Goethe and Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis as an intellectual discipline is unthinkable without the innovative precedents set by the great German poet and writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832). Freud quotes Goethe throughout his writing probably more than he does any other predecessor.

Freud tells us in his Autobiography (1925) that it was the inspiration of listening to a reading of an essay on nature at the time attributed to Goethe that decided him to study medicine. “The teaching of Darwin, which at the time was current, drew me powerfully, because it promised an extraordinary advance in our understanding of the world, but I know that it was hearing a reading of Goethe’s beautiful essay, Nature, in a popular lecture shortly before the school leaving exam that decided me to enroll in the medical faculty.”

“Endlessly she creates new forms; what is there, was never before, what was, comes never again – everything is new, and yet always is old.”

Why is Goethe so important to the development of psychoanalysis? There are many reasons. First perhaps is the central emphasis Goethe places in his work and in his own life on the moral autonomy of the self. This is the idea that in the modern world, especially where religious dogma no longer holds sway, each of us must learn to shape our own life according to our own principles and rules. Largely because of the influence of psychoanalysis on modern thought we now take this idea almost for granted. But for many of Goethe’s contemporaries at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries the idea that a man or woman should live according to their own rules was shocking and scandalous.

Goethe is important to psychoanalysis also because of his deep interest in the problem of evolution, both in the evolution of the self as a developing entity, and in evolution as a principle of organic nature as a whole. Goethe founded and first named the discipline of morphology, the study of organic forms, reflecting the insight that nature creates new organisms by developing existing forms in modified ways. Charles Darwin commented in The Origin of Species (1859): “We have seen that the members of the same class, independently of their habits of life, resemble each other in the general plan of their organisation. … The several parts and organs in the different species of the class are homologous. The whole subject is included under the general name of Morphology. This is the most interesting department of natural history, and may be said to be its very soul.” (Chapter 13)

Psychoanalysis of course can in many ways be seen as the morphology of the mind. It studies how each of us repeats patterns of feeling and behaviour in modified forms as we grow and evolve as individuals. It is especially interested in how throughout our adult lives we repeat with variations and changes the patterns first developed in infancy. Freud saw how much of our adult habits of life are homologues of infant behaviour and feeling.

Goethe was also passionately concerned that the study of man, the study of the human soul, should be a rational discipline, a scientific discipline in the broadest sense of that word. And this is the key to his lifelong antipathy to Newtonian science. He felt that this kind of science, with its complete reliance on mathematics and measurement, was in danger of monopolizing the very idea of rational thought and that this would leave the examination of human beings and their place in nature, and their morals and values, open to irrationalism and dogma. He remarked:

“I honour mathematics as the noblest and most useful science, as long as one applies it where it belongs. But I cannot approve the fact that it is misused on things that don’t at all belong to its area, and where this noble science immediately appears as nonsense, and as if everything only exists if it can be proven mathematically. It would be foolish for a man not to believe in the love of a woman because it could not be proven to him mathematically! One can prove her dowry mathematically but not her love. And the mathematicians didn’t discover the metamorphosis of plants. I achieved this without mathematics and the mathematicians have had to acknowledge it.” (Goethe to Eckermann, 20 December 1826)

History has shown Goethe to be correct in his concerns here. Nothing has done more than psychoanalysis to show that the study of man and his emotional life can be scientific and rational, provided we do not let the Newtonian model of science become a dogma for scientific method and style. But the irrationalism that still governs so much of our private and public lives, side by side with the multiple misguided attempts to turn the study of human behaviour into quantifiable and mathematical terms, shows how much work we still have to do. In that work let us take Goethe’s tireless energy and creativity as an inspiration, as it undoubtedly was for Freud himself.

Author: Marcus Bowman PhD

I am a psychoanalytic therapist working in Cork.

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