Commentary Magazine

Freud, the Mind of the Moralist, by Philip Rieff

Sociologizing Freud
Freud, the Mind of the Moralist.
by Philip Rieff.
Viking Press. 448 pp. $6.00.


There was a time, at a congress in 1910, when a professor banged the table when Freud’s theories were mentioned and shouted, “This is not a topic for discussion at a scientific meeting; it is a matter for the police.” Now, it seems, Freud’s theories have become a matter for the sociologist. It is to be hoped this change does not signify that they are no longer considered a suitable subject for scientific meetings where questions of their truth, falsity, and logical appropriateness should be discussed.

Freud himself would surely have been indignant at the vision of sociology’s Owl of Minerva flapping so soon over his writings. For though he did much to uncover the causes of irrational beliefs, he thought that in matters of science and philosophy, where grounds can be produced for belief, considerations of truth should be paramount. And though his concern for truth might be described by Mr. Rieff as part of his rationalistic or liberal outlook, it is one which is a necessary precondition of any serious discussion whatsoever—be it in ancient Athens or in modern America. To ignore the argument and to dwell on the man—on his upbringing, his loyalties, his prejudices, his predilections—is to stultify science, even if it is done in the name of the aspiring science of sociology.

It is, however, not altogether fair to flail Mr. Rieff for sociologizing Freud’s theories; for he regards Freud’s writings not so much as a series of serious scientific papers that degenerated in his later years into rather dotty pontifications about culture and civilization, but as “the canon of what was once a great movement and is now an influential profession.” He sees Freud as “the first prophet of a time that is simply each man’s own,” as providing the moral outlook of psychological man who is the final product of the quarrel of Western man with his own spirit. The classical legacy of political man is an archaism; the Christian legacy of the religious man has been repudiated; and experience has exhausted the optimism of the liberal legacy of economic man. Freud heralded the advent of psychological man, the trained egoist, the private man, who turns away from the arenas of public failure to re-examine himself and his own emotions, who aims only at a shrewd compromise with the human condition, not at its basic transformation, who derives lessons for the right conduct of life from the misery of living it.

This estimation of Freud’s role may bear witness to the great influence of psychoanalysis on American intellectuals; to an Englishman it sounds a trifle quaint—rather like regarding Marx as the prophet of the health services. Nevertheless it provides the coordinating theme for Mr. Rieff’s treatment of Freud. For his method is to take the main books in the canon and weave a web of sociological “intepretations” and assessments round them. Mr. Rieff is always on the lookout for a theory that may conceal a value judgment, for a tradition of thought into which Freud’s theories can be fitted. The result is a strange brew of erudition and speculation, which makes fascinating reading as a heady gloss on Ernest Jones’s sober, restrained, and factual biography.



Mr. Rieff’s sociological slant on Freud is both irritating and illuminating. It irritates most when he deals with Freud’s serious contributions to psychology. To take some examples: Freud, as is well known, had a solid training in neurophysiology and, especially during his early years, he tried to describe his findings in terms of a mechanical theory that was scientifically respectable. He peered at his patients in the manner in which he had peered at nerve fibers through a microscope and thought of them, to a certain extent, as enlarged nerve fibers whose wishes were currents and whose satisfactions were the discharge of tension through the motor apparatus. His early physiological theory of wishes and instincts, which he never completely abandoned, is surely to be seen in the context of his scientific preoccupations and the tradition of mechanical psychology and physiology which he inherited. (Ernest Jones, as a matter of fact, brings this out very well in his discussion of Freud’s early Project for a Scientific Psychology.) Mr. Rieff suggests that the language of “tension states” contains a moral judgment and that his façade of quantification is a vast ethical metaphor by means of which he made “an oblique ‘scientific’ plea for greater sexual latitude”! Similarly the stress on the erotogenic zones and their different stages of sensitization, empirical findings which Freud linked with his knowledge of nerve endings, is seen by Mr. Rieff as a theory which depersonalizes sexual life. Freud’s discovery that sexual wishes persist and that many adults suffer because they cannot come to terms with the relics of the child within them is regarded by Mr. Rieff as revealing a hostility to the past, “past” being a pejorative term for Freud. Indeed, “Memory, for Freud . . . embodies a moral choice, a sequence of acceptances and rejections. . . . Repression thus becomes an infallible index of ethical import. What is too imperative to be remembered suffers the compliment of being forgotten.” (As if infants could make moral choices!) And the theory of evolution, which, as Mr. Rieff rightly sees, is one of Freud’s most important presuppositions, is itself regarded as a vehicle for making moral judgments. Freud punctured the pride of civilization by pointing to the origins of culture in the mind of the child or the history of the horde.

All this is rather like saying that Darwin developed his theory because of his animus against man or that Copernicus was really venting his spleen against the Church by challenging the Aristotelian world view which it had adopted. It surely ignores the. valuative judgments that have to be made, and which many shrink from making, because of factual discoveries. The fact that later thinkers reacted to Darwin either by saying “How beastly are men” or “How human are animals” is neither here nor there. Suppose that Freud did have an animus toward the past. Did he have it because of his findings about the overwhelming importance of infancy in shaping adult character? Or did he rig the theory to match his animus? Who knows? And who cares? Scientists have all sorts of extra-scientific valuations and biases which influence the direction of their theorizing, but the procedural norm of science is that theories shall be decided in terms of the evidence. It matters little what personal or social predilections influence them, for as scientists they are committed to the task of consciously trying to find counter-examples to refute both their own and other people’s theories. It may be that Galileo formulated his law of inertia because of his predilection for motion and because of his aversion to a static and stable order. Maybe he was expressing in his theory the growing restlessness evidenced in international commerce, the increase of travel, and social mobility. Perhaps he felt strongly about rest being the natural state of anything! But what does this matter if, as he insisted, observations should be made on balls, pendulums, and projectiles to test the truth of the hypothesis, however it is arrived at. Science surely consists in those “myths” about the world that have stood up to empirical tests.



