Freud in Cambridge

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John Forrester, Laura Cameron
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     812 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John Forrester, the late historian of psychoanalysis, was Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge. He was the author of many books on the history of psychoanalysis. His co-author, Laura Cameron, is Associate Professor of Historical Geography at Queen’s University, Canada, and is the author of Openings (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997) and other works.

Freud himself never visited Cambridge, even after his departure from Vienna to London in 1938. Decades earlier he had visited Manchester, Blackpool, and Southport. He loved England and, when he came to London to spend his remaining years, was greeted with a level of adulation that he had never garnered in Vienna. 

Freud had an enormous influence on Cambridge academics, intellectuals, and cultural figures, and that influence is the subject of this richly researched book. Many of the Cambridge Freudians actually had an analysis with Freud in Vienna. In one year (1922) 40 percent of his patients were from Cambridge! And no ordinary patients were they. Forrester and Cameron describe the scores of luminaries who were Cambridge followers.

James Strachey, who, together with his wife, Alix, became the general editor of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, were both in analysis with Freud. Their translation, despite criticism of the substitution of scientific terms for some of Freud’s own German vernacular, has remained the authoritative translation of Freud into English. 

John Rickman, also analyzed by Freud, became a practicing psychoanalyst, and a key figure in the British Psychoanalytic Society. Joan Riviere, also a practicing analyst, was analyzed by Ernest Jones and then Freud himself. She in turn analyzed famous figures. She also contributed to the translation of Freud into English.

Arthur Tansley, with whom Forrester begins, was a famous botanist and a pioneering ecologist. He coined the term “ecosystem.” In 1920 he wrote a bestselling introduction to psychoanalysis: The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life. He too was analyzed by Freud. Forrester’s co-author, Laura Cameron, wrote her doctoral dissertation on Tansley. Forrester and Cameron deem him the main figure in the development of psychoanalysis in Cambridge.

W.H.R. Rivers, physiologist, anthropologist, and psychologist, was Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at St. John’s College, Cambridge. He applied psychoanalysis to the treatment of shell-shocked British soldiers in World War I. He participated in the first and most famous anthropological expedition—to the Torres Straits. He was smitten with Freud, especially in the interpretation of dreams, but he sought to make sexuality a less than central aspect of Freud’s theories. That he never accepted his own latent homosexuality is the common view of him.

J.D. Bernal, a leading historian of science, combined Freudian psychology with Marxism—a not uncommon mix, even in the face of Freud’s own scorn for Marxism as utopian. Lionel Penrose, a polymath, revolutionized the field of genetics. Initially committed to psychoanalysis, he eventually turned to other interests. 

John Maynard Keynes, the economist, was taken with psychoanalysis yet was ambivalent toward it. He maintained that Freudian tenets appealed to intuition rather than to rational argument. Yet he used psychoanalytic imagery in writing about economics. He offered a psychoanalytic economics. Forrester and Cameron put it aptly: “Keynes was a psychologist of economics before he became a Freudian; but Freud was ideally suited to the kind of portrait of the bourgeoisie and its unconscious character traits that Keynes’s economics required” (488).

There were not a few Wittgensteinian psychoanalysts. The most celebrated, though one who died too young to develop his Freudian interests, was the philosopher Frank Ramsey. Wittgenstein himself was impressed by Freud’s “genius” but dismissed his arguments as fraudulent. Wittgensteinian philosophers were sometimes praised and sometimes scorned for treating philosophy as a brand of psychoanalysis.

Even the severest critics of psychoanalysis, such as Adolf Wohlgemuth in his A Critical Examination of Psycho-Analysis (1923), were drawn into debate by the appeal of the doctrines. They were in effect arguing with themselves.

Forrester and Cameron describe the transformation of psychoanalysis in the UK from a group of amateurs, trained in other fields and continuing to practice them, into a formal profession. They describe Freudian organizations in detail—notably, the Malting House Garden School, a children’s school which, while primarily inspired by the educational theory of John Dewey, was much influenced by Freud. The chief figure in the school was the psychoanalytic educator Susan Isaacs.

This outstanding book should be read together with Philip Kuhn’s Histories and Historiography (Lexington Books, 2017). Both books challenge the conventional view that British psychoanalysis was created in London and was the work of Ernest Jones and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. Other places and persons also played a key part, argue Forrester and Cameron. Both Kuhn and Forrester and Cameron show that psychoanalysis took hold in Britain fare more fully than it did in Continental Europe—more so perhaps than anywhere else outside of the United States. Psychoanalysis found a place not only in high culture but also in popular culture. So many cultural domains were affected. The credit goes above all not to Jones or to medical doctors but to lay persons from varied walks of life taken with both the boldness and the applicability of Freud’s thinking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert A. Segal is Sixth Century Chair in Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Forrester (1949–2015) was Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and Head of the HPS department for seven years. He was Editor of the journal Psychoanalysis and History from 2005 to 2014, and authored Freud's Women (with Lisa Appignanesi, 1992), Dispatches from the Freud Wars (1997) and Truth Games (1997), amongst other titles. He published over fifty papers in scholarly journals, principally concerned with the history and philosophy of psychoanalysis. His work on cases as a genre and as a style of reasoning was posthumously published as Thinking in Cases (2016).

Laura Cameron is Associate Professor of Historical Geography at Queen's University, Kingston, Canada. She is the author of Openings: A Meditation on History, Method and Sumas Lake (1997), the co-editor of Emotion, Place and Culture (2009) and Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness (2011), and has published numerous papers on the history of fieldwork, psychoanalysis, ecology and sound.


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