welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Psychoanalysis & Philosophy (II)

Eva Cybulska on Freud’s unconscious debt to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalysis, repeatedly expressed his contempt for philosophy and philosophers. Confronted with a challenge that many of his concepts bore striking similarities to the ideas of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, he vehemently denied ever having read their works, until late in life. And yet, the parallels will not go away. Indeed, the ‘Freud case’ could serve as a prime example of Nietzsche’s dictum that ‘great despisers are great admirers’! Or was Freud’s denial of his inspiration yet another manifestation of his Oedipal dream – to be remembered by posterity as an incomparable ‘solver of riddles’?

Some Similarities

Freud did not discover the unconscious, as a classic study by Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970), demonstrates. Ancient tragedians, Shakespeare, and German Romanticism paved the way to psychoanalysis. Slips of the tongue or the pen, as well as other acts grouped by psychoanalysts as parapraxes, have been popularised by Freud and have gained coinage as ‘Freudian slips’. But Goethe thought of this already, when he analysed the errors made by the secretaries who took his dictation. Von Hartman’s book The Philosophy of the Unconscious became a bestseller in 1869, and Freud must have been well acquainted with it. But Dostoyevsky aside, it was Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Nietzsche (1844-1900) who undertook the boldest subterranean explorations.

Schopenhauer viewed the unconscious as a “secret workshop of the will’s decisions” and contended that:

“The intellect remains so much excluded from the real resolutions and secret decisions of its own will that sometimes it can only get to know them, like those of a stranger, by spying out and taking it unawares: and it must surprise the will in the act of expressing itself, in order merely to discover its real intentions.”WWR (World as Will and Representation) II(1844).

Freud echoed this thus:

“Unconsciousness is a regular and inevitable phase in the processes constituting our psychical activity; every psychical act begins as an unconscious one, and it may either remain so or go on developing into consciousness, as it meets with resistance or not.” Note on the Unconscious (1912).

Schopenhauer compared consciousness to a sheet of water, with distinctly conscious ideas merely forming the surface. This resonates with Freud’s famous metaphor of mind being akin to an iceberg, with most of it remaining under the water. (The fate of the captain of the Titanic must serve as a grim warning to any psychoanalyst!) In The Unconscious (1915), Freud localised conscious mental activity in the cortex of the brain, and the unconscious processes in the sub-cortical parts of the brain, thus vindicating yet another of Schopenhauer’s metaphors – ‘consciousness as the surface of a globe’.

Nietzsche’s insight into the unconscious is worthy of a brilliant philologist:

“Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this – the most superficial and worst part – for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication, and this fact uncovers the origin of consciousness” The Gay Science, V: 354.

In 1923, in a paper called ‘The Ego and the Id’, Freud proposed that the mind consists of three parts: the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id (das Es), an unconscious part of the human psyche, seems to be an outright appropriation of the cardinal Schopenhauerian concept, the will: “The will, which constitutes our being-in-itself, is of a simple nature; it merely wills and does not know.” (WWR II.) Compare this with Freud: “We shall now look upon an individual as a psychical id (das Es) unconscious and unknown.” (The Ego and the Id.) Like Freud, Nietzsche often used the German pronoun das Es (‘the it’, but Freud’s English translator used the Latin word id) to denote the unconscious, instinctual forces of the psyche, and the personal pronoun das Ich (‘the I’, translated as ego) to denote the conscious part of the mind. Freud’s superego (Über-Ich) – the moral censor of the psyche – seems to match Nietzsche’s concept of ‘bad conscience’. Nietzsche wrote in On The Genealogy of Morality (1887), II: 16:

“All instincts that are not discharged outwardly turn inwards – this is what I call the internalisation of man: with it there now evolves in man what will later be called his ‘soul’… Those terrible bulwarks with which state organisations protected themselves against the old instincts of freedom – punishments are a primary instance of this kind of bulwark – had the result that all those instincts of the wild, free, roving man were turned backwards, against man himself. Animosity, cruelty, the pleasure of pursuing, raiding, changing and destroying – all this was pitted against the person who had such instincts: that is the origin of ‘bad conscience’.”

The concept of libido, which is at the centre of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, goes right back to Plato’s Eros as a propelling force in life. Schopenhauer, who read ‘divine Plato’ well, argued, “In keeping with all this is the important role played by the sex-relation in the world of mankind, where it is really the invisible source of all action and conduct, and peeps up everywhere, in spite of all the veils thrown over it” (WWR II).

Freud called upon Schopenhauer as an ally only belatedly, when his theory of libido was facing a severe criticism, not least by Jung. In 1920, in the preface to the fourth edition of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Freud put up this defence:

“Some of what this book contains – its insistence on the importance of sexuality in all human achievements and the attempt that it makes at enlarging the concept of sexuality – has from the first provided motives for the resistance against psychoanalysis… It is some time since Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher, showed mankind the extent to which their activities are determined by sexual impulses – in the ordinary sense of the word.”

