The story of the three blows1






Christoph Kraiker




Summary: Sigmund Freud's story of the "three blows" is looked upon as a complex of indirect and systematically misleading suggestions. Apart from suggestions by logical implication we find suggestions by "allusion to standard stories" (in this case allusion to the Copernican Revolution) and by unintended metaphors. The true purpose of the story is to immunize psychoanalysis against criticism and to present Freud as a great martyr and intellectual hero.






Psychoanalysts go out of their way to avoid the use of suggestions because that would violate the rule of abstinence, but, as happens so often, they do it anyway. For instance, Sigmund Freud employed suggestive techniques, at least in his attempts at hypnohistorical manipulation of the general public. He used, among other devices, story-telling, just like we (bona fide Ericksonians) do in our therapy. I am going to analyze one or two of those stories to find out how he does it, and of course in the hope that we may learn something from it.


The first story in question is the well-known story of the three blows to the self-love of men. There exist at least three versions, two from the year 1917 and one from the year 1924, all to be found in the Standard Edition.

First let me quote to you the shortest version which can be found in chapter 18 of the Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis (Vol. 15).


"But in thus emphasizing the unconscious in mental life we have conjured up the most evil spirits of criticism against psycho-analysis. Do not be surprised at this, and do not suppose that the resistance to us rests only on the understandable difficulty of the unconscious or the relative inaccessibility of the experiences which provide evi­dence of it. Its source, I think, lies deeper. In the course of centuries the na‹ve self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science. The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the center of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness. This is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, though something similar had already been asserted by Alexandrian science. The second blow fell when biological research de­stroyed man's supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom and his ineradicable animal nature. This revaluation has been accomplished in our own days by Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, though not without the most violent contemporary opposition. But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on un­consciously in the mind. We psycho-analysts were not the first and not the only ones to utter this call to introspection[1]; but it seems to be our fate to give it its most forcible expression and to support it with empirical material which affects every individual. Hence arises the general revolt against our science, the disregard of all considerations of academic civility and the releasing of the opposition from every re­straint of impartial logic" (Standard Edition, 15, 284-5).



Now, if you want to better understand a story, one way to do it is to consider it a dream and to transform (if you can) its manifest content into its latent meaning. Unfortunately, we don't have the dreamer around, and apart from that, at this congress it seems more plausible to look at it as a suggestion. We can then ana­lyse it in terms of direct and indirect suggestions, and this is what I am going to do now.


The direct suggestion is quite clear, and I just want to repeat it in a nutshell: The re­sistance to psychoanalysis is not caused by an intellectual but by an emotional diffi­culty, and the emotional difficulty is this: psychoanalysis shows that man is not master in his own house, and man can't have that. This has happened before and it is happening again right now.


So far so good. Now lets have a look at the indirect suggestions.


Number one: intellectually, that is scientifically, everything is allright with psycho­analysis.


Number two: people who question the scientific soundness of psychoanalysis actually have emotional problems. They are similar to the bastards that fought against Copernicus and Darwin.


Number three: Their fight will be in vain - they will fail the way the enemies of Copernicus and Darwin failed. Here Freud seems to speak mainly to himself and to his followers. In difficult times it is standard practice to point out the heroes of the past and to gain courage from the fact that they finally had been able to overcome the forces of darkness.


Number four: there is, in fact, resistance to psychoanalysis far in excess of what is reasonable.


Let me comment on this a bit. In the year 1917 S.Freud already was an international celebrity. And even at the time when the Studies on Hysteria were published, around 1895, this work was an immediate success and widely discussed in Vienna. His work on the interpretation of dreams (around 1900) was reviewed at least thirty times, often positively, even enthusiastically. In 1917 Freud was widely quoted in psycho­logical works, often critically, to be sure, but also with much sympathy. According to all we know psychoanalysis in fact had a lot of critics, often harsh critics, but this criticism was not only not in excess of the usual, but psychoanalysis was, and is, one of the most successful and most widely accepted intellectual movements in this cen­tury. And yet Freud insisted, and kept insisting, and his followers everywhere still in­sist, that psychoanalysis is the object of excessive resistance. 


Let me offer two possible interpretations of this discrepancy. One is this: Psycho­analysis requires immediate and unconditional acceptance; therefore any criticism, any resistance whatsoever, is unreasonable and has to be explained (the way it has been done).


Another interpretation refers the picture Freud has of himself. He likes to see himself as a lonely fighter for the truth in a morass of ignorance and viciousness. It has often been pointed out that Freud identified strongly with Moses, and it is clear: in order to be a fighter, you have to have resistance, and if you want to be a martyr, you have to have enemies of overwhelming strength. And if you dont have that many enemies and that much resistance, you invent them.


