Freud: the last great Enlightenment thinker

Prospect Magazine

Freud: the last great Enlightenment thinker


Sigmund Freud is out of fashion. The reason? His heroic refusal to flatter humankind

Sigmund Freud contemplates a bust of himself, sculpted for his 75th birthday by Oscar Nemon

Writing to Albert Einstein in the early 1930s, Sigmund Freud suggested that “man has in him an active instinct for hatred and destruction.” Freud went on to contrast this “instinct to destroy and kill” with one he called erotic—an instinct “to conserve and unify,” an instinct for love.

Without speculating too much, Freud continued, one might suppose that these instincts function in every living being, with what he called “the death instinct”—thanatos—acting “to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter.” The death instinct provided “the biological justification for all those vile, pernicious propensities [to war] which we are now combating.”

To be sure, Freud concluded, all this talk of eros and thanatos might give Einstein the impression that psychoanalytic theory amounted to a “species of mythology, and a gloomy one at that.” But if so, Freud was unabashed, asking Einstein: “Does not every natural science lead ultimately to this—a sort of mythology? Is it otherwise today with your physical sciences?”

Today the idea that psychoanalysis is not a science is commonplace, but no part of Freud’s inheritance is more suspect than the theory of the death instinct. The very idea of instinct is viewed with suspicion. Talk of human instincts, or indeed of human nature, is dismissed as a form of intellectual atavism: human behaviour is seen as far more complex and at the same time more amenable to rational control than Freud believed or implied. Theories of human instinct only serve to block those impulses to progress and rationality that (for all the scorn that is directed against the very idea of human nature) are considered to be quintessentially human.

Freud’s ideas are today not simply rejected as false. They are repudiated as being dangerous or immoral; the “gloomy mythology” of warring instincts is condemned as a kind of slander on the species, the fundamental nobility of which it is sacrilege to deny. To be sure, righteous indignation has informed the response to Freud’s thought from the beginning. But its new strength helps explain one of the more remarkable features of intellectual life at the start of the 21st century, a time that in its own eyes is more enlightened than any other: the intense unpopularity of Freud, the last great Enlightenment thinker.

Born in Austria-Hungary in 1856 and dying in London in 1939, Freud is commonly known as the originator of the idea of the unconscious mind. However, the idea can be found in a number of earlier thinkers, notably the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. It would be more accurate to describe Freud as aiming to make the unconscious mind an object of scientific investigation—a prototypically Enlightenment project of extending the scientific method into previously unexplored regions. Many other 20th century thinkers aimed to examine and influence human life through science and reason, the common pursuit of the quarrelling family of intellectual movements, appearing from the 17th century onwards, that formed the Enlightenment. But by applying the Enlightenment project to forbidden regions of the human mind Freud, more than anyone else, revealed the project’s limits.

Starting with research into hysteria, where he concluded that hysterical symptoms often reflected the persisting influence of repressed memories, Freud developed psychoanalysis—a body of thought in which the idea that much of our mental life is repressed and inaccessible to conscious awareness was central.

The practice of psychotherapy that Freud began—the so-called “talking cure”—had the effect of promoting the idea that psychological conflict can be overcome by the sufferer gaining insight into the early experiences from which it may have originated. Later thinkers would attack Freud’s emphasis on early experience and the claims attributed to him regarding the therapeutic value of psychoanalysis. Yet several generations of intellectuals were in no doubt that he was a thinker of major importance. It is only recently that his ideas have been widely disparaged and dismissed. Initially rejected because of the central importance they gave to sexuality in the formation of personality, Freud’s ideas are rejected today because they imply that the human animal is ineradicably flawed. It is not Freud’s insistence on sexuality that is the source of scandal, but the claim that humans are afflicted by a destructive impulse.

The opprobrium that surrounds Freud is all the more intriguing given that the idea that humankind might be possessed by an impulse to destruction was never confined to him alone. Many thinkers entertained similar thoughts around the start of the last century, including one who was largely forgotten until an early part of her life story caught the eye of the filmmaker David Cronenberg. Sabrina Spielrein, the pivotal figure in A Dangerous Method (to be released on 10th February 2012), appears in the film as a hysterical young woman, exhibiting a predilection for sadomasochistic sex following abuse by her father, who after being confined in a mental institution receives treatment from Jung, who then becomes her lover.

The story of the film seems not far from what actually happened. Spielrein did experience a variety of personal difficulties, and was for a time confined in an institution. Whether she and Jung were lovers is not known; but the consensus among those who have studied the episode is that what happened between them went beyond what can be properly expected, then or now, in a professional relationship. Where Spielrein has been remembered, it is as a minor figure in the developing conflict between the two psychoanalytic founders.

This is a pity, for she was much more than that. Spielrein trained and practised as a psychotherapist (the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget being one of her patients) and made important contributions to psychoanalytic theory, some aspects of which are echoed in Freud’s later work. Coming from a Russian-Jewish family of doctors and psychologists, she moved to the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, where she married and had children and worked with the neurologist Alexander Luria, among others. Information about her life and work after this point is sketchy. What is known is that Spielrein’s husband and several members of her family fell victim to Stalin’s terror, while Spielrien herself was shot, along with her children and the rest of the Jewish population of her native city Rostov, after being marched through the main street by the SS in 1942. She was then buried in a mass grave along with thousands of others.

If Spielrein’s life was blighted, it was not by her encounter with Jung (though she may have regretted the relationship). She emerged from the experience to produce some of the most interesting ideas of the early years of psychoanalysis. Her paper “Destruction as a cause of coming into being,” given as a lecture to a meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society chaired by Freud in 1911, prefigures Freud’s claim that human beings are ruled by two opposing instincts. Spielrein suggested that humans are driven by two basic impulses, one impelling them to independence and survival, the other to propagation and thereby (she suggested) to the loss of individuality.

