Again: The Oedipus
To the Editor:
Mr. Meyerhoff, I think, is helping to clarify the issue (“Letters from Readers,” June). Of course, both the words “determined” and “cultural” are relational. His suggestion that some of the factors in the relational context may be “free” is precisely the point I would make; namely, that with respect to biological factors there exists no evidence whatever that anything resembling an anlage or gestalt will cause the individual, under the proper cultural conditions, to develop an Oedipus complex. The conditions that bring such a constellation of emotions into being as the Oedipus complex could theoretically occur in every human being who has ever lived, but that would no more mean that the complex has a biological basis than the capacity of human beings everywhere to be able to write. We know that there are whole cultures in which no one can read or write. We also know that the reason for this is not that the members of such cultures do not have the capacity to read and write, but because they have not lived under conditions which would have enabled them to learn to read and write There are no inborn predispositions for the capacity to use symbols, and under the proper cultural conditions this symbol-using capacity of man may be organized into the ability to read and write. The point being that there is nothing here corresponding to the interaction between genes and the environment in the determinance of traits. In genetics it is always the interaction of the genes and the environment that determines the outcome. Mr. Meyerhoff is suggesting that the Oedipus complex is both biologically and culturally determined in much the same way. But this is an assumption for which there is no evidence. In the absence of such evidence, and as one who believes that Occam’s razor should always be employed to keep the face of science as unencumbered with supernumerary hairs as possible, if only to keep the populations of casuists down who might otherwise be misemployed attempting to split them, I see no reason to encourage unnecessary hairs.
Culture is superorganic, at least the greater part of the time, and mostly lives a life of its own according to its own laws. Whether a child will develop an Oedipus complex will depend entirely upon the working of those laws and not upon some autochthonous organic predisposition in relation to cultural conditions. Some little boys will strongly cathect toward their mothers and consider their fathers rivals, but other little boys will not. This being so the trait cannot in any sense be regarded as universal or biologically determined—unless someone is willing to argue that it behaves as a genetic recessive or as a sex-influenced trait.
Princeton, New Jersey