The following material is part of my lectures on Freud, James and Jung for a couse taught once for the Deaprtment of Religious Studies at Carleton University. The material was taken with some impunity from David Wulff's The Psychology of Religion: Contemporary and Classic Views, The Standard Edition of the Collected Works of Sigmund Freud, and Stephen Frosh's The Politics of Psychoanalysis.

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Psychoanalysts have painstakingly drawn their evidence from the private inner world of the individual psyche. Thus, as is with James and in contrast to the objective psychologist to whom the subjective is taboo, the psychoanalyst becomes participant-observers deeply involved in the lives of their struggling subjects. Thus the data of the psychoanalyst is the case study which is similar to James's personal documents and opposed to the quantified responses of randomly selected subjects.

Psychoanalysis agrees with humanists in the belief that the complex inner world of the individual must be taken into account. The compromise that Freud worked out between his scientific discipline and his own speculative tendencies has been extremely consequential to Western civilization. In fact Freud is now the most Quoted man in the world. In terms of the psychology of religion, this compromise has come to form a major current, broader even than Freud's own well-known contributions.

Even if psychoanalysis is not the only psychology that can say anything about religious and mystical experiences, we can say that it certainly does say a lot. But to listen to what psychoanalysis says is not easy for, like the patient in analysis, we are likely to manifest resistance and denial when confronted with matters which violate our conscious sensibilities. That is, there is the human capacity of self-deception when issues that are uncomfortable come up. (Psychopathology).


The biographical study of Freud is no easy task to complete. On one hand, there is a massive amount of literature written by Freud which is autobiographical and there is also 1000's of letters and all kinds of biographies which range in their degrees of accurateness and investigative integrity. Some authors whose writings on Freud's life which are important include Henri Ellenberger's The Discovery of the Unconscious and Peter Gay's Freud: a Life for our Time. There are other notable works to be sure, but one must be careful as to who wrote them. For instance, some individuals think that Ernest Jones's three volume biography of Freud is "classic" and "authoritative."

I have a problem with this. Sure Jones was a disciple and a close friend of Freud and thus had access to numerous material and first hand experience, but these attributes are exactly what makes his biography of Freud so suspect. That is, because he was Freud's friend he never, in this incredibly long series, could bring himself to criticize Freud. In other words, to Jones Freud could do no wrong. It is obviously not the case that Freud was above reproach, especially to anyone who has read Freud's collected works--i.e., the rejection of the seduction theory.

A further thing to consider in biographies of Freud is that the man himself had twice destroyed all his personal documents --1885 and 1907. Also the Freud archives in London and those donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. are closed to members of the general public. One wonders what is in these achieves that requires limited access to a private club--access which has been limited for approximately 50-100 years.


Note: This biographical information is taken from Wulff's summary in The Psychology of Religion. Those of you who took the my introductory course should be familiar with it, but it certainly would not hurt to hear it again especially in light of James's approach to personal documents--as this is in some way a personal document. Nonetheless I want to point out that Wulff's apparent veneration of the Jones Freud biography leads one to suspect how critical it is. Still, we must give credit where it is due, Wulff does make use of and refer to both Elenberger and Gay.


Born: May 6, 1856 at Freiberg in Moravia (what is now Czechoslovakia) to Jewish parents. His father, Jacob Freud, is said to have been a wool merchant. It may have been the decline of the textile market coupled with an increase of anti-Semitism in this predominantly Roman Catholic town in Moravia that led him to relocate the family three years after Sigmund was born. After a year in Leipzig the Freud family moved to Vienna, where Sigmund spent almost all of the rest of his life.

Schlomo Sigismund was the name that Freud was given at birth. He grew up in a time in which the Jewish world was undergoing radical transformations. In his father's time to be a Jew meant to be a member of a highly visible and oppressed minority. In fact things had been such that when Jacob Freud as a young man had been accosted and insulted by a Christian he could do nothing but quietly walk away.

Sigismund was appalled by his father's lack of heroic conduct (as this story reveals) and continually sought substitute father images in such historical figures as Hannibal--the Semitic general from Carthage who swore eternal hatred for Rome. This story of his father was to become a enduring source of resentment in Freud for both his father and Gentiles.

Other family events of interest is Freud's need not be the sole interest of his mother, the relationship he had with his catholic nanny, the birth of siblings and his intimate friendship with his nephew (same age, his brother being quite a bit older and from his father's previous marriage) and their occasional rivalry developed in Freud the self professed need to always have a great friend and a great enemy.

All of the factors mentioned above and Sigismund's misconstructions of them have at some point or another been influential in his later development of his notion of the Oedipal complex. They have also been the subject of much recent speculation--especially of his father and Nanny, who is thought to be a second mother to him. Both are linked to traumatic experiences in Freud's early life, perhaps sexual abuse, and his relation to each is thought to have been consequential in his later theorizing--about the psyche in general and about human piety in specific.

We know very little factual material of the Freud household's religious climate. Freud claims that his father was from a Hassidic background but had been estranged from it as a young man. Still he continued to read the Old Testament and is said to have encouraged contemplation of the same. At Freud's 35 birthday--the beginning, according to Jewish tradition, of middle age--his father presented him with a newly rebound bible with the Hebraic inscription wishing that Freud draw upon this well of "wisdom, knowledge and understanding." Still the household is generally considered to have not been overly religious and Freud himself emerged an avowed atheist.

At the time of entering university Freud had two choices according to Jones: medicine or law. Of course we know in which direction Freud went. Even at what we would call the undergraduate level, Freud's ever evolving intellect kept him foraging well beyond what was necessary for his studies in medicine and philosophy. In took Freud 8 years to earn his MD--three more than the required minimum--he was 25 yrs. old.

Apparently it was in these extended years of university that Freud encountered the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, famous for his critique of religion. This was a man who Freud, as he wrote a friend, admired the most. Feuerbach wrote that humans, finding their longings and frustrations in this world, have created a God in heaven as a means of fulfilling these wishes. God, he maintained, is a projection of all the excellencies of human nature; divested of these qualities, human beings conceive themselves as corrupt and wicked. Yet in the course of history these qualities have been reclaimed. Although Freud later denied that Feuerbach had a lasting influence on his thought, the numerous parallels between his own writings on religion and those of Feuerbach's are sufficiently striking to suggest a direct influence.

Ernst Brücke was another significant influence in Freud's life. This man was the physiologist in whose laboratory Freud worked for six years after completing his medical studies. Brüke's Helmholtizian leanings instilled in Freud a deep respect for evolutionary theory and the natural scientific method, as it was understood in the late Enlightenment. Freud's work at the Brüke institute seems to open up for him a career in theory but he was not an experimentalist at heart. In Jones's opinion Freud was such that extended work in the preciseness of the measurements required by the scientific method were ultimately frustrating. Thus Freud's long restrained speculative side were again to become dominant, eventually creating a human context within which he could exercise his tendency to contemplative understanding.

Also the lack of immediate advancement at the Brüke institute due to his lack of seniority and the up-rise of anti-Semitic sentiment, and his desire to marry encouraged him to give up physiology and enter into medical practice. Thus he went back to school to specialize in a variety of medical fields and eventually chose to practice neuropathology. His research lead to the confirmation of a post as a lecturer of neuropathology--a post with no pay but some prestige and few privileges. Soon after he received a travel grant with which he went to Paris to study with Jean Martin Charot. Freud's experiences in Paris led him to turn to the study of Psychopathology opposed to neuropathology.

Upon returning to Vienna Freud meet and collaborated with Josef Breuer. Together they wrote what is today the first volume of the Standard Edition: Studies in Hysteria. It was in Breuer's treatment of Anna O., a now famous case study, that the cathartic method was discovered. By recalling traumatic experiences with the help of hypnosis and relating to the details surrounding the appearance of each of her symptoms, Breuer was able to reduce their number and influence. Even if the gains ultimately proved to be temporarily, the immediate results impressed a Freud newly inducted into Psychopathology. Freud reviewed Breuer's work and eventually convinced him to publish Studies. Breuer was uncomfortable with Freud's portrayal of the central aetiological role of the psychoneuroses being sexuality even if his own experience with Anna O. would seem to confirm this thesis.

