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2 March 2021

From the NS archive: The work of Freud

30 September 1939: An obituary for Sigmund Freud, the first man of science to take the mind seriously.

By James Strachey

Though the theories of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, are now subjected to the scrutiny of modern science, he is still considered the most influential psychologist to have lived. His idea that neurosis was caused by occurrences in our subconscious — the underlayer of our minds — was revolutionary, and continues to form the basis of much modern psychotherapy. In this obituary written a week after he died on 23 September 1939, James Strachey argues that Freud’s impact was to draw the study of the mind into the world of science. His legacy, he writes, was to consider the meaning and continuity of purely mental events, “not only in neurotics but in normal people”. Freud was “the first to give us knowledge of the strange reality of our own minds” — for that reason, Strachey declared in 1939, his name will live on forever.


There is a popular superstition that the true value of a scientific theory can only be established many years after the death of its discoverer. But this is far from being universally the case. Newton was elected president of the Royal Society when he was only 60 and Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey. It was a little surprising at first, then, to find an almost universal misapprehension of the scale of importance of Freud’s work in the obituaries published at the beginning of the week, in spite of the fact that the main framework of his hypothesis was completed 40 years ago. The more popular papers knew him, of course, only as the inventor of a couple of familiar cliches which in fact he never employed, while the more respectable ones describe him as a physician who had made some valuable contributions to the treatment of nervous diseases. The Manchester Guardian concluded its notice with the following daring peroration: “It is too early to attempt to review Freud’s contribution to science but his effect upon psychology, in English-speaking countries at least, has been greater than that of any writer since William James.”

But compromise, into which Englishmen and journalists are so perpetually driven by their fears, cannot protect us in the case of Freud’s hypotheses. Either he was totally mistaken or he was one of the half-dozen greatest men in the history of science: for his most far-reaching concepts lie implicit in his most elementary explanations of the very earliest data examined by him. And although, to the end of his long life, he continued with unabating energy to collect and to co-ordinate fresh masses of material, the epoch-making steps were the first ones. Upon our judgment of them our judgment of all that followed must depend.

What, then, was the nature of these first steps? They can be summed up very shortly. Freud was the first man of science to take the mind seriously. Starting from a presumption of the universality of the law of causation, he set out to discover how far it was possible to establish chains of cause and effect that were purely mental. Apparently unbridgeable gaps in such chains became immediately obvious, not only in neurotics but in normal people: apparently uncaused mental events were constantly emerging. Previous investigators, taking a frivolous view of the mind, had given various explanations of these events: the openly cynical thought they were due to “chance,” those who pretended to a more serious attitude pronounced that the missing causes were physiological.

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[See also: From the NS archive: Stendhal’s Waterloo]

Freud, on the other hand, put forward the hypothesis that the discontinuity in the causal chain of mental events applied only to mental events that were conscious; if one assumed that there existed other mental events that were unconscious, the discontinuity would vanish. The validity of this hypothesis, framed in the first instance merely to explain some of the phenomena of hysteria, was proved by its immense fruitfulness — by the enormous number of other mental phenomena which it explained and brought to light. It was, indeed, the threshold of a new continent that had been crossed. It was not merely that many forms of mental illness began to be intelligible. Light poured in upon the processes of the normal mind as well. The nature of dreams was for the first time understood. The development of the sexual instinct and in particular its early phases in childhood came to light. Our whole view of the growth of children in relation to their environment was radically changed. So too was our knowledge of the relation of the individual to society — knowledge which might lead eventually to a fresh basis both for education and for the treatment of delinquency. In yet other directions, vistas were opened which gave glimpses of the underlying determinants of religion, of play, and of art.

But in order to see what lay beyond the threshold of the new continent something more was needed than the hypothesis alone. An instrument must be found: to the laws of Copernicus must be added the telescope of Galileo. In this case the instrument was a relation between the investigator and the subject of his investigation. Freud arrived at a technical method by means of which the subject’s mind was made peculiarly accessible to the investigator. But he also paid special attention to the frame of mind of the investigator himself. The frame of mind of a person who is trying to observe what is happening in someone else’s mind does not differ from that of any other scientific observer: he must be detached yet receptive, open-minded yet critical, placid yet observant, unemotional yet interested; he must try to see what is really there and not what he wants to see or what he thinks he ought to see. It is never easy for a human being to be in such a frame of mind, but for one who is investigating the mind of another human being the difficulties are immense. It is indeed largely because of the greatness of those difficulties that we had to wait for a Freud before the science of psychology could get under way. But though the pioneer must possess special qualities, the path is easier for those who come afterwards. It was possible for Freud to determine more exactly the nature of the obstacles and in particular to reveal the fact that the most important of them are unconscious: there may, for instance, be something in the investigator’s mind of which he is so much afraid that he cannot see something similar in the mind which he is investigating.

[See also: From the NS archive: New? We’ve always been new]

Thus the necessity for a preliminary training for the investigator became evident; while the technical conditions of the investigation itself would be particularly favourable to keeping him in the requisite frame of mind. It is worth while stressing the importance of this side of Freud’s work since the influences which have made psychology a laggard among the sciences are constantly at work. Not merely is its subject matter obscure and elusive, but our instrument for observing the subject matter is forever liable to become dimmed and distorted. There is a real risk, which is not present in the other sciences, of work being undone and discoveries forgotten.

For this reason, too, Freud was always rightly anxious never to lay stress upon the therapeutic effects of psychoanalysis. These are, indeed, sufficiently great, and there are many conditions which can be affected by no other method of treatment. Nevertheless, we know well enough that therapeutic results are a deceptive criterion of scientific truth: they offer a handy though illegitimate weapon to partisans on either side. Ultimately, of course, a greater knowledge of reality and of the laws that govern it will most probably increase our power of dealing with abnormalities and insufficiencies. Such has always been the case with the physical sciences and it is likely to be equally true of psychology. And it is because he was the first to give us knowledge of the strange reality of our own minds that the name of Freud will be immortal.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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