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Sex, Freud, and Weininger (i)

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

“The Sexual Aberrations”


In every normal male or female individual, traces are found of the apparatus of the opposite sex. These either persist without function as rudimentary organs or become modified and take on other functions.

These long-familiar facts of anatomy lead us to suppose that an originally bisexual physical disposition has, in the course of evolution, become modified into a unisexual one, leaving behind only a few traces of the sex that has become atrophied.

So, Freud continues, it seemed inevitable that this idea would be extended in an assertion of psychical hermaphroditism and that some use would be made of the extension in the explanation of inversion.

The presence of secondary and tertiary traits typical of one sex in the other are not necessarily correlated with a corresponding change in sexual object. [As was noted, also, in Weininger.] “In men the most complete mental masculinity can be combined with inversion.”

However, Freud is skeptical of characterizations of the “feminine” or “masculine brain” as though these posits had much explanatory value (as yet). It is in a note to this point that Freud makes one of only two (I believe) references in his published writings, outside of his correspondence, to Otto Weininger. It appears in a footnote, specifically, in an extension appended in 1924. The footnote, as it appears in the Strachey translation, is an accretion of early references to the notion of universal bisexuality. Freud cites the medical literature on this topic in this order: E. Gley (1884), Chevalier (1893), Krafft-Ebing (1895), Arduin (1900), Hirschfield (1899), Herman (1903), Fleiss (1906)—the latter, of course, was Freud’s long time friend and correspondent. Freud writes that Wilhelm Fleiss “claimed the idea of bisexuality (in the sense of duality of sex) as his own.” The remark is made many years after the friendship dissolved in the aftermath of an accusation by Fleiss that Freud had leaked essential aspects of the idea to a patient, Hermann Swoboda, who happened to be a friend of Weininger. Weininger, in Geshlecht und Charakter (1903), developed the idea in a direction no doubt undreamt of by Fleiss or Freud (and to posthumous world-wide acclaim and notoriety). Freud denied the Fleiss accusation and might have resented the attention the Weininger book brought to the idea, tainted as it was through this unpleasant episode in his life. Here is what Freud says about Weininger in the 1924 note:

In lay circles the hypothesis of human bisexuality is regarded as being due to O. Weininger, the philosopher, who died at an early age, and who made the idea the basis of a somewhat unbalanced book (1903). The particulars which I have enumerated above will be sufficient to show how little justification there is for the claim.

[Several things should be noted. First, that Freud acknowledges that, at the time he was writing, the world seemed to know of the idea of universal bisexuality through Weininger instead of anyone else on Freud’s list of authorities, including himself. (In the end, of course, Freud’s own name would eclipse the others; and much to do with psychology and sex would come to be pinned on him in the popular imagination, correctly so or not.)

Second, Freud is certainly right in disabusing his audience of the notion that Weininger had somehow originated the idea. If one is willing to look beyond the medical literature, allusions to universal bisexuality can be found as far back, at least, as Aristophanes speech in Plato’s Symposium (which Weininger knew as well). Freud is careful not to claim that, whatever most may have thought, Weininger, himself, made any claims to originality on this matter. In fact, Weininger took pains to cite other authorities, including, in particular and with special admiration, Fleiss.

Third, Freud’s only judgment of Weininger’s work—as opposed to his, we gather, undeserved notoriety—is that it is “unbalanced.” He nowhere, to my knowledge, elaborates. We are reminded of Wittgenstein’s famous reference, in a letter to Moore, to Weininger’s “fantastic mistake.” We are to left imagine what these cultural giants of the 20th century could possibly have meant. That they were both deeply influenced by Weininger is now beyond doubt. In Wittgenstein’s case the admiration was open—to the deliberate embarrassment of his friends: we take him here to presuppose that some people’s “mistakes” are worth vastly more than much of what passes for the established truth of others. If Weininger was to be accused of error it would have to be sublime in its greatness. Freud in private correspondence pathologizes Weininger, but he also detected the young man’s extraordinary gifts, and it is not difficult to descry the fact that Freud was writing for most of his career against a background corrugated by Weininger’s wake—even if his own eventually obscured those waves. Again, we are left to sort out for ourselves what Weininger could have said that was both the product of an unbalanced, “sexually deranged” mind yet still remarkable enough to fascinate genius from one end of the globe to the other in no small measure, quite apart from his appeal to the semi-literate masses or the odd demagogue. (Editor’s note: See Weininger’s List, in preparation.)

