On the Englishing of Freud

Arnold Davidson

  • Freud and Man’s Soul by Bruno Bettelheim
    Chatto, 112 pp, £6.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2704 X

It is difficult to know how Bruno Bettelheim would wish this book to be read. Part memoir, part popular introduction to psychoanalysis, and part scholarly interpretation and vindication of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, it raises many questions that are crucial to our understanding of Freud’s work. Bettelheim wants to undermine the scientific reading of Freud in favour of a humanistic reading. He proceeds largely by criticising the English translations of Freud’s work, especially as embodied in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. He believes that these translations are ‘seriously defective in important respects and have led to erroneous conclusions, not only about Freud the man but also about psychoanalysis’. Their overarching defect is to encourage us to read Freud’s work as if it aspired to scientific status, thus blunting, and sometimes completely covering up, its true humanistic importance. The book concentrates on correcting ‘the mistranslations of some of the most important psychoanalytic concepts’ and showing ‘how deeply humane a person Freud was, that he was a humanist in the best sense of the word.’ Even though (or precisely because) there is little agreement as to what a humanistic reading of Freud would look like, and not much more agreement about what it is to read Freud scientifically, the problem of the status of psychoanalysis remains a central one to our appropriation of Freud’s texts. Resolving this problem does not seem to me best approached through a criticism of the English translations, but even if this approach proved to be the most useful one, Freud and Man’s Soul would leave us with resolutions that are far from satisfying.

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