Spielrein’s account differs from Freud’s in some ways—notably the link she makes between the impulse of procreation and the destruction of the individual. These differences point to the influence of Schopenhauer, who shaped much of the central European intelligentsia’s thinking at the start of the 20th century. Schopenhauer’s impact on fin-de-siècle European culture can hardly be exaggerated. His view that human intelligence is the blind servant of unconscious will informs the writings of Tolstoy, Conrad, Hardy and Proust. Schopenhauer’s most lasting impact, however, was in questioning the prevailing view of the human mind—a view that had shaped western thought at least since Aristotle, continued to be formative throughout the Christian era and underpinned the European Enlightenment.

Schopenhauer posed a major challenge to the prevailing Enlightenment worldview. In much of the western tradition, consciousness and thought were treated as being virtually one and the same; the possibility that thought might be unconscious was excluded almost by definition. But for Schopenhauer the conscious part of the human mind was only the visible surface of inner life, which obeyed the non-rational imperatives of bodily desire rather than conscious deliberation. It was Schopenhauer who, in a celebrated chapter on “The Metaphysics of Sexual Love” in The World as Will and Idea, affirmed the primary importance of sexuality in human life, suggesting that the sexual impulse operates independently of the choices and intentions of individuals, without regard for—and often at the expense of—their freedom and well-being. Schopenhauer also examined the meaning of dreams and the role of slips of the tongue in revealing repressed thoughts and emotions, ideas that Freud would make his own. Though Freud rarely mentions him, there can be little doubt that he read the philosopher closely. So most likely did Spielrein, whose account of sexuality as a threat to individual autonomy resembles Schopenhauer’s more even than does Freud’s.

From one point of view, Freud’s work was an attempt to transplant the idea of the unconscious mind posited in Schopenhauer’s philosophy into the domain of science. When Freud originated psychoanalysis, he wanted it to be a science. One reason was because achieving scientific standing for his ideas would enable them to overcome the opposition of moralising critics who objected to the central place of sexuality in psychoanalysis. Another was that, for most of his life, Freud never doubted that science was the only true repository of human knowledge. Here he revealed the influence of Ernst Mach (1838-1916), an Austrian physicist and philosopher whose ideas were pervasive in Freud’s Vienna. For Mach, science was not a mirror of nature but a method for ordering human sensations, continuing and refining the picture of the world that has been evolved in the human organism. If we perceived things as they are we would see chaos, since much of the order we perceive in the world is projected into it by the human mind.

Here Mach—like Schopenhauer—was developing the philosophy of Kant, who believed that the world we perceive is shaped by human categories. As is generally recognised, Kant is one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment, who saw his task as rescuing human knowledge from the near-destruction that it had suffered under the assaults of David Hume, an Enlightenment philosopher of equal stature. What is less commonly understood is that Kant’s impact was to reinforce the scepticism he aimed to resist. Taking his point of departure from Kant, Schopenhauer came to the view that the world as understood by science was an illusion, while for Mach it was a human construction. It was against this background that Freud took for granted that science was the only source of knowledge, while at the same time accepting that science could not reveal the nature of things.


It is a paradoxical position, as the development of Freud’s thought illustrates. If science is a system of human constructions, useful for practical purposes but not a literal account of reality, what makes it superior to other modes of thinking? If science is also a sort of mythology—as Freud suggested in his correspondence with Einstein—what becomes of the Enlightenment project of dispelling myth through scientific inquiry? These were questions that Freud faced, and in some measure resolved, in the account of religion he developed towards the end of his life. In The Future of an Illusion (1927), he had interpreted religion largely in the standard Enlightenment fashion that has been revived in recent years, and is now so wearisomely familiar: religion was an error born of ignorance, which was bound to retreat as knowledge advanced. Never placing too much trust in reason, Freud did not expect religion to vanish; but at this point he seemed convinced that the diminishing role of religion in human life would be an altogether good thing.

The account of religion he presented ten years later in Moses and Monotheism (1937) was more complex. In the earlier book he had recognised that, answering to enduring human needs—particularly the need for consolation—religious beliefs were not scientific theories; but neither were they necessarily false. While religions might be illusions, illusions were not just errors—they could contain truth. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud went further, arguing that religion had played an essential role in the development of human inquiry. The Jewish belief in an unseen God was not a relic of ignorance without any positive value. By affirming a hidden reality, the idea of an invisible deity had encouraged inquiry into what lay behind the world that is disclosed to the senses. More, the belief in an unseen god had allowed a new kind of self-examination to develop—one that aimed to explore the inner world by looking beneath the surface of conscious awareness. Freud’s attempt to gain insight into the invisible workings of the mind may have been an extension of scientific method into new areas; but this advance was possible, Freud came to think, only because religion had prepared the ground. Without ever surrendering his uncompromising atheism, Freud acknowledged that psychoanalysis owed its existence to faith.

In accepting that illusion could be productive, Freud was retracing the steps of Schopenhauer’s errant disciple Nietzsche. At the same time Freud was making a decisive break with a dominant strand of Enlightenment thinking. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, who developed the idea in his book After Virtue (1981), Nietzsche brought the Enlightenment to a close by showing that the project of a morality that rested solely on human will was self-defeating. MacIntyre’s argument has the merit of recognising that Nietzsche was an Enlightenment thinker—rather than the crazed irrationalist of vulgar intellectual history—as well as one of the Enlightenment’s more formidable critics. It was Freud, however, who made the more radical break with Enlightenment thinking. Even if he confines its scope to the absurd figure of the Übermensch, Nietzsche remains a militant partisan of human autonomy. Freud, by contrast despite almost everything that has been written about him—aimed as much to mark the limits of human autonomy as to extend it. His words of advice to a patient indicate how much his thinking diverged from the view of open-ended human possibilities that is asserted adamantly today: “I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would be for me. But you will see for yourself how much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. Having restored your inner life, you will be better able to arm yourself against that unhappiness.” The tone of this injunction—with its use of the language of fate, prohibited among progressive right-thinking people—could not be further from contemporary ways of feeling and thinking.