Mr. Rieff, I would suggest, underestimates the autonomy of science and the extent to which Freud was the inheritor of the scientific tradition both in respect of its procedures and in respect of the concepts which were scientifically acceptable. It is significant that he says little of Freud’s metapsychology which many consider to contain some of his most important contributions to theory. He is not really interested in Freud’s contribution to the development of psychology as a science. On this topic, therefore, he makes only acute asides—for instance that Freud’s treatment of ordinary psychic functions such as perceiving, learning, and speaking is poor; that he has no theory of reasoning; that he took very seriously the part played by speech in behavior; that Freud did not regard psychoanalysis as a predictive science. He makes little attempt to give a serious assessment of Freud’s contribution to psychology. He is too preoccupied with hunting down Freud’s own assessments.

Mr. Rieff is much more illuminating when he passes from Freud’s psychology to his speculations about culture and civilization. In this field his knowledge of the history of ideas is much better, his grasp of Freud’s strengths and weaknesses much more sure. He brings Totem and Taboo to life by placing it in its setting of Lamarckianism, early anthropology, and recapitulation theories. He explains the climate of opinion which made Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego such a thin, mob-ridden analysis of authority. He places The Future of an Illusion. and Moses and Monotheism in a context which throws light on their odd extravagances. His erudition and imaginative sympathy flood over Freud’s rather sterile and stilted attempts to explain social phenomena in terms of individual psychology. There seems to be, too, a little more point in unveiling the valuations and sympathies which influenced Freud’s theories. For some of them seem so bizarre, so lacking in empirical support, that there is some point in drawing attention to the man as well as to his argument.

Mr. Rieff’s penultimate chapter on “The Ethic of Honesty” is one of the most interesting in the book. Here he deals with the central valuation which is explicit in Freud’s therapeutic outlook rather than lurking in the interstices of his theories. He points out, quite rightly, that this is a principle of procedure, not a substantive rule. It tells a man how he should go about deciding on his code of conduct, not what code he should adopt. To admit one’s nature, to be quick to detect dishonesty and sham in oneself and others, resolves no specific issues of choice. A man may be an honest, unblinking rogue as well as a frank “noble savage” of the type beloved by E. M. Forster. Mr. Rieff stresses, too, that Freud advocated not only honesty but also a Stoic resignation, an acceptance of “natural needs,” and a deep suspicion of moral aspirations. This, he rightly argues, contains in it the seeds of calculated conformity, of the acceptance of existing social structure and political authority, which is very alien to the individualistic tradition so vigorously represented by some of its earlier Protestant adherents in the era of “religious man.”

Mr. Rieff, in criticizing Freud’s position, suggests that the “desire to be good” may be as primary as a man’s “natural needs.” Why should not the return to nature be an escape from one’s insistent aspirations? Mr. Rieff, surely, might have gone further and examined Freud’s warrant for making the gulf between nature and convention just where he did. He might even have gone much further into the realm of justification and challenged the rationality of egoism itself. He seems to assume that a calculating cautious egoism is the only policy open to a convinced rationalist. Yet the principle of impartiality or justice which Freud described in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego as a cloak for envy, and which is inconsistent with pure egoism, may well be, as Kant held, implied by the very use of reason to which Freud was committed. Certainly Sidgwick, one of the most acute of all Utilitarians, made a very good case on rational grounds for justice and benevolence as well as for prudence. Freud actually said of himself, “I believe that in a sense of justice and consideration for others, in disliking making others suffer or taking advantage of them, I can measure myself with the best people I know.” Were these explicit valuations implied by his “education to reality”? Did Freud regard them as a consequence of a consistent egoism? It is impossible to say—and Mr. Rieff does not explore this seeming inconsistency in Freud’s moral outlook.

Mr. Rieff, however, does seem to chide Freud for providing only a very bare principle of procedure in his ethic of honesty. But surely all principles for which any solid rational justification can be produced are procedural—implications of the determination, to use reason to decide on policies for living. The injunctions to be fair, to consider the interests of others, are just as lacking in substantive content as the injunction to attend honestly to one’s own, interests. To supply a set of substantive rules for conduct would be to deny the autonomy of the individual which is a precondition of any (rational moral code—even if it is the limited and somewhat attenuated code of Mr. Rieff’s “psychological man.” Freud, says Mr. Rieff, emphasized freedom at the expense of signposts for living; he exalted the self-confident prudent man whose mind had freed itself from authority. Certainly he did; and though he may be criticized for equating prudence more or less with “the primacy of the intelligence,” is he to be criticized for emphasizing that inward freedom from authority which is a precondition both of science and of any rational morality?

Mr. Rieff has written a most stimulating and erudite book—a rare combination). It combines a lively and accurate account of Freud’s main theories with a sociological commentary that is meant to serve as a supplement to Ernest Jones’s biographical material. My main criticism of Mr. Rieff’s book is that it tends to detract from Freud’s purely scientific contribution by indulging in too many rather snappy and fanciful speculations about the valuations which may lurk behind his theories. In his own field, however, that of sociology, Mr. Rieff’s discussion of Freud’s contribution is most illuminating. His discussion, too, of Freud’s explicit ethic of honesty is suggestive and should enthrall anyone who is interested in examining the possibility of a rational moral code.



About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.