Hannes Richter

Sigmund Freud Symposium

Hannes Richter

In recognition of Sigmund Freud’s legacy as the father of Psychoanalysis and in honor of his 150th birthday, the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. hosted a symposium September 15th on Freud’s significance in the 21st century. It was ‘A Day of Reflection on Freud’s Place in Our Minds,’ as expressed by the symposium’s title. The high-profile event brought together representatives from four major U.S. psychoanalytic organizations as well as prominent Freud experts from the academic and cultural world.

Freud was an over-towering figure and psychoanalysis a strongly compelling phenomenon during the 20th century. The question is, however, whether his significance as a contemporary continues to be the case for our century or whether that has changed. As one speaker commented: “Freud is on everybody’s mind,” offering evidence to support her statement.  “And yet how many of the brightest 10,000 students are going to study and practice psychoanalysis?”

The couch in Freud's study. Today Sigmund Freud Museum, London.
Estate of Edmund Engelman/ Courtesy of Leica Gallery, NYC

In his keynote address, Dr. Eli Zaretsky, Professor of History at the New School for Social Research in New York and author of Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis, touched upon some of the major historical changes, among others, that took place over the past few decades. With the advent of neuroscience, brain research and psychopharmacology, analysis as a treatment for the human mind gave way to quantitative medical science. At the same time, cultural politics, captured by the feminist and the gay movements and psychology of group empowerment, replaced applying psychoanalysis to cultural phenomena such as gender, nationality, and sexual identity.

Did such developments diminish Freud’s significance, making his concepts irrelevant today? Numerous five-minute presentations by analysts selected by their individual organizations, followed by panel discussions, questions and answers, testified otherwise. Topics ranging from applying psychoanalysis to modern day conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli war, 9/11 or the Iraqi War,  to the “dark side” of brutality and Freud’s “death instinct”, suggested that if we still do not know what Freud’s place will be in the twenty-first century, his presence is alive and well.


 Sigmund Freud, 1938. Estate of Edmund Engelman/ Courtesy of Leica Gallery, NYC

In an ongoing debate, the symposium concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Austrian Ambassador Eva Nowotny. It included, among others, Harold Blum, Director of the Freud Archives at the Library of Congress and psychoanalyst, Thomas Aichorn, grandson of August Aichhorn who helped Freud escape from Vienna in 1938, representing the Viennese Psychoanalytical Society founded by Sigmund Freud in 1908.

Based upon the background and well-regarded reputation of the participants, the event attracted wide interest among a mixed public of journalists, congressional members and other selected guests who expressed their enthusiasm and appreciation for its importance some 150 years following Freud’s birth.