Other aspects of Freud's intellectual growth we owe to the myriad of letters he wrote to Wilhelm Fleiss who had many similar characteristics to Freud--i.e., both were from the Jewish middle-class, both were medical specialists, both were solidly grounded in the humanities, and both were Helmholtizian evolutionists and maintained a positivist point of view.

Unfortunately, Freud's friendship to Fleiss was one of heavy dependence. Fleiss was some one from whom Freud constantly, between 1887 and 1902, sought admiration and positive opinion. As it turned out Fleiss was not too bright and Freud was almost taken down with him. (the woman who bled because she wanted)


Jones's biography of Freud, for all its faults, does tell us something of Freud's own "considerable psychoneuroses" which consisted primarily of anxiety attacks and extreme change in mood, as well as his undoubtedly related struggle with nicotine addiction. The anxiety attacks haunted him for about a decade and reached its height between 1897-1900, shortly after his father's death. There is not coincidence that these are also the years in which he began his self analysis and made his most original discoveries, as he untangled his deeply rooted Oedipal Complex (NB: he never underwent any other analysis--today self analysis is disdained). Freud had for several years after his creative illness believed that his patient's childhood memories of sexual seduction were real. Later, for some reason or another--we can only speculate as to why--he abandoned the seduction theory preferring, instead, the belief that such memories were fantasies and wishes (one cannot fantasize about such things if they have not been experienced). It was through the healing process of his own illness that Freud came to appreciate the vital role of dream interpretation, the subject of his most important book The Interpretation of Dreams. (1900).

Freud's illness is called a creative on by Ellenberger as it contained many elements similar to shamanistic and mystical experiences.... He is said to have taught like a shaman, his relationship to Fleiss was one of disciple to master, etc.

Following his creative illness, Freud, who had developed quite a reputation as a neuropathologist, turned more of his interest towards developing a comprehensive theory of understanding the neuroses. Freud, after much trial and error, eventually came upon the free association method. It was used in his own self analysis and with his patients and eventually helped him develop his technique of dream interpretation and the consequential doctrine of infantile sexuality. By the time of the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, the essential ground-work of psychoanalysis had been formulated. (witnessed by the Project for a Scientific Psychology.)

Through the decades which followed he continued to work out, expand and enriched his theories and illustrate how it might illuminate various aspects of human culture--including religion. At first such writings were met with alarm and hostility, yet they were not ignored. He developed a growing circle of associates who provided him support and served as emissaries of psychoanalysis into the surrounding world. Still there were painful dissent within this group (Adler and Jung) as some objected to his insistence that his thoughts not be compromised.

As Freud grew older his speculative tendencies came more and more into the foreground. His writings entered into the realm of religion and cultural anthropology in attempts to explain society, myth, religions, etc. from a psychoanalytic standpoint. Freud at this time was preoccupied with death--cancer and the death date of his father--and finally the cancer had dehabilitated him such that he requested that his doctor give him an overdose of morphine so that he might die--incidentally morphine overdose was listed as the immediate cause of death. (1923)

Before the end the up-rise of Nazism had torn down much of what the Psychoanalytical society had developed--i.e., there were massive book burnings of Freud's books which were considered to be Jewish literature. Eventually he was forced to flee to England from his beloved Vienna where he died a mere year later.


My source material for this introduction is primarily the Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Psychoanalysis. There are 23 volumes of approximately 270 pages each. Although I have read every bloody page for a course, it is really not necessary for you to do the same unless you decide to become a specialist in Freud. What are important are The Interpretation of Dreams. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, the Papers on Metapsychology, Civilization and its Discontents, Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, The Future of an Illusion and several other texts too numerous to point out here.

A secondary source of this introduction is found in chapters 1 and 2 of stephen Frosh's book The Politics of Psychoanalysis. These chapters are particularly salient as they summarize both Freud's approach to individual psychoanalysis as well as his psychoanalytical approach to social structures. The latter being of importance as it is here that Freud's own work is most often applicable to the study of religion. Nonetheless, one must be familiar with his theory of the individual psyche in order to keep his social thought in some kind of context.

Psychoanalysis aims at the production of a certain kind of knowledge, providing explanations of human conduct and experience by revealing the mental forces that underlie them and that are not dealt with by any other intellectual discipline. Thus increasing the complexity of psychological understanding by providing explanations of otherwise inexplicable or only partially comprehensible phenomena, especially by revealing meaningful motivations and conflicts at the base of apparently irrational and meaningless material, was at the heat of Freud's enterprise.

The origins of psychoanalysis lies in the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" written in 1895. IN this paper he attempted to account for the whole of mental functioning in terms of the transmission and inhibition of various forms of energy. Although this paper was never completed, the notions contained therein were still present in his thought some 25 years later. Although he has been criticized for the lack of scientific methodology, it is not in the language and metaphors which he uses that his claims to science rest. Rather it is in his method and in his discovery; the method is observation, speculation and formulation of what has been observed in terms of general theories, his discovery was of the origins, motives and processes of mental life. In this respect, some individuals claim (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983) suggest that there is no clear distinction to be made between psychoanalysis as a natural science and as an interpretative discipline.


Although Freud was often unclear as to what he thought repression was this concept is still considered to be one of his greatest contributions. Marcuse, for instance, wrote: "According to Freud, the history of man is the history of repression." (Eros, p. 11) In some of Freud's more careful moments (such as in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety) he was clear in stating that repression was just one of the defense used to protect the psyche against objectionable material--at other times he frequently employed the term repression as a kind of shorthand to refer to any psychological process which prevents unconscious material from becoming conscious). In the metapsychological paper Repression he notes that repression was simply the process that attempted to turn something away from the consciousness. For radical Freudians today repression is generalized further to connate social as well as endopsychic processes.

In Freud's early work with hypnosis and the cathartic method he observed resistances in and of analysis. From this Freud concluded that there had to be in existence mental phenomena which are not available to awareness, but still had a powerful influence on mental life. Conceptually then, the logical conclusion was the to postulate an unconscious state along side the conscious. Thus for Freud "repression is the prototype of the unconscious" (1923:353) Thus Freud's contribution, at this point, lie in his recognition of the relationship between repression and the unconscious, in his description of the functions of unconscious material, and in his detailing of the contents and form of unconscious life.

In the "Papers on Metapsychology" (1915a) Freud distinguishes between two types of repression. [1] primal repression: here the mental representation of instinctual desire is denied access to consciousness; the representation thus remains unconscious. [2] Repression proper: Freud refers to this as "after pressure", in which material which is available to consciousness becomes repressed because of its association with the already repressed mental representative of the instinct. Thus the material is repressed not only because it is objectionable, but also because of the attraction of material that has already been repressed.

The importance of this notion is that it indicates that repressed material is not static while in an unconscious state. Rather it is said to have a life of its own. In fact Freud notes, if anything such material develops quickly and more vigorously than material which is governed by the constraints and reality testing of conscious experience. Still this development is thought to be mappable through dream material and parapraxes and the symptomatology of the neuroses which also provide a view of the unconscious as being composed of wishes and desires, impulses and drives, where reality has no place and there are no constraints on desire.