In some respects Freud’s conception of psychoanalysis has more in common with the ancient Stoic art of life than with any modern way of thinking. As Philip Rieff argued in Freud: the Mind of the Moralist (1959), which remains the most penetrating study of the subject, there are good reasons for thinking Freud was formulating a new version of Stoic ethics. The goal of the Stoics was self-mastery through the acceptance of a personal fate, a condition that was supposed to go with tranquillity of mind. In looking back to infancy and childhood, Freud was pointing to the fact that the choosing self—one of the central fictions of liberal humanism—is itself unchosen, formed in a state of helplessness and bearing the traces of that experience forever after. It was this beleaguered self that Freud aimed to fortify: by gaining insight into the early experiences that shape our habits of feeling, he believed, we can in some measure reorder our response to the world. This is the respect in which Freud was proposing a version of Stoic ethics. But his Stoicism differed from the ancients in at least two important ways.

In the Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, self-mastery is achieved by identifying the self with the cosmos, a semi-divine order of things that is intrinsically rational. At bottom an uncompromisingly modern thinker, Freud had no such mystical faith in logic as the essence of the universe. The self-mastery he advocated—and practised—was not premised on the redemptive power of reason. Instead, it required accepting chaos as an ultimate fact. Here a second difference with ancient Stoicism appears: Freud never held out the hope of tranquillity. Rather, he aimed to reconcile those who entered psychoanalysis to a state of perpetual unrest. As has been argued by Adam Phillips, Freud’s most creative contemporary interpreter, psychoanalysis does not so much promise inner peace as open up a possibility of release from the fantasy that inner conflict will end. In this Freud also differed fundamentally from Schopenhauer, who never ceased to cling to a tormenting dream of salvation.

It may now be clearer, perhaps, why Freud’s thought is once again an object of scandal. His assault on the innocent verities of rationalism does not come from an avowed enemy of the Enlightenment—like that of Joseph de Maistre, say, whose attacks on reason were done in the service of revealed truth—but from one of its most resolute protagonists. An intrepid partisan of reason, Freud devoted his life to exploring reason’s limits. He was ready to accept that psychoanalysis could never be the science he had once wanted it to be. At the same time he came to accept that science might be superior to other modes of thinking only in limited ways. The myth-making impulse, which functions as the bogeyman of infantile rationalism, could not be eradicated from the human mind or from science.

Freud’s thought is a vital corrective to the scientific triumphalism that is making so much noise at the present time. But more than any other feature of his thinking, it is his acceptance of the flawed nature of human beings that is offensive today. Freud’s unforgivable sin was in locating the source of human disorder within human beings themselves. The painful conflicts in which humans have been entangled throughout their history and pre-history do not come only from oppression, poverty, inequality or lack of education. They originate in permanent flaws of the human animal. Of course Freud was not the first Enlightenment thinker to accept this fact. So did Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, Freud belongs in a tradition of Enlightenment thinking that aims to understand rather than to edify. Both aimed to reduce needless conflict; but neither of them imagined that the sources of such conflict could be eliminated by any increase in human knowledge. Even more than Hobbes, Freud was clear that destructive conflict goes with being human. This, in the final analysis, is why Freud is so unpopular today.

In a well-known passage at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud declared: “I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet, and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation…” What is most in demand at the start of the 21st century, in contrast, is consolation and nothing else. Enlightenment fundamentalism—the insistence by writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins that our salvation lies in affirming a highly selective set of “Enlightenment values”—serves this emotional need for meaning rather than any imperative of understanding. Like the religions they disparage, but with less profundity and little evident effect, the varieties of Enlightenment thinking on offer today are balm for the uneasy soul. The scientific-sounding formulae with which they appease their anxiety—the end of history, the flat world, the inexorable but forever delayed process of secularisation—are more fantastical than anything in Freud’s “gloomy mythology.”

The incessant ranting uplift and adamant certainty of latter-day partisans of Enlightenment are symptoms of a loss of nerve. Baffled and rattled by the unfolding scene, requiring incessant reassurance if they are not to fall into mawkish despair, these evangelists of reason are engaged—no doubt unconsciously—in a kind of collective therapy. Inevitably, they find Freud an intensely discomforting figure. Among many of his followers, the practice of self-inquiry that Freud invented has been turned into a technique of psychological adjustment—the opposite, in many ways, of what he intended. In this respect, at least, contemporary hostility to Freud expresses a sound intuition. What Freud offers is a way of thinking in which the experience of being human can be seen to be more intractably difficult, and at the same time more interesting and worthwhile, than anything imagined in the cheap little gospels of progress and self-improvement that are being hawked today.

If Freud has been misunderstood, neglected or repudiated, he would have expected nothing else. He is rejected now for the same reason that he was rejected in fin-de-siècle Vienna: his heroic refusal to flatter humankind. As his correspondence with Einstein confirms, he did not share the hope that reason could deliver humankind from the “active instinct for hatred and destruction,” which was clearly at work in Europe at the time. When he left Nazi-occupied Austria to spend the last year of his life in Britain, he knew that the destruction that lay ahead could not by then be prevented. But fate could still be mocked, and so defied. When leaving Austria, Freud was required to sign a document testifying that he had been well and fairly treated. He did so, adding in his own hand: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”

Follow Prospect on Twitter and Facebook


A literary engagement: Mario Vargas Llosa asks whether literature serves any higher purpose beyond entertainment?

