Freud and Darwin: The Evolution of Speculative Science

It is fitting that Sigmund Freud was born a generation later than Charles Darwin, because Freud does not just build on Darwin’s work in regards to the theories of natural selection, but also in regards to the spirit behind the work.

Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution relied heavily on the assertion of a hypothesis that was not the simplest answer to the question of where do species come from. Where his peers concluded that there was no more logical answer than the spontaneous emergence of individual species, Darwin considered the observations, records, and data collected from his trip around the world and chose to suggest the existence of a state of nature that he could not actually see, but that would more completely describe natural history. For his work, his peers lauded his mind, but often rejected his results, citing the ease of believing their own pre-existing theories that did not rely on filling in the blanks of natural history. Darwin’s contemporaries did not see how anyone could speculate so broadly, and still conduct fruitful science. For them, science required drawing logical conclusions from precise observations; if you could not specifically see the behavior or phenomena you were discussing, you could not assume its existence.  It was only after being given sufficient time to review Darwin’s work and the robustness of his proposed theories, that some other scientists in the nineteenth century began to voice their agreement with Darwin, accepting that his speculative approach did not violate the tenants of good science.

However, Darwin’s influence on the physical and even the social sciences became more and more apparent as time progressed into the 20th Century. During the period from 1900-1930, science, as a whole, began to advance rapidly, with more and more figures taking up Darwin’s mantle of theorizing on what could not be directly observed. This acceptance of the theoretical was crucial for the acceptance of Freud’s own work. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud acknowledges as much when he writes:

But have we any right to assume that the original type of feeling survives alongside the later one which has developed from it?

Undoubtedly we have: there is nothing unusual in such a phenomenon, whether in the. psychological or in other spheres. Where animals are concerned, we hold the view that the most highly developed have arisen from the lowest. Yet we still find all the simple forms alive today. The great saurians are extinct and have made way for the mammals, but a typical representative of them, the crocodile, is still living among -4- us. The analogy may be too remote, and it is also weakened by the fact that the surviving lower species are not as a rule the true ancestors of the present-day more highly developed types. The intermediate members have mostly died out and are known to us only through reconstruction. (3-4).

As Freud acknowledges in his reference to reconstruction, he needs his readers to accept the premise that they can intellectually rebuild the structures and instances that he is describing. He needs them follow him in speculation. Without a willingness to speculate on the unobservable, Freud’s theories of the mind, from which he extrapolates his theories on the evolution of culture and society are cannot seem even the least bit reasonable, as we have no way to actually see what is occurring in the mind; we have no way to make precise measurements or draw definitive conclusions. The leaps of faith that Freud is asking us to make may not be as large as Darwin’s, but they are there none-the-less, demonstrating an increase in the acceptance of speculation in science, but also the ways in which scholars and scientists like Freud continued to challenge conventions in their fields. In accepting Darwin and his methodologies, which is to say accepting and pushing the limits of speculation, Freud was able to push psychology towards the more scientific and biology driven field it is today. To some degree, it would be fair to call Freud the Darwin of Psychology because of the ways in which he challenged the assumptions of his peers.

The ironic twist here, though, is that in the evolution of Darwin’s acceptance in the scientific community, culminating in Freud’s use of Darwin as a justification for speculating on the mind, his work is used more and more frequently to support off-base science. As we know, many of Freud’s theories were debunked as Psychology developed into a more precise and accurate science. So, even while Freud is very much the spiritual successor of Darwin, we can see the potential problems for science that arose out of the reasonable use of speculation to develop theories that were proven to be untrue later. Today, science still grapples with this problem in the public sphere, where unproven theories make it hard for some individuals to accept what the scientific community did over a century ago: natural selection.

To Speculate Darkly

If you caught this year’s Walter Harding lecture by Prof. Pier Gabrielle Foreman, “To Speculate Darkly: Slavery, Black Visual Culture, and the Promises and Problems of Print,” you may be interested in visiting the website of the art exhibit from which the lecture’s title is drawn.

To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter was an exhibit hosted by The Milwaukee Art Museum in 2010.

Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates explains the origins and aims of the exhibit in this video on his website. As Gates explains, the exhibit

explores the history and legacy of Dave Drake (also known as Dave the Potter). A slave in antebellum South Carolina, Drake produced stoneware pottery and famously adorned his pots with poetic couplets. Though historians and art historians have explored Drake’s career in detail, Gates is the first artist to reinterpret his work and to make it pertinent to a broader set of concerns about the place of labor and craft in present-day America. The exhibition’s provocative installation, titled To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter, features a gospel choir that engages the enigmatic, emotional works of poetry found on Drake’s pots. Gates created the captivating sound piece with musicians from both Milwaukee and Chicago. Gates further collaborated with local tradespeople to develop original ceramic works for the show. Thus, the project, as intended, has brought together two very different groups of people in partnership, and promises to create lasting relationships across the city.

Bronson Alcott and Thoreau group 5

          Alcott was one of the transcendentalists, which was a group of radical thinkers and writers of New England in the 1830’s. As an early admirer of Thoreau’s reasoned philosophy, they shared many similar ideas. They both believed that a more simple life with fewer obligations was a better path to happiness. He flatly rejected the accumulation of material goods, which Thoreau shows through his cabin and solitary life.

