Freud: A Life for Our Time

Freud: A Life for Our Time

Cover of the first edition
Author Peter Gay
Cover artist Mike McIver
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Sigmund Freud
Published 1988 (J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 810 (1995 edition)
ISBN 0-333-48638-2 (1995 edition)

Freud: A Life for Our Time is a 1988 biography of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, by historian Peter Gay. The work is based partly on new material that has become available since the publication of Ernest Jones' The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953).[1] The book has been praised, but has also been criticized by several authors skeptical of psychoanalysis.


Gay writes that, "As a historian, I have placed Freud and his work within their various environments: the psychiatric profession he subverted and revolutionized, the Austrian culture in which he was compelled to life as an unbelieving Jew and unconventional physician, the European society that underwent in his lifetime the appalling traumas of war and totalitarian dictatorship, and Western culture as a whole, a culture whose sense of itself he transformed out of all recognition, forever."[2]

Gay criticizes Freud for sentimentalizing the emotional tie between a mother and her son, writing that Freud's observation that the relation of mother to son is the only lasting intimate relationship that does not conceal a sediment of hostile feelings, "sounds far more like a wish than a sober inference from clinical material."[3] At the end of the book, Gay provides a bibliographical essay evaluating works dealing with Freud and psychoanalysis. He describes Elizabeth M. Thornton's The Freudian Fallacy (1983) as "a model in the literature of denigration".[4] He credits philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1984), with discrediting Karl Popper's argument that psychoanalysis is a pseudo-science.[5]



A best-selling book, Freud: A Life for Our Time has been widely translated.[6] The work has been praised by philosophers Jerome Neu and Richard Wollheim, both of whom compare it to Jones's The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953). Wollheim observes that while Gay, unlike Jones, did not suffer from the limitation of being able to write only what Anna Freud found acceptable, his freedom as a scholar was nevertheless restricted by the policies of the Freud Archives. Wollheim writes that Gay tries to integrate Freud's life and thought, including only as much of Freud's thought as necessary to understand his life. Wollheim credits Gay with excellent insight into the events of Freud's time.[7][8] Christopher Badcock, writing in 1992, called the work the best up-to-date biography of Freud.[9] Richard H. Armstrong credits Gay with "extraordinary narrative skills".[10]


Freud: A Life for Our Time has been criticized by several authors skeptical of psychoanalysis.[1][11][12] Author Allen Esterson identifies Gay as one of several authors who uncritically repeat Freud's incorrect claim that during his early clinical experiences, which led to the creation of psychoanalysis, his patients reported to him that they had been sexually abused in early childhood, and he subsequently realized that in most cases these assaults were phantasies, not real events.[11]

Author Richard Webster writes in Why Freud Was Wrong (1995) that while Freud: A Life for Our Time is presented an objective exercise in historical scholarship, and considers the failings of psychoanalysis and Freud's mistakes, Gay nonetheless retains a reverent attitude toward Freud, preserving the myths about him created by previous biographers. Webster calls these myths the "Freud legend". He believes that the acclaim the book received shows the persistence of the Freud legend, noting that with exceptions such as Peter Swales, many reviewers praised it, especially in Britain. He sees its appeal to supporters of psychoanalysis as being its favorable view of Freudian ideas.[1]

Psychologist Louis Breger writes that Freud: A Life for Our Time is the best known modern biography of Freud, but that despite Gay's claims, the book is neither fair nor objective. Breger sees Gay as being as "worshipful" of Freud as Jones, and accuses him of not only portraying Freud as being on the right side of all controversies, but of portraying those on the other side, such as Josef Breuer, Wilhelm Stekel, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, and Sándor Ferenczi, as "cowards, petty, or mentally disturbed."[13]

Philosopher Todd Dufresne writes that Gay's book has a "reverential" attitude to psychoanalysis, noting that critics have objected that it reports as fact claims that have long been known to be mistaken, including details concerning the treatment of Freud's patient Anna O.[12]




  • Badcock, Christopher (1992). Essential Freud. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-17774-4. 
  • Breger, Louis (2000). Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-31628-8. 
  • Dufresne, Todd (2007). Against Freud. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-5548-1. 
  • Esterson, Allen (1993). Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud. Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8126-9231-4. 
  • Gay, Peter (1995). Freud: A Life for Our Time. London: Papermac. ISBN 0-333-48638-2. 
  • Neu, Jerome (1991). Neu, Jerome, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Freud. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37779-X. 
  • Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4. 
  • Wollheim, Richard (1991). Freud. London: FontanaPress. ISBN 0-00-686223-3. 
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