How to Do the History of Psychoanalysis: A Reading of Freud's "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality"

Critical Inquiry 13 (2):252-277 (1987)

Arnold I. Davidson
University of Chicago
I have two primary aims in the following paper, aims that are inextricably intertwined. First, I want to raise some historiographical and epistemological issues about how to write the history of psychoanalysis. Although they arise quite generally in the history of science, these issues have a special status and urgency when the domain is the history of psychoanalysis. Second, in light of the epistemological and methodological orientation that I am going to advocate, I want to begin a reading of Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, one whose specificity is a function of my attachment to this orientation, to a particular way of doing the history of psychoanalysis. Despite the enormous number of pages that have been written on Freud’s Three Essays, it is very easy to underestimate the density of this book, a density at once historical, rhetorical, and conceptual. This underestimation stems in part from historiographical presumptions that quite quickly misdirect us away from the fundamental issues.In raising question about the historiography of the history of science, I obviously cannot begin at the beginning. So let me begin much further along, with the writings of Michel Foucault. I think of the works of Foucault, in conjunction with that of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem, as exemplifying a very distinctive perspective about how to write the history of science. In the English-speaking world, perhaps only the work of Ian Hacking both shares this perspective and ranks with its French counterparts in terms of originality and quality. No brief summary can avoid eliding the differences between Bachelard, Canguilhem, Hacking, and Foucault; indeed, the summary I am going to produce does not even fully capture Foucault’s perspective, which he called “archaeology.”1 But this sketch will have to do for the purposes I have in mind here, whose ultimate aim is to reorient our approach to the history of psychoanalysis. 1. The sketch that follows reproduces, with some omissions and additions, the beginning of my “Archeology, Genealogy, Ethics,” in Michel Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. David Hoy , pp. 221-34. Arnold I. Davidson is assistant professor in the department of philosophy, the Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science, and the Committee on General Studies in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. He is currently writing a book on the history and epistemology of nineteenth-century psychiatric theories of sexuality
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DOI 10.1086/448388
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