We will assume that by “unbalanced” Freud meant that Weininger had come down too hard on women and Jews (Freud had little patience with Jewish self-hatred), that he had overstated his case—we make this assumption because it is the obvious one and we have little indication aside from characteristic gestures at postmortem psychoanalysis that Freud had something more manifold in mind. We have to conclude Freud’s overweening (though scarcely consistent) deference to empiricist principles, which Weininger had downgraded, was behind his inability to see the essentially logical and moral thrust of Weininger’s reductive claims. An appreciation for the imperative to self-transparency and the imaginative machinations necessary to counteract human inertia, including the application of radical self-hatred as an instrument of progress (not unlike Descartes’ hyperbolic doubt in epistemology but applied here to logic and ethics), is nowhere to be found on Freud’s palette. (Weininger’s Kierkegaardian mission was perhaps more apparent to Wittgenstein, who read Kierkegaard at his sister’s instigation as a young man and at about the same time as Weininger’s book first appeared).]

from a note added in 1915:

By studying sexual excitations other than those that are manifestly displayed, it has been found that all human beings are capable of making a homosexual object choice and have in fact made one in their unconscious.

It shows up in superficially non-libidinal attachments and associations, or “male-bonding”.

Normal heterosexual object choice is as much in need of explaining.

Citing Ferenczi Freud writes,

…a sharp distinction should at least be made between two types: ‘subject homo-erotics,’ who feel and behave like women, and ‘object homo-erotics,’ who are completely masculine and who have merely exchanged a female for a male object.

Experience of the cases that are considered abnormal has shown us that in them the sexual instinct and the sexual object are merely soldered together—a fact which we have been in danger of overlooking in consequence of the uniformity of the normal picture, where the object appears to form part and parcel of the instinct.

[Freud wants to loosen this presumed coordination in order to better understand the abnormal cases. This is consistent with Weininger’s claim that every atom of being was composed of masculine and feminine elements whose infinite variety of configuration leads not only to a spectrum of orientations but to subtle, though potentially significant, variations even among those that we are obliged to class together for the sake of convenience.]

Freud comments on the ancient Greek attitude toward homosexuality (in a 1910 note):

The most striking distinction between the erotic life of antiquity and our own no doubt lies in the fact that the ancients laid stress upon the instinct itself, whereas we emphasize its object. The ancients glorified the instinct and were prepared on its account to honour even an inferior object; while we despise the instinctual activity in itself, and find excuses for it only in the merits of the object.

Commenting on the overvaluation of the love object or the “credulity of love”:

The significance of the factor of sexual overvaluation can be best studied in men, for their erotic life alone has become accessible to research. That of women—partly owing to the stunting effect of civilized conditions and partly owing to their conventional secretiveness and insincerity—is still veiled in an impenetrable obscurity.

And in a 1920 note to the above:

In typical cases women fail to exhibit any sexual overvaluation towards men; but they scarcely ever fail to do so towards their own children.

[We must add: …except where the man is “adopted,” as it were, as something of a project to work upon, hers, in particular. Incorporated into an enlarged self, his status then cannot fail but suffer enhancement.

Still…Freud’s remark seems tinged with a slight resentment—that, perhaps, of a jealous child in contention with peers for a finite affection? Is it suggested as a fault in men that they have this liability where she has it less so? Or is it some merit on her part that only her children have it given them where he must earn it?

Or do both overvalue: but in proprietary ways characterized by different reasons? She overvalues by incorporating, he by abstracting from reality. What cannot enhance her absorbing self cannot be valued as such. What he cannot resist or succumb to cannot extort from him the necessary awe. She must envelope to love; he must keep at an arm’s length to appreciate.

A man who loves his mother cannot also help but be disgusted by her and his weakness before her. This is important to understand him: where there is no element of disgust there is no love. His experience of disgust serves a moral agenda. His love is akin to nostalgia, when its object is not in the offing.

For her part, she may be driven to incomprehension and coldness toward him when her patience is exhausted by his apparently unregenerate tendency to abstract or shy away from intimacy.]

Freud on disgust:

The limits of…disgust are, however, often purely conventional: a man who will kiss a pretty girl on the lips passionately, may perhaps be disgusted at the idea of using her tooth-brush, though there are no grounds for supposing that his own oral cavity, for which he feels no disgust, is any cleaner than the girl’s …. The sexual instinct in its strength enjoys overriding this disgust.

[Because her toothbrush in his mouth permits her molecules intimacy with his but without his assertion over her in anyway a problem arises for him. He wants to threaten the shape of her life: affect change beyond the outer limits of the corporal vehicle he inhabits: through pregnancy, instigating pleasure… or merely altering the course of history, but in no small way, through the use of her being, corporeal and otherwise, for she is his most potent instrument in that regard—even as he may resent being put in this position. The kiss he perceives as a first step on this path, his natural disgust—always there—with intimacy is nevertheless overwhelmed by the glories of the prospect of his cosmic assertion.