          Alcott was a farmer, lecturer, intellectual, and writer. The success of his efforts were limited. He set up a school of radical ideas and it eventually failed. The introduction of new subjects with an innovative form of teaching caused his students to withdraw from his classes and led to its failure. Later on he became a superintendent of schools in Concord and fulfilled a lifetime dream of opening “The Concord School of Philosophy.” His educational reform was introducing hands on work and new subjects such as physical education. He also worked to end hitting children in school and educating them on morals. Something interesting about this is his ideas were failures of  his time, but now something we follow and value.

          One source says that Alcott should be considered the most pure of the transcendentalists. His ideas revolved around equality, education, relations, and living a simple life. At one point in his life, Alcott built a short-lived utopia called “Fruitlands” that emphasized fair share of work, living simply, and being close to nature. We related Alcott to what Thoreau wrote in “sounds” where he finds entertainment and enjoyment in the simplest of things. 

Blake and Revolution: How Blake Utilized Politics to Form His Art

Humn 221-09 Group 1


It is well documented that William Blake ran against the grain of British society during his lifetime. He actively involved himself in the radical politics developing in London between 1776 and 1850. These radical politics began with the actions of Charles James Fox, who called for every man in England to have the right to vote. From this position, the movement gained steam and proposed a series of extreme political reforms, many of which stemmed from the French Revolution. The English radicals saw the French Revolution as an opportunity to discuss the problems of absolute government in their own country. The resulting political discourse, which involved Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others, became known as the Revolution Controversy. The Revolution Controversy helped to advance the radical philosophies and politics by involving some of the most distinguished and famous members of public life.

Blake, however, represents an artistic turn for the radical movement. Where most of the radical movement produced political actions, Blake produced artistic actions that incorporated elements of the radical movement. His artwork took on a sort of prophetic quality and incorporated idyllic scenes and notions. In this way, Blake established an early link between London’s radicals and the subsequent Romantic artistic movement, which emphasized a pursuit of the beautiful and ideal aspects of nature. As such, Blake stands at an important juncture in the history of art and society; his work stands as an act of defiance against the norms as much as it stands as an invigoration of the form itself.

Rameau’s Infamous Uncle

Group 6 Background info on Rameau’s Nephew

In Rameau’s Nephew, Rameau expresses a lot of hate toward his uncle, which had us wondering–how did the rest of the world feel about Rameau’s uncle?  Was this feeling of hatred a shared one?

It turns out that the world saw Jean-Philippe Rameau first and foremost as a composer and an opera writer, and a great one at that.  Not too much was written about what he was like as a person, however.  We did find that he was withdrawn and a bit of an introvert, which some believed stemmed from a hard work ethic.  In addition to that, we also learned that Rameau was very careful with money; upon his death his possessions consisted of a few pairs of clothes, a pair of shoes, and an old harpsichord in need of repair, despite the fact that he had amassed a small fortune.  Though he apparently didn’t find the need to spend his money on himself, he was known to often lend money to others.  For instance, he took good care of his daughter as well as his sick sister; he even was said to have helped out other musicians from time to time.  This suggests that he was a very generous person–not at all one to be hated.  And, if that doesn’t say enough about his character, over 1,500 people were said to have attended his funeral, which suggests that he wasn’t only highly respected as a musician but that he was also well-liked.


Diderot’s Background for “Rameau’s Nephew” – group 5

Our group thought that it may be useful to understand Diderot as an author to get a better idea of his perspective on certain topics. After reading a quick biography we found Diderot was considered a brilliant student and was pushed to fulfill a career working for the church. Diderot abandoned this and focused on studying law and philosophy. His family strongly disagreed with his decision, and were  disappointed with him. This could be portrayed in some of his works showing the importance of individual choice and pride in one’s decisions. 

Diderot was a French philosopher and compiled information with a goal to further knowledge for all. He focused much of his time translating works, tutoring, and reading to expand his knowledge. He had this idea that he needed to give the world a general idea of everything. He created an encyclopedia so people knew a general idea of the capabilities we have as people and what we know. Diderot was known for his comedic writings and sarcastic tales. His sarcasm comes into “Romeau’s Nephew” and even though has a sarcastic tone, it still underlines some important lesson. Based on this reading he differs from other philosophers who write much more serious and focused on establishing laws rather than using a story or dialogue to convey something.

Overall we think the importance is that Diderot had an interesting life where he was able to learn and explore things on his own. His works are trying take some aspects of unique stories to describe new ways of thinking.

John Locke and Slavery

Slavery in Britain during the time of John Locke

The British tried to monopolize the slave trade because it was economically profitable. This allowed them to maintain economic and political control over the colonies for longer because the British had the ships and resources to run the slave trade. Through the colonization efforts of America it helped to ward off other European’s from doing the same

Racial sentiments were abound in European society well before slavery began. This magnified once slave trade began and slaves began to be viewed as subhuman. British established the Royal African Company to monopolize slavery. British were afraid of indentured servants and switched over to mainly using African slaves to prevent revolts.

Slavery was legal in Britain until 1772. The boom in Africans in England was a direct result of the empire expanding.

John Lok, John Locke’s ancestor was the first to bring African’s to Britain in 1555 as volunteers rather than slaves. He had hoped to teach them English to help them trade material goods.He had hoped that they would take the information they learned and teach others upon their return to Africa. This eventually gave way to slave trade initiated by John Hawkins