Lets now return to the indirect suggestions of our story. Number five: Psychoanalysis is in fact a blow to human self-love (or megalomania).


Now we ask ourselves: is it? Lets just point out that many did not and do not think so. There is for instance Robert Musil, a compatriot and contemporary of Freud, best known for his influential novel "The man without qualities". He writes (in the thirties) that psychoanalysis has been so succesful because it told people they had depth to their being (something they had not suspected) and that the passions of Oedipus and Electra were dwelling in souls which, so far, had appeared pretty dull. Similarly Karl Kraus, also living in Vienna at the same time, and like Freud, a guardian and master of the German language, did not quite see it as Freud saw it. He writes (and I quote from a collection edited be Thomas Szasz):


"Psychoanalysis is the most powerful religion: it turns doubt into bliss. As weakness engenders not humility but arrogance, this new doctrine enjoys great earthly success and lords over all other creeds and cults" (1913),


This, of course does not prove anything, but it seems to me that, if one looks at it soberly, psychoanalysis has not been a blow to human self-love at all, but has made poeple much more interesting to themselves than they were before.


Indirect suggestion number six ( and here we arrive at the essential message of our story): I, Sigmund Freud, am the greatest. I am the third in the row of most distinguished men, and according to the well known principle that the greater the blow, the greater the blower, I am on top, for "human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time", that is, from me.


This message is reinforced by another kind of indirect suggestion in our story. What we had so far were suggestions by straightforward logical implication. In addition to that we find something we might call allusion to stan­dard stories. A standard story is a story more or less known to practically all li­steners and it has, or seems to have, a definite message. Standard stories may be fairy tales, or descriptions of mythological events, or reports on real happenings.


The standard story alluded to by Freud is the story of the so-called Copernican revo­lution. That is of course a true story, but, as seems to be the case with many standard stories, it is only apparently known to the speaker or the audience spoken to. Now, what Freud suggests by mentioning Co­pernicus, is this:


Copernicus was a brilliant scientist who made an epoch-making discovery. He had a few unimportant precursors, to be sure, but those had been long forgotten. He was persecuted for his discovery by the ignorant and vicious forces of religion, in particular the inquisition, but he persisted, even though he was threatened with torture and death. And I, Sigmund Freud, I am like him.


Now, I cannot resist the temptation to say something about the pre­sence of Coperni­cus in contemporary Western consciousness. It seems obvious to me that what Freud had in mind is actually the condensation of three different stories, that is the story of Copernicus himself, of Giordano Bruno, and of Galileo Galilei. Of those three, Gali­leo was the only one to be officially persecuted for his scientific views, although Lerner and Gosselin (Scientific American, 1986) wrote: "Political tensions and Bruno's earlier heresy - and not astronomy - put Galileo before the Inquisition".  Giordano Bruno was the only one to be burned at the stake after a trial presided over by Cardinal Bellarmino, but he was burned for his heretical theology, not for his science, which nobody so far has been able to figure out anyway, even though he did call himself a Copernican. Again I quote Lerner and Gosselin: Bruno's main work (La cena de la ceneri) "appears to be a compendium of nonsense - a disorganized display of cross error connected by incomprehensible passages" (S.116).


And Copernicus himself had little trouble. He had been able to teach his sy­stem for many years, it became quickly known throughout Europe, and when he was finally persuaded to publish it (as De revolutionibus or­bium celestium), he asked the Pope, Paul III, for permission to dedicate the work to him. That permission was granted, and a preface was ad­ded by Andreas Osiander, a protestan theologian, apparently to calm down the Lutherans. Unfortunately, when this book eventually appeared in 1543, Copernicus was already dead, and he had died of natural causes.


What exactly was his achievement? Let me summarize the facts. Both the geocentric system of Ptolemy and the heliocentric system of Aristarchus of Samos were known and discussed, at least in some circles, throughout the Middle Ages. A summary of this discussion may be found in the book "Livre du Ciel et du Monde", published by Bishop Nicolas d'Oresme in 1377. One of the things he argued about was the hoary theological argument from Joshua 10, 12-13. "Then spoke Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themsel­ves upon their enemies."


The bishop pointed out that all that was just a figure of speech but did not imply anything about the underlying system of planetary movements. Furthermore, since the Lord was almighty, he obviously could have achieved the experienced effect in a heliocentric system, too. That, of course was perfectly reasonable, and it was later taken up by Galilei when faced with the same objection.


