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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 12.4 (2005) 331-333

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We're All Mad Here

Freud, evolutionary psychiatry, philosophical anthropology, neurosis

Andreas De Block claims that the core of Freud's "philosophical anthropology" is that "the human being is in essence a sick animal." He looks at Freud's attempt to found this anthropology in evolutionary biology in the relatively recently discovered "A Phylogenetic Fantasy," which he criticizes for being overly indebted to Lamarck and Haeckel1 ; he also looks at more recent efforts (not thus indebted) in evolutionary psychiatry, but argues that none of them serve the purpose of founding Freud's philosophical anthropology because none of them implies that "the human being is in essence a sick animal" (2005, 315; my emphasis). It is thus clear that the paper pivots around the attribution of this claim to Freud. This attribution is the principal focus of this commentary.

At first sight, it is not clear that De Block attributes this view consistently to Freud. At times, he phrases it that "there is no substantial difference between the so-called normal human being and the mentally insane" (2005, 315; italics added) or "the difference between normality and psychopathology is only gradual" (2005, 316). The most natural reading of this is that the difference between normality and neurosis is a matter of degree; and to say this is not to say that there is no difference, any more than to say that black gradually shades into white implies that black is white.

De Block, however, does not interpret this second statement in the most natural way; he glosses it by saying that Freud "does not mean the "normals" are non-neurotic, but only that they suffer less under their neurosis" (2005, 318). Is this gloss justified? I don't think so.

We can find numerous examples of passages in Freud whose most natural readings go against the idea that all of us are neurotic. Consider these two passages, the first from Freud's 1908 essay, "'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness," the second from Civilization and its Discontents (1930), works between which the "Phylogenetic Phantasy" was written:

Neurotics are that class of people who, because of a recalcitrant constitution, can achieve no more, under the influence of cultural requirements, than an apparent suppression of their drives. (93; Freud's italics, my bolds)

[I]t is precisely these frustrations of sexual life [necessitated by 'civilization'] that those whom we call neurotics cannot endure.

(45; my bolds)

These passages, it seems to me, suggest a relatively stable item in Freud's thinking that spanned the time of writing of the "Phantasy": that we are not all neurotics. Nor do they even suggest that the difference between neurotics and normals is "only gradual"; rather, the picture seems to be that neurosis is a joint product of human nature, civilization (understood in its role as restricting the instinctual life), and individual constitution. The "Phylogenetic Phantasy," I suggest, speculates about the environmental and [End Page 331] cultural forces that shaped human nature as it is today: it posits two phases, one focusing on the privations that the exigencies of the Ice Age and its associated conditions of scarcity imposed on the "primal humans" (Freud 1914/1987, 13–16), which underlie the dispositions to the transference neuroses, the second on the "new phase of civilization" beginning with the second generation in its struggle against the oppressive father (Freud 1914/1987, 16–19), which underlies the dispositions to the narcissistic neuroses. But there is no implication that human nature thus explained produces neuroses unaided by civilization and individual constitution.

Perhaps De Block will want to argue that civilization, too, is part of the "essence" of being human; one could perhaps justify this claim on the basis of Freud's texts, for example, "the first civilized activities were the use of tools, the taming of fire, and the building of dwellings" (Freud 1930/2002, 28), and, one could argue, man only became human at that moment when he first used tools and tamed fire. However, in this use of the...


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