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Sex, Freud, and Weininger (Intro)

Notes on Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

According Otto Weininger’s biographer, David Abrahamsen, Freud read an early draft of what later became Sex and Character. The encounter is also dramatized in Joshua Sobol’s play, Weininger’s Night.

Editor’s note


xiii (Foreword by Nancy Chodorow)
Chodorow writes,

As someone who has written both appreciatively and critically about Freud’s account (developed mainly in his later writings) of femininity, I am struck by the discovery of a particular asymmetry that prevails throughout the Three Essays whenever women and men or boys and girls are noticed. On the one hand Freud definitely begins from a male norm: girls’ sexuality before puberty is ‘of a wholly masculine character,’ and libido is masculine; possession of the penis is essential to both boys and girls. On the other hand, Freud in these essays pays little attention to males. In the section ‘The Differentiation Between Men and Women,’ for example, he is entirely preoccupied, in spite of the tacit comparison to men, with how it is with girls and women, both in their development and in their adult sexuality. Freud is fascinated and absorbed with understanding women and femininity more than men and masculinity, and this fascination grows out of and presages his whole oeuvre, from the Studies on Hysteria to Analysis Terminable and Interminable.

[Freud’s obsession with exploring the feminine, wittingly or not, against a masculine background should scarcely surprise us. What other background, providing resources and setting agendas, could he possibly have had? What other object before him could present itself with the necessary strangeness to fuel an obsession? Even the male homosexual is immediately confronted with a concept of the feminine that he must understand, if only to make sense of certain aspects of himself—his non-standard orientation—if not as his object. Moreover, most of Freud’s colleagues and students and perhaps all of his teachers were males for whom masculinity, their own, at least at one level, he could assume, was not a complete mystery to them. He could be excused as well for thinking that most of his audience would be male and would share his obsession at some level.

Woman is in an important sense the quintessential object of science. She is indispensable, problematic, subjectively inaccessible, and fascinating in her otherness: That is, especially, if the scientist is male. This last fact both explains and is explained by the others. It’s not just the obvious interest that men have in women. It is also that the very nature of curiosity finds in woman the most potent symbol of the entire material universe. I submit this applies to a woman’s curiosity as well. Science is one form sexual activity takes.

Nothing said here implies that men come with any special facility for knowing themselves well or that they fully understand their own masculinity (whatever many may think) or that women are not curious about themselves or about men. In fact, there is reason to believe men know themselves less well for all the effort they have not spared on or importance they have attached to the subject than women. Their essential criminality or moral degeneracy, a glaring instance, has gone until fairly recently largely unremarked by themselves: that it is a proprietarily male, not a species generic, problem. This insight, despite its obviousness, requires a contrast only possible through an articulated and persistent outside perspective (feminism) or an uncommonly ruthless moral self-examination (Weininger). If there has been anything of value for men in the most radical uncompromising feminisms, it has been the opportunity for increasing his understanding of how he and his obsessions appear from the outside. Because his own forte, it has always been assumed, is precisely the capacity for abstraction and a certain consequent detachment not natural to her, his structural lack in this regard has escaped him. Or it would take someone as extraordinarily uninvested in the perpetuation of material masculinity such as Weininger to reveal to him the severity of his limitation from within a purely masculine moral sphere.

Precisely because he saw himself as doing science Freud’s focus devolved to women. Weininger, read carefully, was not writing about women, but then he was not doing science. He was doing philosophy—as the tradition construes it, a singular obsession of men.

Freud’s contribution remains supreme as the pioneering attempt to get women understood as only a man might. Yet, despite a tacit pretension to sexless objectivity and despite the muscular acrobatics of his imagination, Freud’s offering has been, at best, grist for the mills of others. This has been true largely because of his materialist predisposition, which, while fruitful, placed certain limitations on where he, if not others, might go with his theory.]

xxxvii (Steven Marcus’ introduction)
In the first footnote of the first essay, “The Sexual Aberrations,” Freud acknowledges his debt to Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, Schrenck-Notzing, and others. Marcus remarks,

What goes without saying, and what does not quite get said, is that in 1905 Freud had as yet no direct psychoanalytic experience of either homosexual patients or adults who practiced some form of perverse sexual behavior. This lack of first hand experience of empirical evidence appears to have been in no way a deterrence to Freud’s theoretical inclinations and energies.

After noting a similar lack of experience behind the second essay, “Infantile Sexuality,” Marcus adds,

In their original form, therefore, the first two essays have the character of grand inferential constructions that happen somehow—almost incidentally, one might say—to coincide or catch up with a good deal of the truth. Based on experience of some kind, they are nonetheless not primarily empirical in nature but are systematic and relatively coherent reworkings of glimpses into, intuitions of, and insights about hidden truths which still remain partly hidden.

