Greatness and Limitations of Freud's Thought

Greatness and Limitations of Freud's Thought

by Erich Fromm

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Renowned social psychologist Erich Fromm’s classic study of Freud’s most important—and controversial—ideas

Bestselling philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm contends that the principle behind Freud’s work—the wellspring from which psychoanalysis flows—boils down to one well-known belief:See more details below


Renowned social psychologist Erich Fromm’s classic study of Freud’s most important—and controversial—ideas

Bestselling philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm contends that the principle behind Freud’s work—the wellspring from which psychoanalysis flows—boils down to one well-known belief: “And the truth shall set you free.” The healing power of truth is what Freud used to cure depression and anxiety, cutting through repression and rationalizations, and it provided the foundation for modern psychology.
Freud’s work, however, was not without its flaws. Though he pioneered many of the practices still in use today, Freud’s perspective was imperfect. In Greatness and Limitation of Freud’s Thought, Fromm deepens the understanding of Freud by highlighting not just his remarkable insights, but also his flaws, on topics ranging from dreams to sexuality.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erich Fromm including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate.

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Greatness and Limitations of Freud's Thought

By Erich Fromm


Copyright © 1980 Estate of Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0195-2


The Limitations of Scientific Knowledge


The attempt to understand Freud's theoretical system, or that of any creative systematic thinker, cannot be successful unless we recognize that, and why, every system as it is developed and presented by its author is necessarily erroneous. That is so not because of the lack of ingenuity, creativeness or self-criticism on the part of the author, but because of a fundamental and unavoidable contradiction: on the one hand the author has something new to say, something that has not been thought or said before. But in speaking of "newness" one places it only into a descriptive category which does not do justice to what is essential in the creative thought. The creative thought is always a critical thought because it does away with certain illusion and gets closer to the awareness of reality. It enlarges the realm of man's awareness and strengthens the power of his reason. The critical and hence creative thought always has a liberating function by its negation of illusory thought.

On the other hand the thinker has to express his new thought in the spirit of his time. Different societies have different kinds of "common sense," different categories of thinking, different systems of logic; every society has its own "social filter" through which only certain ideas and concepts and experiences can pass; those that need not necessarily remain unconscious can become conscious when by fundamental changes in the social structure the "social filter" changes accordingly. Thoughts that cannot pass through the social filter of a certain society at a certain time are "unthinkable," and of course also "unspeakable." For the average person the thought patterns of his society appear to be simply logical. The thought patterns of fundamentally different societies are looked upon each by the other as illogical or plainly nonsensical. But not only "logic" is determined by the "social filter," and in the last analysis by the practice of life of any given society, but also certain thought contents. Take for instance the conventional notion that exploitation among human beings is a "normal," natural and unavoidable phenomenon. For a member of the Neolithic society in which each man and woman lived from his or her work, individually or in groups, such a proposition would have been unthinkable. Considering their whole social organization, exploitation of human beings by others would have been a "crazy" idea, because there was not yet a surplus to make it sensible to employ others. (If one person had forced another to work for him it would not have meant that the amount of goods would have increased, only that the "employer" would have been forced to idleness and boredom.) Another example: the many societies that knew no private property in the modern sense but only "functional property," like a tool, which "belonged" to a single person inasmuch as he used it but was readily shared with others when needed.

What is unthinkable is also unspeakable and the language has no word for it. Many languages do not have a word for to have but must express the concept of possession in other words, for instance by the construction it is to me, which expresses the concept of functional but not of private property ("private" in the sense of the Latin privare, to deprive—that is to say, property the use of which everybody else is deprived of except the owner). Many languages started out without a word for to have but in their development and, one may assume, with the emergence of private property, they acquired a word for it (see Benveniste, 1966). Another example: in the tenth or eleventh century in Europe the concept of the world without reference to God was unthinkable and hence a word like atheism could not exist. Language itself is influenced by the social repression of certain experiences which do not fit into the structure of a given society; languages differ inasmuch as different experiences are repressed, and hence inexpressible.

It follows that the creative thinker must think in the terms of the logic, the thought patterns, the expressible concepts of his culture. That means he has not yet the proper words to express the creative, the new, the liberating idea. He is forced to solve an insoluble problem: to express the new thought in concepts and words that do not yet exist in his language. (They may very well exist at a later time when his creative thoughts have been generally accepted.) The consequence is that the new thought as he formulated it is a blend of what is truly new and the conventional thought which it transcends. The thinker, however, is not conscious of this contradiction. The conventional thoughts of his culture are unquestionably true for him and hence he himself is little aware of the difference between what is creative in his thought and what is purely conventional. Only in the historical process, when social changes are reflected in the changes of thought patterns, does it become evident what in the thought of a creative thinker was truly new and to what extent his system is only a reflection of conventional thinking. It is up to his followers living in a different frame of ideas to interpret the "master" by distinguishing his "original" thoughts from his conventional thoughts, and by analyzing the contradictions between the new and the old, rather than by trying to harmonize the immanent contradictions of his system by all kinds of subterfuge.