Out of thin air: Elite athletes increasingly depend on technology to help them win. But what constitutes an unfair advantage, and who should decide? David Edmonds investigates the philosophy of sport

What a difference a decade makes: Ten years ago the American short story was in decline. Now it is once again a vital genre, argues Ruth Franklin

  1. December 28, 2011


    Mr Gray’s evident bias against enlightenment-humanist outlooks is rather pathetically obvious in the choice of over-the-top adjectives:

    ‘The incessant ranting uplift and adamant certainty of latter-day partisans of Enlightenment are symptoms of a loss of nerve. Baffled and rattled by the unfolding scene, requiring incessant reassurance if they are not to fall into mawkish despair, these evangelists of reason are engaged—no doubt unconsciously—in a kind of collective therapy. Inevitably, they find Freud an intensely discomforting figure.’

    Such heavy artillery suggests that a light-weight argument.

  2. January 3, 2012


    The reason Freud is out of fashion and favor is that he was a deluded pervert who wrote a lot of idiotic tripe with about the same value as the book of Mormon. As I had to put up with this nonsense as part of a “balanced education in psychiatry” as a medical student in the 80s I’m still irritated with him. “Balancing” Freud with neuroscience was as idiotic as teaching intelligent design next to evolution, and ensured that the only floppiest minded of my profession entered psychiatry. Freud delayed true science in the field for a good eighty years. Good riddance.

  3. January 20, 2012

    Fred Ossefogva

    There is nothing heroic about Freud. He was a charlatan of the first order, a fraud who made up “scientific” ideas out of whole cloth. Unfortunately his excellent writing skills were enough to dupe generations of otherwise sensible people. Thank God that only ninnies like Mr. Gray pay him any attention these days.

  4. January 20, 2012

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    Importance of Freud is lie that he given us scientific technique how to self analysis yourself.Before Freud even Spinoza also told us how unconscious govern on our conscious mind.and we have no freewill.Though Freud taken all his ideas from previous philosophers he given them scientific base.Many conclusion of Freud were wrong but he himself told us future of psycho analysis is depend on new research in neuroscience.From last fifteen years research in neuroscience indicated that technique of Freud is till useful to understand the psyche of man.I think importance of Freud`s technique will remain forever to understand the human nature.

  5. January 20, 2012


    Concerning the so-called “death wish,” it seems obvious that wars, killing, etc., are the result of the desire to remove others in order to preserve and enhance the existence oneself or one’s own group, not to destroy oneself. Most of Freud’s deep thought are as shallow as this.
    Also, since it now appears that Freud made up many of his claimed “case histories” out of whole-cloth, it has become very hard to admire him.

  6. January 20, 2012

    Benjamin Kerstein

    tedrey —

    Your observation cannot explain the numerous instances of wars that have inevitably resulted in the destruction of the aggressor, or in the destruction of both sides, even when any rational person could have foreseen that this would be the outcome. For example, it should have been obvious to both Napoleon and Hitler that attacking Russia was folly and would result in the fall of their regimes. Yet they both did it, and perished as a result. Indeed, many first-hand accounts state that, near the end of the war, Hitler was well aware of the fact that his policies would lead to the annihilation of Germany and was not at all unhappy about it. This is precisely the type of counterintuitive behavior Freud sought to explain through his theory of the death instinct.

  7. January 20, 2012


    The reason that Freud is now out is because he is unscientific. Science now requires experimental proof something that Freud never provides.

  8. January 20, 2012


    Benjamin Kerstein:

    “it should have been obvious to both Napoleon and Hitler that attacking Russia was folly and would result in the fall of their regimes… Hitler was well aware of the fact that his policies would lead to the annihilation of Germany and was not at all unhappy about it. This is precisely the type of counterintuitive behavior Freud sought to explain through his theory of the death instinct.”

    Although is it better explained through the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

  9. January 20, 2012


    While I’m not convinced that the New Atheist apostle Christopher Hitchens’ entertaining rhetorical flourishes amounted to very much in the way of convincing arguments, I nonetheless have a hard time seeing any uplifting therapeutical dimension to his scientistic bluster. The Enlightenment polemicist unleashed a steady stream of gloomy British utterances about the nastiness and meaninglessness of life in the disenchanted world, and seemed particularly incensed by the religious suggestion that purpose and redemption lies in store for us at the end of the rainbow. The conflation of the facile self-help industry and popular but regrettably literalist approaches to science is unconvincing.

  10. January 20, 2012


    As usual, the hysterical, non-nuanced, purely reactive negative replies above to Gray’s essay demonstrate that he has touched a nerve.

    Those who condemn Gray for “over the top” language would make a more credible case if they were to avoid it themselves. In particular, self-proclaimed exemplars of scientific rationality and other Enlightenment virtues would better embody their alleged values by avoiding such terms as “pervert”, “pathetically”, “idiotic”, and the like.

  11. January 20, 2012

    Seismic Puppy

    “If Freud has been misunderstood, neglected or repudiated, he would have expected nothing else. He is rejected now for the same reason that he was rejected in fin-de-siècle Vienna: his heroic refusal to flatter humankind.”

    I’m not sure this is true. After all, many rock stars since the 60s rose to prominence by acting crazy and destructive, the message being ‘world is fuc*ed up, so why not me?’

