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What Freud Really MeantReview - What Freud Really Meant
A Chronological Reconstruction of his Theory of the Mind
by Susan Sugarman
Cambridge University Press, 2016
Review by Sebastian Petzolt, DPhil
Oct 25th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 43)

The premise of Sugarman's book What Freud Really Meant (WFRM) is that Freud's theories are frequently misunderstood as overly simplistic and unacceptably misanthropic, along the following lines: Freud thought we are slaves to primitive instincts -- esp. the sex drive --, which compel us to devote our entire life to a single-minded pursuit of pleasure. If we can't meet our instincts' demands, we fall mentally ill.

Sugarman's goal is to rectify this misunderstanding: she attempts to present Freud's system as a complex but plausible whole -- intricate but coherent, subtle but meaningful. Her hope is that such a presentation of what Freud said and meant, will reveal that most of his critics have simply misread him.

This review will suggest that Sugarman's project is only partially successful: While she delivers a comprehensive and thought-provoking outline of Freud's work, her presentation remains too uncritical to support the plausibility of his claims and arguments. Her discussion of Freud's critics is insightful, but too cursory to amount to a proper defense of his system.


WFRM consists of a brief introduction; eleven chapters, each treating one or two of Freud's theoretical writings; and an epilogue that tries to draw some general conclusions about Freud's work. Instead of summarizing each chapter, I shall review one in detail -- viz. chapter 7, on Freud's The Unconscious -- to illustrate some of the book's virtues and vices.

Following the structure of Freud's paper, Sugarman begins the chapter by describing the justification for the unconscious: mental events like dreams and slips of the tongue, as well as psychopathological symptoms remain inexplicable, according to Freud, unless we postulate the unconscious. Conversely, reference to the unconscious allows one to recognize even the most disruptive and maladaptive symptoms as internally coherent. This is a point Sugarman emphasizes several times (see e.g. caps 1 & 8), thereby corroborating her claim that Freud's thinking is far less misanthropic than some suggest: on his view, the workings of the human mind -- even the ill mind -- are always meaningful and never random or 'crazy'.

Sugarman then notes a caveat Freud issued: the conscious-unconscious distinction concerns the (immaterial) mind and does not correspond one-to-one to a physical division within the brain. This may seem like a minor point; but by being sensitive to qualifying statements like this one, Sugarman manages to convey that Freud's theory is much more nuanced and deliberate than is sometimes assumed. Along similar lines, Sugarman pays a lot of attention to Freud's lesser-known concepts -- e.g. ambivalence (cap.3), anaclitic vs narcissistic love (p.42 sq.), and negation (p.70 sq.) --, thereby further demonstrating the multi-faceted nature of his system.


Sugarman next describes the distinction between the preconscious and the unconscious proper. The former contains thoughts of which we are currently unaware, but which we can recall to conscious awareness. By contrast, the contents of the unconscious cannot be brought to awareness at will: to become (pre-)conscious, they must first pass through what Freud calls the censor. This is a notion he uses throughout his work (e.g. in his 1895, 1900, and 1916), with scholars struggling to understand what he meant by it: Jones (in Wohlgemuth 2015, 84) suggests that the censor is merely one side of the repressing forces, while Perron (2005) points out that the censor's task is rather to prevent the repressed from returning. Boag (2006) asks how the censor can know whether a thought is acceptable to the (pre-)conscious, without belonging itself to that part of the mind. Finally, Frank (1999) wonders whether the censor may be an early version of the Super-Ego.

Unfortunately, Sugarman does not address any of these questions, and this is only one instance of a more general, serious problem: most of the time, Sugarman merely reports Freud's claims without assessing them; she uses his concepts without examining their coherence. As a result, many of the ambiguities in Freud's writings enter Sugarman's presentation unresolved, and the reader is no closer to discovering 'what Freud really meant'.