If and when she consents to share her full envelope, there will be betrayal all around and post coitum triste. She will have thought the intimacy true (an intersuffusion of being) when it was false and he will have been used by forces he in his heart of hearts resents. Nature, alone, will have its laugh.]

Foot-fetishism (the slipper as female and foot as male genital) and the repression of sexually charged smell.

Sublimation as the effortful concealment of sexual aim and the beautiful as “sexually stimulating.”

How “scopophilia” or pleasure in looking can become perversion when it fixates on genitalia to the exclusion of the rest of “the beautiful” or on overriding disgust in pure fascination with observing excretory functions or “if, instead of being preparatory to the normal sexual aim, it supplants it.”

“As regards active algolagnia, sadism, the roots are easy to detect in the normal. The sexuality of most male human beings contains an element of aggressiveness—a desire to subjugate; the biological significance of it seems to lie in the need for overcoming the resistance of the object by means other than the process of wooing.” [Rape, curiously, is not mentioned by name here as a perversion. It is a species of sadism, we gather, the quintessential one, perhaps.]

After remarking that masochism is a form of sadism turned inward, in a footnote two decades later, Freud writes,

I have been led to distinguish a primary of erotogenic masochism, out of which two later forms, feminine and moral masochism, have developed. Sadism which cannot find employment in actual life is turned round upon the subject’s own self and so produces a secondary masochism, which is superadded to the primary kind. [See also Freud’s “The Economic Problem of Masochism” (1924c).]

[The post-Weiningerian statement on moral masochism recalls what Weininger’s Freudian biographer, David Abrahamsen, called in Weininger “moral hypertrophy.”]

Freud wants to place sadism and masochism in a class separate from other perversions.

He links the sadism/masochism opposition with bisexuality. [Recall the importance Weininger (the notorious “bisexualist”) bestowed on the same opposition in his essay on Ibsen.]

The “perversions” are continuous with the normal.

Freud contends sexual perversion is a necessary but insufficient condition of abnormality in other areas of life:

This is especially so where (as, for instance, in cases of licking excrement or of intercourse with dead bodies) the sexual instinct goes to astonishing lengths in successfully overriding the resistances of shame, disgust, horror or pain. But even in such cases we should not be too ready to assume that people who act in this way will necessarily turn out to be insane or subject to grave abnormalities of other kinds. Here again we cannot escape from the fact that people whose behaviour is in other respects normal can, under the domination of the most unruly of all the instincts, put themselves in the category of sick persons in the single sphere of sexual life. On the other hand, manifest abnormality in the other relations of life can invariably be shown to have a background of abnormal sexual conduct.

When a perversion does more than merely accompany normal sexual aims and objects, but supplants them, only then, Freud asserts, are we justified in calling it “pathological”.

He quotes Goethe’s Faust in a letter to Fliess: “von Himmel durch die Welt zur Hölle” (from Heaven, across the world, to hell) as a way of evoking the continuity of the highest and the lowest in humanity.


By ‘instinct’ is provisionally to be understood the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation, as contrasted with a ‘stimulus’, which is set up by single excitations coming from without.

Contrectation and detumescence (Weininger also cites Moll):

The instinct of detumescence was described by Moll in (1898) as an impulse for the spasmodic relief of tension of the sexual organs, and the instinct of contrectation as an impulse to come into contact with another person.

In a later stricken addendum to the footnote above Freud wrote: “Strohmayer has very rightly inferred from a case under his observation that obsessive self-reproaches originate from suppressed sadistic impulses.” [Thus one gathers why Freud and some of his followers (Abrahamsen, in particular) would come to see moral hypertrophy or an “overdeveloped conscience” as diseased.]

Freud goes on to insist that constitutional and as well as environmental factors share in the making of neuroses. And this applies in other areas as well.

The conclusion now presents itself to us that there is indeed something innate lying behind the perversions but that it is something innate in everyone, though as a disposition it may vary in its intensity and may be increased by the influences of actual life.

[The general sentiment here—that while certain principles govern impulses and their limits universally, the placement of individual instances in a continuum between predetermined extremes is still subject to environmental contingencies—echoes Weininger’s Law of Sexual Attraction. Where Weininger restricted himself to homosexuality, Freud addresses a wider area of “perversions.” Weininger wanted to remove the unconstructive opprobrium surrounding his subject to direct our attention to principles that transcended any common moralisms. Freud, as moralist of the same higher Kierkegaardian order, seemed to want to do the same for the field of human diversity.]

Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III

Posted by luno in sexualities, Freud, philosophy and sex, sex differences, Weininger (Sunday August 12, 2007 at 3:09 pm)

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