Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book Review: The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud

Central to the argument of Freud is that religion is an illusion born out of the wish fulfillment of humanity as it struggles to understand its place in and master the forces of nature. For Freud “illusion is not the same thing as error; nor is it necessarily an error” (pg. 39) nor does it need be false “that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality” (pg. 39) but it is enough for humanity to recognize religious doctrines as being “in their psychological nature, illusions” (pg. 40). He does not wish to remove religion forcibly but to awaken humanity from infantilism and educate humanity to reality. “Need I confess to you that the sole purpose of my book is to point out the necessity for this forward step?” (pg. 63).

He begins by positing that civilization must be defended against the tendencies of the individual by protecting everything that contributes to the conquest of nature and the production of wealth against the hostile impulses of humanity. In humanity dwells the destructive anti-social and anti-cultural impulses that remain in spite of the sacrificial instincts imposed on individuals for the sake of civilization. These instincts are determined by the experiences of early childhood in which civilization suppresses the wishes of incest, cannibalism, and lust for killing. The external coercion of cultural forces become internalized in the super-ego and transforms the individual into a moral and social being. Narcissistic satisfaction provided by cultural ideals and manifested in art combat hostility to culture and reconcile humanity to the sacrifices it has made to establish civilization. These substitutive satisfactions are expressed in illusions and most notably, religious ideas.

Religion evolves out of the need to protect the individual from the external forces of nature. Civilization provides shelter and meaning from these forces by humanizing nature; namely in the guise of a father figure. Here protection is abstractly provided by giving meaning to his hitherto helpless state by positing and expanding on the notion of benevolent Providence. God becomes a father person to recover the intimacy of a child’s relationship to her father. This rectifies the short-comings of civilization even though this personification is a following of an infantile model. “The defense against childish helplessness is what lends its characteristic features to the adult’s reaction to the helplessness he has to acknowledge—a reaction which is precisely the formation of religion (pg. 30).” The information provided by cultural assets gives humanity meaning and reconciles it to the sufferings of life but are the least well authenticated. These illusions are derived from human wishes and historical recollections and should be recognized as such. Human development parallels the development of children into adults and Freud posits that as psychology aids in the expulsion of childish neurosis so can it aid in the development of civilization past the illusion of religion toward a more adult view of the relationship between the individual and civilization. People could understand that they are made by society “not so much as to rule them as, on the contrary, to serve their interests; and they would adopt a more friendly attitude toward [civilization] and instead of aiming at [its] abolition, would aim only at their improvement (pg. 53).”

Although Freud recognizes several weakness to his argument, namely that his view could be illusion, I feel that he places too much emphasis on the supposition that humanity tends to think and feel alike in spite of a divergence of experiences. We all would like to have the illusion that all humanity is similar but empirical evidence even within a given culture demonstrates a divergence of values, tendencies, hopes, dreams, etc. When one compares different cultures (such as the much quoted Eastern/Western dichotomy) humanity is seen as diverse. In order for Freud’s vision for the civilization of humanity to have promise, it must become one culture with the same illusions, neurosis, and thinking patterns in general. We all have common needs, i.e. food, shelter, air, etc., but how we define, categorize, explain, and pursue these needs as different cultural ideals are diverse.

-Safari Bob

[1] Freud, S. (1989). The Future of an Illusion. James Strachey (trans). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN: 0-393-00831-2

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