The French wikipedia article on German romanticism mentions a very strong tie between Freud psychoanalysis and German romanticism.

German romantism is also said to have strong link with German idealism.

And I can recall that psychoanalysis has a lot of elements of Schopenhauer's philosophy (through Nietzsche, if I am not mistaken).

To me, Freudian psychoanalysis is indeed quite idealist, since a lot of emphasis is put on the mind only, and a lot less on the matter (how the body influences the mind state).

So :

(1) Was Freud psychoanalysis influenced by (German) idealism?

(2) If not, is it at least correct to see Freudian psychonalysis as more idealist than materialist?

Nb: I saw many sources on the Internet talking about the possible link, but my question is not really answered. (I am not sure about the point made in the abstract of the last link).





Maybe the most clear-cut response I could find is this one: "Although his understanding of reality tends to be more aligned with materialism, the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud recognizes idealist impulses in the human mind, as indicated by his accounts of idealization and the ideal ego." https://english.hawaii.edu/criticalink/plato/terms/idealism.html

But as alluded in my question, I can't see in what extent Freud can be seen as a materialist ever.

  • 1
    'Schopenhauer's philosophy' replaces 'Schopenhauer philosophy' in my edit.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 14:55
  • i studied at a.uni that was big on psychoanalysis, and while i am sympathetic to the idea that "Freud... [cannot] be seen as a materialist ever" i can't see it and suspect you're importing some false mind-body relation of your own into the question
    – user64448
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 19:10
  • 1
    I am not sure where you got the idea that strong tie = shared beliefs. Marx's "strong tie" was Hegel, and they couldn't be further apart on metaphysics. And a staunchest materialist can put emphasis on the mind if that is their subject of study, i.e. psychology. Freud was strongly influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, etc., because they wrote deep things about human psyche, not because he shared their metaphysics. The debate is over whether he was a materialist or a dualist, nobody thinks he was an idealist.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 6:45
  • @Conifold Thank you very much. A materialist which is often seen as a romanticist, an existentialist, and a vitalist is still a materialist of a very original sort.... What about the writings that see Freud psychoanalysis as very Kantian?
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 7:39
  • I don't know if Sartre ever attacked Freud directly, but he seemed to be consistent in his hostility of the notion of the subconscious. Of course it is interesting Sartre's first book was on Husserl.
    – Gordon
    Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 4:43

3 Answers 3


No. Freud was very influenced by Schopenhauer, but most philosophers do not consider him a German Idealist, he is usually classified as an anti-Hegelian heretic. Freud deals with Schopenhauer's theory of dreams in the beginning of his 1900 revolutionary "Interpretation of dreams". He also liked Nietzsche's introspective insights and literary style, but philosophically Nietzsche's influence on Freud was minimal.

As for your second question, he was neither. Freud was a phenomenologist, and phenomenology is between materialism and idealism. Phenomenology saw materialism and idealism as wrong philosophies that make assumptions that can never be given in real experience. Physical matter (hyletic data) and platonic ideas (eidos) are horizons that we can approach, but we can never cross the boundary to actually reach them in human experience, like the concept of limit in calculus.

As a young man Freud attended philosophical lectures given by Franz Brentano for 2 years. Most philosophers miss this crucial fact, but Brentano was a major influence on Freud's whole way of thinking, and psychoanalysis originated from phenomenology, although by 1910 both disciplines have totally parted ways. For Freud, phenomena of the mind are intentional acts. For example, libido is not a vague sexual instinct like it was for Schopenhauer, for Freud sexual desire is always directed at a particular individual of the opposite sex. Dreams are also neoteic intentional acts, that have wish fulfillments as their intentional objects (noema in Husserl's terminology).

Regarding psychoanalysis being scientific or pseudo-scientific, the answer in once again in Freud's connection to phenomenology. Brentano thought that empirical science (not to be confused with materialist science) is the only correct way to do philosophy / psychology, while German Idealism is mysticism, and it was all due to Kant. Hegel, Fichte and Schelling just magnified Kant's mistakes, and Schopenhauer's philosophy did not make any improvements either (Schopenhauer said that he is the only one to advance Kant's philosophy), and Nietzsche was as bad as it gets, according to Brentano. Freud likewise wanted to distance himself from German Idealism (because it was not scientific), and when he first began to disagree with Jung, he accused Jung of 'mysticism'.

  • 1
    To be honest, I understand very little what phenomenology is talking about. But the link you point between phenomenology and Freud seems very interesting and credible to me. Would have any references on this matter to look at?
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 14:39
  • 1
    I indeed read that Freud psychoanalysis came directly from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But then I don't see how psychoanalysis can be taken seriously as a scientific theory, since neither Schopenhauer nor Nietzsche are scientists (additionnally, both believed in the superiority of the artists (over scientists and/or other human beings))
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 14:45
  • 1
    @Starckman Hint: Psychoanalysis cannot be taken seriously as a scientific theory. That is why the currently practiced psychoanalytical therapy practice only very loosely resembles Freud Sr. or even his daughter Anna's work. Because modern psychology is very much built on empirical science and found out Freud is not exactly fitting well with empirical evidence.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 18:35
  • 1
    @PhilipKlöcking You are absolutely right and your comment is very useful. In France (and Argentina), Freud is still extremely influential. It is mandatory in the high school curriculum, that is, it must be taught and learned to prepare the final high school exam. It is very difficult to criticize Freud (and its French updated version Jacques Lacan). You find his theories almost everywhere in the media when they talk about psychology. For instance in the U.S. (Youtube channels, etc.), bad people are called "narcissists", which is a scientific term.
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 23:59
  • 1
    But in France, they are called "pervers narcissique", which is a psychoanalytic concept, and this is taken extremely seriously. And "psychanalysts" are pervasive.
    – Starckman
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 23:59