Thus Freud envisions the unconscious as being primary negation--i.e., that there is no sense of time or reality in the unconscious mind. The unconscious is the opposition to the world of order and common-sense, the great subverter of every day life. That is, as Freud had pointed out, if we take a good hard look at ourselves, the recognition that we are alien to ourselves is forced upon us. Our actions become explicable only if we ascribe them as coming from another site than the consciousness. Thus the discernible difference between the conscious and the unconscious is as follows: Dynamically unconscious ideas have [1] been repressed, and [2] they are kept from consciousness by continuing pressure. This distinguishes them from preconscious ideas which can be admitted to consciousness with ease and which are more akin to the common-sense tradition of the unconscious as a library or storehouse of ideas or memories. Because repressed ideas lie outside of consciousness, they cannot be easily controlled by it and are instead the source of many behaviors and experiences which do not have the character of being willed by the self. Thus repressed ideas also have the character of being causal as well as being held back by an opposing force. (23-24)

Freud has the notion that the affect of the idea has a tendency of being split from its idea. This is from his theory of dreams and it involves a mechanism of displacement in which the idea and its emotional content are dissociated, split from one another and the one is associated to another. That is the emotion may be placed on another object which has no right to cause this reaction. In any case it is the project of psychoanalysis to decipher such confusion and return the emotion to its proper ideational content. This allows the re-channeling of the energy which is causing difficulties. In all of this word are of a primary importance. Not only is psychoanalysis known as the 'talking cure,' but language if introduced right into the heart of the deep mystery of the unconscious. From this point of view we can say that words make conscious impulses possible; when the correct connections are made they bring unconscious material through into the dim light of preconscious activity, and from there into the bright glare of conscious recognition. (24-25)

As we can see Freud's account of the unconscious is an explanatory one. "The activities of desire, condensed or displaced by the machinations of repression, make sense of the seemingly inexplicable, tell us more about ourselves than we might wish to know." (25) Thus we see that our behaviour is motivated, but it is motivated by things that are to some degree dangerous and unacceptable and therefore remain hidden. Implicit in this construction is the understanding that informed or conscious control over one's psychological 'self' is not a state of nature but one of culture. It has to be striven for and be constructed. Thus the Freudian view shows its subversive nature; it places the emphasis on the desire and not the cogito of humanity. Hence we find that it is through culture that we learn to control sexuality and aggression as repressed impulses. That is, such instinctual energy is held an abeyance by the mechanism of repression thus allowing that humans can function with some degree of civility with each other.


In a complete theory of psychoanalysis we must take into account Freud's distinctions between the topographical, economic and dynamic views of the psyche. Topographical is the view which we have already encountered--the distinction between the conscious, preconscious, and the unconscious. Economic: this viewpoint was basic to Freud's psychological perceptions from early on; the economy refereed to was the psychic economy--i.e., the balance of energy with in the mind. If anything, as Freud's theories evolved over the years, the economic view became more important reaching its climax in his notion of the death instinct. We must emphasize two points here. [1] Freud's concept of energy was employed to explain the activity of the mind--the hydraulic model explained the source of activity as some movement or shift in energy from one part of the brain to another. [2] he viewed the aim of the system to be the restoration of peacefulness: the 'Principle of constancy' attempted to rid the mind of excess stimulation so as to encourage a situation in which there is the lowest possible stimulation of the mind.

Since the nervous system, Freud thought, did not produce its own energy there must be other sources of tension that impose on it. Freud distinguishes between two such sources: the external world, which we can turn away from or control via motor functions, and internal drives or instincts, which we cannot escape from at all. Freud, by tracing the course of instinctual activity, developed the dynamic view of the psyche. The dynamic view concerns itself with motivations and conflict as they are considered in analysis. It is not that Freud was uninterested in the social world and its motivations, on the contrary he had a great deal to say about it. Instead the psychoanalytic project concentrated on the universals of human experience--i.e., which to him meant the underlying biological determinants of human nature.

However, his approach is founded on a number of assumption which has found disfavour in the minds of the post-Freudians. A chief assumption is that the individual is studied in terms of being a closed system. This is said to lead to a neglect f 'objects' or to a generalized image of them as anything that satisfies desire and there is thus no necessity to conceive of the any inherent embeddedness if individual in culture. Thus explanation of behaviours is account for through the vicissitudes of the instincts and the environment is only important to the extent that is supports or opposes satisfaction.

Furthermore in Freud's writing, the word 'Trieb' (germ) which is translated as instinct is used inconsistently. Of the several usages are [1] 'instinct' as a psychological concept, something mental that operates as the representative of some somatic urge. Yet in another instance Freud indicates that instincts are themselves physiological entities: "An instinct can never become an object of consciousness--only the idea that represents the instinct can." (1915a:179) There seems no way around this inconsistency as it is something inherent in the nature of Freud's interweaving of biology and psychology. Still some find the second understanding of instincts to be more functional: instincts are biological entities that are represented in mental life by certain ideas.

If this is true then, as Frosh put it, one of Freud's major contributions is that he traced the vicissitudes of the ideas attached tot he instincts. He noted that instinctual ideas have three components: source, aim and object. His early work concerned itself mainly with the source, 'the somatic process which occurs in an organ or part of the body' which is epitomized in his description of infantile sexuality. The point being that sexuality is the fundamental driving force behind the unconscious; it is sexual energy and the sexual instinct that are the source of human behaviour and interpersonal conflict. In terms of the aims and objects of the instincts Freud defined the former as generally the achievement of satisfaction and the latter that thing through which satisfaction is reached. The vicissitudes of the instincts refer to the defense used to prevent dangerous impulses being carried through from the unconscious to the conscious in an unmodified form. These mechanisms include: reversal into opposite, turning round on the subjects self, repression and sublimation, all are 'reality principle' transformations of pleasure principle desires.

It is Freud's account of the kinds of instincts that his originality lies. This is an account of the instincts that evolved dramatically over the years, from a concern with 'love and hunger' to one with 'love and death.' In "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920) Freud indicates that the instinct of 'hunger and love' is subdivided. 'Hunger' is called the ego-preservative instincts, that watch out for the safety of the individual, and 'love' is the impulse reaching out for satisfaction--i.e., sexuality for instance. Freud saw the sexuality not primarily as the act of reproduction but rather the search for pleasure. This distinction between the ego preservative and the sexual instincts served psychoanalysis well in its early discoveries in relations to the neuroses, but it could not survive the problems generated by observations of other psychopathological and normal states which culminated in the study of narcissism and the postulation of a state of 'primary narcissism.'

These notions forced Freud to recognize that the ego contains the sexual instincts which may provide the energy for the ego preservative instincts which was until then thought to be separate. In other words, what happened is that Freud was forced to recognize that the ego could no longer be viewed as a separate agency from sex, for it was infused with it. This notion threatened to dismantle Freud's dualistic structure of the psyche, which he defended against Jung's widening of the notion of libido from a specifically sexual force to the all-imbuing motor of life.

Freud's solution to this problem was generated by the notion of narcissism and is characterized in two ways: it arose from detailed observations in an unexpected area, and it was eschatological in its implications. The observations was on "the compulsion to repeat." It was observed in children's play and in neurotic behaviour that there was a compulsion for disturbing material to be repeated. This caused problems with the notion of the pleasure principle, for it could not have been the case that this material was ever pleasurable and which could never have brought satisfaction even to repressed instinctual impulses. An example of such phenomena are the traumatic dreams of the war neurosis and children's nightmares. Thus with the contradiction of the notions of dreams as being wish fulfillments it became necessary to postulate the possibility that there was another force at work other than the achievement of happiness--something that must come before the dominance of the desire for pleasurable satisfaction, something more basic, and hence 'beyond, the pleasure principle.

Considering the principle of constancy and the repetition compulsion, Freud came to a startling conclusion. He noted that the principle of constancy led the individual's psyche to attempt to regain a state that it was obliged to give up due to external stimuli. His conclusion took a obviously biological turn. He noted that the sexual life of human revealed that at times there exists an instinct which aims at preserving living substances and joining them together in larger units. From this he postulated that there must be another, contrary instinct (1930:310) that seeks to dissolve these units into their original state, to relieve the organism from tension--thus the principle of constancy or the nirvana principle remained salient. Thus the psyche contained an instinct that would rid the organism of unwanted stimulation and Freud concluded "The aim of all life is death." (1920:311)

Hence we find the development of a death instinct. This instinct is one that seeks to return the organism to the original state in which there is no stimulation; it would become passive. Life is thus seen as am aberration, the whole task of life is preparation for death--but death arising naturally from within not imposed from without. What Freud was postulating was not an type of instinct but rather an actual principle of all instincts, this principle being that of return. This in a sudden flash brought a whole series of problems into perspective: from the subtleties of sexual desire--i.e., masochism and sadism, to the general problems of war and human suffering.

