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Totem and Taboo is a formal intellectual essay which elaborates on ideas fundamental to Sigmund Freud’s theories of the developmental structure of the personality and its relation to the nature of human society. Specifically, it examines the origins of modern social institutions (such as the family), religion, law, myth and totemism, the incest taboo, and exogamy. The essay is divided into four major sections which deal with various aspects of primitive society. In order to understand how Freud derived the themes contained in Totem and Taboo, a word concerning his overall theories of the psyche should be said first.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Freud, a Viennese neurologist, began to explore the phenomenon of the unconscious through techniques of hypnosis, free verbal association, and the analysis of his patients’ dreams. The unconscious is the repository of strong elemental desires which influence much of the individual’s behavior. The conscious, rational self is much like the tip of an iceberg; below the surface irrational urges dictate, he suggested, a large proportion of the choices a human being makes. In his Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), he theorized that certain elemental wishes and desires were unacceptable and were subsequently repressed or sublimated through the symbolism of the dream process.

Freud came to posit in his subsequent writings a genetic structure for the personality. The newborn infant is an organism dominated by the Id, a center of libidinal, or (broadly speaking) sexualized, energy that demands immediate gratification of its elemental desire for pleasure (the release of states of tension). This instinctive condition Freud called the pleasure principle (Lustprinzip). The constraints of human existence, as well as those of society, mean that such demands cannot always be met. A sense of identity, or self—the Ego—develops in the infant; the Ego is in part formed by such frustrations and the neurotic blocks that mark them.

These blocks (or cathexes) often accompany the socialization of the individual to what Freud called the reality principle (Vernunftsprinzip), the demands of physical and social existence that necessitate the sublimation or repression of libidinal desires. The reality principle is transmitted through the agents of socialization and civilization—that is, parents, teachers, religions, and governments. This transmission is accomplished primarily through commands, prohibitions, guilt, and punishment. A sense of conscience—the Superego—develops in the individual and serves to restrict prohibited behaviors.

The infant also undergoes a maturation process in which the locus of bodily pleasure changes in the organism. During infancy and early childhood, the anal and oral orifices are tension-charged areas because of the physical necessity to defecate and eat. As the child grows, pleasure centers shift to the genital region. There are, however, problematic areas during this stage of development, and here Freud introduced the Oedipus complex, an aspect of the neurotic male personality. The infant’s psychology is for Freud the most intense in the life of the individual, and the relationship of the male child to the mother is crucial. According to Freud, the son comes to perceive himself as being in competition with the father for the mother’s love. That produces anger and jealousy toward the father figure as well as fear and guilt because of the son’s desire to eliminate him. The Oedipus complex develops in all male children but is overcome by most men when love and sexuality are transferred to adult females outside the family unit. If this issue remains unresolved within the male personality, then a neurotic fixation develops. Freud focused for the most part on the development of the male personality and gave less attention to the female psyche and the possible neurotic fixations on the father—the Electra complex—that may develop. He called his method of investigation “psychoanalysis” and claimed that therapy based on his ideas could cure the problems of the neurotic personality.


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Benjamin, Nelson, ed. Freud and the Twentieth Century, 1957.

Brown, J.A.C. “Psychoanalysis and Society,” in Freud and the Post-Freudians, 1961.

Huxley, Francis. “Psychoanalysis and Anthropology,” in Freud and the Humanities, 1985.

Levin, Gerald. “Neurosis and Culture,” in Sigmund Freud, 1975.

Roheim, Geza. Psychoanalysis and Anthropology, 1950.

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