If you lump materialism in with physicalism, then Freud certainly had materialist thinking. The TLDR is Feudian theories ground thought in the body. Radical idealism rejects the body exists, and moderate German views of the period claim that the link between mind and body is at best a correlation. Consider Freud's academic training:

Freud entered the University of Vienna at age 17. He had planned to study law, but joined the medical faculty at the university, where his studies included philosophy under Franz Brentano, physiology under Ernst Brücke, and zoology under Darwinist professor Carl Claus.[20] In 1876, Freud spent four weeks at Claus's zoological research station in Trieste, dissecting hundreds of eels in an inconclusive search for their male reproductive organs.[21] In 1877, Freud moved to Ernst Brücke's physiology laboratory where he spent six years comparing the brains of humans and other vertebrates with those of frogs and invertebrates such as crayfish and lampreys. His research work on the biology of nervous tissue proved seminal for the subsequent discovery of the neuron in the 1890s.[22] Freud's research work was interrupted in 1879 by the obligation to undertake a year's compulsory military service.

So, Freud was clearly a scientist in the sense of late-19th century German philosophy and science, arguably one of the world's most active and innovative places for psychological research. Remember, for clinical psychologists today, the two big names in the origins of modern psychology are Freud and Wundt, who opened the world's first research lab and is the considered by most many sources as the father of experimental psychology. Freud and his ideas are controversial today, and he and his doctrines are often seen as pseudoscientific. If you read Why Freud Was Wrong (GB), you'll find it a scathing review of him and his ideas, though his ideas have been tremendously influential and inspired existentialists as well as modern day psychoanalysts.

Philosophically, there were many thinkers during his day who rejected any connection between logical thinking and psychology, a view Kant promulgated in his Introduction to Logic which is part of the German philosophical exploration between the mind and the body which followed in the wake of Kant's Critiques and his transcendental idealism. While Freud wasn't part of the debate on logicism, the reduction of logic to human thought, Freud did promulgate views that grounded human thought in human biology. Consider:

  • Freud was a neurologist. As primitive as neurology was then compared to now, neurology is a physical science, and Freud exploited the science in his own views.
  • Freud's model of thinking was mechanistic and used the metaphor of physical pressure to describe it's function. Counter to Descartes and rationalism, he believed there were aspects of the mind that were a function of the brain and that were not accessible to introspection. That stands in distinction to the idealism of Berkeley in which the material didn't exist at all. Freud's thinking could be thought to be in the model of Newtonian mechanism, the idea that mathematical Laws of Nature govern everything, including thought. This might be the heart of the physicalist program: reduce everything, including thought to deductive, mathematical laws.
  • Freud specifically thought biological instincts shaped thoughts. In particular, Freud was a believer that one's training of bowels (anal retentiveness and expulsiveness) affected one's personality, and that sexual impulses drove other subconscious decision making. It's very materialist to have reductionist theories of mind to body, and to accept mental causation.
  • Freud's methodology of therapy was the methodology of medical doctors. To this day, it annoys humanist-centered talk therapists to see fellow psychologists to pathologize their clients' thinking. This practice clearly has roots in Freudian thinking. It's not uncommon to hear psychologists today use the term "present" for instance to describe thoughts and behavior much as infectious disease specialists do. This tendency reached an extreme and created an antipsychiatry backlash in the 60's and 70's and has morphed into positive psychology movement today.

My answer is already way longer than I want, but I'll just repeat at this point. Despite being pseudoscientific by today's standards, in the context of his historical period, Sigmund Freund qua neurologist was very much a physicalist who sought to reduce explanations of the mind to those of the body, and show how the mind supervened on the brain. Such thinking was dominant until behaviorism displaced that sort of thinking rejecting the mental entirely in its radical form, and came back in vogue to some extent among the cognitive psychology paradigm shift when operationalism and behaviorism fell out of favor.

  • From what I was able to find on the Internet, Freud psychoanalysis has many sources: Enlightenment rationalism, empiricism, and as your answer described precisely (see also the quote in my question), materialism. But as for the final major features of Freudian psychoanalysis, I could find from commentaries that Freudian psychoanalysis is very much Kantian, romanticist and existentialist, even irrationalistic vitalist.
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 2:23
  • "If you read Why Freud Was Wrong (GB)", the book Le livre noir de la psychanalyse (fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Livre_noir_de_la_psychanalyse) seems more inclined to see Freud, not as a pseudo-scientist based on today's standards, but as a pseudo-scientist, period. It is written in French, but gathers articles by many specialists all over the world, including the US, Canada, Netherlands
    – Starckman
    Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 2:31

I will mention philosopher Eduard von Hartmann. As far as Death Drive or Todestrieb, I understand it flowed from von Hartmann through Sabina Spielrein to Freud. There used to be an article on this on the Internet, but I can’t find it. H. Marcuse later on had developed a very good understanding of Freud. For those wanting a good explanation of the Death Drive, see the first part of this book; The flight into inwardness : an exposition and critique of Herbert Marcuse's theory of liberative aesthetics by Lukes, Timothy J., 1950 Internet Archive

I’m pretty sure that Eduard von Hartmann had a direct influence on Freud as well.

  • 1
    I think DK's answer is much better than my info-bit
    – Gordon
    Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 4:48

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .