In his On Dreams (1901), Sigmund Freud puts forward the fascinating theory that we do not sleep in order to dream but that we dream in order to sleep. The wish fulfilment the sleeper receives in the dream is a way for the mind to neutralise any disturbances that might awake the slumberer from their blissful reverie (p.693).
It’s not the main thing in a dream that’s the main thing but what Freud calls the ‘latent content’ of the dream that is most important, often something off-stage-left, so to speak; something symbolic which the unconscious mind is masking lest it be too disturbing to the conscious mind, or allowing the wish fulfilment to be neutralised through symbolism (p.654).
Indeed, in On Dreams Freud makes a somewhat convoluted analysis of one his own dreams in which the wife of a long lost acquaintance to which he had once owed money squeezing his knee under a restaurant table is interpreted as really being about his own insecurities regarding whether he was too generous and hence being taken for a mug (p.648). In another example, Freud recounts the dream of a client about overpaying a shopkeeper by 3 florins and 65 kreuzers as a sublimation of worries about paying for her daughter’s schooling and medical care for another 365 day of the year (p.669).
But can this dream analysis really be taken seriously? Isn’t the analyst just joining up the dots as they see fit while extracting a hefty fee at the same time?
I think Freud can be defended from the accusation of charlatanry here by drawing on the ideas of the early Greek thinkers — the pre-Socratics as they’re more commonly known — and in particular those of Parmenides (515 BC).
In contrast to the naturalistic and proto-scientific arguments of some of his forbears who tried to extrapolate general principles from what they observed in the world around them, Paremenides advocated a metaphysical logic in which arguments are valid as long as they make sense according to their own internal axioms, rather than relying on external empirical verification (Waterfield, 2009, p.49; Russell, 2001, p.66). I feel Freud’s method of dream analysis is operating in the realm of Parmenides’ metaphysical logic here, as although it can’t be proven scientifically dream analysis obviously has a deep resonance for many people and makes sense to them, otherwise it would not have made such an imprint on the popular mind. Indeed, in On Dreams the then contemporary scientific account of dreaming that Freud critiques — that dreams are totally random like the sounds generated from haphazardly bashing on piano keys (p.634) — sounds the least convincing.
Freud, S. (1901) On Dreams
Russell, B. (2001) History of Western Philosophy Routledge: London
Waterfield, R. (2009) The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists Oxford World Classics: Oxford