    Dylan in the mid-60s dropped his ‘save the world’ shtick and sang darker songs like LIKE A ROLLING STONE and VISIONS OF JOHANNA but his star rose only higher.
    Alfred Hitchcock’s vision of human nature is very dark, but he has perhaps become the most admired filmmaker of all time.
    When it comes to race, many of our most prominent thinkers and intellectuals have built their careers on condemning the West/white people for their ‘deeply rooted racist sickness’ that can never be rooted out, which is why white people have to be controlled by political correctness from cradle to grave. Newsweek ran a cover with a white baby asking, “Is your baby racist?” So, we are supposed to worry about babies being born-KKK or natural Nazis. So, even though there’s a lot of Oprah feel-good crap, there is a huge market out there for reminding us how ‘dark, dangerous, and evil we are’. Look at all the comments about evil greedy Wall Street. And the Holocaust has become a virtual religion in the West, reminding Europeans forever how wicked they are. And German kids are raised since kindergarten to feel shame for their Original Sin of Jew-hatred. It’s almost a secular religion of self-loathing for Germans.

    No, the real reason for the fall of Freud was the rise in brain science. Now that we know far more about the actual workings of the brain, we are less enamored of creative/imaginative theories of the mind. So, Freud should be remembered and appreciated as more a philosopher of the mind than a scientist. As the technology for understanding the human brain advances, Freud’s theories will seem more quaint, at least as science. But as artful speculations about the mind, they will retain their value… just like the works of Nietzsche, who was also a ‘creative thinker’.

    The real reasons for the decline of Freud were revelations of his (1) intolerance and arrogance. He insisted he was right on everything and treated dissidents horribly. (2) Hypocrisy. He claimed to be a scientist but often fudged data. (3) conflation of the personal with the universal; too often, he projected his own neurosis on the entire human race and claimed everyone suffered from the same problem that he didn’t really face honestly within himself.

    But he was a man of his times and he couldn’t have known some of the things about the brain and human behavior we have now, so he has to be appreciated within that context.

  12. January 20, 2012

    John Snethen

    If Mr. Gray hadn’t made a persuasive case that “[t]he incessant ranting uplift and adamant certainty of latter-day partisans of Enlightenment are symptoms of a loss of nerve,” then his interlocutors’ guttural, gratuitously meaningless remarks surely would have. Individuals who hide behind phony names and take anonymous potshots at articulate thinkers not only lack “nerve,” they deserve their status as non-entities among reflective, intelligent people. Mr Gray has made a thoughtful and interesting contribution to the discourse on one of the last century’s most influential thinkers. Whether I agree or disagree with him, I will be thinking about what he said for some time. I thank him for his provocative analysis.

    John Snethen

  13. January 20, 2012


    A crackpot or no, Freud is still a wonderful writer with an interesting imagination, as Gray makes clear here. But I simply don’t comprehend Gray’s main argument, which seems to be that Freud is rejected nowadays simply because our timorous times can’t brook the good doctor’s pessimism. Gray keeps asserting this but offers no actual evidence to back this claim. Are Freud’s ideas so much more gloomy than the widely accepted idea that free will is an illusion or that altruism is evolved sefishness in disguise?

  14. January 20, 2012

    Michael Rover

    You’ll find no bigger booster of Schopenhauer than me. But Freud was an intellectual failure by comparison, for a simple reason: His absurd scientific pretensions. If Freud had simply dropped his claims of scientific authority(and Gray facilely evades this problem by talking about how Freud viewed modern science as also a type of mythology), he would have been much easier to stomach. But, as with Marxism, his absurd claims of scientific validity, combined with his ferocious dogmatism, render his views repugnant to the modern mindset. You cannot, as Gray attempts, just baptize Freud as a philosopher in the tradition of Schopenhauer, because that does too much violence to the heart of Freud and Freudianism.

  15. January 20, 2012


    Wonderfully insightful article. Some of the comments demonstrate the acuteness of your claim that we modern humans refuse to recognize our innate flaws. Why indeed should we expect that as natural creatures, the results of haphazard evolution, our brains should cause us to be good or wise? All Freud is doing is pointing out that fact of our natural history.

    And Chrysostom–you neglect the difference between the natural sciences that look at non-thinking objects, such as planets, trees, and insects and the human sciences. The natural sciences deal with causes; the human sciences deal with reasons.

    • December 29, 2013


      What makes you so sure that we are ” natural creatures, the results of haphazard evolution,” and what did we evolve from?

  16. January 20, 2012

    Greg McColm

    I have read several of Freud’s harsh critics, and they rarely complain that Freud is denigrating human nature.
    First, Popperians complain that Freud’s theory is not falsifiable, and therefore (in their view, unscientific) (they have the same complaint about Friedman’s monetarism — and there are rumbles about Natural Selection as well).
    Behaviorists complain that Freud’s theory seems independent of data, even data about treatment results (a crime in any empirical science). Freud, like \scientific socialists\, did not claim to be an empirical scientist, but then it is not clear what sort of scientist he was. Presumably he was not a mathematician.
    It probably is true that there is a lot of stupid criticism from objectivists, prudes, and even antisemites. But there is probably a good reason why Freud does not command the respect that Darwin does.

  17. January 20, 2012


    Gray’s essay builds on a huge straw-man. He claims that Freud’s reputation is in tatters today because Freud believed in instincts and a human nature that could not easily be amended and controlled. He even claims that contemporary critics deem Freud’s ideas dangerous and immoral for this very reason, but, tellingly, he does not name any of these putative critics.

    However, the truth is pretty much the opposite. Freudianism has been discredited because Freud’s methods fail to cure patients and because his psychological theories are in conflict with empirical evidence. Moreover, far from rejecting the idea of human nature, today’s science embraces it — scholarly journals are teeming with evolutionary theories and speculations of human behavior, and enormous amounts of funding go into attempts to uncover genetic underpinnings of diseases.

