Freud: Psychoanalysis and the Critical Theory

Eddie Ryan
10 min readDec 22, 2021

In two of his most important works, The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents, Freud identifies religious illusion and perpetual guilt as threats to the viability of civilization. Relying on psychoanalysis, he evaluates the extent to which each can be overcome. Since a critical theory must offer a possible and practically necessary path to a problem’s resolution, only The Future of an Illusion qualifies; Freud’s pessimistic conclusion in Civilization and its Discontents offers little hope for rescuing civilization from its demise.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud discusses the frustration civilization creates in its members and the role religious illusions play in assuaging it. According to Freud, the primary purpose of civilization is to protect humanity from the destructive powers of nature and from the cruel impulses of humanity. Civilization prevents individuals from satisfying their natural desires, leading to frustration (The Freud Reader, 693). Religious illusions offer compensation for these privations. Over time, humanity’s helplessness in the face of nature’s power and the ambivalent father figure was psychologically assimilated into one entity, God, who protected it and promised later reward for present pain (TFR, 695). Since these illusions are wish fulfillments that do not value verification or reality, their ability to reconcile humans to the pains of civilization has diminishing returns (TFR, 704).

Freud remains optimistic about the potential for civilization to outgrow its need for religious illusions. A main source of this optimism lies in irreligious education, or “education to reality”, whereby children are not forced to assent to religious doctrines (TFR, 716). Since believers seem immune to the force of rational argument, the infantilism of religion can only be overcome gradually. To Freud, “education to reality” offers a hopeful method. While individuals raised unquestioningly to accept religious doctrine as truth need these illusions to cope with life, an unsurprising intellectual weakness which en masse stunts society’s development, those given an irreligious education might not need it (TFR, 716–17). Overcoming these illusions is much like leaving behind the protection and attention of one’s childhood home, but doing so is necessary for facing reality and surmounting the harmful neurosis of religion (TFR, 717). The foundational elements of an “education to reality”, reason and science, bolster Freud’s optimism. Reason is humanity’s best mechanism for understanding reality, since it rejects the illusions favored by instinct and insists upon being heard (TFR, 720). Science harnesses reason in pursuit of evidence to corroborate humanity’s understanding of the world and requires of its claims verification in observable reality (TFR, 721). Science, says Freud, is no illusion. Through science, reason, and the “education to reality” they form, humanity may succeed in giving up the illusions which threaten it with intellectual weakness and the crippling guilt of neurosis.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud offers a more dismal outlook based on several new psychological insights. As before, he argues that the regulations of civilization, i.e., the forms of relations among individuals it prescribes, make people unhappy; membership in civilization requires the sacrifice of some personal liberty (TFR, 735, 741). This breeds latent hostility toward civilization. Here, Freud emphasizes humanity’s inclination to aggressiveness and destruction — what he calls the “death instinct” (TFR, 754). Suppressing these instincts constitutes the most onerous sacrifice of civilized life, in Freud’s view, and this tension is the basis of civilization’s central conflict: that between Eros (love) and Death (TFR, 756). Freud implies that because the stresses of curbing human aggressiveness and destructiveness are so great as to make civilization untenable, Death is the inevitable winner of this struggle.

Freud’s view depends on the influence of the aggressive drive on the formation of human conscience. Civilization’s suppression of the aggressive instinct leads to the internalization of that aggression, which demands some outlet (TFR, 756). The origins of the super-ego and the guilt it constantly cultivates in the ego are complicated, as Freud presents and then reconciles two different explanations. Both concern the individual’s naturally ambivalent psychological disposition towards its father, whom it both fears and looks to for protection. Early on, the individual’s primary motivation for avoiding “bad” actions is loss of love from this figure. At some point, the individual internalizes the authority of the father as the super-ego, or conscience, which controls the individual’s sense of guilt (TFR, 757). Freud suggests that the internalization of the authority figure is more precisely understood as the individual’s first instinct suppression: the suppressed aggression accrues to the super-ego, which perpetually demands more instinct suppression (TFR, 761). In this complex, guilt comes not just from exercising the instinct, but simply from having it. Freud’s crucial and most damning insight is that this guilt predated conscience and is inevitable in civilization. While conscience regulates guilt in modern civilization, guilt itself arose from the psychological ambivalence which makes humans both love and hate the father (TFR, 763). As humans began to live in groups, this ambivalence extended to the other members of society, leaving them perpetually guilty on account of their violent hatred of their peers (TFR, 763). Civilization’s advancement deepens this guilt and creates increasing unhappiness and malaise (TFR, 763–4). Because this dynamic is unavoidable, Freud suggests that civilized life may become unsustainable.

