The Death of Sigmund Freud

By Mark Edmundson
Bloomsbury, 288 pages

Reviews edited by Andy Ross

Review by Jonathan Derbyshire
The Guardian, September 1, 2007

In 1914, Sigmund Freud published a short essay about Michelangelo's statue of Moses. According to Mark Edmundson, the article marked a decisive shift in the focus of Freud's work. The concept of the superego, "the centre of authority in the human psyche", enters Freud's thinking at this point as a solution to the question of how the ego structures repression.

Freud says that the ego is at the beck and call of three masters: as well as the superego, it is beholden to the id, the seat of instinctual desire, and to the external world. Human mental life is the conflict between these contending authorities. Freud recognised that psychic wellbeing consists in tolerating this conflict.

Freud's fascination with Moses was so intense that he confessed to a friend that the prophet wouldn't let go of his imagination. Freud struggled to finish his final book, Moses and Monotheism, before the Nazis overran Vienna. The moral of Moses and Monotheism is that resistance is possible. Moses, the "hero of civilisation", renounces pleasure and desire in the name of something greater and teaches others to do the same.

Review by Bryan Appleyard
The Sunday Times, August 12, 2007

Sigmund Freud created the discipline of psychoanalysis. In reading, Freud attempted to consume all of world history as if he would be satisfied with nothing less than a psychoanalysis of the entire planet. What he was seeking was universality. Psychoanalysis is the attempt to unearth the deep psychic structures of humanity. He sought laws of the psyche as solid as those of physics.

Freud saw tyranny as an entirely predictable product of the need to seek consolation and escape from one's own predicament by placing one's destiny in the hands of the dictator/father.

Mark Edmundson celebrates the possibility of the truly self-aware person "continually in the process of deconstructing various god replacements and returning once again to a more sceptical and ironic middle ground". Such people cannot fall for tyranny.

This seems to replay a familiar religious myth of transfiguration and saves Freud's greatness. Edmundson portrays him as a great prophet and moralist. Freud's death was the death of a prophet. Edmundson's Freud saw himself as Moses.

AR  A worthy book, certainly, but I baulk at regarding Sigmund Freud, any more than Karl Marx, as a new Moses. As Karl Popper said, neither were scientists in the sense of creating falsifiable theories, whereas Albert Einstein was, as well as Time Magazine's Person of the Century, so Einstein is the first of the new Jewish trinity (or perhaps Marx the Father, the Old Testament tyrant, Freud the Son, with his thing about love, and Einstein the Holy Ghost, pervading all of spacetime with spooky momenergy).

Behavioral Genetics

By Carol Tavris
The Times Literary Supplement, April 16, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Personality: What makes you the way you are
By Daniel Nettle
Oxford University Press, 298 pages

Sigmund Freud's answer to Daniel Nettle's question would have begun with your unconscious mind: the unique pattern of fantasies, defences, and instinctual conflicts that create your neurotic insecurities and self-defeating habits.

Today, personality researchers almost uniformly agree that the things that make you the way you are consist of a combination of your genes, your peers and the idiosyncratic, chance experiences that befall you in childhood and adulthood.

Freud's view of personality was passionate, controversial, sexy, unfalsifiable and wrong. The behavioral-genetics view of personality is calm, uncontroversial, empirically testable and correct.

Evolutionary theory, the genome project, studies of identical twins reared together and apart, and brain-imaging techniques have enabled scientists to identify the differences in how people's nervous systems are wired up and how those differences express themselves in characteristic responses to other people and to events. These characteristic responses statistically cluster into five basic factors: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

Because human beings have complex, sense-making minds, they are forever telling stories about themselves to explain why they are the way they are. Our storytelling brains make each of us unique.