Bernfeld, Siegfried (1892-1953)

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An Austrian philosopher and psychoanalyst, Siegfried Bernfeld was born March 7, 1892, in Lemberg, the capital city of Galicia, and died April 2, 1953, in San Francisco. Bernfeld distinguished himself in the extent of his knowledge, the originality of his ideas, and his qualities as an educator. A prolific and exacting writer, he was also an outstanding teacher, admired by his students and respected by his colleagues. Freud said he considered him the most gifted of his students and disciples.

His parents lived in Vienna but his mother returned to her hometown to give birth to her first child. In 1910 Bernfeld completed his studies at the Gymnasium and entered the University of Vienna, where he obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy, while also studying psychoanalysis, sociology, education, and biology. All branches of knowledge held an interest for Bernfeld, who was also involved in contemporary political issues. A lucid and passionate left-wing Zionist, he was active in political struggles while he was a university student.

Impregnated with the ideas of psychoanalysis and Marxism, Bernfeld founded, in 1919, the Kinderheim Baumgarten, where nearly three hundred Jewish children, refugees from Poland, were housed. His first book, published in 1921, examined this short, intense period of his life.

In 1925 he published two important works on infant psychology and education. Psychologie des Säuglings (Infant Psychology) is a well-known work that makes use of psychoanalysis and drive theory to develop a new psychology of the infant. Sisyphos is a critique of the idealist notion of education and comes down strongly in favor of a non-authoritarian system, one that respects the life of the instincts and the needs of the student.

Attracted by the fame of Max Eitingon's institute, Bernfeld traveled to Berlin in 1926. There he underwent analysis with Hanns Sachs and rapidly won the admiration of his students. While there he studied the scientific foundations of psychoanalysis and, returning to his first love, biology, researched the theory of instincts. At the end of his Berlin period, he contrasted his position (as a Freudian and Marxist) with that of Wilhelm Reich in two important articles, and wrote an essay on interpretation.

In Der Begriff der "Deutung" in der Psychoanalyse (The Concept of "Interpretation" in Psychoanalysis), Bernfeld described the concept of interpretation with the tools of the scientific method, something he shared with Moritz Schlick and Hans Reichenbach. He distinguished several types of interpretation. "Final" interpretation attempts to penetrate the unconscious intentional context in which a determinate psychic production that appears to be isolated from any context can be situated. "Functional" interpretation takes account of the value of a specific psychic fact. "Reconstruction," an instrument of psychoanalytic science, concretely reconstructs an old psychic process. Because there is a consistent relation between the psychic event and its traces, reconstruction can discover the genetic connection that is continuously repeated through impulse and desire. In this way psychoanalysis is raised to the rank of a natural science to the extent that it provides an explanation for personal psychic events on the basis of certain laws.

The approach to psychoanalysis as a science of traces is based on the leading theories of the field: free association, transference and resistance, which inhibits the formation of missing unconscious connections (Bernfeld returns to this subject in 1941 in The Fact of Observation in Psychoanalysis, a work that exercised considerable influence on his disciples in California, especially Edward M. Weinshel).

With the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the imminent ascent of Hitler to power, Bernfeld realized that he could no longer remain in Germany. He left Berlin and, after a brief stay in Vienna, went into exile in France in 1932.

Little is known about Bernfeld's life in France. Apparently, he was not well received by the Paris Psychoanalytic Society. He settled in the south of France, where he met Suzanne Cassirer-Paret, who became his third wife and an important collaborator. In 1936 Siegfried and Suzanne decided to leave France and, in answer to Otto Fenichel and Ernst Simmel's invitation, emigrated to California in 1937. In San Francisco Bernfeld resumed his teaching activities and wrote, together with his wife, a series of articles that can be considered the point of departure for "Freudology." These include a documented study on the Helmholz School (1944) and a 1946 essay in which Bernfeld discovers that the enigmatic character in "Screen Memories" (Freud, S., 1899) is no other than Sigmund Freud himself. There followed several articles on Freud's early scientific work, his studies on cocaine, and, together with his wife, an article on the childhood of the founding father of psychoanalysis and his first years in practice. Bernfeld died in 1953 while he and his wife were preparing other articles on Freud's life.

R. Horacio Etchegoyen

See also: Lehrinstitut der Wiener psychoanalytischen Vereinigung; Marxism and psychoanalysis; North America; Screen memory; Wiener psychoanalytischen Vereinigung; Zeitschrift für psychoanalytische Pädagogik.


Bernfeld, Siegfried. (1921). Kinderheim Baumgarten. Bericht über einen ernsthaften Versuch mit neuer Erziehung. Berlín: Jüdischer Verlag.

. (1929). The psychology of the infant. New York: Brentano.

. (1925). Sisyphos, oder die Grenzen der Erziehung. Vienna: Internationaler psychoanalytischer Verlag.

. (1932). Der Begriff der "Deutung" in der Psycho-analyse. Zeitschrift für angewandte Psychologie, 4, 448-497.

Ekstein, Rudolph. (1968). In Fr. Alexander, S. Eisenstein, M. Grotjahn (Eds.), Psychoanalytic pioneers. New York, London: Basic Books.