Ontogeny and phylogeny in Freud

One thing that has jumped out at me in my recent study of Freud is his interest in the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny. He really wants to be able to extrapolate from the personal histories of his patients to the origin of the human race — and in fact, he even attempts to go back to the origin of life itself in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I had always had the impression that Totem and Taboo was a later work, more or less marginal to his project, but it was actually published in 1913, toward the beginning of his period of greatest theoretical productivity. What’s more, he cites it near-obsessively in the later works.

Sometimes it can seem as though he believes that the fate of drives that was formed after the murder of the primal father is more or less “directly” passed down in some kind of quasi-biological way. The more “sensible” hypothesis would be that the structure is passed along through the process of socialization, yet the inheritance can seem just as unavoidable. And then of course there’s the matter of how the project of Moses and Monotheism fits in here — if all human culture is structured in this way, why can it make a difference that the Jews in particular repeated it in their own particular history?

Consider this an open thread. What do you think is going on with the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny in Freud?

4 thoughts on “Ontogeny and phylogeny in Freud

  1. There is indeed a weird Lamarckian thread running through a lot of Freud’s speculative histories. I’m not sure what to make of it.

  2. As an additional data point re: how strongly F is attached to the notion that Ontogenesis ultimately has to be referred back to phylogenesis and incorporate its elements, that basic claim is running all through a text like Civilization and its Discontents.

    In some ways, the really interesting aspect of his thinking here is that he’s not merely arguing, as a lot of late 20th century thinkers would be more or less happy to accept, that the psychical individual is to some considerable extent a product of his or her culture, and of that culture’s own developmental history. Freud’s arguing that both individual and culture have to be in referred back to something more, for lack of better word, bio-psychic. That leads him to invest in some fairly crazy bio-social theories, but it also leaves open a space for some very interesting thinking along, say, Simondonian lines.

  3. Today I’m working on Civilization and its Discontents, so I’ll have to watch for that.

    It definitely can’t be completely “cultural” for Freud, insofar as drives are a border concept between the natural and the cultural, or the biological and the psychic. Something had to have happened to open up the space of culture in the first place — to turn us into the kind of creatures that can have drives rather than just instincts. It’s almost like original sin, which also gets transmitted in a Lamarckian way…

  4. One other thing. Whenever I think about the ontogenesis-phylogenesis connection, I feel as if it should at least be related to odd physicalist thread that runs through Freud’s writings, i.e., his tendency to insist that everything which he’s thinking of in terms of purely psychical events and processes should, at least in principle, be able to be explained in terms of neurological processes if only we had a sufficient understanding of those. There is, in other words, a lingering scientism that seems to accept the idea that a more or less ‘physical’ explanation is ideal, while at the same time deferring indefinitely the prospect of supplying such an explanation and, indeed, suggesting that human life is characterized by a domain of ‘fantasy’ (or in Lacan’s terms, desire) that fundamentally exceeds anything more biologically ‘reflexive.’

Comments are closed.