Although Freud died more than a half century ago, he still arouses passion among defenders and critics alike. Recently the Library of Congress was forced to cancel an exhibit because of the controversial and charged nature of his career. Nor does the debate dealing with psychoanalysis show any sign of diminishing; if anything, it resembles more closely a fight to the finish between competing religious sects. In Freud and the Politics of Psychoanalysis José Brunner, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, attempts to provide a more dispassionate reading of Freud that places him in a somewhat different light. Following a recent intellectual tradition, he charts the development of Freud’s theories and practices in both a textual and a contextual mode.
To summarize this complex but readable book in a brief paragraph or two is manifestly impossible. Brunner’s basic argument is that psychoanalysis was “political in its medical origins, linguistic style, the logic of its models, the historical development and internal structure of its therapeutic practice, as well as in its analysis of culture, religion, history and society” (p. vii). His definition of politics follows Robert Dahl’s point that political systems involve patterns of human relationships that are inseparable from power, agency, and authority. In applying this definition, Brunner attempts to show how Freud’s early writings on hysteria were related to his larger critique of late-nineteenth-century bourgeois values, nationalistic ideologies, and racial prejudices. Thus Freud rejected degeneration and hereditarian theories and substituted in their place principles of mental mechanisms that possessed universal validity. His renunciation of particularism and racial and national groupings also led him to espouse a therapeutic system applicable to all human beings.
The origins of Freud’s “radically universalist and individualistic” approach (p. 43), Brunner maintains, grew out of his clinical practice. He found the prevailing somatic interpretation of hysteria inadequate, and ultimately developed his own general psychology and theory of mind that explained normal and pathological phenomena in terms of the “interplay of the psyche’s invisible structures and forces” (p. 47). The metaphors employed by Freud suggested that he “politicized” the psyche in the sense that it became “an arena of political conflict” (p. 49) where opposing forces driven by contradictory motives faced each other. Indeed, the analytic setting represented a curious blend of liberal and authoritarian elements; the analyst had to confront the patient’s resistance. The clinical setting of psychoanalysis became “an arena for verbal politics, where speech acts as a weapon of attack, control, coercion, domination, defence and liberation” (p. 135).
The second half of the book is devoted to discussions of the ways in which class, gender, and education shaped Freud’s therapeutic approach, and of how his understanding of the intergenerational conflict within families is consistent with a political interpretation. Denying claims that Freud and psychoanalysis were part of either science or hermeneutics, Brunner concludes that a political reading is more consistent with both textual and contextual evidence. “I suggest,” [End Page 169] he concludes in a provocative but friendly tone, “that both one’s understanding of the psyche and of politics may benefit from an attempt to develop a discourse on power which is applicable not only to the external world but also to the mind’s internal reality, intertwines the interpretation of meaning with causal explanation, and thereby continues a project which Freud initiated about a century ago” (p. 186).
Freud and the Politics of Psychoanalysis will have considerable appeal to those in cultural and intellectual history as well as to those in literary and critical studies. Nevertheless, the book is also of interest to historians of medicine because it highlights the importance of critical and contextual readings of texts. Debates within medicine and science, however conducted, often contain underlying arguments and assumptions about the nature of reality that remain hidden from view. Brunner’s book is significant because of his willingness to explore a subject in novel ways and to avoid the polemics that often accompany a controversial subject.