud’s readiness to apply models from physics to the mind additionally explains his conviction that psychological events are as open to a complete causal and deterministic explanation as the events which natural sciences, like physics, chemistry, and biology, explain.

Freud’s thought is not only involved in the historical currents in which it developed; it also has its own history. Freud’s Five Lectures was written in 1909 as a series of lectures to be delivered at Clark University in the United States. (A famous anecdote—perhaps not true—is that Freud, upon arriving to America, said, “We are bringing them the plague.”) This text is a summary statement of the basic ideas that Freud developed in first period of his thought: the significance of the conflict between a censoring consciousness, and sexual desires attached to memories which, because they are censored, become repressed and unconscious; the role of infantile sexuality in determining the content of those censored memories and desires, and in particular the role of the Oedipus complex—the child’s sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex, and rivalrous aggression toward the parent of the same sex; the special place of dreams as a key, or “royal road,” to the decoding of unconscious memories and desires; and the necessity for a therapeutic practice of interpretations, in which symptoms of mental pathology can be taken as signs whose hidden significance are these memories and desires.

In the ensuing years, Freud’s thought took new directions, guided by new discoveries. Civilization and its Discontents, published in 1930, relies upon these. Freud developed the second topology, or the structural theory of the mind: the mind is divided into three different agencies, a superego—the repository of a person’s moral ideals, but also the source of a person’s moral self-criticisms and, crucially, the source of a person’s guilt; the ego—a person’s “I” or self, which is responsible for the perception of reality, organizing thoughts into a coherent whole, as well as adjusting actions so that they conform with a person’s moral demands and desires; and the id—the locus of a person’s unconscious desires and memories. Additionally—and it is noteworthy that this developed occurred after the first World War—a new emphasis is placed on the psychological role of aggression and death. Freud proposed a dualistic theory of the drives, according to which the power of eros, or love, is in conflict with the power of thanatos, or death: a destructive, aggressive force which is directed toward other people, but also toward the person herself. Civilization and its Discontents focuses on the origins of the superego in human civilization, the aggression that the superego controls, but also the aggression that the superego breeds, and, ultimately, the psychological problems which this aggression poses. The human being is an unhappy animal: but not only because its sexuality is unconscious and repressed, but also because, in its very state of civilization or civility, it is aggressive and destructive.


Written by Beau Shaw, Philosophy, Columbia University


Work Consulted: 

Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: Norton, 1998)