One must however exempt Schopenhauer from any responsibility for the concept of infantile sexuality, as this was very much Freud’s own. Freud interpreted the Renaissance Italian paintings portraying baby Jesus with the head and face of a grown-up man, looking ‘desirously’ at the Madonna’s breast, as alluding to the hidden sexual impulses of an infant. He would not accept that this was merely an artistic convention of the time.

The concept of repression underwent an evolution in Freud’s mind. Initially, in Studies on Hysteria of 1893-5, he talked about the intentional repression of painful memories (eg of a trauma) as if this were the ‘defence strategy’ of a patient. Later, in a paper ‘Repression’ (1915), he differentiated between primary repression “which consists of the psychical representative of the instinct being denied entrance into the conscious,” and repression proper – when memories, initially conscious, are expelled from consciousness. Astonishingly, he gave credit to M öbius, Strümpell and Benedict for this, but not to Schopenhauer. This is what that philosopher had to say about repression:

“The resistance and opposition of the will to the assimilation of some knowledge reaches such a degree that that operation is not clearly carried through; accordingly, if certain events or circumstances are wholly suppressed for the intellect, because the will cannot bear the sight of them; and then, if resultant gaps are arbitrarily filled up for the sake of the necessary connection: we have madness … The resultant madness then becomes the Lethe of unbearable sufferings; it was the last resource of worried and tormented nature, ie of the will” WWR II.

Nietzsche understood the evolution of civilisation in terms of the repression of instincts, which he took to be the central import of Christian teaching:

“The heavens darkened over man in direct proportion to the increase in his feeling shame at being man … On the way to becoming an angel… man has upset his stomach and developed his fury of tongue so that he finds not only that the joy and innocence of animals is disgusting, but that life itself is distasteful” On The Genealogy of Morality II: 7.

Repetition compulsion was another of Freud’s psychoanalytical concepts. It explained one’s unconscious tendency to repeat a life pattern, and particularly to repeat traumatic experiences. For example, a person abandoned in childhood by the mother would repeatedly evoke similar rejections by other important persons later in life. In Beyond The Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud wrote, “This ‘perpetual recurrence of the same thing’ (die ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen) causes us no astonishment when it relates to active behaviour on the part of the person concerned and when we can discern in him the essential character-trait which always remains the same and which is compelled to find expression in a repetition compulsion of the same experiences.” This is clearly itself a repetition of Nietzsche’s observation put succinctly in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), part IV: “If one has a character, one also has one’s typical experience which returns repeatedly.”

‘Mourning and melancholia’ (1917) was Freud’s major paper on the psychogenesis of depression, where he claimed that in melancholia, “self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it onto the patient’s own ego… The patients’ complaints are really ‘plaints’ in the old sense of the word.” Nietzsche arrived at the same idea by his customary ‘via etymologica’, and expressed it more poetically: “Is not all weeping a complaining? And all complaining not accusing? (Ist alles Weinen nicht ein Klagen? Und alles Klagen nicht ein Anklagen?)… But if you will not weep, not weep out your crimson melancholy, then you will have to sing, O my soul.” Thus Spoke Zarathustra, III, Of the Great Longing.

That criminals become criminal from guilt appears to have been Freud’s ingenious observation that guilt precedes – not follows – an act of crime. In The Dependent Relationships of the Ego (1923) he wrote:

“It was a surprise to find that an increase in this unconscious sense of guilt can turn people into criminals … In many criminals, especially youthful ones, it is possible to detect a very powerful sense of guilt that existed before the crime, and is therefore not its result but its motive. It is as if it were a relief to be able to fasten this unconscious sense of guilt on to something real and immediate.”

But this insight also originally belonged to Nietzsche:

“And now again the lead of his guilt lies upon him, and again his simple mind is so numb, so paralysed, so heavy. If only he could shake his head his burden would roll off: but who can shake this head? … Behold this poor body! This poor soul interpreted to itself what this body suffered and desired – it interpreted it as lust for murder and greed for the joy of the knife” Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, Of the Pale Criminal.

The image of the pale criminal immediately brings to mind Raskolnikov and his ‘joy of the axe’. Astonishingly, Nietzsche read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment several years after he had written the above fragment. Zeitgeist, surely!

