Freud, Biologist of the Mind

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Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend
Freud, Biologist of the Mind (first edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorFrank Sulloway
CountryUnited States
SubjectSigmund Freud
PublisherBurnett Books
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)

Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend is a 1979 biography of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, by the psychologist Frank Sulloway.

The work received much discussion, including both positive and mixed reviews. Sulloway has been credited with helping to place psychoanalysis in historical context by establishing the influence of 19th-century biological thinking on Freud and with improving upon previous biographies of Freud such as the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones's The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953–1957). He was complimented for discussions of Freud's relationship to the naturalist Charles Darwin and the otolaryngologist Wilhelm Fliess.


Sulloway writes that the work is "a comprehensive intellectual biography of Sigmund Freud" and that it "seeks to bring both Freud and the history of psychoanalysis within the professional boundaries of the history of science." He discusses such works of Freud as The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), and Totem and Taboo (1913). His discussion of Freud draws on the work of the psychiatrist Henri Ellenberger. In addition to Freud, Sulloway discusses the naturalists Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin, the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the physician Josef Breuer, the otolaryngologist Wilhelm Fliess, the physician Havelock Ellis, the sexologist Friedrich Salomon Krauss, and the psychiatrists Albert Moll and Iwan Bloch.[1]

Sulloway contrasts his approach to Freud to that of Ernest Jones, author of The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud.[2]

Publication history[edit]

Freud, Biologist of the Mind was first published in 1979 by Burnett Books.[3]


Mainstream media[edit]

Freud, Biologist of the Mind received mixed reviews from the philosopher Richard Wollheim in The New York Review of Books and Robert N. Mollinger in Library Journal.[4][5] The book was also reviewed by Perry Meisel in Partisan Review and discussed in Time magazine.[6][7] Later discussions include those by the critic Harold Bloom in The New York Times and Eli Zaretsky in Tikkun magazine.[8][9]

Wollheim described the book as ambitious and erudite, and credited Sulloway with making careful use of sources such as "the scientific literature that provides the background to Freud's thought" and "the polemical literature that surrounded the publication of Freud's own work", as well as "Freud's personal library" and marginalia. He wrote that Sulloway placed Freud in historical context and avoided reliance on Freud's own account of "the progress of his influence and reputation", and found his work to be in many cases more coherent and detailed than Jones's The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. However, he also criticized Sulloway's failure to provide a detailed treatment of Freud's revised theory of anxiety. He considered Sulloway guilty of some inaccuracies in reporting Freud's views, questioned his interpretation of Freud as "essentially a biologist of the mind", and criticized him for failing to provide a useful discussion of Freud's relationship with Breuer. He also faulted Sulloway's criticism of the "legend" surrounding Freud, writing that it offers a single explanation to material "from very different periods and variegated sources".[4]

Mollinger called the book "scholarly" and "well-researched". He considered its strength to be Sulloway's "thorough and detailed exploration of Freud's relations to and with Breuer, Fliess, Darwin, and late 19th-Century sexologists", but criticized it for Sulloway's "lack of awareness of the psychoanalytic process and thus of the essentials of psychoanalysis."[5]

Bloom credited Sulloway with providing an important statement of the "sociobiological interpretation of Freud", but noted that his own interpretation of Freud was very different. In Bloom's view, what Sulloway considers a reliance upon biology is instead "Freud's overcoming of his own anxieties of influence, or the fear of having been flooded out by precursors, and psychoanalysis is thus revealed as a triumphantly strong and deliberate misreading of 19th-century biology." He suggested Freud's work provided some basis to both views.[8]

Scientific and academic journals[edit]

Freud, Biologist of the Mind received positive reviews from Mark F. Schwartz in the Archives of Sexual Behavior and Erwin J. Haeberle in the Journal of Sex Research,[10][11] mixed reviews from Richard L. Schoenwald in The American Historical Review and Jerome L. Himmelstein in Theory & Society,[12][13] and a negative review from the psychologist Reuben Fine in the Journal of Psychohistory.[14] The book was also reviewed by Zaretsky in The Psychohistory Review,[15] Paul Weindling in The British Journal for the History of Science,[16] J. O. Wisdom in Philosophy of the Social Sciences,[17] and British Medical Journal,[18] and discussed by the psychiatrist Allan Hobson in The Sciences.[19]

