German Romanticism and Psychoanalysis

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Romanticism, according to Thomas Mann, was "the most revolutionary and most radical" movement of the "German spirit." Along with Judaism and the Enlightenment, it was one of Sigmund Freud's main sources of inspiration. The culture of the age of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe infused his childhood and youth, but also the whole of the nineteenth century, which was steeped in post-romantic elements such as Darwinism and the resurgence, in Germany, of Naturphilosophie, forgotten at the end of the century (Ellenberger, 1974). Freud's knowledge of certain romantic works of literature is attested by their presence in his library and by the 130 citations of them that appear in his writings.

If Freud was ambivalent with regard to romanticism, this may have to do with his disillusionment, during his youth, with the pan-Germanism (part of the post-romantic trend) of student circles in Vienna when he arrived at the university in 1873 and joined the Reading Circle of Viennese Students, whose "Wagnerism" soon veered toward nationalism and anti-Semitism (MacGrath, 1974).

On the other hand, all of the themes for which romantic science and medicine had laid the groundwork were to be found in psychoanalysis a century later: dreams and their "psychic value," instinct, repression, the lifting of which is the source of "the uncanny" (Friedrich von Schelling)the unheimlich being a central concept in both romanticism and psychoanalysis, Friedrich Schleiermacher's secularized interpretations, which he even applied to speech, and of course Witz, that alloy of Jewish thought and romantic irony theorized by Jean Paul and August Wilhelm von Schegel, on whom Freud relied, along with Heinrich Heine, whose work he cited numerous times in his writings. A "defrocked romantic," Heine was also Freud's model as an atheist Jew, a "brother in unbelief" to Spinoza, one of the romantics' sources. They gave Eros and sexuality an essential place, and, by elevating the individual ego, took on the conquest of inner freedom. We should also recall the "conquistador" status of Freud himself and the open, "interminable" form of his work.

Freud's teacher Ernst Brücke had trained him in experimental physiology in a spirit of physico-chemical reductionism, which, in its opposition to the Naturphilosophie of his own teacher, Johannes von Müller, nevertheless allowed a romantic heritage to filter through in Freud's work. It was brought forth by his self-analysisin the tradition of the knowledge of self of the romantic Bildung with Wilhelm Fliess, an adept of romantic biology who transmitted to him, notably, the idea of primal bisexuality. Freud then practiced hypnosisthe heritage of animal magnetismto create, through a radical transformation, the psychoanalytic cure. At the same time, he drew upon the post-romantics of his own time to support his work: the theosophist Gustav Fechner, from whom he borrowed the concepts of topography and the pleasure principle, Theodor Lipps, for the unconscious, and Karl Scherner for dreams. At the time of the shift in his thinking in the 1920s, with the dualism of the instincts, Freud can be seen as returning to the "primal antithesis of the world" of Naturphilosophie, and he later took part in an essential discussion with Romain Rolland, "the last of the great French romantics."

In "A Short Account of Psycho-Analysis" (1924f) Freud alluded to romanticism as an element in the prehistory of psychoanalysis, while Ludwig Binswanger pointed out Freud's faithfulness to the concept of nature as "mythical essence," and Thomas Mann assessed psychoanalysis as a romanticism turned scientific.

Madeleine Vermorel and Henri Vermorel

See also: Goethe and psychoanalysis; Individual; Individuation (analytical psychology); Judaism and psychoanalysis; Sublimation.


Ellenberger, Henri. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, Sigmund. (1924f). A short account of psycho-analysis. SE, 19: 189-209.

MacGrath, William J. (1974). Dionysian and populist politics in Austria. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Mann, Thomas. (1936). Freud and the future. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 37 (1), 106-115.

. (1941). Freud's position in the history of modern culture. Psychoanalytic Review, 28 (1), 92-116.

Vermorel, Henri, and Madeleine Vermorel. (1986). Freud et la culture allemande. Revue française de psychanalyse, 49, 1034-62.