Freud: Conflict & Culture

As Freud expanded his sphere of inquiry to include basic questions about moral and political life, he inspired intellectuals and artists to take his theories about conflict, desire, and the unconscious into new areas. These theories seemed to many to open promising new avenues for understanding the successes and failures of modern society. Others thought that these routes led straight to deception -- or worse. The first part of this section deals with the professional expansion of psychoanalysis and the critical reaction to that expansion. Next the exhibition examines Freud's theories of society, from his speculation on its origins to his views of the contemporary world. The violent crises that shook the world at the end of Freud's life are the subject of the final part of this section.

Expansion and Criticism

The vigorous expansion of psychoanalysis in Freud's own lifetime, from the early days of his Wednesday Society in Vienna to the founding of the International Psychoanalytic Association, was accompanied and challenged by criticism equally vigorous. As he sought to protect his ideas through institutionalization and theoretical orthodoxy, analysts with whom he disagreed were sometimes treated by Freud as dissidents or even heretics. As psychoanalysis rapidly spread within medicine (especially in the United States) and to other forms of therapy, the social sciences, art, literature, and popular culture, the criticisms of Freud's ideas and his practices kept pace. In the face of controversy Freud was mindful of creating and controlling his intellectual legacy. He attempted to do this in writings about the origins of his own concepts and of the movement he founded.

Early Organization

In 1902 a small group of doctors, writers, and critics began meeting on Wednesday evenings in Freud's residence to discuss his ideas and plans. These meetings were the beginnings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. As the organization grew, Freud established an inner circle of devoted followers, the so-called "Committee."

"The Committee:" (left to right seated) Freud, Sàndor Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs (standing) Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones. Berlin, 1922 Becker Maas, photographic studio. Prints & Photographs Division. Library of Congress (124) (LC-USZ62-119779)

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There is not one study which one could point to with confidence and say: "Here is definitive support of this or that Freudian notion."

H.J. Eysenck and G.D. Wilson, 1973

Coming to America

Freud and his colleagues came to Massachusetts in 1909 to lecture on their new methods of understanding mental illness. Freud lectured in German from notes and later published these talks for a popular audience. Those in attendance included some of the country's most important intellectual figures, such as William James, Franz Boas, and Adolf Meyer. It was to be Freud's only trip to the United States.

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Freud is the only living human outside the Baptist church who continues to take man seriously.

Zelda Fitzgerald, 1932

Psychoanalysis Expands Internationally

In the years following the visit to the United States, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded. Freud designated Carl Jung as his successor to lead the Association, and chapters were created in major cities in Europe and elsewhere. Regular meetings or congresses were held to discuss the theory, therapy, and cultural applications of the new discipline.

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You can be Lacanians; as for me, I'm a Freudian.

Jacques Lacan, n.d.

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The Psychoanalytical Press

The publishing arm of the International Psychoanalytic Association disseminated Freud's major works as well as pamphlets, clinical discussions and essays on cultural life by various psychoanalysts. These publications were discussed not only in psychology journals but also in mainstream newspapers and magazines all over the world.

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  • Sigm. Freud Gesammelte Schriften. [Freud's Collected Writings]. 1924. Selected advertisements and publications from the International Psychoanalytical Publishing House. Sigmund Freud-Museum, Vienna (146a)

  • Dr. E. Hitschmann and Dr. E. Bergler. Die Geschlechtsk√§lte der Frau. [The Frigidity of Woman] 1934. Selected advertisements and publications from the International Psychoanalytical Publishing House. Sigmund Freud-Museum, Vienna (146d)

  • Vera Schmidt. Psychoanalytische Erziehung in Sowjetrussland. [Psychoanalytical Education in Soviet Russia]. Leipzig: 1924. Selected advertisements and publications from the International Psychoanalytical Publishing House. Sigmund Freud-Museum, Vienna (146g)

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Greenwich Village has gone through radicalism, license, Freudianism, free love, and synthetic gin -- and has finished with all that.

Quill, 1921

Conflict and Break-Up

Some of Freud's most creative colleagues in psychoanalysis were not content with simply being followers and developed various ideas that the founder thought did not fit with his own. Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, for example, de-emphasized sexuality in favor of other unconscious forces. Freud was faced with controversy from within the psychoanalytic movement and from critics from various fields in medicine, the humanities and the social sciences.

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I so prefer Jung, don't you? He is so much more spiritual.

Waldo Frank, Holiday, 1923

It almost looks like analysis were the third of those "impossible" professions in which one can be quite sure of unsatisfying results. The other two, much older-established, are the bringing up of children and the government of nations.

Sigmund Freud, 1937

I'm still basically a Freudian.

Benjamin Spock, 1989

Creating a Legacy

In addition to introductory explications of psychoanalysis, Freud published accounts of its theoretical development and of its growth as a movement. He was concerned with creating an institutional framework for psychoanalysis that would endure after his death and with shaping an intellectual legacy for the future.

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  • "Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis" written for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Holograph manuscript, 1926. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (141)

  • "An Autobiographical Study." Bound holograph manuscript, 1925. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (140)

  • "An Outline of Psycho-Analysis." Holograph manuscript, 1938. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (143)

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How can an autobiographical writing, in the abyss of an unterminated self-analysis, give birth to a world wide institution?

Jacques Derrida, 1980

Every hour of every day . . . there are people who cannot forget a name, or make a slip of the tongue, or feel depressed; who cannot begin a love affair, or end a marriage, without wondering what the "Freudian" reason may be.