Schwartz considered the book likely to be the most important work "written for modern sexologists unaware or uncertain of their intellectual heritage", and wrote that it discussed various topics of great importance to sexologists. He credited Sulloway with suggesting a way of integrating the various methods used in multidisciplinary approaches to the scientific study of sex and with carefully reviewing "pages of references, letters, and even margin notes from Freud's personal library to write one of the most valuable studies of the history of both sexology and science". He found Sulloway's view that Freud was a "scientific heir" of Darwin and other 19th-century evolutionary thinkers convincing. He believed that Sulloway made clear that "most of Freud's ideas remain remarkably contemporary", and concluded that while Sulloway showed that "many of the concepts attributed to Freud are not uniquely his", his biography "increases, in a realistic way, the appreciation of Freud's genius."[10] Haeberle wrote that the book had "gained considerable attention and justified praise", calling it a model of scholarship. He credited Sulloway with carefully retracing Freud's intellectual development and placing psychoanalysis in a wider historical context through the use of many original sources, such as Freud's library, showing how Freud's thinking was related to the biological theories of his time. He suggested that Sulloway's discussion of the influence of Moll and other sexologists on Freud gave his work special importance for sex researchers.[11]

Schoenwald credited Sulloway with being the first to demonstrate "the pervasive biological content of essential Freudian notions" and with offering the best interpretations he had encountered of some issues, such as why Freud posited the existence of the death instinct. However, he also wrote that by "Skimping on theoretical structure in a very long book", Sulloway "heightens the impression that Freud mostly borrowed or took a good deal from others" while failing to clarify why Freud borrowed ideas or how he reshaped them, and maintained that Sulloway's interest in criticizing psychoanalysis sometimes lead him into "unnecessary all-or-nothing formulations", for example concerning the role of Freud's self-analysis. Schoenwald also argued that while Sulloway showed Freud's borrowings from other writers, he failed to explain how Freud created psychoanalysis.[20]

Himmelstein described the book as "well-researched, enlightening, but ultimately paradoxical", writing that it had received much discussion. He credited Sulloway with revealing a Freud "about whom one can only muse as a historical curiosity and then quickly rebury" and with discrediting the received picture of Freud's development by showing that Freud "never labored in total isolation" and always had "intellectual intimates", such as Fliess, as well as with demonstrating that Fliess's ideas were considered respectable when he put them forward and anticipated Freud, and showing that the negative reception of Freud's work had been exaggerated, that psychoanalytic theory was "strongly rooted in contemporary biology and sexology", that Freudian theory is based in biogenetic and Lamarckian ideas, and that the idea of infantile sexuality was already familiar before Freud. He considered Sulloway's explanation of why "official biographers" of psychoanalysis would have obscured the origins of Freudian theory plausible, but was less convinced by his suggestion that psychoanalysis is a form of "psychobiology". He wrote that Sulloway failed to explain why the biological content of Freudian theory had been ignored. He found Sulloway's "psychobiological" interpretation of Freud overstated despite its "kernel of truth", and criticized Sulloway for ignoring the most interesting non-orthodox approaches to understanding Freud's work. He concluded that "Sulloway's psychobiological reading of Freud seems to lead nowhere; its intellectual implications are nil."[13]

Fine considered Freud, Biologist of the Mind, like several other recent books about Freud and psychoanalysis, part of an "anti-Freudian crusade" that persisted because social scientists who write about Freud "do not understand psychoanalysts' dual role as therapists and theoreticians" and had led to "careless scholarship and inaccurate quotations".[14] Hobson called it "pioneering", and credited Sulloway with showing that "Freud was the careful custodian of his own image and was willing to suppress the truth to protect himself."[19]

Evaluations in books[edit]

The philosopher Adolf Grünbaum credited Sulloway with showing that "Freud's successive modifications of many of his hypotheses throughout most of his life were hardly empirically unmotivated" and thereby disproving the philosopher Karl Popper's argument that psychoanalytic ideas cannot be falsified in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984).[21] The historian Peter Gay described Freud, Biologist of the Mind as "overargued" and "irritatingly self-indulgent" in The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses (1985). However, he accepted that it suggests "some revisions of the accepted view of the Freud-Fliess relationship".[22] Gay observed in Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988) that while Freud, Biologist of the Mind presents itself as "a great unmasking document" it brings, "the essentially old news that Freud's theory had a biological background". Nevertheless, Gay found the chapters analyzing Freud's dependence on Fliess and "nineteenth-century psychophysics" to have value.[23] The psychologist Hans Eysenck praised Sulloway in Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985), crediting him with exposing many myths which have accumulated around Freud.[24] The historian Roy Porter described Freud, Biologist of the Mind as tendentious, but necessary as a supplement to Ernest Jones' "hagiographical" The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, in A Social History of Madness (1987).[25] Hobson praised Freud, Biologist of the Mind in The Dreaming Brain (1988), crediting Sulloway with demonstrating that "Freud took great pains to hide the fact that his psychology was derived from neurobiology."[26] The psychoanalyst Joel Kovel credited Sulloway with helping to establish the immense impact of biological thinking on Freud in History and Spirit (1991).[27] Paul Robinson described Freud, Biologist of the Mind as being "among the most important anti-Freudian writings" in Freud and His Critics (1993).[28]

