A Middlesex University (UK) resource by Jessica Lynn Anderson
of Northland College, Ashland, Wisconsin, (USA)

Science: the case for observation: Darwin and Freud

by Jessica Lynn Anderson

Imagination and observation are two sources from which science could emerge. From each we can be develop a contrasting theory about how knowledge and reason come to exist.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) believed that knowledge is the product of our passions and through passion; reason unfolds. Passion is, therefore, the basis of scientific discovery.

"For what purpose were the passions implanted? That man by struggling with them might attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes, whispers experience" (Wollstonecraft, 1792, par.1.4. See (Roberts, A 1997, chapter 2, pars 31 following)

Before her, however, the empiricist theorists John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776) argued that science and knowledge are built by observation and experience. For Locke, it is important to prevent passion and fantasy distorting our scientific observations. He traced error back to false associations made by habit or fantasy.

"The ideas of goblins and sprites have really no more to do with darkness than light: yet let but a foolish maid inculcate these often on the mind of a child, and raise them there together, possibly he shall never be able to separate them again so long as he lives, but darkness shall ever afterwards bring with it those frightful ideas, and they shall be so joined, that he can no more bear the one than the other." (Locke 1690, par. 2.33.10)

Although David Hume is an empiricist, his views differ from John Locke. Hume thinks that "science is limited, (that) reason is the slave of passion" (Roberts, A 1997 par.2). Hume thinks that habits and customs, through association, are ways some ideas came by and these ideas do not produce true facts. He questions the reliability of much that we claim as knowledge.

Using Mary Wollstonecraft and John Locke's ideas of the origin of thought, modern scientists' theories can be viewed as originating in either passion and imagination or observation and experience. Here I look at how Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) can be analyzed as thinking in Wollstonecraft's way or Locke's way.

Charles Darwin is most famous for his studies in the Galapagos Islands and along the South American coastline aboard the H.M.S. Beagle (1831-1836). His most famous work was the The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection) (1859). Even though biographers of Darwin claim that the theory of the Origin was first conceived on board the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin never claimed this (Himmelfarb, G 1962 p.122).

Gertrude Himmelfarb thinks that Darwin had a sense of the theory of evolution before he left for the Galapagos Islands. Himmelfarb argues that Darwin's ideas were developed from other scientists and theorists who studied and commented on the possibility of the theory before Darwin. Two examples she gives are Linnaeus, and Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin's grandfather)

I agree with Himmelfarb that there was a basic knowledge of evolution before Darwin wrote Origin of Species. It was almost common knowledge between scientists and professors, at the time, to know about fossils and evolution of species.

However, Darwin's development of the theory is based on facts of observation and experience. The language of the Origin of Species shows that he wrote on experience and observation. With phrases such as: "all recent experience shows" (Darwin, C. 1859, chapter 1 p.24) and "I have, after a laborious collection of all known facts" (Darwin, C. 1859/1872 p. 14). Most of his work and quotations are based from experiments and papers from the Linnaean Society, Alexander Agassiz, Alph. De Candonelle, Asa Gray, and August il. St. Hilaire.

His views on experimentation and observation agree with Locke. His language throughout the novel shows no passion, and is strictly facts. Wollstonecraft's views goes against how Darwin's novels were written in style and in voice. Darwin, like so many modern scientists, only wrote down the facts concerning his point that he was proving (or disproving), and had no opinion, no feeling, of his own forming behind the words he wrote. Instead of using his own observations on some of the subjects the Origin of Species covered, he used experiments and observations from his colleagues and friends.

Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, has an entirely different voice in his writing. Although Freud does claim that "Every science is based on observation and experience arrived at through the medium of our psychical apparatus" (Freud, S. 1938 p. 31), his language in works such as An Outline of Psycho-Analysis and The Interpretation of Dreams is based in his views. He gives examples of his patients, but it is his views, his passions, that he associates with his analyses. Freud, would deny this, even in his preface to his Outline of Psycho-Analysis he states that the "teachings of psycho-analysis are based on an incalculable number of observations and experiences and only someone who has repeated those observations on himself and on others is in a position to arrive at a judgement of his own" (Freud, S. 1938 preface).