Freud declared dreams to be the “royal road to the unconscious.” Nietzsche had this to say on dreams:

“In the outbreaks of passion, and in the fantasising of dreams and insanity, a man re-discovers his own and the mankind’s prehistory: animality with its savage grimaces; on these occasions memory goes sufficiently far back, while his civilised condition evolves out of forgetting these primal experiences, that is to say out of a relaxation of his memory” Daybreak, IV: 312.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, unusually acknowledging his educator, Freud wrote:

“We can now guess how much to the point is Nietzsche’s assertion that in dreams ‘some primeval relic of humanity is at work which we can now scarcely reach any longer by a direct path’; and we may expect that the analysis of dreams will lead us to a knowledge of man’s archaic heritage, of what is psychically innate to him.”

Regrettably Freud did not follow this clue in all its richness, and concentrated mainly on a narrow path of the personal unconscious. He left the collective unconscious to Jung.

The convergence of Freud’s ideas with those of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are too many to discuss here in full. One must add to the list Nietzsche’s concept of drives (die Triebe); Freud’s primary and secondary process thinking, corresponding with Nietzsche’s Dionysiac/Apollonian dichotomy from The Birth of Tragedy; and catharsis, originally an Aristotelian idea adopted by Nietzsche. The concept of sublimation, already used in medieval Germany, was further explored by Goethe, Novalis, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Freud utilised it well in his Civilisation and its Discontents – which could be regarded as his re-working of Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy of Morality. The pleasure/Nirvana principle was Freud’s wholesale adaptation of Schopenhauer’s state of tranquil bliss, except that for Schopenhauer (as in Buddhism) this state was achieved through abandonment of ‘sinful desires’, whereas for Freud it was described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle as “a protection against stimuli.”

Final Comments

Was psychoanalysis born from the spirit of philosophy, then? Freud was not a philosopher: he was not concerned with wider issues of the cosmos, with being and becoming, essence and existence, truth and the limits of knowledge, as were Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In his later writings Nietzsche mounted a frontal assault on (an initially much-revered) Schopenhauer. But these two philosophers had much in common, not least their deep knowledge of, and passion for, the Classical world-view. The Heraclitean notion of strife, flux and the exchange of opposites would be consistent with a view of mental strife as a necessary path to great health. Descending into the depth of pain with one’s entire being would have been for Nietzsche a prerequisite to overcoming that pain. “Even in a wound there is a power to heal” he said in the preface to The Twilight of the Idols.

Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, with their discursive, ‘divergent’ modes of thinking, succeeded in breaking free from the Judeo-Christian notion of a Fall, guilt and debt. Freud, although also an atheist, was a ‘convergent’ thinker, and remained imprisoned in an ‘either/or’ conceptualization of the world. Hence his view that ego-defence mechanisms are generally bad or undesirable, something to be conquered in the process of therapy. Also, in his interpretation of symptoms and dreams he tended to converge on one ‘correct’ understanding.

Had Nietzsche lived to read Freud, he might have considered him a prime example of a ‘cheerful theoretician’, believing in the limitlessness of knowledge and the unassailable power of logic and science. For Freud existence was to be articulated, and it was ‘knowable’. By contrast, Schopenhauer, as well as Nietzsche, readily accepted the limits of rational knowledge and science – a position also taken earlier by Kant. Nietzsche put this cogently: “All our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, but felt text” (Daybreak, 1881).

Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s philosophical quests were animated by the question of truth rather than knowledge, hence the abundance of images, onomatopoeia, metaphors, similes and other poetic devices in their writings. Both had a deep passion for music; Schopenhauer would view it as the only direct expression of the will for the representing mind, while Nietzsche (a zealous musician) saw music as the path to the revival of a tragic world-view. By contrast, Freud was not only unmusical, he was outright anti-musical. Comparing the writing style of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche with that of Freud, one cannot help but notice a difference in the clarity, musicality, imaginativeness, humour and poetry of expression.

Although Freud appropriated many of Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s ideas, he was unable, I think, to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the spirit of their philosophy. Perhaps that is why he could not acknowledge the philosophers’ inspiration for his doctrine. Had he done so he would have had to commit himself to studying and challenging their points of view, and to considering pluralistic responses to the questions he was asking. Also, he would have had to acknowledge the limits of knowledge (including his own); limits to cures affected by physicians; and to consider that there might be a deeper meaning – or even a necessity – to his patients’ symptoms. In short, Freud would have had to have been a philosopher!

All three men seemed to have had some longing to have disciples, but only Freud inspired an official school of thought. For Nietzsche a ‘disciple’ would have ultimately been a contradiction in terms, as expressed in a maxim from Zarathustra: “There is no ‘the way’: there is only my way and there is your way!”

It may well be that the psychological insights of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche made psychoanalysis not only possible but inevitable. As Ellenberger commented, Freud’s originality lay not in the novelty and boldness of his insights, but in synthesizing already known concepts and applying them to psychotherapy. Perhaps this is the difference between a philosopher and a doctor.

© Dr Eva Cybulska 2008

Eva Cybulska is a psychiatrist with a long-standing interest in psychoanalysis, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X