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Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Totem and Taboo. 1918.

Author’s Preface

THE ESSAYS treated here appeared under the subtitle of this book in the first numbers of the periodical “Imago” edited by me. They represent my first efforts to apply view-points and results of psychoanalysis to unexplained problems of racial psychology. In method this book contrasts with that of W. Wundt and the works of the Zurich Psychoanalytic School. The former tries to accomplish the same object through assumptions and procedures from non-analytic psychology, while the latter follow the opposite course and strive to settle problems of individual psychology by referring to material of racial psychology. I am pleased to say that the first stimulus for my own works came from these two sources.

I am fully aware of the shortcomings in these essays. I shall not touch upon those which are characteristic of first efforts at investigation. The others, however, demand a word of explanation. The four essays which are here collected will be of interest to a wide circle of educated people, but they can only be thoroughly understood and judged by those who are really acquainted with psychoanalysis as such. It is hoped that they may serve as a bond between students of ethnology, philology, folklore and of the allied sciences, and psychoanalysts; they cannot, however, supply both groups the entire requisites for such coöperation. They will not furnish the former with sufficient insight into the new psychological technique, nor will the psychoanalysts acquire through them an adequate command over the material to be elaborated. Both groups will have to content themselves with whatever attention they can stimulate here and there and with the hope that frequent meetings between them will not remain unproductive for science.

The two principle themes, totem and taboo, which gave the name to this small book are not treated alike here. The problem of taboo is presented more exhaustively, and the effort to solve it is approached with perfect confidence. The investigation of totemism may be modestly expressed as: “This is all that psychoanalytic study can contribute at present to the elucidation of the problem of totemism.” This difference in the treatment of the two subjects is due to the fact that taboo still exists in our midst. To be sure, it is negatively conceived and directed to different contents, but according to its psychological nature, it is still nothing else than Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” which tends to act compulsively and rejects all conscious motivations. On the other hand, totemism is a religio-social institution which is alien to our present feelings; it has long been abandoned and replaced by new forms. In the religions, morals, and customs of the civilized races of today it has left only slight traces, and even among those races where it is still retained, it has had to undergo great changes. The social and material progress of the history of mankind could obviously change taboo much less than totemism.

In this book the attempt is ventured to find the original meaning of totemism through its infantile traces, that is, through the indications in which it reappears in the development of our own children. The close connection between totem and taboo indicates the further paths to the hypothesis maintained here. And although this hypothesis leads to somewhat improbable conclusions, there is no reason for rejecting the possibility that it comes more or less near to the reality which is so hard to reconstruct.