The Scope of Psychoanalysis, 1921-1961: Selected Papers

By Franz Alexander | Go to book overview

Psychoanalysis in Western Culture
1955

After about 300 years of extroverted interest in the surrounding world, Western man has arrived at the phase of self-scrutiny. Following his spiritual awakening in the Renaissance he began to explore the globe, then the solar system, and the human body. Man's place in the animal kingdom was recognized as late as the middle of the nineteenth century. Around the same time increasing interest in understanding society signaled a gradual shift of scientific curiosity from the cosmos to man himself. The last step in this turning toward the self was Freud's theory of the human personality.

Once before in the history of thought a similar sequence of shifting interests took place. In ancient Greece a long period of cosmological speculation was followed by an increasing interest in psychology, ethics, and politics. It appears that this withdrawal of interest to the self signalizes a critical point in cultural development. It occurs when the traditional social mechanism no longer functions smoothly because of rapid changes in the social structure and when the first signs of decline appear. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle came on the scene when Athenian democracy began to show the first signs of crisis. In our present era, too, interest in psychology, skepticism in absolute truths and epistemological relativism are in the process of replacing the naive and carefree preoccupation with the world around us, coinciding with the crisis of our free societies.

This historical coincidence of social crisis with awakening interest in the self is not surprising to the psychoanalyst. A person becomes aware of himself when the automatic gratification of his subjective needs is interfered with. Self-awareness is a result of the interruption of automatic gratifications which do not require any cognitive effort. Consciousness is neither unmixed pleasure nor a futile luxury of nature. It is the result of frustration which mobilizes those complex

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