    In academia, Freudianism survives only in the humanities. Paradoxically, humanist scholars who reject contemporary evolutionary and behavioral genetic explanations of human behavior as “reductionist” still cling to Freud’s simplistic and extremely reductionist theories.

    Freud and Gray are pessimistic about our capacity reduce human suffering, but fortunately many others think differently. For example, John Cade’s discovery of the therapeutic effects of lithium carbonate alone has reduced suffering more than Freud and all of his followers together.

    Benjamin Kerstein–Napoleon and Hitler certainly did not think at the outset that their armies would be defeated by Russia. For example, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union it was widely believed, and not only by Nazis, that the Soviets would be easily crushed — the poor showing of the Red Army against Finland in 1939-40 and the early successes of the Operation Barbarossa supported this view. Even at the very end, when Soviet troops were nearing Berlin, Hitler delusionally thought that Germany could still win the war.

  18. January 21, 2012


    It’s Sabina, rather than Sabrina, Spielrein.

  19. January 21, 2012

    Phil Balla

    John Gray is superb here.

    Besides going after the credulity of self-help and “flatter me,” “I’m special,” he points toward an larger, deeper domai of all rationalists. They, in all the scientifically constructed departments of corporate academe, repeat the same cold-blooded mythology of rational systems as the cold-blooded of high finance do their Citizens United world of all humanity reduced to numbers, money. What a nice frisson of Schopenhauerean power-love — and anti-humanity.

    It was, perhaps, the Rand Corp. in the post WWII-1940s that first shaped rationality studies as god of corporate academe. This brought the whiz kids, who brought Nam. The fact that it’s yet going on in the flatteries of the self-help movements proves true as John Gray says. But it’s worse than that — still mooring all those nice, impersonal departmental orthodoxies all across the massively corporate U.S. corporate academe.

  20. January 21, 2012


    Freud is out of favor with psychologists and psychiatrists not because he doesn’t flatter them but because they found that other approaches work much more effectively than psychoanalysis in understanding human beings and helping them.

    There is a widespread self-help element in current society, but claiming that Freud has fallen out of favor because of that is simply nonsense. Cognitive/behaviorial techniques work extremely well overall at helping people overcome phobias, compulsive behavior, depression, and many other problems, and they do so every day. Psychoanalysis was overall a failure at doing the same. That’s why Freud is \out of favor\, not because people are shallow and read pop psychology. This article is a much better demonstration of the results of that trend.

  21. January 21, 2012

    Roger Seamon

    The key word is mythology. Freud did write mythology, as did Marx and Hegel, in efforts to substitute something for the Christian story which they no longer believed. Hegel and Marx wrote “comedies” with happy endings, Feud wrote about endlessly repeated tragedies, which captured many imaginations despite its pessimism. As science they are all wrong. But once scientists start talking about people’s actions, they too talk mythology, since talk about us always includes values. The Darwinian story is not one we can use in daily life. We navigate in a sea of values, and cannot talk to each other about what to do tomorrow without caring deeply and building that somehow into our talk. Facts and good theories enter into that talk as material but the structure (the plot) is myth. We fight and love inside stories, and cannot get outside them.

  22. January 21, 2012

    Allen Esterson

    Gray writes: “When leaving Austria, Freud was required to sign a document testifying that he had been well and fairly treated. He did so, adding in his own hand: ‘I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone’.”

    The document was discovered in 1989. No such statement was found on it.

  23. January 21, 2012

    Carl Bankston

    The translation of “trieb” as “instinct” might be part of the problem. Speaking of thanatos as an “impulse toward destruction,” as Gray does in one of the paragraphs above, is probably a better representation of Freud’s actual thinking than a “death instinct.”

  24. January 21, 2012

    daniel frank

    an interesting article.One thing left out is that Freudian ideas, with respect to his theories of the mind and the utility of psychoanalysis, have been and are continuing to be, subject to scientific inquiry. Increasingly well controlled outcome studies of analytic methods are quite encouraging and the field of cognitive neuroscience has been quite comfortable with the existence of the unconscious mind for a long time now, although it often uses other terminology. Although the research is not as “hard-nosed” as we would like it to be, and much obviously needs to be done to deepen it, the evidence that exists has been largely ignored by departments of psychology at universities and in the lay press.

  25. January 21, 2012

    daniel frank

    another point on Freud’s side: It seems highly unlikely that the critics who claim that analytic process and outcome has no empirical basis have gone on google scholar or any medical/psychological search engine and looked at the literature that is abundant. A scientific approach to human nature cannot explain everything or cure all problems but to dismiss the literature out of hand seems suggestive or irrational biases that are out of awareness, no?

  26. January 22, 2012

    J Mountfort

    Interesting, but ultimately a bit of a strawman. It would be difficult to defend the thesis that Freud is unfashionable because he fails to flatter. It seems more likely that the author is paying too much attention to old school philosophical currents and not enough to the naturalistic thinking that predominates among today’s heirs to the Enlightenment. It isn’t surprising that those who feel threatened by scientific enquiry would tend to take a moralistic stance. Who are these people who both accept the findings of biology, genetics, evolution, etc…, and yet can’t handle the possibility that negative human tendencies may be innate? I would like to meet such a person.

  27. January 22, 2012


    It’s rather ironic, though almost cliche to point out, that many of the comments below express that aggression born of fear of an assault on one’s delicate worldview that you discussed in the article. Only from afar and through a foggy lens can these thinkers appear to be unworthy of serious discussion and contemplation. Oh well, philosophy isn’t for everyone.