Thus he came to see Thanatosthe death instinct-- as opposed by eros--the life instinct. That is aggression opposed by love. When these to instinct fuse the result is sadism. Still they represent the actual struggle of life. The notion of the death instinct has been extraordinarily contentious in the later history of psychoanalysis. For the objects relational theorists it has become the most virulent expression of Freud's biological reductionism. More generally, it has placed the whole dependence upon the instincts into question: the critics argue that Freud's reliance on nineteenth-century biological concepts resulted in the construction of an impersonal instinct theory which under-values ego functioning and leads to neglect f object relationships. That is, Freud's theory is criticized for seeing interpersonal relationships as a result of the instincts: what motivates the individual is the need to express the instinctual drives of sex and aggression. This is obviously too simplistic and reductionistic and discounts for any conscious intention existing in interpersonal relationships.


Early Freud distinguished between the states in which an idea may be kept (conscious, preconscious or unconscious) and the way in which these systems may be organized. His clearest distinction may be found in the Metapsychological paper "The Unconscious." (1915a) Here he made it clear that the system Pcs. stands in crucial relationship to the other two systems, enabling communication between them and being the locus of censorship between them, as well as possessing important functions of its own such as the province of conscious memory, language, reality testing and the reality principle.

It is important to note that Freud postulated that there is a censor between the Cs. and the Pcs. and between the Ucs. and the Pcs. Thus ideas derived from the Ucs. may, by circumventing earlier repression, enter with intense energy levels into the Pcs. as they try to force themselves into consciousness. When, however, the level of intensity is such that it is noticed by the Pcs. and its censor it is recognized as being derivative of the unconscious and is repressed anew. Thus repression is seen now as not a n once for all activity: rather it is a continuous process and a constant struggle at all levels of the mind. This notion brought another problem into focus. It came to Freud's attention that although the mechanisms of defense belonged to the conscious system, as ego preservative, they themselves operated unconsciously. This led to the conclusion that consciousness could not be a central concept, and possible that it is necessary to distinguish between two types of unconsciousness.

Hence Freud postulated another schema or structure of the psyche which has had far reaching implications in our every day language and imagination of individual and social construction of the human psyche. This construction appeared in "The Ego and the ID." (1923) Here Freud distinguished the Ego (das Ich) as the conscious self. The ego, to Freud, is a active agency present from the beginning of life in some form that was controlled by something beyond it. This something beyond the ego was known as 'das Es' or the Id. This is the source of our impersonal and unconscious desires. It is the mysterious home of the repressed and fundamental instincts, but is also the source of energy, the original self, fueling the entire psychic system. But although all that is in the Id is unconscious, not all that is unconscious is in the Id. It is purely energetic, it is the ego and the Superego that are structural--i.e., can hold unconscious material in them.

With the introduction of the ID the notion of the Ego is said to have changed drastically. Thus the ego was no longer seen as primeval, but rather is a result or a development from he Id formed in two main ways. [1] The exigencies of the real world are the province of the ego, which is charged with bringing it to bear on the pleasure-seeking Id. But [2] the ego is formed by processes of internalization which are modeled on the somatic events with which the infant is familiar. An important point to not is the notion of a bodily ego which is represented by and a result of the bodily sensations. Thus, as the growing child has to give up the original desired sexual objects--the first rude excursion of the external world into the infant's mind--so the ego takes them on, internalizing them and in the process altering itself. Thus the ego becomes the home for lost desires and forsaken objects; it character is formed along the lines of the objects in the world which are interjected and absorbed along with the Id-originated psychic energy invested in them. As the ego become progressively stronger and further removed from the Id by continued external intrusions and disappointments, it gradually transforms the object energy of the id into its ego structures.

It is here that the superego begins development. In part what happens is that some of the internalized objects (the parents) are set up as 'ego ideals.' But at some point this intense internalization of the parents, couched in ambivalent terms, has the power to set up an agency of significant importance within the mind. This development is, of course, the resolution of the Oedipus complex where the child is forced to swallow her or his desires in the face of the power of the real world, and copes with it by forming identifications with both father and mother. Thus the contents of the superego operates as a king f carrot and stick. It is an ideal and a punishment, it compels obedience to an internal authority in the same way a child was once forced to obey an external authority. The ego strives to appease it and be loved by it, but it cannot escape the sense of guilt which arises from the superego's demands and criticisms. It is said to be 'supramoral' and cruel.

A critique of this structural understanding of the mind is that it is too impersonal and a mechanistic understanding of the workings of the mind. It has been called the stuff of physics and not psychology. Still this structural model allows for an understanding of external reality which was not the case in the economic and dynamic models. It does pay attention to the means by which the external reality and objects can enter into the mind of the child and have a formative role in psychological organization. It shows how objects of the external world become identified with an thus parts of the individual and social mind.


To Freud, then, the whole purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle. But this is at loggerheads with the whole world for two main reasons: [1] there is the problem of the nature of pleasure itself. Pleasure is a transient phenomenon, which can only come about as a contrast between tension and its reduction. Thus pleasure, prior to death and the permanent reduction of all tension, pleasure is obtained in the process of the reduction of tension. Thus all stimulation is said to cause tension, an unpleasureable state that motivates the activities of the body or mind to search for resolution. In addition we are faced with real pain from three sources: the feebleness of our bodies, the superior power of nature, and the activities of there people. This is the second major opposition to the pleasure principle. That is, pleasure resides in the attainment of the aims of the instincts; these instincts are of life and death, manifested in sexuality and aggression. But the unlimited expression of desire in aggression and sexuality must lead to interpersonal destructiveness and social devastation. Thus, in a paradox so characteristic of Freud's thought, the pleasure principle threatens individuals with suffering. Thus the task of the reality principle is as much avoiding unpleasure as it is in obtaining pleasure.

There are a number of ways of avoiding the worst aspects of the destructiveness of the instincts and the painfulness of reality. One may suppress instinctual desires and sublimate them in displaced forms of gratification. Again one can take refuge in fantasy, the arena of wish fulfillment which remains exempt from the demands of reality and which enables us to take revenge on the world. To Freud the defensive strategy of fantasy is understandable but is also in contradiction to the psychoanalytic project which is the production of knowledge. Wish fulfillment is the escape of reality and an inability of seeing things as they really are and is hence a regression to an infantile method of surviving.

Although psychoanalysis is mainly concerned with individual adaptations to the pain of reality, Freud sees the main defense against the power and pain of the world and our desires is social: the formation of 'civilization.' It is for protection and out of fear, through the reality principle and not through desire, that individuals form together in groups; society is constructed to curb individual instinct. Here we find another paradox: civilization, often considered the pinnacle of human existence, is built upon the denial of everything we really want. Thus it becomes clear that civilization is no gift to the individual. Rather, it produces misery and is opposed to individual desire; its aim is to unite individuals against the threats posed by nature and by their own inclinations. Thus the essence of society and the essence of individuality stand in opposition to each other: society is a process of control and limitation, of coercion of the individual in the interests of the group.


