Richard Wollheim's Analysis of Freud


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Richard Wollheim author of ‘Freud’ was one of the most distinguished
and productive philosophers of his generation. He made a significant
contribution to the post war flourishing of British philosophy and as
his career continued his work grew steadily more individual, rich and
expressive (The Times 2003). For Wollheim psychoanalysis was crucial
to his personal outlook and played a fundamental role in defining his
outlook on art. This was reflected in his standing as an honorary
member of the San Francisco Psychoanalytical Institute and honorary
affiliate of the British Psychoanalytical Society. In addition to this
in 1991 Wollheim was awarded for his distinguished services to
psychoanalysis by the International Society for Psychoanalysis. It is
these personal and political affiliations which shaped the highly
uncritical nature of the text.

Freud’ published in 1971 was written during an era when
psychoanalysis became an influential method for understanding modern
literature and culture. Psychoanalytical theory had been particularly
effective in the area of literary and film criticism, its reading
techniques widely disseminated, even when they were not always
labelled psychoanalytical. Richard Wollheim points out that
psychologist Sigmund Freud’s writings on art usually focussed on the
psychology of critics, rather than on analyses of particular paintings
or stories (Thurschwell 2000). However, Wollheim adopting an
uncritical stance failed to acknowledge the strong reactions
psychoanalysis had provoked particularly within the feminist movement
during the nineteen seventies. The criticism aimed essentially towards
Freud’s analytic practice and his theories of sexuality.

Wollheim states in the outset that the text will take the form of an
exposition rather than an interpretation or evaluation of Freud’s
work. It does seem plausible to suggest that the text in fact can be
described as a biography (Wollheim 1971) as it provides a detailed
version of the ‘life of a mind at work, and the story of a long and
intricate process of discovery’ (Wollheim 1971). It is at this point
Wollheim sets himself two aims in the writing of the study. Firstly,
to bring out what Freud actually said and secondly, to show the

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relevance of the chronological order in which he said it (Wollheim
1971). From these two aims it is possible to infer that Wollheim is
attempting to inform and address an academic audience. This text would
prove useful to academics largely in the field of psychology due to
Wollheim’s thorough account of Freud’s work and findings. However, it
may have implications for a variety of other fields including
anthropology, semiotics and artistic creativity.

Wollheim successfully and systematically maps the work of Freud
providing a chapter-by-chapter account of Freud’s most influential and
crucial theories. The first chapter entitled ‘The First Phase’
explores the beginnings of Freud’s theories and it is here that the
reader can see the surfacing of the ideas of defence mechanisms, the
unconscious and infantile sexuality. Each of the chapters, are
dedicated chronologically to a specific theory. For example ‘the
theory of mind’ in chapter two, ‘dreams, errors, symptoms and jokes’
in chapter three and ‘the unconscious and the ego’ in chapter six. The
penultimate chapter, ‘the last phase’ includes Freud’s last theories,
‘the pleasure principle’, ‘the ego and the id’ and ‘inhibitions,
symptoms and anxiety.’

Within the opening paragraphs Wollheim it seems intentionally
distinguishes his text from others with the statement that ‘little
trace can be found of Freud’s own complex thought.’ This appears to be
a founded assertion as literature such as, ‘Sigmund Freud- An Outline
of Psychoanalysis’ (2003) although translating Freud’s ‘New
Introductory Lectures’ fail to include any discussion or reference to
Freud’s reflections of his own work through the means Wollheim
employs. This is particularly visible when other literature on Freud,
discuss infantile sexuality. Authors often give the sense that Freud’s
name was indissolubly linked with infants and sexuality. However,
Wollheim directly challenges this writing ‘we can see the lengths to
which Freud was prepared to go in accounting for the facts of mental
disorder as he saw them without compromising the innocence of
childhood’ (Wollheim 1971). This can be further warranted through
Thurschwell’s text which claims that such assumptions are mistaken
ones because ‘memory, like sex, is also a straightforward concern of
Freud’s; psychoanalysis calls on the individuals to recall the
childhood events and fantasies that shaped their personalities.

Throughout the text there is continual evidence which illustrates the
argument that it is written with Wollheim’s political interests always
uppermost in his thought. For example, Wollehim writes ‘contrary to
certain popular conceptions Freud had never believed that the whole of
the man’s instinctual endowment was sexual.’ The succinct fashion in
which this is written allows for no ambiguity and almost attempts to
close any further discussion on the issue. Wollheim defends Freud’s
work in a number of other ways. He ensures that any objections that
may be raised against Freud are also incorporated into the text
followed by an explanation using Freud’s own words or providing the
reader with evidence which counteracts their argument. This is clearly
demonstrated in the chapter ‘dreams, errors and symptoms’ where
Wollehim addresses objections which may occur with respect to Freud’s
extended view of the symptom. Wollehim uses Freud’s own work to
explain his ‘three lines of defence.’ It is clear the Wollehim does
not want himself to criticise Freud yet wants to provide an analysis
of Freud’s work so he brings in criticism and concerns of his work
from the standpoint of possible critiques of Freud. This successfully
integrated technique prevents Wollehims’ work from being merely
descriptive.

