Freud and the First Amendment

By Lawrence D. Blum, M.D.

An exhibit on Sigmund Freud, “Freud: Conflict and Culture” opens on October 15th at the United States Library of Congress. Why should such an exhibit take place there, and in this country? Sigmund Freud was of course Viennese, and he was not a great admirer of the United States. And Freud, along with his daughter Anna Freud, lived in England when they fled from Nazi-controlled Austria. Yet, most of the materials in the exhibit were conveyed to the Library of Congress by the Sigmund Freud Archives at the express direction of Anna Freud.

Anna Freud believed that this American Library was the institution where the materials of Freud’s legacy would find a most secure and appropriate home. The Library is indeed secure, as well as appreciative of Freud’s contributions and influence on Western thought. But our national library is an especially appropriate home for Freud’s documents because of a deep connection between Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas and American ideals embodied in our constitution.

The most central Freud-United States relation is between our constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech and Freud’s emphasis on psychological freedom and free association of thoughts and feelings. The realm of freedom is extended from the social and political arena to the internal, psychological world. The constitution was designed to protect us from external tyranny, and psychoanalysis can help us toward freedom from internal, mental tyranny. Psychoanalysis has flourished in the United States, and can do so only in free societies. It requires freedom of speech, and in turn, it has expanded our idea of the meaning of freedom.

The constitution is a document of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. It aims to regulate the relationships between reasonable men (men of non-European descent and women only later being thought to have sufficient reason to be included.) The Romantic era which followed brought more attention to passions and emotion as opposed to reason. But before Freud, manifestations of the passionate human unconscious were, if recognized, usually treated as incomprehensible. Freud brought recognition and rational understanding of the irrational, emotional unconscious. In Freud’s famous words, “Where id was, ego shall be.” A person might now seek “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with lessened internal, emotional impediment, as well as with the diminished governmental restraint ensured by the constitution’s checks and balances.

There are further important Freud-Constitution correspondences. The Bill of Rights is above all a document protecting the rights of individuals relative to the state. The state is the political and metaphorical parent. Since Freud, psychoanalysis has always recognized the importance of the experience and individuality of the child, and the significance of the child’s developing autonomy. Clinically, much psychoanalytic work is dedicated to helping individuals attain freedom and autonomy from controlling mental versions of their parents. Just as our constitution, our social compact, requires and protects the autonomy of United States’ citizens, psychoanalysis relies on and promotes personal autonomy on a psychological level.

The privacy and confidentiality so necessary to the psychotherapeutic treatment setting also can be seen as an expansion of a right guaranteed in the constitution, this time the fourth amendment protection of privacy. (This is no idle comparison. Commercial interests are currently pressuring Congress to diminish protections of medical - and psychotherapeutic - privacy. Further, some observers have argued that independent counsel Kenneth Starr has conducted several of the greatest invasions of privacy, including therapeutic confidentiality, in history, with surprisingly little objection to his transgressions.) The privacy of both individuals’ minds and property is at stake.

Another essential aspect of both the constitution (especially again the first amendment) and psychoanalysis is tolerance. Other people’s viewpoints, beliefs, quirks, and differences are to be tolerated and protected (and in psychoanalysis, understood). Live and let live. Coercion is to be avoided. This is one of the most central elements of psychoanalytic technique: the analyst attempts to help patients to understand their conflicts and develop their own new solutions, but attempts not to influence patients to submit to the direction of the analyst.

The primacy of the individual person is thus respected. Intellectual history suggests that not only does Freud fall squarely in the Western tradition of gradually increasing appreciation of the value of the individual, but that his ideas have actually expanded our understanding of the meaning of the concept of a “person.” When we speak of a person, we now have a broader view of his or her being, including not only the body and conscious mind, but also the whole panoply of unconscious thoughts, feelings, and fantasies that contribute to our individuality. This is an enormous, under-appreciated part of Freud’s legacy, and one of which the founding fathers would be proud.


September, 1998