Freud's concern for how things come to be is evidenced in his ontogenesis. His description of phylogenesis, however, was not so happy, reading now like a embarrassing bit of amateur speculation when compared to modern empirical anthropology. The main culprit is Totem and Taboo (1914). In this book Freud postulates that there was a 'primal horde' dominated by a powerful father who possessed all available women. In rage and frustration, his sons banded together to kill and devour him. But because of the ambivalent structure of the instincts the brothers not only felt hatred towards their father, but also love; this returned to haunt them in post murder guilt and encouraged them to set the father up as a totem and to incorporate his terror with in them. This parallels the development of the superego. Freud notes, however, that in an attempt to prevent a repetition of the primal situation, the brothers, under the shadow of the totem, imposed certain ruling structures upon themselves, to regulate the beginnings of culture by regulating their passions and relationships.

It is really not necessary to go into detail of the critiques of this position. Still there are some points of interest. [1] Freud locates the beginning of culture in the construction of incest taboos, and thus he is really talking about the origins of incest taboos and not society. [2] Freud bases his version of the origin of the taboo on feelings of guilt caused by the murder. Thus he assumes that guilt exists a priori in individuals, "it is there in the pre-existing ambivalent structure of human psychology." (42) This implies, of course, that aggression and love are inextricably intertwined. [3] Freud believed that some residue of these original events were passed throughout the generations, that it contributed to the oedipal complex and that it infiltrated the unconscious of latter day individuals. This does not mean that the exact content of the unconscious is inherited, as Jung has it, rather it stresses the way the universality of primary process functioning demands universal constraints and modes of organization shared by members of all cultures, posing similar problems and encountering comparable obstacles.

What this theory of the primal horde suggests is that Freud thought that human is so destructive that it must be curbed by strong controls. In addition, Freud's attachment to this view reveals a peculiar and general characteristic of his understanding of the past. It is in line with his general disregard of the possibility of developmental change through evolution. That the past lives on unchanged in the species as in the individual. In fact Freudian theory takes as its model is the view that the further in the past an event, the more it dominates the present, producing a conservative and repetitive tendency of eschatological proportions.

Although the problem of control and aggression is seen by Freud as crucial for the maintenance of society, it is the problem of love that exercises his theoretical interest most fully, and which gives rise some of his most radical and enduring insights. At first sight this is surprising: it might seem that erotic love could be exploited in a relatively straight ahead fashion by society to provide a compelling basis for ties amongst its individual. Indeed, Freud argues in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) that groups such as armies and the church are sustained by erotic ties, which are used to give these groups their coherence. But love, Freud empathically notes, is not built to be social: as an element of the instincts, it is inherently greedy, self-serving and hostile to the interests of groups. For instance love is an exclusive phenomenon, whereas society depends on the formation of multiple links. Even the love of one's neighbor is suspicious to Freud. It is an forced internalization of the restrictions on violence and has nothing to do with love (reproduction).

Love is said to have as its prototype the earliest exclusive bond with the parent. It therefore cannot be altered in the interests of civilization, because it is always threatening to break up that civilization into smaller units. The point being, love is doomed because society requires multiple, sanitized relationships, and because it needs the energy that might be put into sex to be diverted instead to the task of building culture. To understand this properly we must know something about Freud's theory of sexuality. The child is considered to have a richer sexual life than adults. This is because of a polymorphous perversity--i.e., the nature of infantile sexuality is that it is formless, it expands in all directions and embraces all objects and bodily parts. It is pure and simply "pleasure." Thus the child is a sexualized being from birth, it has not yet learned social conventions regarding bodily pleasure, or it has not yet repressed the diverse means of obtaining bodily pleasure. Hence the child is uninhibited--not channeled in any direction. By this understanding of infantile sexuality we can conclude that adults, who are restricted to pleasure generated strictly from genital sexuality, is crippled sexually. Remember, here sexuality means the obtainment of pleasure pure and simple.

Freud thought that the eventual repression of infantile sexuality is justifiable from he point of view of society. How else could it cope with the destructiveness inherent in unbridled expression of adult lusts? But this does not tell us how such repression takes place. Our normality is not biologically determined; it is constructed as civilization makes the animal child into the socialized adult. Still Freud noted that sexuality, through society's repressions, is never fixed and that those parts of it that are not expressed by heterosexual geniality may still reside alive in the unconscious.

In Freudian theory, however, social conventions are not merely conditioned in each individual. Rather psychoanalysis concentrates on the unconscious and formative function of social construction--i.e., one's psychical organization comes to being via encounters with society which have a governing effect on experience and on the positioning of the individual with respect to his or her relations to others. For example, it is the situations experienced by the child in relation to the parent that ensures that the child internalizes proper forms of behaviour and this internalization is done unconsciously. The prototype for such activities is the Oedipus complex. this is based on the taboo of incest. This taboo is not natural despite its apparent universality. Rather it is natural as it reflects the free play of the pleasure principle operating without consideration of the conventions that determine what is or is not an acceptable sexual object. In fact, it is the universality of incestuous desires that requires the need for universal taboos such as this. What this taboo represents, therefore, is the structuring of individual, natural desire by society into an acceptable form that is also determined by society. Thus it becomes the model of all the individual's encounters with society; desire is opposed by authority, authority is internalized and made one's own. Hence the father in the Oedipal structure is to just the child's real father; he is a symbol of patriarchal authority and hence of all social authority under patriarchy, "he stands in the position of the originator of culture and of sexual difference, of what is male and female, allowable and forgiven." (48) Thus the Oedipus complex describes the triangular configuration "constituted by the child, the child's natural objects, and the bearer of the law." (49)

Thus the oedipal matrix is a symbolic matrix of the relations observable in the parent-child situation. It is the realization by the child of the sexual and power structures of reality, of how the world is organized. Thus we see that humanity is organized upon the lines represented by the symbolic structuring of kinship and property, rather than the biological one's of procreation: it is through the interactions and the subsequent defense caused by society that the child incorporates social controls, and the whole network of possible and taboo social relationships. Thus society is said to drive the most personal parts of ourselves--our desires--into deeply protected guerrilla positions, whence they continue their sniping into every day life.

The instincts are, of course, not confined to sexuality. In terms of the preservations of human society, the control of the death instinct, in its manifestation as aggression, is at least as important. Humans are not simply lovers, they are haters as well. And aggression is the single biggest impediment to civilization. Hence the full ingenuity of social controls has to be employed in order to channel the aggressive instinct so that it supports rather than threatens the preservation of the social world. An obvious moralistic attempt to do so is seen in the commandment to "love thy neighbor as oneself." But there are more serious and subtle maneuvers which are instituted which have the effect of making individuals turn their aggression inwards, where it acts as a control over behaviours rather than as an incitement to violence. In Freud's later work this maneuver was canonized as the formation of the superego.

We have already reviewed how the superego is formed in the culmination of the Oedipus complex--i.e., where the symbolic violence of the father is internalized by the child as part of a new series of identifications that are brought into play by the castration complex. In this two aggressive forces are combined here: [1] the aggression which the child feels her or himself threatened: violence of the castrating father; [2] the aggression that the child feels against the father which is generated by the paternal prohibition and repressed because of the child's fear of retaliation and because of the ambivalent feelings that the child has for the father. Thus the internalized aggression is experienced as guilt--the most obvious price of civilization--which does not depend on actions, but which arises directly from instinctual clashes. That is, it is not necessarily the action for which one feels guilt, rather it could just as easily be the thought or the desire to perform this deed.

Guilt arises as the external threat of punishment and is internalized and thus given structural permanence in the superego. Guilt is said to have two origins: [1] from a fear of authority, and [2] from a fear of authority internalized, the superego. Of the two the second is said to be more destructive. The first insists on a renunciations of instinctual satisfactions; the second, as well as doing this, presses for punishment. Created by instinctual renunciation, the superego operates in an escalating manner: it demands more and more renunciation as its aggression is turned virulently against unconscious wishes; the stronger the repression, the stronger the sense of guilt. Thus, just as sexuality is channeled into geniality, so aggression is mastered by incorporation into the punitive superego. And again civilization advances at the cost of individual happiness.


