Analyzing Freud

Freud could have used an analyst. That’s according to University of Chicago philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear, who spoke at Logan Hall Nov. 17 as part of the Penn Humanities Forum on Sleep and Dreams.

Lear, whose work has done much to restore the reputation of the father of psychoanalysis, took the opportunity to read a chapter from his upcoming book on Freud, to be published soon by Routledge. Because Freud continued to revise his “Interpretation of Dreams” for 30 years after the first edition, Lear calls the work “the Talmud of psychoanalysis …It contains a running commentary of how it should be read.”

According to Lear, the common understanding of what the book is about—the meaning of specific symbols in dreams—is misguided. Though later editions did address the meaning of typical symbols, the first edition was a much broader discussion of dream interpretation. Lear calls Freud’s later thoughts on symbolism “afterthoughts” and argues that he didn’t see dreams themselves as the “royal road to the unconscious,” but rather the conscious activity of interpreting them.

As Lear explains, Freud insisted that the context of the dreamer’s life be taken into account and that simply decoding individual elements in a dream was useless; a dream of falling or flying or having one’s teeth fall out will mean different things to different people. Freud was also clear that the analyst shouldn’t tell the dreamer what his dreams mean. The ultimate authority on the meaning has to be the dreamer.

Freud illustrated his system of dream interpretation with his own dreams. “What Freud is saying here,” says Lear, “is, ‘This is how I uncover the meaning of my own dreams. Follow my example.’” Lear points to a recurrent dream of Freud’s where his father announces, “The boy will come to nothing.” Throughout his career, says Lear, Freud kept trying to prove his father wrong—that he had in fact “come to something.” This obsession with proving worth marked his friendships, too, in reverse fashion, with many ending with a disappointed Freud lamenting that his friends had failed to amount to anything.

Lear’s point is that though Freud was a world expert on interpreting dreams, he spent his entire life reenacting his boyhood conflict in one way or another. “It wasn’t enough for Freud to discover one of the central meanings of his life,” Lear told his audience. “If it’s to provide the right kind of insight he has to recognize in the here and now what is happening and develop skills that can be woven into the practice of living.”

“The center of analysis is therapeutic change,” says Lear. “Something about Freud’s analysis didn’t quite get to that.”

On Jan. 26, 2005, New York architect Louise Braverman will speak on sleep places and spaces as part of the Penn Humanities Forum on Sleep and Dreams. Time and place TBD. For more information, go to or call 215.898.8220.

Originally published on December 9, 2004