Friday, November 21, 2008

Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

A very worthwhile endeavor because I had never read any Freud firsthand and wanted to have a (somewhat) informed opinion (as my prior limited exposure consisted of discussions about secondary criticisms). The book was short, generally interesting and didn’t say too many insightful things (as the author kept pointing out). The book briefly discusses Freud’s better known theories (Ego, Id, Superego, Sublimation… etc) as they relate to how civilization and cultural pressures have had an impact on people and their thoughts and feelings.

I get the impression that the book is representative of Freud in that he displayed a highly analytical nature, a belief in the validity of science, experimentation and data collection, and had incredibly weird theories that (I’m guessing) were based on misunderstandings of evolution and history and unwarranted extrapolation from his clinical and personal experiences. I thought it was intriguing how Freud was so highly aware of our biological instincts but could usefully situate this knowledge into an evolutionary framework.
What took the proverbial cake for me was a footnote early in the book that addressed the issue of discovery and control of fire and dominance in a group. Freud suggested that it was the man who could resist the urethral urge to put out the fire that would be able to maintain the fire and therefore the respect/fear of his group. Such a peculiar conjecture warrants the “I guess that is possible, but as there is little evidence or reason to supply validity to that hypothesis, it seems highly improbable.”

Aside: Although I have both an undergraduate and masters degree in psychology I was never exposed to Freud because I was studying cognitive psychology. So it is consistently interesting (and intermittently annoying) that Freud is the main association to “Psychology” and the first thing people say when you say you are a psych major is “Are you analyzing me right now?” Regardless, I was pleased to have read it but probably won’t explore much more of Freud’s works.


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