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Number 10: Spring 2015

Freud’s Wissbegierde and the Research Projects of Childhood: Revisiting ‘Little Hans’

Julie Walsh

I overheard an exchange between two women on a coach recently, both of whom were grandmothers. One was telling the other of her grandchild’s musings on the imminent arrival of a baby sibling. The young child grew particularly concerned if her mother went to the toilet lest the baby arrive without warning. The second grandmother had similar anecdotes to recount. As delighted as they were by the creative and candid character of their progeny, they were also compelled to formulate their own imaginative identifications with the (now distant) site of childhood. Recognising that the infants’ theories were ‘perfectly reasonable’ and in actual fact ‘rather clever’, and speculating on the nature of the infants’ experiential realities, the grandmothers were framing their own desire to know something of their grandchildren’s investigative spirit within a discourse of hypothesis and logical conjecture. I mention this to illustrate how, on embarking on his most formative of investigations, the infant inevitably re-ignites the epistemophilic instincts of the adult onlooker. Perhaps this is as straightforward as observing that wonder begets wonder, but what I will try to show is that this formulation is itself a significant derivation of Freud’s thought that narcissism begets narcissism.11What strikes me most however, about this conversation that I was privy to, is the way in which a rudimentary (but etymologically correct) appreciation of research as that which entails care in the act of looking comes close to capturing the qualities of affection, inspiration, and diligent attention that the grandmothers were demonstrating in their analyses of their grandchildren.22

The central line of enquiry in this paper asks how care and research come to coalesce in the activity of psychoanalysis. I shall take as my orientation Freud’s contention that in the execution of psychoanalysis, research and treatment coincide (1912e: 114).33 Freud’s concept of Wissbegierde—as the drive to know, or the research instinct—will be central to our discussion.44 The drive towards knowledge—or the passionate desire for knowledge—is undoubtedly given a primacy and an ontological significance in Freud’s thought; it is also surely the motor-force of scientific enquiry. And yet Freud tells us that science, which is positioned as one of man’s highest achievements, entails ‘the most complete renunciation of the pleasure principle of which our mental activity is capable’ (1910h: 165); moreover, science is to be extolled for its ‘passionless impartiality’ (1915b: 275). If there is a tension here, then it is one that seems to be discharged by the concept of sublimation; science can retain its libidinal investments—and the researcher his passion—once we recognise that scientific activity is a substitute satisfaction that can heighten the yield of pleasure available from the sublimation of the instincts. Perhaps then, the problem of reconciling the passionate desire for knowledge that Freud identifies as the hallmark of a great researcher (as in his Leonardo da Vinci study for example) with the idea that science must be passionless is not so problematic after all. But this understanding of research as the product of sublimation is unsatisfactory for many, and arguably fails to account for Freud’s own intimation that Wissbegierde stands apart from the sexual and self-preservative instincts.


  1. That Freud appreciated the circular logic of narcissism is clearly expressed in his paper of 1914 where he describes the way in which the baby’s state of primary narcissism is echoed by a reawakening of the narcissism of the parents.  

  2. The OED lays out the etymology of the verb research as follows: ‘after Middle French recercher… to look for with care, to look into carefully, to examine, investigate, to seek to obtain (16th cent.), to seek in marriage (1550). Compare post-classical Latin recercare… Italian ricercare (a1337)’.  

  3. Freud’s statement is rather ambiguous; he notes that ‘One of the claims of psycho-analysis to distinction is, no doubt, that in its execution research and treatment coincide; nevertheless, after a certain point, the technique required for the one opposes that required for the other’ (1912e:114). Throughout this piece and with a particular focus on the Little Hans case history, I shall be asking how we are to inflect this statement; for example, are we allowing the child’s research instinct to be tamed by the pragmatic framework of treatment, or are we recommending that treatment be conducted with the vigour of a child’s curiosity? 

  4. I shall follow Blass (2006) in using the terms research instinct, drive for knowledge, passionate desire to know as interchangeable with Wissbegierde, and support her observation that translations of the term Wissbegierde tend to undermine its status in Freud’s thought.