Book Review – Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani, The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis (Cambridge Univ. Press 2012)

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani, The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis (Cambridge Univ. Press 2012)

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Making Minds and Madness: From Hysteria to Depression (Cambridge Univ. Press 2009)


By Simon Taylor

Beginning with the French publication of The Freudian Subject in 1982, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen has established himself as one of this generation’s foremost historians of psychoanalysis. Strongly influenced by the intellectual atmosphere of late-1970s France – including the thought of his teachers Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy – his work is known for its dense theoretical expositions, close readings, and forensic attention to detail. It has also, from the beginning, been characterized by a relentless and penetrating critique of Freud and the psychoanalytic endeavour as a whole; as early as The Freudian Subject, Borch-Jacobsen declared that, “All this (psychoanalysis, in short) was nothing but a great egoistic dream” bolstered not only by Freud himself, but also by “the throng of parricidal listeners and readers.” (239) He has, if anything, become more strident in his criticism since then, most notably in his work on hypnosis and his deconstruction of the “first analysis,” Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification. Taken together, the two works under review – The Freud Files, co-written by the equally prominent Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani, and a collection of essays dating from 1994-2008 entitled Making Minds and Madness – constitute something approaching Borch-Jacobsen’s definitive statement on Freud and his legacy.


The Freud Files takes the form of a full-frontal assault on what the authors, following the example of Henri Ellenberger and Frank Sulloway, refer to as the “Freudian legend.” The legend, at least as Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani conceive it, consists of two separate elements: the myth of Freud’s self-analysis and what they refer to as the “immaculate conception” of psychoanalysis. Combined, these myths constitute nothing less than a complete rewriting of the historical record, a sleight of hand that subsequent generations of analysts, historians, and the public at large have been complicit in perpetrating. In tandem with the sequestering of the Sigmund Freud Archives – a cache of material protected by an extraordinary set of restrictions engineered, according to the authors, to ensure that the true record of the birth of psychoanalysis would remain off-limits to all but the faithful “guardians” (28) of Freud’s legacy and justified by the spurious demands of patient confidentiality – these myths have for many decades deliberately placed the Freudian legend beyond the scrutiny of historians. “For a discipline concerned with the past,” the authors note, “psychoanalysis is strangely allergic to its own history.” (32)

Much of The Freud Files is devoted to undermining the myths that bolster the legend. Let us take them in turn, beginning with the immaculate conception. Although virtually every aspect of Freud’s theory that we take to be distinctively psychoanalytic had been formulated by his predecessors or contemporaries – from Schopenhauer’s adumbration of repression and the sexology of Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis to Hartmann’s “philosophy of the unconscious” and Breuer and Anna O.’s development of the “talking cure” – Freud and his followers first argued, and then simply affirmed again and again, that these sources had played no role in the development of psychoanalysis. Indeed, by his own account, it was not until “very late in [his] life” that Freud even read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (106). Alfred Tauber has recently demonstrated the extent to which Freud’s professions of philosophical ignorance were a fabrication, and Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani are unequivocal in their assessment of Freud’s claims to “theoretical virginity”: the history that Freud so carefully constructed is nothing more than “a fable, a scientific fairytale” designed to “establish [his] autocratic political authority through affirming the absolute originality of the theory.” (106-7)

Another crucial aspect of Freud’s attempt to affirm “exclusive rights over his creation” (106) were his claims that 1) he had carried out a successful self-analysis; and 2) that this self-analysis could not – in either a technical or a moral sense – be replicated by anyone else. Freud used the first claim – the example of his self-analysis, where analysis entailed not merely observing but actively curing oneself, as Freud claimed to have done – to insist that all psychoanalysts submit to their own analysis as a prerequisite of professional development; he used the second claim to insist that such analyses could only be carried out by an external authority. As the “primal analyst,” (38) this left Freud in an incredibly powerful position, especially in the initial years of psychoanalysis: as the only authority capable of dispensing analysis, Freud established himself as the profession’s gatekeeper.

In one stroke, Freud had cemented his own position at the top of the psychoanalytic hierarchy and delegitimized the authority of his rivals. He had, furthermore, simultaneously insulated himself from any attempts at being analysed by others – which would both call into question Freud’s own omniscience and strengthen the hand of his rivals – and reserved for himself a monopoly on diagnosing the (alleged) psychopathologies of others, a power that Freud and his followers made liberal use of in their disputes with Adler, Rank, Jung, et al. It is important to understand that Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani’s point here is epistemological as well as institutional: “Freud’s self-analysis,” they write, “became the central pillar of psychoanalytic theory. Without it, psychoanalysis would collapse into a chaos of rival interpretations, with no means to adjudicate between them.” (52) Unsurprisingly, however, the authors conclude that what they term Freud’s “heroic self-analysis” “never took place.” (54)

It is not so much that Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani doubt that self-analysis is possible, as they doubt that analysis of any kind is possible. Freud’s self-analysis, like all psychoanalytic case studies, was nothing more than a “retrospective construction.” (54) Indeed, this is the most that psychoanalysis can ever hope for. As Borch-Jacobsen argues in an essayentitled “Is Psychoanalysis a Fairy-Tale?” – the answer, it may not surprise you to learn, is a resounding yes – psychoanalytic case-studies are nothing more than “historical novels or romanticized biographies” (Making Minds, 151) in the vein of Zweig or Balzac, what the novelist Paul Auster once referred to as “the anecdote as a form of knowledge.” To use the slightly clumsy neologism coined by Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani, these case studies represent “interprefactions,” (144-45) a reificatory process through which “Freud created facts with words.” (Making Minds, ix)

