Sigmund Freud is out of fashion. The reason? His heroic refusal to flatter humankindby John Gray / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.