Freud’s theory of reconciliation between the individual and civilization now appears questionable. This theory posited reason as the key to dropping religious illusions and reconciling humanity to the reality of civilization. John Deigh summarizes this idea well, writing that the process of abandoning wishful illusions occurs with the development and encouragement of reason, which yields “increasingly intelligent insights” that displace irrational beliefs (Deigh, 288). As this happens, especially through the systematization of reason via science, humans come not just to a rational acceptance of the moral regulations necessary for civilized life; they become capable of refining their morality to better serve their happiness (Deigh, 289). This advanced stage marks reconciliation to civilization.

In Civilization and its Discontents, the aggressive drive is an almost insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation with civilization. As Deigh points out, it is not obvious that reason can resolve this apparent incompatibility between human aggression and civilization’s confining morality. If civilization’s underlying problem is the perpetual guilt inflicted by each individual’s conscience, then reason would have to exercise nearly full control over conscience. Freud’s assessment of the structure of conscience makes this seem implausible (Deigh, 301). During his discussion of the formation of conscience, Freud suggests that its initial strength comes from the individual’s suppressed instinctual aggression, and that with each fresh suppression conscience strengthens. To alter conscience, reason would have to regulate aggression. According to the super-ego, ego, id complex, this is impossible, since aggression lies in the id, which lies in the unconscious beyond the reach of reason (Deigh, 301). Reason in the form of rational morality thus could not exercise much control over conscience, leaving the obstacle to humanity’s reconciliation with civilization unmoved.

Jonathan Lear offers a critique of Freud’s conception of religion, especially as it relates to psychoanalysis, which merits examination. Broadly, his critique suggests that religious commitment need not depend on wish fulfillment and illusion, and that humanity could therefore achieve a sophisticated form of religion without having to eliminate it altogether. According to Freud, religion is pure illusion and belief in it reflects a lingering attachment to infantile elements of human psychology. It follows that those who believe are psychologically immature in this respect and that acceptance of psychoanalytic principles and religious belief are mutually exclusive (Lear, 83). Freud writes to the psychologically fit individuals capable of giving up religion through reasons and, says Lear, views himself as contributing to the gradual displacement of religious belief with scientific judgment which history will inevitably, inexorably effect (Lear, 91–92). Lear calls this view of history “the illusion of a future” and argues that religious belief is not guaranteed to fade away over time. He thinks both that Freud fails to give an account of what the readiness to give up religious illusions looks like, and that Freud neglects the possibility that psychoanalysis could lead a person to a more sophisticated religious commitment without the illusory side to it.

Lear’s notion of a mature religion depends on this possibility. In Lear’s view, it is plausible — or at least Freud has not shown it to be impossible — for someone to undergo psychoanalytic treatment, rationally accept that illusion and infantilism make up part of their religious commitment, and yet not disavow religion entirely. Instead, this person could perhaps proceed to drop these elements of their belief system and turn toward “deeper forms of religious engagement” (Lear, 95). Lear models this hypothetical individual on Maimonides, who would follow psychoanalytic advice to drop his religious illusions without giving up his belief in God. To the psychoanalytic Maimonides, relinquishing religious illusions might just mean overcoming idolatry, one irrational element of religious belief (Lear, 96). On this view, one can still believe that God exists and created humanity and the universe without idolizing God irrationally, i.e., without presuming that God cares about, protects, offers eternal salvation to, or pays any attention to humanity at all. If mature religion is possible in this sense, then perhaps an analogous mature conscience is as well. As John Deigh suggests, this mature (rational) conscience would only trouble the ego with reminders or reprimands when reasonable and appropriate (Deigh, 301). Rather than permitting the super-ego to exercise its immense power to inflict guilt on the ego over every trivial thing, a rational conscience would only alert the individual to something it should not do or should not have done when necessary. This is difficult to grasp since it is not obvious which actions are universally worthy of guilt, but the point is that a rational conscience would be restrained in such a way as to save humanity from much of the frivolous guilt that causes its malaise (civilization’s downfall, according to Freud).