The debunking of Freud’s case-studies, beginning with his own, is the most convincing section of The Freud Files: especially impressive is the manner in which Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani complement their epistemological critique with a highly controlled and precise use of archival material. There are times, however, when the sheer volume of archival and primary source material threatens to overwhelm and even undermine the argument. The authors have employed what they describe as a “polyphonic” approach to quotation, which in practice entails “deliberately cho[osing] to cite excerpts in extenso, letting the historical actors speak in their own voices.” (28)

Although the logic behind this method is sound – the material, lying behind the lock and key of the Freud archives, was so difficult to access and offers such a radically different interpretation of the origins of psychoanalysis that only direct and extensive quotation can do it justice – this maximalist approach can at times lend The Freud Files the appearance of a Renaissance commonplace book. Furthermore, and contrary to the apparent expectations of the authors, many of the passages quoted do not speak for themselves. Perhaps more damagingly, the sheer volume of critical material produced to dismantle Freud’s claims has the paradoxical effect of serving to, if not necessarily justify, then certainly explicate, the defensive and revisionary strategies of Freud and his disciples: faced with overwhelming hostility (painstakingly catalogued by Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani) from the established medical and psychiatric authorities, Freud’s efforts to carve out a position of professional security and prestige, and his subsequent policing of those boundaries, come across as unsurprising, even understandable.

More troublingly still, the argument of The Freud Files at times resembles little more than a sustained ad hominem attack on the integrity and character of Freud and his followers. No doubt Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani would counter that in a discipline as intimately bound up with the personality of its founder as psychoanalysis – a body of knowledge that, after all, regards the introspective reflections of its progenitor as both foundational and paradigmatic – such a strategy is not only fair game but inescapable. The problem with this line of argument is that it presupposes that psychoanalysis is nothing more than a series of case studies and personal anecdotes. It is, however, equally plausible to argue that psychoanalysis is nothing less than the series of extraordinary metapsychological papers, bookended by “Formulations Regarding the Two Principles in Mental Functioning” and “Mourning and Melancholia,” that Freud published between, roughly, 1911-1917.

The total omission of Freud’s metapsychology is especially problematic given the severity of the authors’ conclusions: psychoanalysis, they declare, is “Nothing – or nearly nothing […]: it is a ‘machine’, a ‘whatsit’, a ‘thingumajig’ which can serve to designate anything, an empty theory in which one can cram whatever one likes.” (303) More striking still are their claims about the implications for the contemporary practice of psychoanalysis: “one could say that psychoanalysis, in a certain sense, no longer exists – or rather, never did.” (307). Borch-Jacobsen reaches similar conclusions in a number of essays contained within Making Minds, including the aforementioned “Fairy-Tale” and a piece entitled “Interprefactions: Freud’s Legendary Science” (co-written with Shamdasani) that informs much of the methodology of The Freud Files, from which we learn that “what Freud actually did […] was to form a self-confirming apparatus which could produce, suggest evidence for whatever theory one liked.” (Making Minds, 171). In “Simulating the Unconscious” Borch-Jacobsen concludes that “there is no ‘psychic reality’ to discover or to describe in the subject, only realities to produce and to negotiate with him.” (Making Minds, 136).

These are huge claims, as befits a book of the scope, ambition, and prodigious scholarship of The Freud Files. For, despite the criticisms above, the monograph and essay collection under review constitute a formidable and, for the most part, highly persuasive critique of Freud and his legacy; indeed, this review can only hint at the depth of argumentation and rich analysis contained within their pages. Nevertheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that Borch-Jacobsen’s dismantling of the psychoanalytic edifice is perhaps a little too thorough, even as its implications remain underdeveloped. Assuming that we accept the logic of his criticisms, what are we left with? What is the mind? What is mental illness beyond constructivism? Nothing? Something? There are a number of contemporary philosophers, neurologists, and psychologists who offer potential answers to these questions, but Borch-Jacobsen isn’t one of them. As an historian, perhaps he feels justified in not having to engage with such questions. Equally, however, as an historian of psychoanalysis he has, or ought to have, a vested interest in offering alternative paths for investigation. After all, if, as Borch-Jacobsen argues in the methodological essay that opens Making Minds, mental illness is nothing more than a particularly complex and fluid social construct – an open dialogue between analyst, patient, and society at large – what more is there to say on the subject? In order to answer what then becomes the truly pressing question – why does a given form or manifestation of “illness” establish itself as the predominant mode of mental expression in a particular time and place? – we must surely seek an answer beyond the confines of the history of the psyences. We must become cultural historians: that is the true implication of a history that denies the existence of the object it studies.


Simon Taylor is a graduate student in the Department of History at Columbia University. He specializes in modern European intellectual history, particularly the history of philosophy and the psyences. He is writing his dissertation on the medicalization of the concept of anxiety. Simon previously reviewed Alfred Tauber’s Freud, The Reluctant Philosopher for h-madness.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani, The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis (Cambridge Univ. Press 2012)

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