Another example of this is Freud's notion of unconscious emotions, to which Sugarman turns next. By definition, emotions are felt consciously, says Freud; yet his clinical practice convinced him that unconscious emotions apparently exist -- e.g. unconscious fear for one's father. Sugarman dutifully recounts Freud's response to this puzzle: an unconscious emotion is one that "exists only in potential" (p.77). This is indeed what Freud said, but the claim hardly amounts to a satisfying solution: as was the case with the concept of the censor, Freud's idea of a merely potential emotion is difficult to grasp, and Sugarman does very little to help the reader grasp it.

In this context, it is also worth noting that Sugarman rarely quotes Freud directly. She cites a phrase here and a half-sentence there, but does not include any longer quotations. Of course, Sugarman can't be expected to provide a sentence-by-sentence commentary; but given its exegetical nature, her project would likely have profited from a closer examination of some of Freud's statements.


Next Sugarman explains Freud's mechanism of repression, and the differences he sees between conscious and unconscious mental contents. This is the most technical part of the chapter, but Sugarman made the right choice to present these technical details: by showing that (at least parts of) Freud's theory can be spelled out rigorously and precisely, she compellingly demonstrates that his system is nothing like the vague and unscientific collection of ideas that some allege it to be. She reinforces this further when detailing his notions of narcissism (cap.4) and instinct vicissitude (cap.5), and the structural model (cap.9).


Sugarman closes the chapter by discussing how conscious and unconscious processes interact. It's noteworthy that Freud devotes roughly one third of his paper to these interactions, while Sugarman spends only about two pages. In generally, the reader is often left to guess how Sugarman decided which parts of Freud's work to discuss in WFRM. E.g., why does she treat the rather controversial and obscure Beyond the Pleasure Principle in its entirety (cap.8), while discussing only one chapter of the seminal The Interpretation of Dreams (cap.2)? Sugarman may have her reasons; but since she doesn't state them, her choice of texts appears somewhat arbitrary at times.


Before concluding, let me briefly comment on the Epilogue. Here Sugarman tries to use the interpretative insights of the previous chapters to reply to Freud's critics. In doing so, she draws together some of the main themes of Freud's work; such as the constant interplay between the Pleasure and Reality Principle; and this is certainly interesting and instructive. Yet as a defense of Freud's system, the Epilogue is far too ambitious: in just under three pages, Sugarman tries to summarize some of the main contributors to psychoanalysis (including Hartmann, Jacobson, Kernberg, Kohut, Mahler, Bowlby, and Loewald) and their criticism of Freud; she concludes: "All of these reservations […] on the part of Freud's successors draw upon a misreading of Freud's theory" (p.158). The reader is left to wonder whether such a sweeping generalization is any better than the over-simplifications of Freud's work Sugarman set out to remedy.


In sum, then, Sugarman skilfully guides her readers through Freud's writings and convincingly conveys that Freud's theory is indeed a complex and meaningful whole; far from reducing our mental lives to primitive instincts, Freud portrays the human mind as rich, subtle, and sophisticated. Hence WFRM is an excellent and insightful account of what Freud said. Yet of the things he said, some are vague and ambiguous, some barely coherent, and some plainly implausible. Sugarman rarely acknowledges this, however, and as a result provides only an incomplete and somewhat undiscerning answer to the question of what Freud really meant.





Boag, S. (2006). 'Freudian Dream Theory, Dream Bizarreness, and the Disguise-Censor Controversy', Neuropsychoanalysis 8: 5--16.

Frank, G. (1999). 'Freud's concept of the superego: Review and assessment', Psychoanalytic Psychology 16: 448--463.

Freud, S. (1895). 'Studies on Hysteria', Standard Edition 3: 85--115.

  --- (1900). 'The Interpretation of Dreams', Standard Edition 4--5.

  --- (1916). 'Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis',Standard Edition 15--16.

Perron, R. (2005). 'Censorship', in: Alain de Mijolla (ed.), 'International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis', Macmillan Reference, New York, NY, USA, 2005.

Wohlgemuth, A. (1923). 'A Critical Examination of Psycho-Analysis'.London: Routledge.


© 2016 Sebastican Petzolt


Sebastian Petzolt, DPhil


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