As the exposition progresses particular weight is given to theory
rather than encompassing a balance between, theory, methods and data.
It is possible to explain this in terms of the nature of the text i.e.
it is an explanation of Freud’s work and how it developed. This theory
is however, supported by the findings of Freud’s research. Yet, in
drawing upon this evidence Wollehim fails to bring to the reader’s
attention that Freud’s choice of research participants was limited.
Freud chose his participants from middle class, Viennese women who had
been diagnosed as neurotic and he tended to generalise his findings to
be applicable to the general population. Furthermore, his sole use of
case studies does not allow for generalisation to be made. They only
provide a deep insight into the person under study. However, as with
much of the literature ‘Freud’ is shaped and interpreted in a way
which reflects Wollheim’s political affiliations. Thus, to pinpoint
limitations in Freud’s work would have proved highly unfavourable
amongst his peers with the societies which he held great prestige and
would possibly jeopardise his standing within them.

With respect to Wollheim’s research methods he incorporates the use of
primary sources of research in order to provide a reliable
representation of Freud’s work. Wollheim obtained letters which Freud
had written to those with whom he was professionally involved. For
example, a letter dated 1897 to Wilhelm Fliess, his friend and mentor
he announced ‘his disbelief in the seduction theory’ and further wrote
‘it was a moment of great triumph than of defeat’ (Wollheim 1971). The
letters here, served as a type of written evidence which came into
existence in advance of the research being carried out. Furthermore,
they included all the factors that Freud believed to be relevant to
his subject at the time (Stacey 1969). Consequently, they proved to be
particularly valuable to Wollheim at the exploratory stage of research
and it also allowed Wollheim to use Freud’s own words to bring
discussion and criticism to the text. This research method
successfully meets with Wollheim’s aim to provide a comprehensive
account of Freud’s work and what he said himself rather than producing
a text that comprises of his own interpretation and evaluation.
Nevertheless, there are drawbacks when using such data. Firstly, it
may be difficult if not impossible to prove their authenticity
especially so if Wollheim had called for the letters and publicly paid
for them. Secondly, Freud’s letters were chiefly written to those who
were influential in this thinking and understanding such as, Willhelm
and Charcot a French physician who prompted his initial interest in
hysteria. So, it is arguable that there may have been some distortion
in order to impress the intended reader.

As so much literature was already in existence at the time ‘Freud’ was
written it was difficult for Wollheim to bring any new knowledge or
findings to the field with respect to Freud’s theory. Nonetheless,
from reading various writings on Freud both theory based (Ragg-Kirby
and Bowie 2003) and critically based (Grunbaum 1984) it appears that
Wollheim is one of few if any that adopts the use of Freud’s letters
to support an argument or to further develop an understanding of
Freud’s theory. Therefore, it is arguable that Wollheim does in this
way bring new knowledge to light. Wollheim’s reluctance to incorporate
his own critique of Freud the through the use of letters allows the
reader to view Freud’s work from a neutral perspective and to read
perhaps with the absence of misconceptions and pre-conceived ideas of
the author.

Wollheim brings his text to a close by recognising the influence that
contributed to Freud’s ideas as being manifold. His theories were
meant to explain all human psychology but he formulated them in
response to the historical times in which he lived. For example,
issues with ‘social origins or the beginnings of a particular social
or cultural phenomenon’ exerted a strong hold over him (Wollheim
1971). These included ‘origins of morality, or religion, of social
institutions in general and of political authority in particular
(Wollheim 1971). Wollheim explains how Freud saw religion as a
resemblance to neurotic illness and paradoxically keeps people healthy
by making them subscribe to a group neurosis. Thurschwell (2003)
supporting this description writes ‘many of Freud’s beliefs about
society and religion show the ways in which mass delusions such as
religion replace individual delusions in civilised societies. This
perhaps has implications for the concept of religion in sociological
thinking because parallels with the Marxist perspective on religion
can be identified. Whereby, religion is viewed as being a form of
self-delusion that obscures reality and offers temporary comfort from
oppression within capitalism. Furthermore, traditional religious
thought was simply a distortion of real class relations dividing
people (Lawson, Jones and Moore 2000). However, regardless of these
similarities it has been argued that the psychoanalytic approach has
had limited influence and few find it to be a central concern (Dicens
1999).


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