The critic Alexander Welsh noted in Freud's Wishful Dream Book (1994) that Freud, Biologist of the Mind was partly inspired by Ellenberger's The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) and identified it as the key work that discredited psychoanalysis as science. He credited Sulloway with using careful research to "historicize Freud's thinking more thoroughly than has ever been done in a single volume." He denied that Sulloway wanted to damage Freud's reputation, suggesting that he would have been incapable of writing the book had he not been sympathetic to Freud.[29] The critic Frederick Crews argued in a foreword to Malcolm Macmillan's Freud Evaluated (1997) that Sulloway "revolutionized our idea of Freud's scientific affinities and habits", helping to make possible subsequent works such as Grünbaum's The Foundations of Psychoanalysis and Freud Evaluated itself.[30] The historian of science Roger Smith credited Sulloway with detailing the "lasting biological dimension of Freud's work" in The Norton History of the Human Sciences (1997).[31]

Crews included an extract from Freud, Biologist of the Mind in his anthology Unauthorized Freud (1998), where he wrote that it was rightly considered a classic work on Freud and credited Sulloway with helping scholars understand Freud's relationship with Fliess and demonstrating Fliess's enduring influence on Freud. However, he added that the book was limited by Sulloway's lack of access to the complete correspondence between Freud and Fliess, arguing that this made Sulloway more "indulgent" in his assessment of Freud and Fliess than he should have been.[32] The psychologist Louis Breger credited Sulloway with "exposing the myths that have surrounded Freud and the history of psychoanalysis", and expanding on the earlier work of Ellenberger, in Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision (2000). However, he criticized Sulloway's interpretation of Freud as a "crypto-biologist".[33] The philosopher Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and the psychologist Sonu Shamdasani credited Sulloway with demonstrating that Freud's "principal 'discoveries' were actually deeply rooted in the biological hypotheses and speculations of his Darwinian era" in The Freud Files (2012).[34]


  1. ^ Sulloway 1979, pp. xiii, 5–6, 12, 16–17, 45, 81, 92, 135–237, 239.
  2. ^ Sulloway 1979, pp. 4–5.
  3. ^ Sulloway 1979, p. iv.
  4. ^ a b Wollheim 1979, pp. 25–28.
  5. ^ a b Mollinger 1979, p. 2470.
  6. ^ Meisel 1983, pp. 456–459.
  7. ^ Time 1979, p. 51.
  8. ^ a b Bloom 1986.
  9. ^ Zaretsky 1994, p. 65.
  10. ^ a b Schwartz 1981, pp. 85–87.
  11. ^ a b Haeberle 1982, pp. 88–90.
  12. ^ Schoenwald 1981, p. 112.
  13. ^ a b Himmelstein 1981, pp. 463–467.
  14. ^ a b Fine 1984, pp. 569–578.
  15. ^ Zaretsky 1981, pp. 109–122.
  16. ^ Weindling 1984, pp. 64–67.
  17. ^ Wisdom 1985, p. 359.
  18. ^ British Medical Journal 1979, p. 1286.
  19. ^ a b Hobson 1985, p. 52.
  20. ^ Schoenwald 1981, pp. 112–113.
  21. ^ Grünbaum 1984, p. 117.
  22. ^ Gay 1985, p. 464.
  23. ^ Gay 1995, p. 750.
  24. ^ Eysenck 1986, p. 213.
  25. ^ Porter 1989, p. 250.
  26. ^ Hobson 1990, p. 64.
  27. ^ Kovel 1991, p. 252.
  28. ^ Robinson 1993, pp. 18–19.
  29. ^ Welsh 1994, pp. 126–127.
  30. ^ Crews 1997, p. vii.
  31. ^ Smith 1997, p. 990.
  32. ^ Crews 1999, pp. 54–56.
  33. ^ Breger 2000, p. 385.
  34. ^ Borch-Jacobsen & Shamdasani 2012, p. 21.


  • Fine, Reuben (1984). "The Anti-Freudian Crusade". Journal of Psychohistory. 11 (4).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
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  • "Did Freud Build His Own Legend? A new study analyzes the myth of the master". Time. 114 (5). 1979.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
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