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Explaining Freud’s concept of the uncanny

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According to his friend and biographer Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud was fond regaling him with “strange or uncanny experiences with patients.” Freud had a “particular relish” for such stories.2019 marks the centenary of the publication of Freud’s essay, “The ‘Uncanny”. Although much has been written on the essay during that time, Freud’s concept of the uncanny is often not well understood. Typically, Freud’s theory of the uncanny is referred to under the heading of “the return of the repressed.” But Freud also offered another, more often overlooked, explanation for why we experience certain phenomena as uncanny. This has to do with the apparent confirmation of “surmounted primitive beliefs.”According to this theory, we all inherit, both from our individual and collective pasts, certain beliefs in animistic and magical phenomena—such as belief in the existence of spirits—which most of us, Freud thought, have largely, but not totally, surmounted. “As soon as something actually happens in our lives,” Freud wrote, which seems to confirm a surmounted primitive belief, we get a feeling of the uncanny. Not only must the phenomenon be experienced as taking place in reality, however, it must also bring about uncertainty about what is real. As Freud put it, the phenomenon must bring about “a conflict of judgement as to whether things which been ‘surmounted’ and are regarded as incredible may not, after all, be possible.”Consider some examples. Apparent acts of telepathy and precognition can appear to confirm belief in the omnipotence of thoughts. Waxworks and other highly lifelike human figures can appear to affirm belief in the animism—the doctrine that everything is imbued with a living soul.A remarkable illustration of Freud’s theory can be found in Carl Jung’s autobiography. In 1909, during a meeting between Jung and Freud, Jung “had a curious sensation,” as if his “diaphragm were made of iron and were becoming red-hot—a glowing vault.” “And at that moment,” Jung wrote,. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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