Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

By Sigmund Freud

Critical Approaches

As Freud writes in such a literary style, but his topic is scientific, critics have generally been concerned with his theories and content of the book rather than his style per se. The psychodynamic theory has not been free from criticism. The main problem it has faced is that of a lack of rigorous empirical support, which modern day science values much more. The 'data' comes largely from middle class citizens or the works of Lichtenberg, and Fischer etc. With such data, how can Freud be sure that he has an exhaustive collection of jokes, and has not left a technique / condition / purpose unidentified? The answer is he can't so here we have the fundamental weakness of Freud's work.

Similarly, having identified a characteristic of some jokes, Freud has not given us any empirical rigour with which he determined its universality, except that of finding a counter example. Whilst this is a problem for many scientific areas that does not make it any more acceptable.

In distinguishing between jokes, the comic and humour, as the translator notes at the beginning merely translating 'Der Witz' in the title creates inaccuracies, thus highlighting the problems of linguistics. The differences between jokes, the comic and humour, depend on one's definitions of them, so the distinctions that Freud makes, merely accommodate the definitions and characteristics that he has given them. Others would be completely in their rights to opt to define them differently, since they are generally used in such broad contexts as to be understood without the ambiguity that Freud implies.

Critics also attack the components of Freud's speculations about jokes and the unconscious. As in other fields of psychology, Freud discusses 'pleasure', 'psychical expenditure' and 'expected psychical expenditure' as though they were highly specific, discrete and easily measured notions. However it seems that ideas of 'pleasure' are highly subjective; a definition of psychical expenditure remains too abstract to be implemented, and how can either of these abstract properties of the mind be measure let alone expected psychical expenditure?!

Freud also discusses the opposing forces - of one's 'critical faculty' and 'reasonableness', as though, they too, were familiar concepts to all, and easily quantified. As before he gives no units or tools with which to measure and define these forces, so the mathematical and scientific order that he is trying to implement in this inspired area of human nature seems starkly inconsistent with the raw data and its sources.