    Having heavily studied Nietzsche, Freud, and Schopenhauer I can only add that Nietzsche was no believer in human autonomy but in fact waged some very heavy assaults on the idea of a persistent and unitary self and the concept of human free will – which he viewed as a misreading after the fact of certain orderings of incoming stimuli. So in many ways he predates Freud on this view and was in fact more radical in his assault on human free agency. I would read some Brian Leiter on Nietzsche for more in depth analysis.

  28. January 22, 2012


    Dreadfully poor article. It makes no attempt to confront the obvious and much simpler hypothesis that Freud has fallen out of favour because there is an overwhelming and constantly increasing mountain of evidence that he was completely and utterly wrong.

    The writer appears to have decided the conclusion he wanted, then searched for evidence to match his conclusion while willfully excluding everything else.

    The bizarre thing which would be worth an insightful article is why anyone took Freud seriously in the first place.

  29. January 22, 2012


    Frued’s out of fashion for the same reason phlogistion is “out of fashion” – his insights are explanatory of nothing but Freud’s own ability to spin a tall tale and the mania of the times that allowed psuedo-scientific mumbo-jumbo of the sort Freud peddled to be accepted on an equal footing with the real science that Freud aped.

  30. January 23, 2012

    James A. Van Sant

    John N. Gray is dealing here with a very difficult subject, and he has taken a strong step toward putting Freud into perspective for the modern reader. I have always found, in my studies of psychology and psychotherapeutic methods, Freud’s treatment of the unsconscious a solid bed rock for further exploration. I think Freud was right in his commentary in that area; like many pioneers in psychology and medicine, he often took his claims too far, and he did enter the realm of myth where he had a lot of famous company. We would not have modern treatments used successfully today in much of the western world without Freud’s basic underpinning of thought — even those who repel Freud and work against him are given by him issues and material to work with they otherwise would not have had.
    I believe the forever swinging pendulum of therapeutic thought and method is, as Mr Gray suggests, returning a bit to Freud’s
    positions, at least some of the basics. Mythology never cured any mentally or emotionally sick person, but self-insight and the questioning of reality and its composition is a great therapeutic tool, and there is no doubt that Freud was a seminal contributor in that field. Jung, much more the myth-maker than Freud, was said to be a far better one-to-one psychotherapist. Their time was a heady era, an exploration of new territory that continues to yield insight and sometimes relief to human misery.
    Those who denounce Freud willy-nilly are not to be taken seriously. I would like to see Mr Gray write more seriously on his subject, adducing specific examples of anti-Freudian argument and then evaluating and analysing them. I have to wonder if Mr. Gray has himself been psychoanalyzed. It is a very great force in bringing clarity to rhetoric and argument. Freud was a very great rhetorician; he argued persuasively. I have taught in courses of public speaking, his early Vienna Academy lectures on the human personality and they are as vivid and strong today, as rhetoric, as they’ve ever been. Science has by no means entirely dis-proven Freud; certainly medicine has advanced beyond him; psychotherapy did not end in 1938! In recent years science has taken very interesting, even surprising, steps to show that psycho-active drugs, popularly advertised prescription drugs to relieve depression and other disorders, are largely fake — are no better than placebo. Hence, many present-day physicians are recommending talk therapy AND drug treatment to cure neurotic and other disorders. We may never know which is the more effective, but can we question Freud’s basic creative contributions? I think not.

  31. January 23, 2012


    The John Gray that wrote this article seems not to be tha same as the gentleman who wrote “Straw Dogs”. This article creates a fantastic spiders web of dropped (philosophers) names in order to bolster the image of Sigmund Freud. Where are the scientists? It is clear to me now (unlike when I read his book) that JG does not like scientists or science.
    Several authors have exposed Sigmund Freud as a charlatan who preyed on the wealthy (especially women) and played the system to cultivate his image; this probably includes targetting Einstein.
    What does Wittgenstein say about Sigmund?

  32. January 24, 2012

    Michael Rover

    To quote Mr. Van Sant’s post above:

    “Those who denounce Freud willy-nilly are not to be taken seriously. I would like to see Mr Gray write more seriously on his subject, adducing specific examples of anti-Freudian argument and then evaluating and analysing them. I have to wonder if Mr. Gray has himself been psychoanalyzed. It is a very great force in bringing clarity to rhetoric and argument”

    See, Freud, this is what you gave the world. A system so dogmatic that it cannot conceive of legitimate correction, but at the same time so amorphous that opposing criticisms are simply engulfed by the insensitive amoeba.

    Gray’s article attempts to portray Freud as an existential philosopher, one who does not ‘cure’ the incurable but rather confronts individuals with their tragic nature. How heroic. But Gray’s version of Freud (“Schopenhauer part Two”) is pure fantasy, the ugly historical reality being the Viennese witch doctor selling cures for money.

    People don’t loathe Freud because he portrayed humans as inherently bad. Modern evolutionary psychologists do the same, and instead of lauding them for their deep-rooted pessimism, Gray hates them. Rather people loathe Freud because he insistently reduced human existence down to his inane theoretical constructs, and did so despite the damning empirical evidence to the contrary (if you’ve read Gray’s review of Pinker’s latest book, by the way, you’ll see he is Freud’s kindred spirit in this regard). Simply put, Freud’s a quack. We just have to forgive Freudians their follies, in much the same way we forgive adherents of every form of religious quackery.

  33. February 12, 2012


    Freud was not the last but the first great Enlightenment thinker: the first to scientifically define what is common to human nature in all of us. He was not a perfect example, as he was a man of his time, and this is where it is difficult to extricate the findings from the man.