Freud's ideas regarding female development has rightly been taken to task from feminists throughout the history of psychoanalysis. The reasons are understandable as Freud's theories value women negatively, they exclude women from the work of culture, and they appear to assert that all this is biologically determined in the little girl's lack of a penis. The examples are too numerous to list but I will provide some examples: Freud's makes of womanhood include 'passivity', 'vanity', 'jealousy', and 'a limited sense of justice.' He asserts the fundamental unwholesomeness of the nature of woman hood when in the New Introductory Lectures Freud states:

The fact that women must be regarded as having little sense of justice is no doubt related to the predominance of envy in their mental life...We also regard women as weaker in this social interests and as having less capacity for sublimating their instinct that do men. (1933:168-169)

In other places Freud suggests that women have a weaker superego than men and this is the reason for their relatively low sense of justice and level of ethical awareness. In Moses and Monotheism (1939:361), for instance, he notes that it is the movement from the matriarchal culture to a patriarchal one that permitted mental and intellectual developments that were restrained by the previous cultural perspective.

There are a number of ways of rescuing Freud's thoughts from the doldrums of ideological sexism. For instance Freud's biological understanding of women as being closer to nature , less sublimated, less diffuse by repression, and less displaced can be read in positive terms rather than from strictly negatively view-point. What it comes down to is sexual politics. Both women and men become what they are through a series of identifications and defense which build upon an initially bisexual base and which diverge at a relatively late stage in development, the phallic stage at which the Oedipus complex comes into play.

The girl's Oedipal development is not simply parallel of the boy--rather it is widely divergent. There are two additional tasks facing the girl [1] the girl must give up her phallic, male concentration on her own penis, the clitoris, and [2] she must transfer her desire from the mother to the father. Thus the inferiority that the girl is said to experience because of her lack of a penis, and her hatred of her mother for not providing her with one, forces her to enter into a conflicting relationship with the mother over the father's love. This is a theme that is found throughout the Brother's Grimm's Faery tales--snow white and the step mother for instance. Thus it is the castration complex that pushes the girl into the Oedipal situation--i.e., the recognition that she lacks a penis--in which she attempts to usurp the mother in order to share in the father's power. Finally, the desire for the penis must itself be renounced and replaced by the desire for a baby--from the father. Here we have a further instance of Freud's misogyny--he assumes that the means to the fulfillment of a woman is through the obtainment of a penis, as symbolized by a child.

The implications of this story of female development is seen in his account of the female superego. In the boy, the castration complex forces a tremendous repression of incestuous desire and a strong identification with the father, giving rise to the punitive and powerful internalized conscience--the superego. No such mechanism operates for girls: they are said to remain in the Oedipus situation for a relatively long time and leave it (through a process never actual specified) only incompletely and with difficulty. Consequently they are said to have a much weaker superego producing the character deficiencies previously mentioned. Secondly, passivity is encouraged in the girl: with the recognition of the less value of the clitoris, she associates to herself a sense of inferiority and also gives up a more active stance to her own sexuality.

Some claim that this theory is itself not actually sexist, rather it is an accurate portrayal of a sexist world. Other's find the opposite to be true. What ever the case, Freud's understanding of a girl's Oedipal situation is derogatory and brutal. It has no real basis in observation but is rather based upon a prevailing attitude that resulted from Late Victorian era.


What ever Freud's point of view, he did not hold out much hope for any radical change in social affairs. His basic postulate of the opposition of society to the individual desire would be enough to settle the matter, although he does explicitly allow that different social organizations may produce somewhat different experiences of repression, with the most advanced civilizations producing the most. Even if psychoanalysis is on dubious grounds for causing radical social change, it does bring things up that are worthwhile. The first concerns the inescapability of social repression: is it genuinely the case that all social configurations depend on the submergence of fundamental desires, and that they all do so to the same extent? The answer to the first part is yes, and to the second is a qualified no. The principle being that for a society to survive individual desires must be contained. A second issue concerns the immersion of individuals in society. Freud's view of the individual is a confusion of biologically determined drives and complex account of the construction of individuality that is found in the influences that arise via exposure to social and interpersonal structures. It is an uncovering of the social basis of what is usually taken to be 'natural.' Thus, on the one hand, sex is an instinct; on the other, a person's sexuality is ordered through a certain set of experiences with external 'objects' or people, notable the Oedipus complex.

The following section includes one of the more salient essays written by Freud of interest to people in Religions Studies. This article has been supplemented with a discussion of the Rat Man of S.E. 10.

"Obsessive Actions and Religious Actions."

(1907) Vol. 9 (S.E.) pp. 116ff.

We will begin with some definitions:

  1. obsession: a technical term referring to an idea or group of ideas which persistently forces itself on a patient's consciousness despite his or her will and despite the fact the he or she recognizes its abnormality.

  2. obsessional character: a person whose personality contains traits which can be interpreted as equivalent to an obsessional neurosis; one who uses obsessional defense but does not have obsessional symptoms, Conscientiousness, tidiness, meanness, pedantry rationality combined with cluelessness about human emotions, respect for the letter rather than the spirit of the law and for red tape rather than creative achievement are all liable to be called obsessional character-traits. The common feature of these is that control is valued more highly than expressiveness. The justification fir calling them obsessive derives from the theoretical inference that anxiety about loosing control lies at the root of them.

  3. Obsessional defense: defense which have in common a tendency to keep the ego uncontaminated by instinctual forces. Thus it these defense are characterized by isolating, reaction formations (unacceptable impulse is mastered by an exaggeration of the opposite tendency) and so on.

  4. obsessional neurosis: is a form of psychoneurosis in which the predominant symptoms are obsessional thoughts and compulsive behaviour (rituals). Obsessional thoughts differ from normal thoughts in that they are experienced by the patient as non-spontaneous, distracting, repetitive, and as coming from elsewhere than oneself; their subject matter is typically absurd, bizarre, irrelevant and obscene. Compulsive behaviour is repetitive, stereotyped, ritualistic and superstitious. According to classical theory, the psychopathology of obsessional neurosis centres around regression to the anal-sadistic stage and ambivalence towards parental figures and their introjects. More recent formulations centre around the high degree of internalization and the need to control all impulses, and the symptoms constitute the failure to achieve control--i.e., the are examples of the return of the repressed.

Freud begins this paper with the observation that there is more than a superficial resemblance between the obsessive acts of neurotics and religious observances. For Freud the obsessive observances is of the same class of phenomena as obsessive thinking, ideas, impulses, etc. Obsessive ceremonials appear as small adjustments to particular every day actions which are carried out in the same or in a methodically varied manner. Obsessive actions often make us think they are formalized but still appear to be meaningless. This is even the case to the patient--i.e., the patient also recognizes that the actions are meaningless but are incapable of giving them up. The difficulty in giving up such observances is due to a reaction of intolerable anxiety for not completing the ritual and thus the individual suffers a great impulse to immediately make good the situation by performing the action.

I want to point out that Freud is not strictly comparing religious actions and obsessive behaviour. What is he says that there are similarities but they are not the same things. His only interest is to bring to light the similarities between the two, not to say that they are one and the same thing.

The special contentiousness of the obsessive in terms of the actions and the ways that they are carried out as well as the anxiety which follows upon its neglect stamp the ceremonial as a "sacred act." Freud notes that any action is subject to the possibility of becoming obsessive provided it is elaborated by small additions or given a rhythmic character by means of pauses and by the use of repetitions. Still for the longest time compulsive behaviour or actions or compulsive prohibitions apply strictly to solitary activities. It is only after a long period of fermentation that they will enter into the social sphere and therefore affect social behaviour.

The resemblance of obsessive actions to religious practices is three fold: 1] the qualms of conscience caused by neglect of performing the ritual affects both the religious person and the obsessive. [2] Both religious actions and obsessive ceremonials are completely isolated from all other activities. That is, just as the religious person only performs his or her observances during a specific time and in a specific place that is "sacred," so too does the obsessive person perform his or her rituals. [3] Both types of actions are performed with a great deal of conscientiousness. For the obsessive to leave out one detail is to do some kind of a wrong and hence cause a build-up of anxiety. In fact, there is a difference between the two types of rituals in this sense as that when the obsessive perceives himself or herself as having transgressed their "duty" they are forced to overcompensate--i.e., they tend to build the ritual up by adding onto it.

