Timo Kinnunen
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The Nature of Dreams, Erich Fromm


Do they express the dreamer's irrational strivings, as Freud contended? Not necessarily, says a modern analyst, suggesting a new interpretation of them

Timo Kinnunen has copied this text by typewriting it manually few years ago with DOS based WordPerfect program letter by letter in 1994 from an article published in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, MAY, 1949 Vol. 180, N:o 5. pp. 44-47, and the he has encoded in into a HTML document, which took place on the 17th Oct. in 1997. But of course, this text has been originally written by Erich Fromm. Originally I made this copy only for my own use, but now I want to give it to public to their own use withour any demands for money, or donations. However, I am not responsible if they use this text right or wrong way, because it is their own sake


SIGMUD FREUD'S theory of dreams was part of his theory of man. He assumed that man in the course of his growth is forced to repress evil strivings - egocentricity, destructiveness, irrationality - in order to adapt himself to the requirements of social life. He does so, said Freud, partly by turning his asocial strivings into socially useful ones - a process which Freud interpreted as either "sublimation" or "reaction formation." Successful "sublimation" is exemplified by the surgeon who was turned his original sadistic strivings into a socially useful activity. An example of successful "reaction formation" is that of a humanitarian who has developed great kindness in combatting his destructive potentialities. The best in man, according to Freud, is rooted in his worst.

When we are asleep, Freud reasoned, we relax the effort that normally restraints the criminal we are at bottom. Our dream life is the refuge, as it were, where we recover from the heavy burden of our culture and are free to satisfy repressed infantile strivings. Yet even in sleep the internal censor's attention is only relaxed, not entirely dismissed. To deceive him, we dream in a kind of secret code. The real meaning of the dream can be understood only if the code is deciphered. This process of deciphering is what Freud called the interpretation of dreams.

Freud's theory of dream shocked psychologists and was denounced by many as unscientific. Most of his followers have denied it fanatically, though some accepting its heavy content of truth, came to consider it one-sided. Carl Custav Jung, who became the leader of his group, tended increasingly emphasize the 'higher' aspects of dreams just as one-sidedly as Freud has emphasized the 'lower'. Where Freud has found in dreams only irrational infantile strivings, Jung saw only expressions of moral or religious experiences, which he interpreted as outgrowth of racially inherited religious and metaphysical ideas.

If a man saw his dream a woman whose features were unknown to him, Freud would assume that this woman represented his mother, that the infantile sexual attachment to the mother, repressed in the conscious state, was satisfied in his dream. Freud argued that the dream she remained unknown to the dreamer in order to fool the censor. Relating this longing for the mother to the recent experiences of the dreamer, the analyst sought the hidden incestuous aspects in the dreamer's relationship to a woman which whom he may recently have fallen in love. Jung, on the other hand, tended to interpret the unknown woman as the image of the "unconscious", and also as a symbol of feminine aspects in the male dreamer's personality.

Had Jung been less concerned with the creating another school, and less fascinated by irrational racialism, his departure from Freud's dogmatism could have avoided the blind alley into which it ultimately led. As matters stand, a constructive revision of Freud's theory of dreams must pick up the thread where it was left before Jung's and other schools of psychoanalysis were formed.


WE MAY begin with Aristotle's definition of dreams, quoted but not accepted by Freud: Dreams are expressions of any kind of mental activity under the condition of sleep. The distinctive quality of dreams, the, is not a particular area of experience - neither Freud's "infantile wishes" nor Jung's "true picture of the subjective state" -but the effect of the condition of sleep upon our mode of experiencing.

Physiologically, sleep is a condition of chemical regeneration of the organism. Energy is restored while physical activity and even sensory perception are almost entirely discontinued. Sleep suspends the main function of waking life: reacting to reality by perception and action. This difference between the biological functions of waking and of sleeping is, in fact, a difference between two states of experience. In the waking state, thoughts or feelings responds primarily to challenge - the challenge of mastering our environment, changing it, defending ourselves against it. The primary task of waking man is survival; this means essentially, that he must think in terms of time and space, and that his thoughts are subject to the logical laws which are necessary for action.