The process of revision of an author, which distinguishes the essential and new from the contingent, time-conditioned elements, is in itself also the product of a certain historical period that influences the interpretation. In this creative interpretation, again creative and valid elements are mixed with time-bound and accidental ones. The revision is not simply true as the original was not simply false. Some elements of the revision remain true, namely where it liberates the theory from the shackles of a previous conventional thinking. In the process of the critical elimination of previous theories we find an approximation to truth but we do not find the truth, and we cannot find the truth as long as social contradictions and force require ideological falsification, as long as man's reason is damaged by irrational passions which have their root in the disharmony and irrationality of social life. Only in a society in which there is no exploitation, hence which does not need irrational assumptions in order to cover up or justify exploitation, in a society in which the basic contradictions have been solved and in which social reality can be recognized without distortion, can man make full use of his reason, and at that point he can recognize reality in an undistorted form—that is to say, the truth. To put it differently, the truth is historically conditioned: it is dependent on the degree of rationality and the absence of contradictions within the society.

Man can grasp truth only when he can regulate his social life in a human, dignified and rational way, without fear and hence without greed. To use a politico-religious expression, only in the Messianic Time can the truth be recognized insofar as it is recognizable.


Applying this principle to Freud's thinking means that to understand Freud one must try to recognize which of his findings were truly new and creative, to what extent he had to express them in a distorted way and how by liberating his ideas from these shackles his discoveries become all the more fruitful.

Referring to what has been said in general about Freud's thought, the question arises, What was truly unthinkable to Freud and hence a "roadblock" beyond which he could not go?

If we try to answer the question What was really unthinkable for Freud? I can see only two complexes:

1. The theory of bourgeois materialism, especially as it was developed in Germany by men like Vogt, Moleschott and Büchner. In Kraft und Stoff (Force and Matter) (1855) Büchner claimed to have discovered that there is no force without matter and no matter without force; this dogma was widely accepted in Freud's time. The dogma of bourgeois materialism expressed by Freud was that of his teachers, especially his most important teacher, von Brücke. Freud remained strongly under the influence of the thinking of von Brücke and of bourgeois materialism in general, and under this influence he could not conceive that there could be strong psychical powers whose specific physiological roots could not be demonstrated.

Freud's real aim was to understand human passions; previously the philosophers, playwrights and novelists—not the psychologists or neurologists—were concerned with the passions.

How did Freud solve the problem? At a time when relatively little was known about hormonal influences on the psyche there was indeed one phenomenon in which the connection of the physiological and the psychical was well known: sexuality. If one considered sexuality as the root of all drives, then the theoretical demand was satisfied, the physiological roots of psychic forces were discovered. It was Jung who later cut loose from this connection, and in this respect made, as I see it, a truly valuable addition to Freud's thought.

2. The second complex of unthinkable thoughts had to do with Freud's bourgeois and authoritarian-patriarchal attitude. A society in which women were truly equal to men, in which men did not rule because of their alleged physiological and psychical superiority, was simply unthinkable for Freud. When John Stuart Mill, whom Freud admired a great deal, expressed his ideas concerning the equality of women, Freud wrote in a letter, "On this point Mill is simply crazy." The word crazy is typical for defining that which is unthinkable. Most people call certain ideas "crazy" because "sane" is only that which is within the frame of reference of conventional thought. That which transcends it is crazy in the view of the average person. (This, however, is different when the author, or artist, becomes successful. Does not success certify sanity?) That the equality of women was unthinkable to Freud led him to his psychology of women. I believe that his concept that half of mankind is biologically, anatomically and psychically inferior to the other half is the only idea in his thinking which seems to be without the slightest redeeming feature, except as a portrayal of a male-chauvinistic attitude.

But the bourgeois character of Freud's thought is by no means only to be found in this extreme form of patriarchalism. Indeed there are few thinkers who are "radical" in the sense of transcending the thinking of their class. Freud was not one of them. The class background and his manner of thinking show in virtually all his theoretical statements. Since he was not a radical thinker, how could it be otherwise? Indeed there would be nothing to complain about, were it not for the fact that his orthodox (and unorthodox) followers were encouraged in their uncritical attitude toward society. This attitude of Freud's also explains why his creation, which was a critical theory, namely the critique of human consciousness, hardly brought forward any more than a handful of radical political thinkers.