The differences in the rituals of obsessive and religious persons are as follows: [1] There is a greater individual variability of the neurotic's rituals than there is on the religious person's rituals. In fact the religious rituals could be, in one sense, said to be stereotypical and static in comparison to the obsessive ritual. [2] The obsessional rituals are private, the religious ritual are public. [3] Obsessional rituals seem foolish and senseless for those on the outside. This is in contrast to the high degree of significance and symbolic meaning found in religious rituals.

So as we can see that there are both similarities and great differences between the religious and obsessive behaviours and rituals. Freud indicates his position regarding the two forms of rituals when he refers to the differences between obsessive and religious rituals. He writes: "In this respect an obsessive neurosis presents a travesty, half comic and half tragic, of a private religion."

Referring to the seeming meaninglessness of obsessive rituals, Freud points out that there is actually a great deal of meaning which psychoanalysis shows to the interested observer. First, he notes, obsessional rituals are perfectly significant in every detail. Secondly, they all serve important interests of the individual's personality. Finally, they give expression to experiences which are still operative in the person's unconscious and to thoughts which are connected to certain emotional reactions which go with these experiences.

Freud notes that there are two ways of giving expression to such experiences, emotions and thoughts. The first is through direct representation--the emotion, experience, etc. is expressed directly--this suggests that the ideas is in the conscious or preconscious mind. The second means of expression is said to be symbolic, which suggests that the ideas is present and active in the unconscious mind.

At this point Freud brings sexuality into the picture. He says that whatever is represented is derived out of the most intimate and sexual experiences of the patient. This refers to the possibility of fixations, reactions due to early child sexual-abuse and so on. That is, it is the sexually derived experiences of early childhood that figure in the person's means of relating to the world. This is interesting to note especially when one remembers that a great deal of religious traditions refer to the experience of divinity in sexual terms. For instance, Christianity refers to the individual as being the bride of Christ. There are all sorts of other traditions that refers to sex. The new years rituals of some ancient religions include a ritual copulation of the priest and priestess to commemorate the coming (birth) of the new year.

Returning to Freud's exposition of the obsessional type, we find that he notes that one condition of the illness is that the obsessive person obeys compulsions and carry them out without actually understanding their chief meaning. What he is implying is that the rituals serve unconscious ideas and motivations. In comparison the motives of religious practices are said to differ slightly. The pious person, he says, is not necessarily concerned with the significance of the ceremonial--even if the religious functionary is familiar with it, perhaps even in spite of this fact. Rather the motives which impel the religious person to religious practices is usually unknown to them or is represented in consciousness by other motives which are advanced in their place.

Freud lists several motives for both obsessional practices and religious ones. The obsessional's motivations include:

  1. The obsessional neurosis is compelled as if by some kind of guilt which is unconscious. This guilt is said to have as its source some early mental event which is constantly recovered by renewed temptations which arise out of contemporary provocations. For instance, if a child is sexually molested, Freud might say, there is a tendency to find some kind of a morbid fascination for certain sexual activities (homosexuality for example). The fascination is said to persist into adult life and constantly arise as an unconscious desire (which may be consciously apprehended by means of a symbolic form). Because this desire continues to arise it continues to threaten the individual's conscious conception of his or her self. The result of such threats to the individual's understanding of the self is that anxiety arises for which defense appear. These defense may take the form of a ritual which functions to rid one of the anxiety. Still there is a repetition compulsion--i.e., the intrusion is compulsive and tends to repeat itself. Hence the ritual becomes compulsive and must be performed whenever there is the threat of the unconscious protruding on the psyche.

  2. A second motive of obsessive rituals is that it, as I have pointed out above, occasions a "lurking sense of anxiety." That is, due to expectations of misfortune linked to expectations of punishment for the obsessive temptation the obsessive is required to perform the ritual.

  3. Freud's third motivation refers to the fact that the connection of the ritual and the idea which is being defended against is always hidden. That is, the connection between the occasion in which the expectant anxiety arises and the danger that it conjures up is broken.

The religious motivations for rituals are similar to the obsessive's motivations. They are as follows:

  1. there is also a sense of guilt involved. This is found in the protests of the pious that they know themselves at heart to be miserable sinners. Still we must note that the origin of this sense of guilt comes from a different source than sexuality--however it may be related to early childhood experiences.

  2. A second place in which this feeling of guilt plays a role is in the pious observances such individuals may preface every daily act--saying grace over a meal for instance.

  3. A third source of motivations can be found in that every unusual undertaking seems to have a defensive of protective aspect. That is many religious rituals operate to defend or protect the individual from some sort of evil. This is found in the children's nighttime litany in which the child requests God to keep their soul if they should die before they wake.

To Freud the obsessional neurosis is due to the repression of the instinctual impulse (sexual). It is through the repression of the instinct that a special conscientiousness is created. This sense of conscience is directed against the instinct's aim which is usually the gratification of a unconscious sexual impulse. But the resulting reaction formation (over exaggeration of the opposite tendency) feels insecure and constantly threatened by the unconscious instinct. The influence of the repressed instinct is therefore felt as an temptation and causes the onset of anxiety. Thus we see that Freud thinks that the repressed tendency is only partially successful for the obsessive. And as things go on the impulse becomes increasingly threatening to the individual and eventually the defense fails and there is the rise of anxiety which causes the obsessive act to take place. Thus fresh psychical efforts (rituals and other defense) are constantly required to keep down the instinctual impulse as protection against the illness. After a while the protective measures are deemed ineffective and prohibitions begin to take the place of the obsessive actions. The symptoms of the obsessive neurotic fulfills the condition of becoming a compromise between the "warring forces of the mind."

In the religious sphere of things Freud points out that the formation of religion is based on a suppression or renunciation of certain instinctual impulses. That is, the impulses to violence, uninhibited sex, and so on which would be dysfunctional to society on the whole. It is important to note, however, that these impulses are not of the same nature as are those of the neurotic. That is, they are not exclusively sexual but are more often the self-seeking and socially harmful instincts.

A second point of similarity is found in the fact that there is a sense of guilt also involved in religious observances. This sense of guilt follows by a continual temptation and expectant anxiety in the form of a fear of divine punishment.

Freud makes an interesting conclusion based on the role of the sense of guilt in religious life. He suggests that because of the admixture of the sexual components and some of the general characteristics of all the instincts, the suppression of instincts by religion proves as inadequate a process in religious life as it is in obsessional life. That is, the function of suppressing instinctual drives is no more effective in religions than it is in the compulsive rituals and prohibitions of obsessive neurotics.

Freud points out the preponderance of displacement in both obsessive behaviour and religious actions. Displacement is another of the psyche's defensive mechanisms. We know it to be the tendency of the mind to displace and idea from its affect, to lessen the intensity of an idea by lessening the intensity of its emotional content, or to emphasize an idea by over representing an idea in the unconscious. Freud suggests that this kind of action is also present in the religious sphere of the mind. He writes: It cannot be denied that in the religious field as well [as in the obsessional one) there is a similar tendency to a displacement of psychical values, and in the same direction, so that the petty ceremonials of religious practice gradually become the essential thing and push aside the underlying thoughts. What he is saying is that in religious systems as well as in the obsessive neurotic the ritual comes to take over the motivation for the act. Hence it becomes that case that the ceremonial is performed by the observer who has no real appreciation of the ceremonial's origin, religious and historical significance, and so on. This is becoming the case in the modern practice of New Years for example. Rarely is it the case that many people remember the meaning of this holiday or its religious significance. How many of you can tell me something about the notion of a new years ceremony with out referring to the dropping of the ball over Times Square, of the fireworks, or the champagne? New years is a celebration of great importance throughout the world... Can you think of other examples? It is like the case of the individual going to church regularly for no other reason than to keep up with the Jones's. How much do you think such individual's really appreciate the religious and historical significance of their service?