During sleep the frame of reference changes radically. While we sleep we are not concerned with bending the outside world to our purposes. We are helpless - but we are also free. We are free from the burden of work, from the task of attack or defense, from the watching and mastering reality. We live in an inner world concerned exclusively with ourselves.

In sleep the realm of necessity has given way to the realm of freedom where "I" am the only system to which thoughts and feelings refer. In a dream the grief I experienced 10 years ago may be just as strong now, and I may hate a person on the other side of the globe as intensely as if he stood beside me. Sleep experience need not pay attention to qualities that are important in coping with reality. If I feel, for instance, that a person is a coward, I may dream that he has changed into a chicken. This change is illogical in terms of my orientation to outside reality, but logical in terms of what I feel about the person. Sleep experience, therefore, is not lacking in logic, but it is subject to a special logic of its own, which is entirely valid in that particular experiential state.

The "unconscious" is unconscious only in relation to the "normal" state of activity. When we call it "unconscious", we really say only that it is an experience alien to the frame of mind which exists while we act; it is then felt as a ghost-like, intrusive element, hard to get hold of and to remember. But the day world is an unconscious in our sleep experience as the night world is in our waking experience.

From what has been said so far it follows that the concepts "conscious" and "unconscious" are to be understood relative to the sleeping and waking states respectively. As and old Chinese poet put it: "I dreamed that I am a butterfly; now I do not know, am I a man who dreamed he was a butterfly or am I a butterfly who dreams it is a man." In the waking state of action those experiences which feel real in the dream are "unconscious." But when we are asleep and no longer preoccupied with action but with self-experience, the waking-experience is "unconscious" and sometimes it is a hard struggle to chase away the sleep world and to convince oneself of the reality of the waking world.

It is true that even in the waking state of existence, thinking and feeling are not entirely subject to the limitations of time and space. Our creative imagination permits us to think about past and future objects as if they were present, and of distant objects as if they were before our eyes. It could therefore be argued that the absence of the space-time system is not characteristic of sleep existence in contradiction to waking existence, but of thinking and feeling in contradiction to acting. Here it becomes necessarily to clarify an essential point.

We must distinguish between the contents of thought process and the logical categories employed in thinking. While it is true that the contents of our waking thoughts are not subject to limitations of space and time, the logical categories of thinking are those of the space-time logic. I can, for instance, think of my father, and state that his attitude in a certain situation is identical with mine; this statement is logically correct. If I state, on the other hand, "I am my father," the statement is "illogical" because it is not conceived in reference to the physical world. The sentence is logical, however, in a purely experiential realm: it expresses the experience of intense closeness to my father. When I have a feeling in the waking state with regard to a person whom I have not seen for 20 years, I remain aware of the fact that the person is not present. But if I dream about the person, my feelings deals with the person "as if he or she were present" is to express the feeling in logical waking-life concepts. In sleep existence there is no "as if"; the person is present. (It is true, however, that sleep is not completely free from action concepts, as proved by the fact that sometime we think in our dream that what we dream cannot really be so.)

The experiential mode of thought occurs in other forms of dissociation besides dreams - in the hypnotic trance, in psychoses, in early infantile experience, and possibly in primitive thinking. And there is, of course, the state of intense mystical contemplation, wherein attention is withdrawn completely from the outside world as a potential field of action, and is completely focused on self-experience although the person remains awake. The mystic, indeed, considers this state to be highest awareness. The language employed in such a state of contemplation follows the experiential logic of dream, not the action logic of "normal" thinking.

So the sleep existence, it seems, is only the extreme case of a purely contemplative experience, which can also be established by a waking person if he focuses on his inner experience. Symbolic language employing experimental logic is one mode of human expression - just as valid and rational as our "normal" logic, and different from it only as to the systems of reference. These systems, in turn, are determined by the total orientation of the culture. Cultures, in which the emphasis is on self-experience, such as those of the East, or some "primitive" cultures where mastery of nature is little developed, give great scope to this symbolic language. In modern Western culture, almost exclusively focused on activity in the sense of mastery over nature, the comprehension of symbolic language has atrophied. Dreams are remnants of a legitimate mode of human expression, one well known, now looked up as if they were undecipherable hieroglyphs.


