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Govrin, A. (2004). Some Utilitarian Influences in Freud's Early Writings. Psychoanal. Hist., 6(1):5-21.

(2004). Psychoanalysis and History, 6(1):5-21


Some Utilitarian Influences in Freud's Early Writings

Aner Govrin, Ph.D.

In ‘A short account of psychoanalysisFreud (1924a) writes:

Psychoanalysis may be said to have been born with the twentieth century … But, as may well be supposed, it did not drop from the skies ready-made. It had its starting-point in older ideas, which it developed further; it sprang from earlier suggestions, which it elaborated. Any history of it must therefore begin with an account of the influences which determined its origin and should not overlook the times and circumstances that preceded its creation. (p. 191)

In this paper I centre on ‘older ideas’ that were elaborated further by Freud—the utilitarian vision of mankind supported by authors like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). I believe this is a rather overlooked source of influence on Freud's metapsychology. It is usually thought that positivistic thought, German idealism and contemporary neo-Kantian scientific theory were the major philosophical sources for Freud's understanding of the human mind (e.g. Gay 1988; Ricoeur 1970; Sulloway 1979). Although British utilitarianism entered Freud's writings in his regulatory principles of mental functioning, especially in relation to the pleasure principle, it was never acknowledged by Freud nor by his interpreters as an important source.

Only very recently, the ideas of John Stuart Mill (Bentham's pupil and editor) are mentioned as a possible source for Freud's work (Molnar 1999; Ricaud 1999). Moreover, there is apparently only one source that connects Freud to utilitarianism (Watson 1958).

As I shall show, Freud was familiar with Bentham's and Mill's idea that avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are the two most dominant motivational forces in human life.

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