Now, although there existed two basic systems, there was only one complete model of the known planets, and that was the Ptolemaic model. This could be used for fairly good predictions, and no such workable model existed for the heliocentric view. And this is what Copernicus did: He con­structed a complete model of planetary movements covering all the known planets and having the sun more or less at the center. Since he worked from wrong assumptions (center of the orbits, shape of the orbits), his model was physically not quite correct, and geometrically it was just as complicated as the old system, involving all kinds of cycles and epicycles. But: phenomenologically it was a vast impro­vement, that is, it made possible much better predictions than before. So, in 1582, based on the model of Copernicus, Pope Gregory the XIII enacted a reform of the Julian Ca­lendar  and this is the calendar most people still use up to this day.


Let me conclude: There were critics of Copernicus, but he could teach his system without obstruction and was, all in all, very successful. The critics raised theological, physical, and methodological objections, but I have never heard or read of anyone accusing him of having de­livered a blow to the self-love of mankind. On the contrary: in his time, the time of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Bra­mante, the self-confidence and arrogance of people grew so fast, that Arthur Koestler said it looked as if a new species of intelligent beings had appeared on this planet.


Therefore: Freuds view of the Copernican revolution and its aftermath is in many respects confused and distorted. This kind of distortion, however, is typical not only for Freud, but for the enlightened propaganda machinery as such. By constant repe­tition of that tale the "Scientific Spirit" could immunize itself once and for all against every variety of moral objections. The fire that transformed Giordano Bruno from a pompous windbag into a light of the occident nowadays shines warmly upon the em­bryological researcher.


Let me add here a few observations on another story told by Freud (much later), the story of the man Moses. Freud central point is this: Moses was not a member of the people of Israel, but an Egyptian. He was a believer in solar monotheism, the religion introduced by the Pharao Amenhotep IV who later called himself Akhenaton, i.e. "Pleasing to Aton" (his god). Akhenaton persecuted the priests of the old cults, closed their temples and erased their inscriptions, but after his death the old order re-emerged and persecuted in turn Akhenaton's followers, among them Moses, who fled to the people of Israel, led them out of Egypt, and gave them a new religion, namely a variant of his own.  Now, Freud does not pretend to have proven this assumption, but he considers it an interesting and propable hypothesis. And the question is: why does he want that story to be true? And the only explanation I have is this: if it were true, it would show that even Moses was no original mind and therefore inferior to ... guess who?


Lets go back to the three blows. So far we have found indirect suggestions by logical implication and by allusion to standard stories. Let me draw your attention now to the third and last kind of indirect suggestion I would like to talk about, that is, suggestion by unintended metaphor.


That suggestions can be given unintentionally seems to be obvious. Physicians do it all the time. Suggestions by unintended metaphor is like a slip of the tongue: you say something you did not really want to say. The expression "to re­ceive a blow" or "to deliver a blow" we have found in the story of the three blows is in itself a metaphori­cal way of speaking, but it ist not the metaphor used by Freud. One of the reasons ist that he did not write in English but in German. However, if he had wanted to, he could have used an exact equivalent, for instance "einen Schlag versetzen", which means the same thing. But he did not. Instead of Schlag he used the word Kränkung.


Now, Kränkung derives from "krank", which means "ill"; Krankheit means "illness" or "disease", and a "Kränkung" is some­thing that makes you ill. This sense of the word Kränkung is not obvious in everyday discourse, but the connections are clear enough, and we have learned to look not only at the surface of words but at their true meaning.


So what Freud really, if unintentionally, says, is this: There were three discoveries that made people ill, and psychoanalysis is the worst of them.


But if this is so, if the greatest achievements of the human intellect have this effect, then Freuds message reads like a modernized version of John 8, 32:


"You shall know the truth, and truth shall kill you."







Crombie, A.C. (1977) Von Augustinus bis Galilei (Engl.:Augustine to Galileo). München: DTV


Köstler, Arthur (1959) The sleepwalkers. London: Penguin Books


Lerner, Lawrence S. & Gosselin, E.A. (1986) Galileo and the specter of Bruno. Scientific American 255, Nr. 5, pp 116-123


Musil, Robert (1978) Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. Bd.2 "Aus dem Nachlaá". Hg.v. A.Fris‚. Hamburg: Rowohlt


Santillana, Giorgio (1961) The crime of Galileo. London: Mercury books


Szasz, T. (1977) Karl Kraus and the soul-doctors. London: Routledge




Keywords: psychoanalysis, indirect suggestion, Copernicus, allusion to standard sto­ries, unintended metaphors, story of the three blows



Authors address:


Dr.Christoph Kraiker

Department Psychologie

Universitaet Muenchen

Leopoldstr. 13

D-80802 Muenchen



[1] The term "introspection" is used here as translation of the German word "Einkehr" which in this context actually means something like "reflection" or "self-examination".


1  Slightly revised version of a paper published 1994 in „Hypnos“, 3, pp 176-180