The Interpretation of Dreams | Study Guide

Sigmund Freud

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The Interpretation of Dreams | Chapter 1, Part 2 : The Scientific Literature Dealing with the Problems of Dreams | Summary



E. The Distinguishing Psychological Characteristics of Dreams

Freud returns to something he said at the beginning of the book: "dreams are the result of our own activity." Therefore, it is strange people do not recognize dreams as their own creations: "the finished dream strikes us as alien." He asks why dreamers believe in their dreams. Why do dreams seem real? Scholars have answered the mind is turned away from the world in sleep. Freud points out the fact of detachment from the external world still does not explain why dreams are so strange. He quotes the ancient Roman orator Cicero: "There is no imaginable thing too absurd, too involved, or too abnormal for us to dream about it."

If so many mental faculties are inactive during dream life, which mental faculty stays up all night creating dreams? Freud cites many authorities on "the law of association," an idea first posited by the 18th-century English philosopher John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. According to Locke ideas with no logical connection to each other can become connected in the mind through experiences. He called these connections "association of ideas."

Freud wonders if the association of ideas is different in dreams. He then gives examples of peculiar associations of elements in dreams. He also cites the psychologists Havelock Ellis and James Sully, who remark on the "archaic" aspect of the dreaming mind. In dreams, the mind returns to earlier stages of life.

Freud then considers one of his favorite dream researchers, Hildebrandt, who remarks on a paradox. In dreams, the mind seems more powerful than in waking life and also weaker, at the same time. Hildebrandt writes, "Dreams have a wonderful poetry, an apposite allegory, an incomparable sense of humor, a delightful irony ... They show us earthly beauty in a truly heavenly radiance, the sublime in its supremest majesty."

Freud then ponders what role science should have in unlocking the mysteries of dreaming. How can a scientific researcher say anything of value about dreams? What common elements can science uncover in all dreams? His only answer is a restatement of the desire to find an answer. Many philosophers and scholars have sensed a universal factor in dreams, so there must be something there, says Freud. He then laments that the scientific community does not respect dream research. He closes the section by noting dreams are said to foretell the future.

F. The Moral Sense in Dreams

In this section Freud cites authorities with opposing viewpoints. Some say the dreamer's moral character is absent in dreams. "Conscience seems to be silent in dreams," says one thinker, Jessen. "For we feel no pity in them and may commit the worst crimes—theft, violence, and murder—with perfect indifference and with no subsequent feelings of remorse."

Other thinkers Freud cites say the opposite: virtuous people have virtuous dreams, and wicked people have wicked dreams. The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Freud says, wrote "everyone who figures in a dream acts in accord with his character."

Freud then points out both groups are inconsistent. Those who think conscience goes to sleep in dreams "should lose all interest in immoral dreams"; immoral dreams should not be worth thinking about because the dreamer is not responsible for them. On the other hand, those who think the moral sense is the same in dreaming and waking life should be glad to take responsibility for dreams, but this group hesitates to take such responsibility. Freud concludes everyone, no matter which belief they support, has had wicked dreams: "no one can deny the recollection of immoral dreams."

Next Freud quotes Hildebrandt, who says the immorality in dreams comes from our own everyday thoughts. Such dreams have their source in "hints of evil impulses which, in the form of temptations, pass through our minds during the day." Thus, wicked dreams echo people's own wicked, rejected thoughts. Freud ends by saying the feelings in dreams are real, even if the events in dreams are illusions.

Part G. Theories of Dreaming and Its Function

Dividing all theories of dreams into three groups, Freud promises to show how each group views the function of dreams. The first group of theories says all mental faculties stay active during dreaming. Dreams come from disturbing physical sensations, according to these theories. Such theories do not illuminate the function of dreams, says Freud.

The second group examines dreams as a partial state of waking. During this state something physical rouses the sleeper and causes the sleeper to dream. Such theories also have nothing to say about the function of dreams, Freud observes. He quotes a criticism by German physiologist Karl Friedrich "K.F." Burdach, author of Die Physiologie als Erfahrungswissenschaft (1826): "When it is said that dreams are a partial waking ... this throws no light on waking or sleeping."

The third group regards dreaming as a special mental activity, something the waking mind cannot do in ordinary life. The function of dreams, according to this theory, is to refresh the mind by giving it free rein, allowing a "reveling of the mind in the free use of its own forces." Freud hints, however, that because everyone finds sleep refreshing, they assume this healing, reviving effect is the purpose of dreams.

Freud then quotes at length a member of this third group, Karl A. Scherner, author of Das Leben des Traums, or The Life of the Dream. Scherner also emphasizes the free rein of imagination in dreams and shows dreaming has "not merely reproductive but productive powers," Freud writes. Reproductive here means to call to mind remembered images; productive here means to create new images. The creative, dreaming imagination must "paint what it has to say pictorially," Freud summarizes Scherner as saying. The orderly faculties of the mind are asleep, so the imagination chooses strange images for these paintings: "it has a dislike of representing an object by its proper image." He gives examples from Scherner of the dreaming imagination's picture language: "A dream caused by stimuli arising from the male organs may cause the dreamer to find the top part of a clarinet in the street or the mouth-piece of a tobacco pipe, or again, a piece of fur. Here the clarinet and the tobacco pipe stand for the approximate shape of the male organ, while the fur stands for the pubic hair."