Alfred Kazin, 1947

Who Can Be a Psychoanalyst?

As the movement grew, the question of who could become a psychoanalyst acquired economic and intellectual urgency. In this work, Freud argued against making a medical degree the prerequisite for psychoanalytic training. The core of the training entails undergoing analysis oneself.

"The Question of Lay Analysis." Holograph manuscript, 1926. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (137)

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Freud saw that society creates mechanisms to ensure social control of human instincts. At the root of these controlling mechanisms, he thought, is the prohibition against incest. He further speculated that this taboo had its genesis in the guilt stemming from the murder of a powerful patriarch: after the tyrannical father is killed, the sons continue to follow the patriarchal dictates by which they have always lived. For Freud, the past is not something that can be completely outgrown by either the individual or society but rather is something that remains a vital and often disruptive part of existence. The emphasis on the past being alive in the present is a central theme in psychoanalytic approaches to the individual and society.

Evolution and Inheritance

In his writings on the origins of society, Freud combined his own theories of psychological conflict with Darwinian views on how the earliest humans lived in organized groups. Freud borrowed freely from contemporary anthropology. He even adopted ideas that had already lost scientific credibility, such as the notion that we physically inherit aspects of our ancestors' experience.

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[The] primitive stages can always be re-established; the primitive mind is, in the fullest meaning of the word, imperishable.

Sigmund Freud, 1915

The sickness of the individual is ultimately caused and sustained by the sickness of his civilization.

Herbert Marcuse, 1955

The scientific value of Freud's book [ Group Psychology ] consists probably in the fact that, if it is anything, it is a reductio ad absurdum of verbal explanations of society.

American Journal of Sociology, 1924

In the Beginning was the Deed

In this work Freud set out to give an account of the incest taboo and of prohibitions in general. He was guided by the idea that groups only prohibit what individuals really desire. Behind the laws that structure human society, he said, is the horror of incest, and behind that horror are the desire for incest and the murderous capacity to act on that desire.

Objects from the Depths

Freud was fascinated by ancient objects -- as if they were witnesses to humanity's deepest impulses covered over by thousands of years of the civilizing process. The presence of these objects seemed to speak to him of the distant, yet still active, past.

"Totem and Taboo." Holograph manuscript, 1912 1913. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (154)

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The oedipal vision exhibits a distinct patriarchal bias: it reduces politics to an activity of fathers and sons while relegating women to the role of passive objects of male desire.

José Brunner, 1998

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Follow the Leader

The questions that Freud asked about groups are basic to all political philosophy: why do people follow leaders and why do individuals deny some of their desires in order to live together? Freud's consideration of these questions led him to think that life in society necessarily frustrates some of our fundamental desires.

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Science is not illusion. But it would be an illusion to suppose that we could get anywhere else what it cannot give us.

Sigmund Freud, 1927

Problems of Culture

Freud understood culture, as he did dreams and symptoms, as an expression of desires in conflict with one another and with society. He thought religion, art, and science could be richly rewarding. But he emphasized that culture is the product of impulses denied a more directly sexual or aggressive satisfaction. If these cultural practices fail to alleviate the conflicts at the heart of the human psyche, what then, Freud asked, are the consequences for the individual? If forms of social life fail to meet basic psychological needs, what then are the consequences for society of these unfulfilled desires? These remained for Freud the vital questions about the relation between our civilization and ourselves.

Artifacts and the Archaic

Freud may have exaggerated in saying he read more archaeology than psychology, but he was deeply absorbed by archaeological investigations and artifacts from other cultures. After his father's death, Freud began collecting artifacts while conducting his own self analysis. Throughout the rest of his life he would grow increasingly attached to these objects, which seemed to both provoke thought and stimulate pleasure.

Freud contemplating figure [possibly Javanese], 1937. Marie Bonaparte, photographer. Prints & Photographs Division. Library of Congress (162)

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The book [Future of an Illusion] testifies to the fact that the genius of experimental science is not necessarily joined with the genius of logic or generalizing power.

T.S. Eliot, 1928

The Longings of Religion

For Freud, religion was a primitive attempt to deal with the frightening realities of the world and the impossibility of satisfying our fundamental desires. Religion, in his view, was a response to that fear and longing. Love for and fear of the father found symbolic expression, he thought, in the major religious traditions.

"Future of an Illusion." Holograph manuscript, 1927. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (172)

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[It] is easy, as we can see, for a barbarian to be healthy; for a civilized man the task is hard.

Sigmund Freud, 1938

The Art of Faces

In looking at the portraits of the famous artists and scientists at the National Portrait in London, Freud searched their faces for signs of their character. He admired cultural achievements as creative transformations, or sublimations, of basic desires. He wondered whether there were traces of these transformations left behind on the faces in the portraits.

"Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood." Holograph Manuscript, 1910. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (164)

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Thus Freud shatters the humanist hope that high culture itself may succeed religion as a source of moral controls.

Phillip Rieff, 1966

The Art of Understanding

Freud returned repeatedly in his writings to the Biblical stories of Joseph and of Moses. Michelangelo's Moses, Freud explains, is both angry at the infidelity of his followers and eager to bestow on them the great gift he has received on Mount Sinai. Michelangelo's rendering of this ambivalence seems to have provoked Freud's own feelings about his place in the psychoanalytic movement.

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I have never doubted that religious phenomena are only to be understood on the pattern of the individual neurotic symptoms familiar to us.

Sigmund Freud, 1939

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