Violence 2023

With “violence” as our theme of the year, an issue we are confronted with on so many levels today, from the harmful abuse of our planet, against women and minorities, or in war, the Sigmund Freud Museum continues the dialogue that Freud once started with psychoanalysis and its socio-cultural implications. The digitally available discussion allows us to expand the analogue communication space of the museum, with an exhibition and a conference on the issue scheduled in 2023. The following text and image contributions were written by the members of our academic board of advisors, and are a meaningful and valuable addition to our annual program for 2023: in a (self)reflexive manner that is very specific to psychoanalysis, psychoanalysts, philosophers, literary and religious scholars and authors offer insights into the richly layered kaleidoscope of an international socio-political discourse – regarding the contents each chose for themselves, but also regarding their geographical locations. We would like to thank the following persons for their commitment and support of the project’s concept: Lisa Appignanesi from England (King's College London); Oleksandr Filts from Ukraine (National Medical University Lviv); Rubén Gallo from the USA (Princeton University); Gohar Homayounpour from Iran (Shahid Beheshti University Tehran); Viktor Mazin from Russia (East-European Institute of Psychoanalysis St. Petersburg); Spyros D. Orfanos from the USA (New York University); Herman Westerink from the Netherlands (Radboud University Nijmegen) and our advisory board chair Jeanne Wolff-Bernstein from Austria (Wiener Arbeitskreis für Psychoanalyse).

Vienna, 1875: “There is truly much that is rotten in this ‘prison’ we call the world, which might be improved by human measures in education, the distribution of property, the form of the struggle for existence […]”, nineteen-year-old Freud writes to his friend Eduard Silberstein. In the following years, the aspiring medical doctor will study the ideas of “socialist aspirations” in more detail; he will translate Stuart Mill’s essays on women’s emancipation and the workers issue from English to German,[1] and encounter Franz Brentano in his philosophical studies, who “applies the method of science to philosophy and to psychology in particular”,[2] as young Freud observes with enthusiasm, trusting implicitly that only the insights of science will be able to give us an unobstructed view of the world, and thus also will provide politics with a lever to organize a just and free society.[3]

While initially he mainly concentrated on neurology, his future exploration of the human mind would never be completely free of questions of social development. Already in his Studies on Hysteria written in 1895, in which he presupposes sexual abuse as the cause of the illness, the criticism of established gender hierarchies and thus the reference to social ills and (sexualized) violence are implicit.[4] Just as the physician looks into the consequences of external violence on the mind, the potential aggression inherent to the psyche later moves into the focus of his investigation. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud would expand his theory of drives – in which the “reality principle” attempts to curb the unfettered assertion of the “pleasure principle” – by the “death drive” (Thanatos). As an antagonist and counterpart of the “life instinct” (Eros), the action of this internal psychological force is not only decipherable in pathological phenomena.[5] However, when this driving force, which strives for standstill and dissolution, turns against the external world, it will lead to aggression and destruction, which is why Sigmund Freud not only calls it “death drive”, but also “destructive drive”.[6]

Just as much as Freud refers to the humanities, he also emphasizes the scientific character of psychoanalysis. For, in contrast to religion, which he sees as a serious threat to science, to art, which hardly ever makes an attempt “at invading the realms of reality”, and to philosophy, which, while it “behaves like a science”, cannot deny its penchant for the intuitive, it is mainly psychoanalysis that carefully separates “from knowledge everything that is illusion”[7] in order to be able to gain a holistic impression of the human existence.

Freud has a different relation to the spheres of sociology and law, which are as much constitutive as constructive factors of individual existence and society and provide fundamental links for his theory formation. The questions of psychoanalysis lead into the field of social theory, and provide him with occasions to dapple in sociology for decades.[8] In Freud’s reflections, “culture” and “civilization” (he refuses to differentiate these two terms) turn out to be the real instruments to avoid violence and war. They also manifest in cultural achievements which can be used meaningfully in order to 1) control nature and make use of its commodities; and 2) establish structures as well as institutions that regulate social interaction and “in particular the distribution of obtainable goods”.

One thing the analyst considers to be indispensable in order to achieve this is the continued exertion to suppress one’s drives, and thus a certain level of “coercion”[9] – i. e. law and order that seem to be necessary to uphold a functioning community. On the other hand, “it goes without saying that a civilization which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.”[10]

As long as a society is made up of equipollent individuals, it can be deemed uncomplicated: “The laws of such an association will determine the extent to which, if the security of communal life is to be guaranteed, each individual must surrender his personal liberty to turn his strength to violent uses.”[11]

Ultimately, for Freud, the outcome of the vital question of humanity hangs on the silk thread of cultural capacity, which needs to be particularly directed to “succeed in mastering the disturbance of […] communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction”.[12]

It seems there is nothing else we can attempt to do in order to counteract the current discontent, even fear regarding the present developments in politics and society. And this is why we, as often before, meet at the place where psychoanalysis was created and network digitally in order to raise our voices – for a society that reaches across national borders and is sustained by empathy, for its cultural development, and for the preservation of the natural equilibrium of this precious, fragile and vulnerable world.


Monika Pessler


Sigmund Freud Museum


[1] See Christfried Tögel. “Die Stimme des Intellekts ist leise,” May 5, 2006. (last accessed on Feb. 16th, 2023)

[2] Walter Boehlich ed., The Letters of Sigmund Freud to Eduard Silberstein 1871–1881, translated by Arnold J. Pomerans. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1990), 97 and 102.

[3] See George J. Makari, Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 23.

[4] See Benigna Gerisch and Thomas Köhler, „Freuds Aufgabe der ̦Verführungstheorie̓: Eine quellenkritische Sichtung zweier Rezeptionsversuche“, in: Psychologie und Geschichte 5, Nr. 4 (1993): 230.

[5] See Sigmund Freud (1937), “Analysis Terminable and Interminable”, in: The Standard Edition vol. 23, 88–9.

[6] Also see Sigmund Freud (1930), Civilization and Its Discontents, in: The Standard Edition vol. 21.

[7] Sigmund Freud (1933), New Introductory Lectures XXXV: The Question of a Weltanschauung, in: The Standard Edition vol. 22, 160.

[8] See Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interest. Translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 213–4.

[9] Sigmund Freud (1920), The Future of an Illusion, in: The Standard Edition vol. 21, 11.

[10] Ibid., 12.

[11] Sigmund Freud (1931/32), Why War?, in: The Standard Edition vol. 22, 205–6.

[12] Sigmund Freud (1930), Civilization and Its Discontents, in: The Standard Edition vol. 21, 145.

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