IT is peculiarity of dreams that inner experiences are expressed as if they were sensory experiences, subjective states as if they were actions dealing with the external reality. This interchange between the two modes of experience is the very essence of symbols, and particularly of the dream symbol. While the body is inactive and the senses shut down, the inner experience makes use of the dormant faculties of sensory reaction.

A forceful illustration of the dream's symbolic language is the story of Jonah. God commanded the prophet to help the people of Nineveh to repent of their sin and so to save them. But Jonah is a man of stern justice rather than of mercy; he declines to feel responsible for sinners and attempts to escape from his mission. he boards a ship. A storm comes up. Jonah goes into hold of the ship and falls into a deep sleep. The sailors believe that God sent the storm because of jonah and throw him into sea. He is swallowed by a whale and stays inside the animal for several days.

The central theme of this symbolic, dreamlike story is Jonah's desire for complete seclusion and irresponsibility - a position which at first was meant to save him for mission, but eventually is turned into a unbearable, prisonlike existence. The ship, the sleep, the ocean, the whale's belly - all are different symbols of that state of existence. They follow each other in time and space, but they stand for growing intensity of a feeling - the feeling of seclusion and protection. Being inside the whale has brought this experience to such a final intensity that Jonah cannot stand it any longer; he turns to God again; he desires to be freed, to go on with his mission.


SO far we have been concerned with the mode of expression and the particular logic of dreams resulting from the peculiar condition of sleep. We must now turn to the question in what respect the state of sleep also determines the content of dreams. According to Freud it does so in a specific way. Culture, in his view, suppresses our primitive-bad-instincts and the sublimation and reaction formation springing from this suppression are very essence of civilized life. Quite logically, then, in his view, dreams must bring out our worst, since in our sleep we are free - from the cultural pressure.

There can be no doubt that many dreams express the fulfillment of irrational, asocial and immoral wishes which we repress successfully during the waking state. When we are asleep and incapable of action it becomes safe to indulge in hallucinatory satisfaction of our lowest impulses. But the influence of culture is by no means as one-sidedly beneficial as Freud assumed. We are often more intelligent, wiser and more moral in our sleep than in waking life. The reason for this is the ambiguous character of our social reality. In mastering this reality we develop our faculties of observation, intelligence and reason; but we are also stultified by incessant propaganda, threats, ideologies and cultural "noise" that paralyze some of our most precious intellectual and moral functions. In fact, so much of what we think and feel is in response to these hypnotic influences that one may well wonder to what extent our waking experience is "ours." In sleep, no longer exposed to the noise culture, we become awake to what we really feel and think. The genuine self can talk; it is often more intelligent and more decent than the pseudo self which seems to be "we" when we are awake.

My conclusion, then, is that we may expect to find true insights and important value judgments expressed in our dreams, as well as immoral, irrational wishes. We may even find in them reliable predictions based on a correct appreciation of the intensity and the direction of forces operating in ourselves and in others. Both Freud's emphasis on the "low" and Jung's emphasis on the "high" aspect of dream content are dogmatic restrictions. Only if it is recognized that dreams can express either side of a dreamers nature is the way cleared for a real understanding to them.

The following examples illustrate the alternative interpretations that can be given to the same dream. The dreamer sees himself naked in the presence of strangers and feels ashamed but powerless to alter the painful situation. Freud said that this dream represented an infantile exhibitionistic impulse still alive in the adult. During sleep this impulse comes to the fore and finds its fulfillment in the dream; the dreamer's mature personality, not entirely silenced, reacts with shame and fear to the very wishes of his infantile self.

No doubts many nakedness dreams are to be so understood. But others must be interpreted differently. Nakedness is not necessarily an expression of sexual exhibitionism; it can also symbolize the true self of a person, free from pretense and make-believe. A person who dreams of himself as being naked in a well-dressed group may give symbolic expression to his wish to be honest, to be more himself, not to be conformist who wants to please everybody. And his embarrassment in the dream is the same embarrassment he would feel in waking, too, whenever he tried to discard his dependence on other people's opinion.

