‘Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation’ by Paul Ricœur


Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (French: De l’interprétation. Essai sur Sigmund Freud) is a 1965 book about Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, by the French philosopher Paul Ricœur. In Freud and Philosophy, Ricœur interprets Freud’s work in terms of hermeneutics, the theory of the rules that govern the interpretation of a particular text, and discusses phenomenology, a school of philosophy founded by Edmund Husserl. He addresses questions such as the nature of interpretation in psychoanalysis, the understanding of human nature to which it leads, and the relationship between Freud’s interpretation of culture and other interpretations. The book was first published in France by Éditions du Seuil, and in the United States by Yale University Press.

Ricœur explores what he considers a tension in Freud’s work between an emphasis on “energetics”, which explains psychological phenomena in terms of quantities of energy, and an emphasis on hermeneutics. He compares Freud to the philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, describing the trio as a “school of suspicion”, and explores similarities and differences between psychoanalysis and phenomenology. He also compares Freud’s ideas to those of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, criticizes Freud’s views on religion, discusses language, and further develops ideas about symbols explored in his earlier work The Symbolism of Evil (1960). In response to criticism of the scientific status of psychoanalysis by philosophers such as Ernest Nagel, Ricœur argues that psychoanalysis should be understood not as an observational science, but as an “interpretation” that resembles history rather than psychology. He criticizes psychoanalysts for failing to adopt this as their response to arguments that psychoanalysis is unscientific.

Commentators have praised Ricœur’s discussion of Freud’s theories, his exploration of usually neglected aspects of Freud’s work, his comparison of Freud to Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, and his discussion of phenomenology. However, Freud and Philosophy became controversial. While the work was well received in France, it was also criticized there because phenomenology had become unfashionable by the time it was published. The work angered the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who accused Ricœur of borrowing his ideas without attribution; although scholars have rejected the accusation, Lacan’s followers attacked Ricœur.

Freud and Philosophy received positive reviews upon the publication of its English translation in 1970. The book was described as one of the most important discussions of psychoanalysis and Ricœur was praised for his discussion of symbols. He was also credited with convincingly criticizing Freud’s views on both symbols and religion generally.

“Paul Ricœuer…has done a study that is all too rare these days, in which one intellect comes to grips with another, in which a scholar devotes himself to a thoughtful, searching, and comprehensive study of a genius…The final result is a unique survey of the panorama of Freudian thought by an observer who, although starting from outside, succeeds in penetrating to its core.” –American Journal of Psychiatry

“Primarily an inquiry into the foundations of language and hermeneutics…[Ricœur uses] the Freudian ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ as a corrective and counter-balance for phenomenology and create a ‘new phenomenology’…This important work…should have an impact upon serious thinking in philosophy, theology, psychology, and other areas which have been affected by Freud studies.”—International Philosophical Quarterly

“A stimulating tour de force that allows us to envisage both the psychoanalytic body of knowledge and the psychoanalytic movement in a broad perspective within the framework of its links to culture, history and the evolution of Western intellectual thought.” – Psychoanalytic Quarterly 

Paul Ricœur (1913–2005) was a distinguished French philosopher of the twentieth century, one whose work has been widely translated and discussed across the world. In addition to his academic work, his public presence as a social and political commentator, particularly in France, led to a square in Paris being named in his honor on the centenary of his birth in 2013. In the course of his long career he wrote on a broad range of issues. In addition to his many books, Ricœur published more than 500 essays, many of which appear in collections in English. The Ricœur Archive in Paris has made many of those originally published in French available online through its website.

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