[These points are particularly significant to us in light of Freud’s own dismissal (not long before writing these essays) of Weininger’s own “grand inferential constructions” based, as they were, on little, if any, clinical observation and on much armchair philosophizing. Freud reportedly advised the young Weininger to spend another ten years in the clinic and then write his book.

As many have noticed, Freud was a philosopher manqué, a would-be scientist. These are criticisms, however, only to the extent we take a dim view of philosophizing or suffer an overweening awe of science. Freud’s contortions about what he was doing, while understandable in his intellectual climate, somewhat disqualify him from taking a credible perspective on Weininger—that, despite the remarkable cultural and biographical proximity and, on one level, convergence of interest. Freud was among the first to read a draft of what later became Weininger’s Sex and Character.]


Hysteria is thus an embodiment or exemplification of the mind-body problem, one expression of that apparently insoluble—or indissoluble—relation.

Because the mind and body are not essentially separate for her in quite the same way as he is driven to see them,


Just as for Marx political economy was the theory of capitalism, so for Freud the neuroses contain the theory of sexual behavior in both its normal and aberrant modes of expression…. Having decomposed the perversions into component parts, he has at once recomposed them in the neuroses. In the neuroses the language of sexuality begins to speak articulately, coherently and theoretically.

In a note to this passage, Marcus mentions that Freud later wrote, “the theory of the neuroses is psychoanalysis itself”.

Marcus points out that Freud was aware “that psychoanalytic theory, like the modern theory of evolution, is essentially a historical theory; its powers are explanatory rather than predictive.”

Marcus in a footnote remarks on Freud’s suggestion in the second essay (see below for Freud’s own words, “Infantile Sexuality” p.57,) that prostitution is a part of the larger human repertoire—though he specifically illustrates the point here by adducing women.

[The implication that prostitution is a possibility for all women, recalls one of the most “misogynistic” claims made by Weininger. And, like Weininger, Freud seems to suggest that the possibility inheres in men as well, though circumstances will usually reframe in men this feminine* impulse into other less stigmatized activity: The politician, Weininger points out, is the quintessential “male prostitute.” He embodies the desire to serve others at the expense of personal integrity: This is essentially what Weininger means by prostitution. It also describes Weininger’s other feminine archetype: the mother. Both sacrifice character for others. As act of self-abnegation prostitution does have positive moral overtones. Weininger intends the archetype as a moral category transcending anything concretely sexual. And, more specifically, at a certain level it is an amoral impulse, not an immoral one, at least as applied to women and the feminine. What it means for men, however, is less clear—and since their activity should fall under a radically different moral aegis, one that, because it is not permitted slack in matters of integrity, is more suspect. Thus, a moral atrocity occurs when the common prostitute is stigmatized with greater facility than the typical politician for behaving ethically in precisely the same way.

(*Characterized as “feminine” here because there is in women less internal resistance and greater susceptibility to external induction in the direction of such physical service…which stems from her deeper investment in relationship, that is, in bringing it about (as mother) and nurturing it (as prostitute). The prostitute was the original social worker, the archetypal precursor to her modern day counterparts in social services, in therapy and counseling, and in religious ministry. If her once holy vocation, as surrogate mother and reminder to the male of his origin and grounding in the folds of her flesh, has been reduced to a mercenary instrument for the mechanical release of physiological tension, it is because of the systematic devaluation, largely male-induced, that has attended every founding cultural institution.)

“The wife,” incidentally, is not an archetype on the same level as mother and prostitute. She is a species of prostitute, too often a degraded one. The prostitute becomes wife in desperation at having lost her place of honor in the community. Marriage is her last resort at creating the necessary conditions for being a mother. It is the weakest institution imaginable, a grasping at straws, barely more functional than an informal affiliation and subsequently, sustainable only through great doses of self-deception and hypocrisy.

When, despite this, a marriage “succeeds” it is not the marriage that succeeds. It is an underlying adventitious friendship, an unlikely coming together, that endures.

But for the benefit of aspirants, the “have-nots” in the marketplace of happiness—for whom appearances, sustained long enough, easily substitute for reality, the success is stubbornly accorded the institution as though a precious connection with an other could be so easily and ceremoniously secured.]

The mother and child relation as it develops is fundamentally sexual, Freud notes.

Freud is “one of the last great legatees of the Romantic tradition”; his theories are grounded in perduring conflict.

Such integration as he finds is never complete, rarely adequate, and more often than not unstable. He never envisages the human or the social world as composing now or in the future to some harmonious order. There is the recognition and remembrance of bliss and satisfaction in his world, but there is no music of the spheres.

Freud, the moralist.

Marcus finds that Freud’s theory of sexuality was fully present in 1905 and that since then “nothing has come along in seventy years that remotely resembles it in explanatory power, coherence, and integrity.”

Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III

Posted by luno in philosophy and sex, Freud, sexualities, prostitution, motherhood, sex differences, marriage, Weininger (Monday August 13, 2007 at 1:50 am)

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