This analogy rests on the idea that the two most significant defects of civilization which threaten its existence, namely religion and pervasive guilt, can be managed to a greater extent than Freud believed possible. A mature conscience would help particularly in this regard, as it would help to resolve the issue which Freud thought would eventually cause civilization’s demise: humanity’s burden of guilt. Freud himself, however, likely would not approve of either mature religion or mature conscience. As noted above, Freud’s psychological model does not seem to allow reason to reach the id, where aggression lies; therefore, reason could not regulate the source of conscience’s power. While he might appreciate the concept, he thus would not believe one’s conscience could be brought under rational control. Freud would probably also object to Lear’s mature religion argument. He obviously argued originally that religious belief and psychoanalytic understanding are incompatible, and that religion is entirely an illusion, since these are the arguments Lear works from. It is possible that Freud would reject the hypothetical Maimonidean type Lear suggests as altogether implausible. A more generous response from Freud might resemble Nietzsche’s idea about religious poison. That is, Freud might have responded to Lear’s suggestion that religious commitments can function without illusion or wish-fulfillment by saying that even if one thinks one has dropped the illusions while still believing in God, they might still play an unconscious role in that belief system. If still reliant on the poison, such people would hardly be free from religious illusion.

These issues help determine whether Freud’s views can be considered a “critical theory”. According to Raymond Geuss, enlightenment and emancipation are two of the critical theory’s major components. People may be suffering from a false consciousness, specifically through their subscription to an ideological worldview which they wrongly believe best fits their true interests (Geuss, 58). Coercive institutions uphold this ideology and often distort the “speech situation” of society such that alternatives are not discussed. This causes unconscious frustration among the people, who do not realize that what their true interests are. The critical theory aims to eliminate this frustration by encouraging self-reflection, the only avenue by which people may realize their true interests (Geuss, 70). Enlightenment marks the realization of one’s false consciousness, partly self-imposed and partly contingent on coercive institutions; emancipation is true freedom from these institutions which block the satisfaction of one’s true interest. The two are intertwined, since full enlightenment depends on losing the coercive institutions in whose legitimacy people are complicit (Geuss, 73). Finally, the critical theory considers the outcome of enlightenment, emancipation, and the full realization of true interest both possible and practically necessary (Geuss, 76). While it holds that the given epistemic and social changes need to happen, it does not predict that they will eventuate. This contradicts Marx and Freud’s scientific conceptions of their work, for each argued that their visions of future society would come true.

In Freud’s psychoanalysis, this drama unfolds entirely within the individual. This means that in the psychoanalytic case, false consciousness comes from the individual instead of an external actor. Self-knowledge allows the individual to reduce their frustration by reforming self-imposed coercion, and no coercive social institutions have to be dealt with (Geuss, 74). The views expressed in The Future of an Illusion seem to fit the criteria of a critical theory fairly well. Religious illusions represent the false consciousness which each individual legitimizes; shared understanding of true interests, ostensibly living without illusions, can lead to enlightenment and emancipation. The critical theory causes self-reflection among people by encouraging reason. Additionally, Freud holds the process by which religious illusions are shed in favor of reason-based understandings of the world to be both possible and practically necessary for the advancement of civilization. In fact, it is psychically necessary that people free themselves from the obsessional neurosis religion represents.

However, Freud’s views in Civilization and its Discontents do not adhere so neatly to the requirements of a critical theory. According to Freud, civilization certainly creates mass, latent frustration among its members through the maintenance of false consciousness. Morality represents this false consciousness since it forces individuals to suppress their natural instincts. Beyond this, multiple issues arise that prevent the Civilization and its Discontents story from qualifying as a critical theory. First, Freud does not seem optimistic about the potential for enlightenment and emancipation from the false consciousness of morality to occur. Instead, he suggests that due to human psychology and the necessary conditions of civilization, individuals are doomed to ever-increasing feelings of guilt and unhappiness. Second, it is unclear what humanity’s true interests even look like in this situation. After all, even if civilization’s restrictions were to disappear, allowing each individual to satisfy their aggressive and destructive desires, human life would not be possible for very long. It seems, therefore, that the pessimistic conclusion of Civilization and its Discontents prevents it from being considered a critical theory; it instead serves as a grim diagnosis without prescription.



Eddie Ryan

History and Economics major, Spanish and Philosophy minor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Elmhurst, Illinois.