    Reich took his framework based on bodily developmental stages almost as far as yogic enlightenment. Maslow defined the healthy framework which underpinned the dysfunctions that Freud studies. And Jung identified the function of imagination and visualization as tools to heal dysfunction by rewriting the past and the internalized relationships that we superimpose on relationships throughout life.

    Freud didn’t get as far as enlightenment when he defined his framework, but in their likewise imperfect ways, Maslow’s self-actualised person, and Jung’s individuated self went much much further towards the universal potential in humanity to attain enlightenment as a spiritual and physical person.

  34. February 28, 2012


    I find this piece of doubtful value, Mr Gray.

    Without providing illustrative quotations from his critics, you repeatedly assert that Freud has become unfashionable because he theorised that “humankind might be possessed by an impulse to destruction.” Here, it seems to me, you set up a false opposition. I have seldom heard him attacked on these grounds; for other reasons, yes, e.g. the ‘unfalsifiability’ of his ideas.

    I second JL, who, posting here on Jan 2012, wrote, “Freudianism has been discredited because Freud’s methods fail to cure patients and because his psychological theories are in conflict with empirical evidence.”

  35. March 2, 2012

    Information about Sabina Spielrein’s life is not as sketchy as Mr. Gray thinks. Sabina was born in 1885 and married the physician Pavel Sheftel in Rostov in 1912; their first daughter Irma Renata was born in Berlin. At the beginning of the First World War, the family went to Switzerland. Pavel returned to Russia for military duty, Sabina rejoined him not before 1923, when she first went to Moscow and then to Rostov where she gave birth to her scond daughter Eva. She was never married to Alexander Lurija who was seventeen years younger than Spielrein. Sorry to feel disappointed about Mr. Gray’s unreliability in such matters about which he is writing with an unfounded air of authority giving rise to doubts about his other factual claims and judgements, but even more so with regard to Prospect’s reputation in reliable fact checking.

  36. March 13, 2012

    Marco Di Luce

    well; this is not all that new, nor is it a matter of fashion! take a look at THE PAST OF A DELUSION by Warren Sturgis McCulloch and you would understand the kind of nonsense that Freud has long concocted …

  37. March 15, 2012


    Some of the comments here are unexpectedly uncouth and downright ugly. I wish people of this sort would keep to their own places in Yahoo news and such.

  38. March 24, 2012


    What a nasty-looking piece of work he was: just look at him scowling at the bust. Any chance of an article on how Gurdjieff’s teachings might benefit the day-to-day running NHS?

  39. April 10, 2012


    Freud is out of fashion for several very good reasons. The reason given by Gray isn’t one of them.

    Like Freud, Gray would have us believe he knows us better than we know ourselves. Like Freud he is posturing. Egotism – not ego.

  40. June 26, 2012


    The “death instinct” has to be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of ideas. That this article cites it as an obvious truth and a major accomplishment for Freud is laughable.

    His theories are not supported by the evidence and fail when tested. Case closed.

  41. June 27, 2013


    Thanks for an excellent article, I believe Freud has been misunderstood to some degree. I’ve only recently read some of his actual books, and some translated by A. A. Brill that are excellent (to me, a non-scholar). He seems to have experienced much inner turmoil himself, according to Theodore Reik, his life long devoted friend. When I hear criticism of Freud it’s usually from someone that hasn’t read enough about history, philosophy, and the advent of scientific thought..

  42. September 15, 2013


    “Freud’s methods fail to cure patients”. This bald assertion begs rather a lot of questions. “Freud’s methods” – what are we talking about here? “Fail” – what would define success in this context? “Cure” – what does this mean vis a vis the treatment of the mind/psyche? Gray quotes Phillips as saying that ‘psychoanalysis does not so much promise inner peace as open up a possibility of release from the fantasy that inner conflict will end.’ This is a sophisticated and thoughtful formulation, which if it begs questions does so in the expectation that they may legitimately be asked.

  43. September 15, 2013


    also – it’s one thing to accept in some philosophical/scientific/intellectual way that there is something destructive or self-destructive in human nature, but quite another to confront that aspect of oneself (or indeed of another person, if you happen to be the therapist) in the consulting room.

  44. December 29, 2013


    Which is more possible/plausible;
    That Freud’s consumption of cocain made him fantasize even more about having sex with his mother AND helped him come up with his largely incredible ideas;
    or a so-called credible scientist conducting an experiment taking the exact ingredients of a can of Coca-Cola, including the paint & exact amount of aluminum to make the can, and separately puting them in one tightly sealed and locked cooler and tossing the cooler into the ocean repeatedly (since the waves will wash it back upon the beach) to mix the contents, for several hundred thousand generations, and his ancestors (obviously in the future) ending the experiment with the result being a perfectly made can of Coca-Cola, as we now know it?

  45. March 1, 2014


    Freud may be slightly out of fashion in today’s times but he did offer some valid thoughts and insights into the human mind. If he did not then we would not be discussing him to this very day.

  46. March 23, 2014

    logical atomist

    There seem to be a lot of claims about Freud that “there is an overwhelming and constantly increasing mountain of evidence that he was completely and utterly wrong.” But I have never heard any of the people claiming this give even one example of a central thesis of Freud’s against which there is any significant evidence. It almost makes one think that people are just repeating some story about evidence against Freud that they heard from some other person without any direct evidence, who heard it from somebody else who also knew nothing solid, and so on. Can anybody give an example of an experiment or a reputable study that provides evidence against Freud’s theories, or are these “mountains of evidence” like the many reports of flying saucers and Elvis-sightings?

Leave a comment

  1. CRF Blog » Blog Archive » The last great Enlightenment thinker04-21-13
  2. The Great Psychological Detective | Read and Black04-09-14

Share this

Most Read

Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times

Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia