A Psychoanalytic Understanding of the Desire for Knowledge as Reflected in Freud's Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood1

By Blass, Rachel B. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, October 2006 | Go to article overview

A Psychoanalytic Understanding of the Desire for Knowledge as Reflected in Freud's Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood1


Blass, Rachel B., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


The author offers an understanding of the psychoanalytic notion of the desire for knowledge and the possibility of attaining it as it finds expression in Freud's Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. This understanding has not been explicitly articulated by Freud but may be considered integral to psychoanal ysis' Weltanschauung as shaped by Freud's legacy. It emerges through an attempt to explain basic shifts, contradictions, inconsistencies and tensions that become apparent from a close reading of the text of Leonardo. Articulating this implicit understanding of knowledge provides the grounds for a stance on epistemology that is integral to psychoanalysis and relevant to contemporary psychoanalytic concerns on this topic. This epistemology focuses on the necessary involvement of passion, rather than detachment, in the search for knowledge and views the psychoanalytic aim of self-knowledge as a derivative, and most immediate expression, of a broader and more basic human drive to know.

Keywords: Leonardo da Vinci, Freud, knowledge, desire, truth, epistemology, Eros

Wissbegierde: The passionate desire for knowledge

The desire for knowledge plays an important role in Freud's thinking and it has been recognized that 'the knowledge of truth, or, more precisely, the search for and discovery of truth' (Racker, 1966, p. 63) within the psychoanalytic context is an inherent aspect of Freud's legacy to this day (Blass, 2003a; Grinberg, 1990; Limentani, 1989; Rieff, 1959). It is not difficult to explain psychoanalytically a desire for knowledge or truth that serves our interests, allows us to function realistically, provides control and mastery, or is motivated by sexual curiosity or aggressive tendencies. But implicit in Freud's writings there is also reference to a desire for knowledge that transcends any such selfserving motives. This is a desire experienced as a longing to understand, a passionate wish to know the truth about reality, to encounter what factually exists, independently of any personal benefits or satisfactions that such knowledge could provide.2

The state of longing for knowledge that I am describing here is best captured by the German term Wissbegierde, used by Freud on various occasions in the course of his writings. The term literally means a passionate desire, or a greed to know, and has no direct correlate in English. Interestingly, it has been mistranslated in the Standard Edition as 'curiosity', allowing it to share a common term with Neugierde (literally, a desire for that which is new) and thus blurring a distinction between the two German words that Freud does seem to maintain. But it is not only the English translation that has neglected Freud's concern with Wissbegierde. In the relevant literature Freud's ideas regarding this desire when mentioned are either referred to in general terms as a salient theme of his work or are merely noted in passing as limited relative to those expressed through Melanie Klein's (1926) concept of an epistemophilic instinct and especially through Bion's (1962) concept of K (e.g. Billow, 1999, p. 632; Grotstein, 1982, p. 205). But such reference does not do justice to the depth and complexity of Freud's concern in this regard nor does it explain the place of these ideas within the broader corpus of Freud's thinking.

Freud knew the desire for knowledge well from his own experience and repeatedly referred to his 'Wissbegierde' (1925, p. 8), to his 'overpowering need to understand something of the riddles of the world in which we live' (1927a, p. 253) and he recognized and admired this need most directly in the figure of Leonardo da Vinci. Freud saw in Leonardo one who had an 'insatiable desire to understand everything around him, and to fathom in a spirit of cold superiority the deepest secret of all that is perfect' (1910, p. 73), one whose 'affects were controlled and subjected to the instinct for research' and yet 'was not devoid of passion . …

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