It would be necessary to write a whole book if one wanted to analyze Freud's most important concepts and theories from the standpoint of their class origin. It certainly cannot be done within the framework of this book. However, here are three examples.

1. Freud's therapeutic aim was control of instinctual drives through the strengthening of the ego; they have to be subdued by ego and superego. In the latter respect Freud is close to medieval theological thought, although with the important difference that in his system there is no place for grace or for motherly love, beyond that of feeding the child. The key word is control.

The psychological concept corresponds to the social reality. Just as socially the majority is controlled by a ruling minority, the psyche is supposed to be controlled by the authority of the ego and superego. The danger of the breakthrough of the unconscious carries with it the danger of a social revolution. Repression is a repressive authoritarian method of protecting the inner and outer status quo. It is by no means the only way to cope with problems of social change. But the threat of force in keeping down what is "dangerous" is only necessary in an authoritarian system where the preservation of the status quo is the supreme goal. Other models of individual and social structures can be experimented with. In the last analysis the question is How much renunciation of happiness does the ruling minority in a society need to impose on the majority? The answer lies in the development of productive forces in the society, and hence in the degree to which the individual is necessarily frustrated. The whole scheme "superego, ego, id" is a hierarchical structure, which excludes the possibility that the association of free, i.e., non-exploited, human beings can live harmoniously and without the necessity of controlling sinister forces.

2. It goes without saying that Freud's grotesque picture of women (cf. lecture 33 in Freud, 1933a) as essentially narcissistic, unable to love and sexually cool is male propaganda. The middle-class woman was as a rule sexually cold. The proprietary character of bourgeois marriage conditioned them to be cold. Since they were property, they were expected to be "inanimate" in marriage. Only women of the upper class and courtesans were permitted to be active sexual subjects (or at least to fake it). No wonder that men experienced lust in the process of conquest; the over-evaluation of the "sexual object" which according to Freud existed only in men (another lack in women!) was, as far as I can see, essentially the pleasure in the chase and the eventual conquest. Once the conquest was assured by the first intercourse, the woman was relegated to the task of producing children and to being an efficient housekeeper; she had changed from an object of chase to a no-person. If Freud had had many female patients from the highest classes of French and English aristocracy, his rigid picture of the cold woman might have changed.

3. Perhaps the most important example of the bourgeois qualities of Freud's seemingly universal concepts is that of love. Indeed, Freud speaks of love, more than his orthodox followers are accustomed to do. But what does he mean by love?

It is most important to note that Freud and his disciples usually speak of "object love" (in contrast to "narcissistic love") and of a "love-object" (meaning the person one loves). Is there really such a thing as a "love-object"? Does not the loved person cease to be an object, i.e., something outside and opposed to me (same root as in to object)? Is not love precisely the inner activity which unites two people so that they cease to be objects (i.e., possessions for each other)? To speak of love-objects is to speak of having, with exclusion of any form of being (see Fromm, 1976a); it is not different from a merchant speaking of capital investment. In the latter case capital is invested, in the former, libido. It is only logical that frequently in psychoanalytic literature one speaks of love as libidinous "investment" in an object. It takes the banality of a business culture to reduce the love of God, of men and women, of mankind to an investment; or the enthusiasm of a Rumi, Eckhart, Shakespeare, Schweitzer to show the smallness of the imagination of people whose class considers investment and profit to be the very meaning of life.

From his theoretic premises Freud is forced to speak of love-"objects," since "libido remains libido whether it is directed to objects or to one's own ego" (Freud, 1916-17, p. 420). Love is sexual energy attached to an object; it is nothing but a physiologically rooted instinct directed toward an object. It is a waste product, as it were, of the biological necessity for the survival of the race. "Love," in men, is mostly of the "attachment" type, i.e., attachment to the persons who have become precious through satisfying other vital needs (eating and drinking). That is, adult love is not different from that of the child; they both love those who feed them. This is undoubtedly true for many; this love is a kind of affectionate gratitude for being fed. Very well, but to say that is the essence of love is painfully banal. (Women, as he says in Freud, 1933a, pp. 132 f., cannot arrive at this high achievement because they love "narcissistically," they love themselves in the other.)


Excerpted from Greatness and Limitations of Freud's Thought by Erich Fromm. Copyright © 1980 Estate of Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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