According to the orthodox Freudian interpretation, the nakedness dream's essential impulse is an infantile sexual desire; in the alternative, it is a rational wish, rooted in the most mature part of the dreamer's personality. But if so, why should it be distinguished in dream symbolism? Why should we repress some of our very best impulses? The answer is that in our culture people are no less ashamed of their best strivings than of their worst. Generosity is suspected as "foolish", honesty as "naive", integrity as "not practical." While one tendency within our complex culture presents these qualities as virtues, another stigmatizes them as "idealistic dreams." Consequently wishes motivated by such virtues often live and underground existence together with wishes rooted in our vices. To mistake rational wishes of the dreamer for expressions of irrational strivings makes it impossible for him to recognize positive goals which he has set himself. Yet to see in every dream an ideal or profound religious symbol is just as fallacious. Whether a dream is to be understood as an expression of the rational or the irrational side in ourselves can be determined only by a full investigation of the individual case - by knowing the dreamer's character, his associations with the dream elements, the problems he was concerned with before he fell asleep.

The following dream is an example of unconscious insight and moral judgment: A man has visited X, a widely known figure whose kindness and wisdom are praised by everybody. He was properly impressed by the admirable man. The same night he dreams of X, who now has a cruel face and tries to swindle a poor old woman out of her last dollar. He remembers this dream the next day, is quite surprised and wonders why the dream picture of X differs so completely from the "real" picture of the day before. Suddenly he is struck by the recollection that his instinctive reaction to X had been one of intense antipathy - but so fleeting had this first reaction been that he was not aware of it at the time of the visit. Actually his antipathy was his real insight into X's character. it was silenced at once by the conventional picture of X: the "noise" had drowned the dreamer's real judgment, which awoke when he was asleep.

If this dream were understood in Freud's terms, the subject would accuse himself of unconscious hostility and, having discovered his own wickedness, would be all the more prone to accept the conventional picture of X. If, on the other hand, the interpreter assumed that dreams unerringly express the "real" judgment, the dreamer might accept his dream as evidence against X, and act accordingly, though it may indeed have expressed only the dreamer's own hostility. Which interpretation is correct can be found only in an appraisal of the dreamer's total situation.

One of the best known dreams of prediction is Joseph's dream, reported in the Bible. He dreamed that the sun, moon and stars were making obeisance to him. His brothers, hearing of the dream, did not need the help of an expert to understand that the dream expressed a feeling of superiority over his parents and brothers. It certainly can be argued that the infantile rivalry with father and brothers was the root of the dream (which would be Freud's interpretation). But what Joseph saw in the dream later came true; the dream indeed predicted future events. And Joseph was able to make such a prediction because he sensed his exceptional gifts, which made him actually superior to the other members of his family; but the conceited character of such insight made it impossible for him to be aware of his superiority - except under the condition of sleep.


WHEN we dream we speak a language which is also employed in some of the most significant documents of culture: in myths, in fairy tales and art, recently in novels like Franz Kafka's. This language is the only universal language common to all races and all times. It is the same language in the oldest myths as in the dreams every one of us has today. Moreover, it is a language which often expresses inner experiences, wishes, fears, judgments and insights which much greater precision and fullness than our ordinary language is capable of. Yet symbolic language is a forgotten language, considered by most as non-sensical or unimportant. This ignorance not only prevents us from understanding the wisdom expressed in myths but also from being in touch with a significant part of ourselves. "Dreams which are not understood are like letters which are not opened," says the Talmud, and this statement is undeniably true.

Why, then, do we not teach the understanding of this forgotten language as a subject in the curriculum of higher education?

True, there are dreams so difficult and complicated that it requires a psychologist of great knowledge and technical skill to understand them; and sometimes even the expert will fail. But is this so different from the study of languages, of mathematics, of physics? Liberal education, in genera, only lays the foundation for more specialized skills which the student later develops for himself. The analogy between teaching dream interpretation and teaching languages is particularly close, not only because dream language is a sort of "foreign" language but also because the results of teaching are similar. No student succeeds in mastering a foreign language without specialized study; but even an average undergraduate is capable of understanding syntax and grammar.

For a number of years I have been teaching dream interpretation not only to graduate students of psychoanalysis but also to undergraduates at Bennington College. The results, at least to my satisfaction, compare with the results of teaching any other subject matter to the same group of students. Remarkable achievements have been rare in this as in any other field; the minimum achievements have not been lower. The aim is to help the student to understand an unknown language in which he expresses important aspects of his own personality, and also to understand a mode of expression in which mankind has expressed some of its most significant ideas.