Freud & Thinking the ‘Future’ Part 1

Written by: Todd Dufresne

The Late Sigmund Freud

I recently contributed a short entry for Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (2017) called “Future.”  In it I outline the task of thinking the future in light of the crisis of capitalism and the catastrophe that is global warming.  Inspired by this work I am currently researching the philosophical significance of the Anthropocene, the era just beyond the Holocene, in part arguing that philosophy needs to shift from retrospective analyses of the past to prospective analyses of the future.  The point is to think the quite different conditions of existence-yet-to-come, and to that end deploy imagination in a way that has rarely been the forte of academic philosophers.

Freud is a mixed example concerning the task of thinking the future, someone whose prospective analyses were determined in advance by his retrospective analyses.  Consider the opening sentence of a work published at the end of 1927: “When one has lived for a long time in a particular culture,” Freud writes, “and has often tried to determine the nature of its origins and developmental paths, one is sometimes tempted to cast one’s gaze in the other direction and to ask what further fate awaits this culture and what changes it is fated to undergo.”  The result was The Future of an Illusion, an attempt to understand the future of our most sacred wishes in light of the evolutionary past as emergent ‘rational animals’.

Even before it was in print Freud disowned the book, declaring it “unFreudian” and, a few years later, the work of an “old man.”  It was just too optimistic about a future weaned from the wishful illusions of religion (declared a “universal obsessional neurosis”).  The dominant strategy has therefore been to treat The Future as an inexplicable outlier within Freud’s oeuvre – a weirdly anachronistic cheerleading of 18th century Enlightenment values.  

 But The Future isn’t an outlier, and Freud isn’t an Old School philosopher.  Positivism is just the rhetorical surface of The Future; a surface designed to reassert Freud’s scientific bona fides after having defended, just the year before, the legitimacy of non-medical or “lay” analysis.  Freud’s prophesy about the future triumph of reason over religion is actually more diabolical than the secondary literature has acknowledged.  For in the last chapter Freud simply takes back everything he says about the possibilities of reason and Enlightenment – and he does so under a peculiar sign of the counter-Enlightenment, the death drive theory.  In this sense Freud returns psychoanalysis back on its proper (Freudian) path.

In a chapter in a new book for Cambridge University Press, The Late Sigmund Freud, I demonstrate in detail how The Future ultimately conforms to the brooding late Romanticism that characterizes Freud in his final phase (1920-1939). Notwithstanding its rhetoric of positivism, The Future is still very much under the sway of the theory of the death drive and repetition compulsion as announced in Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920.  And so, despite appearances, it belongs to the late period just as much as Civilization and Its Discontents of 1930.

In my next entry I’ll briefly explore why The Future has been misunderstood for 90 years.  Hint: these misunderstandings have been motivated by decades of disinterest in Freud’s own arguments and claims as advanced during the late period… and not just among psychoanalysts, either.





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About the Author: Todd Dufresne

Todd Dufresne is Professor of Philosophy at Lakehead University, Ontario. He is the author or editor of Returns of the 'French Freud' (1997), Tales from the Freudian Crypt (2000), Killing Freud (2003), Against Freud (2007), Freud's 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' (2011), The Future of an Illusion (2012) and Civilization and its Discontents (2016), ...

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