His sources from his book Interpretation of Dreams tends to be of an imaginable point of view. According to what a few have to say about the dreaming aspect can be translated to refer about knowledge and the derivation of knowledge. According to one source, "A dream is something completely severed from the reality experienced in waking life, something, as one might say, with a hermetically sealed existence of its own, and separated from real life by an impassable gulf" (Hildebrandt, F.W. 1875, quoted Freud, S. 1900). This can lead one to believe that we can dream of things we have no experience with in our life. And if we can dream without experience of things, we can believe and find knowledge through them. And, as Cicero says "there is no imaginable thing too absurd, too involved, or too abnormal for us to dream about it" (Cicero 146, quoted Freud, S. 1900).

The entire book of the interpretation of dreams sounds like he is possessing the entire theory behind dreams with sentences such as "If we adopt the method of interpreting dreams which I have indicated, we shall find that dreams really have a meaning and are far from being the expression of a fragmentary activity of the brain, as the authorities have claimed" (Freud, S. 1900 p. 121). But, continuously throughout his work, he claims the views of Locke saying things about observing and experiencing different views. His whole language and ideas are passionate and imaginative. As one of his sources, Winterstein, states "Experience confirms our view that we dream most frequently of the things on which our warmest passions are centered. And this shows that our passions must have an influence on the production of our dreams" (Winterstein, A. 1912, quoted Freud, S. 1990).

When reading Darwin's and Freud's works, one notices that there is a difference in the tone and language they use. Analyzing the two works, Darwin's voice seems more factual, and experience-based. Darwin does not have a voice when he writes. There is no passion behind his ideas. He does not enforce his own work and his own thoughts onto his subject like Freud does. The main difference between the two is that Freud speaks in a possessive tone, using "I", "My" and "mine" and Darwin hardly states those in his entire works. There is more emphasis on the facts and observation in Darwin's work, while Freud states what he believes to be truth in his mind. Comparing the foundations of their works is like comparing the ideas of John Locke and Wollstonecraft.

So, who is right' How is science discovered in our world' Locke and Darwin are the empiricists, who believe observation is the key to how we derive knowledge, and Wollstonecraft and Freud find knowledge through passion and imagination. The passion and imagination is a great way to find knowledge. If one has, what we call, a "wild imagination," the possibilities are endless! It would explain, for some people, how the world began, the belief of ghosts and spirits, life on other planet, and the idea of god(s). Although, for others, those things could be proven through observation and experience of others and the history of knowledge from those very aspects.

It is difficult to decide how knowledge is derived. There are too many aspects to consider in thought and imagination. Living in the today's world makes it much simpler. I believe that in our era, there is not much that hasn't been discovered and discussed already. There is so much knowledge from past experiences and theories derived that if we do not know about something, we can rely on our vast amount of resources, whether it is internet or book or personal experience. If I were to live back a few eras I would probably think the same thing, but how things evolve and develop also depends on experience and observation. For instance, a caveman who discovered fire or the wheel could not directly make a stove or a car. As Darwin believed, things develop through time to evolve with our current knowledge. Like Locke and Darwin, I am an empiricist.


Cicero, De Divinatione, (9,55) [Translated by W.A. Falconer (Loeb classical Library), London & New York, 1922].

Darwin, C., 1859 The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection First edition

Darwin, C., 1859/1872 The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Sixth edition

Freud, S. 1938, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis

Freud, S. 1900, Interpretation of Dreams.

Hildebrandt, F.W, 1875, Der Traum und Seine Verwerthung für's Leben (The Dream and Its Exploitation for Life) Leipzig,

Himmelfarb, G 1962, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, W.W. Norton & Company, 1959, New York.

Roberts, A. 1997, Social Science History Six Essays for Budding Theorists, All Saints Bookshop, Middlesex University. Available on the web at http://studymore.org.uk/sshhome.htm

Winterstein, A. 1912, Zwei Belege für die Wunscherfüllung im Traume, Zbl. Psychoanal.

Essay copyright Jessica Lynn Anderson 2006

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