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Listening To Freud: Sometimes A Voice Is More Than Just A Voice

Sigmund Freud, circa 1935
Hans Casparius
Getty Images
Sigmund Freud, circa 1935

There is an old puzzle in philosophy: would a blind person who knew the world by touch instantly recognize familiar objects if suddenly given the ability to see?

This puzzle — known as Molyneux's question, because it was posed in a letter to the great British philosopher John Locke by William Molyneux — has an interesting emotional analog.

Suppose that a blind person, who knows his or her beloved by touch and, all importantly, by voice, was suddenly made to see. Would the face, now revealed for the first time, be an object of feeling? Would our newly sighted individual recognize his or her beloved in it? Or would the newly revealed visage seem strange and remote?

I found myself thinking about this yesterday as I listened for the first time to what may be the only known recording of Sigmund Freud.

Whatever your opinion of Freud, his towering place in our intellectual history, and in our contemporary culture, cannot be overstated. To him we owe our broad appreciation of the ideas of the unconscious, of fantasy, of the value of talking to get at what ails us, of our commonplace conviction that just about everything in life comes down to sex. And this is to say nothing of such categories as that of neurosis, transference, instinct, repression and that of psychodynamics.

He is a figure of myth and mystery. Photographs of Freud are no less iconic than those of Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein.

And yet how many of us have ever heard his voice?

The recording I listened to is in the online audio-archive of the Freud Museum in Vienna. It is in English and is apparently from an interview with the BBC in London, where Freud was then living. It was conducted in the year before Freud's death. It's crisp and clear, although it contains a false start and a bit of dead air at the beginning.

Despite claims on some websites that it was recently unearthed, there seem to be versions online that have been circulating for at least for several years. Nevertheless, so far as I can tell, the tape is largely unknown, even in the community of contemporary psychoanalysis.

And more to the point: to hear the tape, to hear the voice, of this extraordinary giant of 20th-century thought, is a strange, thrilling and unexpected pleasure.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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