Silberer, Herbert (1882-1923)

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Austrian psychoanalyst Herbert Silberer was born on February 28, 1882, in Vienna, where he ended his life by suicide on January 12, 1923.

Victor Silberer, his father, was a self-made man who ran a sports newspaper and a publishing house. A sportsman himself, Herbert was one of the pioneers of Austro-Hungarian aeronautics. He came to psychoanalysis self-taught, with a view to resolving his personal conflicts.

After receiving Silberer's observations on the intermediary stages between waking and sleep, Freud advised Jung (July 19, 1909) to publish the paper, remarking, "Silberer is an unknown young man, probably a better-class degenerate; his father is a well-known figure in Vienna, a member of the city council and an 'operator.' But his piece is good and throws light on an aspect of dream work" (p. 242).

In 1909, Silberer's "Report on a Method of Eliciting and Observing Certain Symbolic Hallucination-Phenomena" was published in the second volume of the newly launched Jahrbuch ; it eventually appeared in English (Silberer 1951). In this article, Silberer described the hypnagogic states and explained the formation of symbols as revealing affects and emotions in a "functional" way and personalizing various states characteristic of the dreamer's psychic processes. In "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c), Freud wrote that this was "one of the few indisputably valuable additions to the theory of dreams," adding that Silberer had "thus demonstrated the part played by observationin the sense of the paranoiac's delusions of being watchedin the formation of dreams" (p. 97).

In October 1910, Silberer became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Articles published over the next several years showed Silberer's increasing interest in esotericism and mysticism. Freud recognized his contributions to symbolism, as did Wilhelm Stekel, with whom Silberer would maintain a close relationship after the latter's rupture with Freud.

Silberer's major work, Problems of Mysticism and Its Symbolism, published in 1914 and translated into English three years later, distinguished Freud's views on the dream from his own. Freud criticized his concept of "anagogic" interpretation, describing the evolution of dreams during treatment toward more general and universal symbolization, and he also noted Silberer's deemphasis of sexuality and tendency to rationalize. Similarly, Ernest Jones wrote to Freud (February 8, 1911), "As to Silberer, I don't know what to make of him. He seems to be badly infected by the philosophic virus." Jones subsequently elaborated still stronger criticism of Silberer in his 1916 paper on "The Theory of Symbolism." Although it left Freudian colleagues more than skeptical, Silberer's comparison of transference to the alchemical reactions between male and female elements in nature inspired both Theodor Flournoy and, in particular, Carl G. Jung.

With Wilhelm Stekel and Samuel Tannenbaum, Silberer directed a review published in the United States, Psyche and Eros. Despite resigning after the publication grew increasingly hostile to Freud and psychoanalysis, his association with the journal further damaged his relations with the Vienna Society. Paul Roazen (1976) published a letter of Freud dated April 17, 1922: "Most Honored Sir, I ask you not to make your intended visit to me. After my observations and impressions of recent years I no longer desire personal contact with you." Roazen believes this letter was addressed to Silberer and became one of the motives for his suicide nine months later. Bernd Nitzschke (1989) does not share Roazen's conviction; based on the obituary by Stekel (1924), he believes the letter was addressed to Silberer's father, Viktor. In fact, Stekel, who was surprised by Silberer's suicide, stressed the Vienna Society's unfavorable reaction to his lecture on dreams on November 1, 1922.

Forty years after his death, Carl G. Jung wrote: "Herbert Silberer has the merit of being the first to discover the secret threads that lead from alchemy to the psychology of the unconscious" (Jung, 1955-57, p. 792).

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Alchemy; Anagogical interpretation; Functional phenomenon; Representability.


Freud, Sigmund. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1993 [1908-39]). The complete correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones,1908-1939. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Jones, Ernest. (1961 [1916]). The theory of symbolism. In Papers on psychoanalysis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jung, Carl Gustav. (1955-57). Mysterium Conjunctionis. An Inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. Coll. Works, Vol. 14, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul .

Nitzschke, Bernd. (1989). Freud et Herbert Silberer. Hypothèses concernant les destinataire d'une lettre de Freud de 1922. Revue internationale d'histoire de la psychanalyse, 2, 267-277.

. (1989). Freud und Fechner. Einige Anmerkungen zu den psychoanalytischen Konzepten "Lustprinzip" und "Todestrieb." In Freud un die akademische Psychologie. Beiträge zu einer historischen Kontroverse. Munich: Psychologie Verlagsunion.

Roazen, Paul. (1976). Freud and his followers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Silberer, Herbert. (1917). Problems of mysticism and its symbolism. New York: Moffat, Yard.

. (1951). Report on a method of eliciting and observing certain symbolic hallucination-phenomena. In Rapaport, David. Organization and pathology of thought. Selected sources. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stekel, Wilhelm. (1924). In memoriam Herbert Silberer. Fortschritte der Sexualwissenschaft und Psychoanalyse, 1, 408-420.