Report: From Seele to Mind: A Sociological Study of Knowledge On the Rationalization of Psychoanalysis

On December 10, 2021, Professor Sun Feiyu (Peking University) gave a lecture online titled “From Seele to Mind: A Sociological Study of Knowledge on the Rationalization of Psychoanalysis” as part of the EAA Lecture series. The title of the lecture was taken from an article Sun published in 2017.

Sun’s talk focused on how the ideas and concepts of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, came to be standardized through the translation of his texts from German to English. Through such examples as the translation of Seele (“mind”) and Einfall (“free association”), and analysis of how Freud and his English translators used Latin words for different rhetorical purposes, Sun argued that the literary quality of the original texts with rich historical and cultural connotations was largely wiped out in the English translation, resulting in the “rationalization” of Freud’s psychoanalysis—that is, its reception in the English-speaking world as a scientific, objective, and specialized field of knowledge, rather than an intimate and humanistic investigation into Seelenleben, the life of the soul. This transformation is not simply attributable to the translators’ bias or caprice, Sun emphasized, but should be understood, from the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, to be exemplary of what Max Weber described as the rationalization and professionalization of modern science.

While the main thrust of Sun’s argument remained unchanged from his 2017 article, the lecture also allowed the audience to get a clear grasp of what initially prompted him to write the original paper. During the lecture, Sun shared with the audience his concern that the growing tendency in today’s academia, obsessed as it is with quantification and professionalization, may lead to devastating consequences for studies in the humanities. Besides being a product of a close examination of historical details, his research, which traces the transition not so much of the “content” as of the “style” or “mode” dominant in one specific branch of knowledge, is deeply rooted in his interest in imagining, or restoring, alternative modes of investigation in the humanities. The lecture was followed by a lively discussion between Sun and the audience, inspired by the professor’s passionate and candid attitude, on how exactly we could reimagine different styles of the humanities.

For those interested in the history of psychology, the title of the lecture may recall Edward S. Reed’s seminal work in the field, From Soul to Mind: The Emergence of Psychology, from Erasmus Darwin to William James (Yale University Press, 1997). The modern psychological conception of “mind,” Reed argued, was not originally a secularized version of “soul,” as it might seem, but rather a complicated compromise between the realms of science and religious concern. A broad set of questions naturally arise by associating that book’s title with Sun’s lecture: How can we relate Sun’s story of psychoanalysis to the detailed account concerning the history of psychology presented by Reed, who was no less deeply skeptical about the contemporary academic attitude toward the “soul”? Does the Weberian narrative of secularization suffice for an understanding of the convoluted relations between religion and science in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, which eventually gave birth to the modern understanding of “mind”? How can, for instance, Freud’s explicitly materialistic worldview be situated in the whole scene? When I asked Professor Sun these questions, he emphasized the importance of employing a wide and comprehensive framework for the understanding of history, such as Weber’s, adding that he is in the preparatory stages for a book that expands his argument and contains a discussion on Reed’s work.

If the translation process of psychoanalysis can be deemed, as Sun argues, to be embedded in a wider process of rationalization, we should also recognize that the act of translation always carries the inherent danger of neglecting the linguistic or literary texture of the original text: we tend to fall into the trap of translating only what is “translatable,” what has the apparent quality of “translatability”—a concept we should consider in comparison with that of “rationalizability.” One of the remarkable features of Sun’s argument is its emphasis on the role of translation, not only in the reception of ideas in a specific language, but in the history of ideas in general. This perspective, together with Sun’s questioning of today’s research styles in the humanities, again raises some practical as well as theoretical questions: How can we conceive of translation that translates not only the “content” but also the quasi-untranslatable “style” of each text? What style or mode of translation can we formulate that does not hastily rationalize, but encourages the exploration of styles in the humanities? While this is not the place for examining these questions further, it is important to note finally how Sun’s argument invites us to stand at the intersection of problems of translation, rationalization, and the soul/Seele, which directly leads to the difficult but fundamental questioning of the tripartite relationship between languages, science, and the humanities.


Reported by Yuki Ueda (EAA Research Assistant)