H. The Relations Between Dreams and Mental Diseases

Freud begins the section by considering three relationships between dreams and mental diseases.

  1. A dream could cause or result from a mental disease.
  2. Mental illness could affect dreams.
  3. Psychoses and dreams could have something in common.

He then focuses on what mental illnesses and dreams might have in common.

He takes interest in some remarks by a scholar named Paul Radestock. Radestock points out hallucinations and dreams both give the person something they wish for: "A woman who has lost a loved child experiences the joys of motherhood in her delirium; a man who has lost money believes himself immensely rich." Freud refers at this point to his own work on dreams; he agrees with Radestock "dreams and psychoses have in common the characteristic of being fulfillment of wishes."

Postscript, 1909

Freud explains why he has not updated his list of other works on dreams. Most of the work on dreams that has been published in the meantime has not taken proper notice of his work. He then goes on to note two exceptions, two thinkers who have not ignored his work on dreams.

Postscript, 1914

Five years after the first postscript, Freud remarks his work is "no longer neglected."


Freud reveals something about his own thinking when discussing the writers on dreams he cites approvingly. He is intrigued by F.W. Hildebrandt, who finds two contradictory, equally true views about dreams: it is true dreams are entirely separate from ordinary waking life, says Hildebrandt, and it is also true the material of dreams comes from ordinary waking life. Hildebrandt also points out that dreams display both enhanced and diminished mental abilities.

Freud approvingly calls Hildebrandt's contradictions "antinomies." Antinomy is another word for contradiction; it is particularly associated with the 19th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant's antinomies showed contradictory sides of certain philosophical issues could both be proven. For example, Kant proves philosophically time has a beginning point and time cannot possibly have had a beginning. Kant used antinomies to show there are problems reason cannot solve. Freud uses Hildebrandt's antinomies to show the contradictory nature of dreams. In turn, Freud will use dreams to illuminate the contradictory nature of everyday mental life: people have wishes they cannot bear, for example, or a friend is the object of both admiration and envy.

Freud points to the inconsistencies in scholars' accounts of the morality of dreams. Those who believe dreams are unrelated to the dreamer's moral character should waste no time thinking about immoral dreams, yet they do. Those who believe dreams mirror the dreamer's moral character should happily take responsibility for all their dreams, yet they do not. Freud turns his suspicions on these thinkers; if the thinkers waver, it must be because they too have had immoral dreams. The high-minded scholar who writes about moral character has perhaps had a dream about robbing a bank or having an affair with his neighbor's wife. (Nearly all the people Freud quotes are men.) Freud feels confident in saying everyone has had immoral dreams.

The 20th-century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously said Freud's style of thinking, along with that of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, formed a "school of suspicion." Ricoeur said the school of suspicion is a method of looking past "the lies and illusions of consciousness" and digging into uglier, less obvious truths. Looking with a suspicious eye at involuntary ideas in dreams, Freud says these are the dreamer's own ideas, censored during the day and set free at night. With this same suspicious turn of mind, Freud would go on to say upright, married Viennese citizens were dreaming of sex, and that a loved spouse or sibling can also be a hated rival, and that a paralyzing fear can disguise a hidden wish. All these ideas are examples of what Ricoeur called the school of suspicion.

Freud is critical of all attempts to reduce dreams to a response to physical sensations. He supports thinkers who view dreaming as a distinct mental activity, with its own unique function and meaning. Among this group of thinkers, Freud most admires Karl A. Scherner. Despite Scherner's "turgid [pompous] and high-flown" writing style, Freud finds Scherner's ideas useful. Dreams have their own language, a picture-language, says Scherner. Some of the examples of this picture-language read like a parody of Freudian dream interpretation: that long cylindrical objects in a dream symbolize the male sexual organ; that fuzzy objects equate to pubic hair. Even people who have never read The Interpretation of Dreams can expertly parody this style, with its doggedly obvious transformation of all dream images into symbols for genitalia. But this parody is unfair. The point of the picture-language is not to turn everything into a symbol for genitalia, but to show dreams are meaningful and the dreaming mind is independent of everyday, waking consciousness. The picture-language shows dreams have their own style of thought and their own forms of expression.

From a scholar named Raedeker, Freud cites the idea dreams are the fulfillment of wishes. Using the ideas of these two thinkers, Freud has his dream interpretation theory in miniature, although it is still unstated: a dream expresses a hidden wish, and the style of this expression is unique to the dreamer, consisting of images and associations from the dreamer's own mental life.

The two postscripts mark two stages in the acceptance of Freud's ideas. In 1909, almost a decade after publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud felt his work had been ignored. By 1914 this has been rectified; there are so many responses to his work he is too busy to update the bibliography. However, the emotional tenor of the first postscript reveals something about his character. He sounds hurt: "my own work has remained unmentioned and unconsidered." It would not be possible to wound Freud this way if he did not harbor great ambitions for his work. He even sounds vengeful, though his vengeance is imagined on a petty scale: "If there were such a thing in science as the right to retaliate, I should certainly be justified in my turn in ignoring the literature which has appeared since the publication of this book." This touchiness—ambition combined with vengeance—foreshadows Freud's tempestuous relationships with his colleagues and disciples in his later life.

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