Totem and Taboo Essay - Critical Context

Sigmund Freud

Critical Context

Without such a system of symbolic displacement of violent emotions, social order—and therefore civilization—would have been impossible. The notion that civilization is based on the sublimation of instinctive urges represents a central Freudian idea that was developed at length in Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930; Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930). In Totem and Taboo, Freud sets out to illustrate how certain ideas fundamental to his early views of the personality— particularly that of the Oedipus complex—can be found within the ritual patterns of less developed cultures; the book is an application of psychoanalytic theory to the field of anthropology. This book was written to provide more evidence that psychoanalytical theories can account for all varieties and historical stages of human behavior. These ideas concerning the psychological origins of primitive religion presented in Totem and Taboo are also expanded upon (in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition) in Freud’s later work Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion: Drei Abhandlungen (1937-1939; Moses and Monotheism, 1939). He clearly had realized relatively early that his ideas concerning the individual psyche were applicable to broader areas of human activity.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud broadens the scope of his work from the structure of the individual personality to the history of cultural and societal development. This book has had important ramifications for subsequent theories of unconscious psychological mechanisms operating within certain social institutions—such as politics and warfare, justice and the legal system, religious belief and ritual organization. For example, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) is a good example of the application of Freudian ideas to political theories of social and economic development. Also, Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) represents the use of Freudian concepts in the area of Marxist literary theory and interpretation.