We can see that Freud conceptualizes of Obsessional neurosis as a "pathological counterpart of the formation of religion." He also describes such neuroses as an individual religiosity and hence religion as an universal obsessional neurosis. This is not to say that he is strictly equating the two, rather that he is pointing out that there is similarities between them.

In sum, he claims that the most essential similarities of religion and obsessional neurosis is as follows: there is in both an underlying renunciation of the activation of the instincts which are constantly present and threatening to the conscious mind. The essential difference between the two is found in the nature of the instincts involved. That is, in the neurosis the instincts that are primary are those of sexuality; in religion the instincts that operate most often are those that spring from the egoistic structures. That is, these are the instincts of the ego's preservation proper. From this Freud makes a conclusion that predates the thoughts of Civilization and Future by quite a few years. He says that the progressive renunciation of the constitutional instincts , whose activity might afford the ego primary pleasure, appears to be one of the foundations of the development of human civilization. It is in religion that there is a sacrifice required; a sacrifice of individual pleasure for the devotion to the divinity.

A good example of an obsessional individual appears in vol. 10 of the S.E. This is the case study of the Rat Man:

Notes on a Case of Obsessional Neurosis

Freud begins by giving a formula for the onset of obsessional ideas: Such ideas are invariably transformed self-reproaches which have re-emerged from Repression and which always relate to some sexual act that was performed with pleasure in childhood.

History of the onset of obsessive behaviour:

  1. Experiences of sexual seduction which will later make Repression possible.

  2. Acts of sexual aggression against the other sex, which will later appear in the form of acts involving self reproaches--i.e., be the root of the obsessive's guilt.
  3. Sexual maturation is the end of the first phase

  4. Self reproaches now become connected to memory of those pleasurable actions in childhood--in order to replace these memories with the primary symptom of defense.

  5. The return of the Repressed is due to the failure of the defense.

Primary Defense:

Obsessive ideas are distorted in relation to the obsessive acts of childhood:

secondary defense:
appear when the ego attempts to fend off derivatives of the repressed memory and if this is successful the result is obsessive activities.

Extracts from the case history:

Infantile sexuality:

Freud states that this is not the beginning of the illness but the illness itself--i.e., the child being under the domination of the sexual instinct (scotophillia) resulted with the child being subject to constant recurrence of a very intense wish to view females in states of undress and that later this wish corresponded to the obsessional idea. That is, since the wish was regularly accompanied by the distressing affect, which was already clothed in an characteristic indeterminantness, it thereafter became an invariable feature of every manifestation of his neurosis and thus caused those impulses to eventually develop into the protective measures that the patient adopted.

We therefore find:

The Great Obsessive fear:

  1. fears that something may happen to those of whom he was found.
  2. compulsive impulses that were self-destructive in nature.
  3. prohibitions against sexuality, etc.

The significance of Rats come a story heard in military of a certain torture involving rats burrowing into one's anus. Showing ambivalence, Rat man displayed a) horror at the story, b) a pleasure of his own of which he was not aware, c) the compulsive fear that this was happening to someone dear to him which caused a simultaneous construction of a 'sanction"--i.e., a defensive measure which he was obliged to adopt in order prevent the phantasy from coming true. d) There was a simultaneous belief that this punishment was being applied to his father (who had been dead for 9 yrs previously)

Initiation & the Nature of the Treatment

Freud finds (d) above to elate to a long repressed wish to kill his father, that originated as infantile (shades of the primal horde), which manifest itself in association to the inherent ambivalence towards the figure which had incited this response, whenever the Rat man enters into an intense affectual situation .

Freud also found that the intensity of Rat man's illness comes out of his repressed yet intense sorrow felt at the time of his father's death and that the sorrow had found a pathological release in his illness.

What is being described in this passage is that there is a great deal of ambivalence felt by Rat man towards his father. From Freud's point of view this is a ontogenic recapitulation of the Primal deed of Totem and Taboo. Here child fears and yet loves the father and hence suffers guilty feelings for the impulse to kill him. In relation to religion Freud thinks that primal deed is the model of humanities relation to divinity. It is the primal father, who represents all other fathers, which is being related to in an ambivalent manner.

What Freud might conclude in relation to society, is that it is the ambivalence resulting from the instinctual impulses that enforces the prohibitions found in both religions and obsessive neurotics. Hence we find a repetition of his axiom that obsessions are religious and religions are obsessive.


A): The originating cause of the illness

In obsessional neurosis the infantile preconditions of the illness may be overtaken by the amnesia but the immediate occasions of the illness are retained in the memory. In terms of the primal deed this is obviously not the case. That is, each individual represses the hatred felt towards his or her father and hence it takes on characteristics of being unconscious.

In Repression (1915:156ff). Freud states that the obsessional form of repression has a basis in a sadistic trend that is substituted for a affectionate one. It is the hostile impulse against someone who is loved that is repressed. At first the repression is completely successful (i.e., both idea and affect are repressed) but the subject and the symptom do not coincide. In obsessional neurosis ,then, repression causes a with drawl of libido but it makes use of a reaction formation to do so (by intensifying an opposite of the repression). The ambivalence which enabled the repression, via the reaction formation, to take place is also the point at which the repressed succeeds in returning.--i.e. the vanished affect returns in its altered form as moral anxiety, social anxiety, and unlimited self-reproaches. The rejected idea, therefore, is replaced by a substitute via the mechanism of displacement --the failure of repression to rid the patient of the affect brings into play the same mechanism as flight response through avoidance, prohibitions and hysterical phobias. still the rejection of the idea is still maintained.

In relationship to religion we again find the notion that ambivalence informs the formation of guilt. It is the fact that certain unacceptable ideas and impulses are suppressed and that they constantly return that is the root of religion from this point of view. It is the task of religion, says Freud, to suppress such ideas, as we have already seen, it is no more successful in its task than are the rituals of the obsessional neurotic. Although religion may at first be successful in this function it cannot not succeed perfectly in keeping back all instinctual impulses that are detrimental to society.

Some peculiarities of obsessional neurosis that have connections to religious feelings can be found in the obsessional superstitious behaviours. Superstitions usually appear as two different and contradictory trends of thought which conflict and thus require actions that compensate for the anxiety they produce.

Obsessional neurotics also seem to need uncertainty in their lives. Such uncertainty operates as a means of drawing the obsessive individual from reality and isolating him or her from the external world. This dissociation from the real world is said to allow the obsessive person to turn his or her attention to subjects upon which we are all uncertain and upon which our knowledge and judgments must necessarily remain in doubt. Such dissociation is also used to the fullest extent to aid in the formation of symptoms...includes notion of the "omnipotence of thoughts" and feelings--i.e., they overestimate the effects of their thoughts and feelings on the external world because a large part of their internal, mental effects escape their conscious knowledge.

What is interesting about this last characteristic is the fact of the omnipotence of thought is encouraged by such dissociation. This whole notion is similar to what Fraser calls sympathetic magic. Sympathetic magic is the archaic religious belief that one's thoughts and action can effect both the physical and spiritual worlds. It is the kind of ritual activity that sees a specific action in the microcosm of the individual's sphere of existence affecting changes in the macrocosm of the universe. A good example of this type of behaviour can be seen in the notion of rain dances where the participants believe that by their ritual they can actually affect the physical world sufficiently to cause it to rain.

Of course we must not make too much of this connection, for the obsessional's omnipotence is not shared by an entire culture as a root belief and is rooted more in the individual's self serving instinctual impulses rather than in the preservative ones that, according to Freud, religions tend to suppress.

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Last updated: April 22, 1996.