Book Summaries Psychology

Totem and Taboo Summary (6/10)

Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud is a book on the causes of neurosis, how it is dealt with, and how this forms the foundation of all societies and cultures.

Freud studied infantile sexuality and outlined the different phases the child goes through.

He thought that children hold repressed desires towards members of their family, and that this repression is responsible for the onset of neurosis, a condition in which the patient suffer from inhibition and regression.

Either he has failed to free himself of the psycho-sexual conditions he experienced as a child, or has returned to them.


Sublimation is the process of translating these sexual impulses into creative or productive activities – this has been done well in advanced societies, but not very well in primitive ones.

Taboo is something that society considers wrong but is at the same time sacred and dirty. Primitive societies hold ceremonies to stave away the dangers of taboos.

There is a similarity between these primitive customs and those of obsessive neurotics, who fear touching certain objects for fear of polluting them. These customs had to take place to make sure that no one was free to follow their unconscious desires.

The Oedipal Complex

The boy’s hatred for his father comes from their rivalry for his mother, but cannot be openly accepted by the mind, since the boy also admires his father. The child relieves himself from this cognitive dissonance by expressing his hostile feelings towards a substitute of his father. The conflict with his father (object of displacement) continues, but the feelings of ambivalence extend towards the substitute.

Before totemism, men owned several wives but feared sexual competition from their sons, so they drove their sons away in jealousy. But one day, the brothers united and had the courage to kill their father and devour him. They put an end to the patriarchal horde. By devouring him, they identified with him, and each acquired a portion of his strength. All religions are ways of experiencing the primal event of killing the father, without killing him in real life.

All that is needed to create emotional ambivalence towards the father is the impulse to kill him, and the extent to which one feels this determines the extent to which they feel moral restrictions and suffer from neurosis.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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