The best books on Freud and his legacy

Todd Dufresne Author Of The Late Sigmund Freud: Or, The Last Word on Psychoanalysis, Society, and All the Riddles of Life
By Todd Dufresne

Who am I?

I am a professor of philosophy and editor or author of 12 books. I started out in ‘Freud Studies’ in the 1990s with no agenda, just a deep interest in Freud’s ideas. Since then I’ve written quite a lot on it. Unfortunately, the field is so contentious, so overrun with books by former patients and analysts, that casual readers couldn’t possibly make heads or tails of it. Readers are best served by reading complete works of Freud and making their own assessments. After that, they can look at Freud’s voluminous and eye-opening correspondence with colleagues. Then they can consult good books, and lists of recommended works, that put them in the right direction.

I wrote...

The Late Sigmund Freud: Or, The Last Word on Psychoanalysis, Society, and All the Riddles of Life

By Todd Dufresne,

Book cover of The Late Sigmund Freud: Or, The Last Word on Psychoanalysis, Society, and All the Riddles of Life

What is my book about?

The Late Sigmund Freud is one of very few book-length accountings of the “late” or “cultural”  Freud of 1920-1939. This is shocking because the works of this period, such as Civilization & Its Discontents, are actually among Freud’s most famous. Dufresne attempts to understand the so-called ‘sociological’ Freud in its own terms, relate it to the broader socio-intellectual context of Freud’s time, and assess Freud’s conscious attempt to provide the ‘last word’ on the meaning of his theory and practice of psychoanalysis.  

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Freud: The Mind of the Moralist

By Philip Rieff,

Book cover of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist

Why this book?

This is a very good, fair, smart, early interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis in general, and of its significance for culture and intellectual history in particular. It’s very well written, probably because Susan Sontag (Rieff’s wife at the time) is widely reported to have actually written the book, and in the 1960s the book became highly influential. It is easily Rieff’s best book. 

The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry

By Henri F. Ellenberger,

Book cover of The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry

Why this book?

Ellenberger was one of the first and most important historians of psychiatry, and is still remembered for this dense, learned, comprehensive history of the origins of ‘dynamic psychiatry.’ At over 900 pages long, Ellenberger provides copious evidence that research on "the unconscious” long predates its ‘discovery’ by Sigmund Freud. It has since 1970 been lovingly mined by informed scholars for its encyclopedic review of the major movements of dynamic psychiatry and of a sometimes obscure, often technically-challenging literature.  

Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend

By Frank J. Sulloway,

Book cover of Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend

Why this book?

While some thinkers, such as Ernest Jones and Philip Rieff, had noted Freud’s lifelong reliance on 19th-century biology, it wasn’t until Sulloway’s tome of 1979 that a systematic investigation of Freud’s embarrassing biology was published. Hence the demystification Sulloway offers of a ‘psychoanalytic legend’ that routinely erases the foundational roles that Lamarckian inheritance and Haeckelian recapitulation play throughout Freud’s oeuvre. This dense, difficult, but well-argued and undeniable work is meant for experts but is key for all serious students of psychoanalysis. 

The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute

By Frederick Crews,

Book cover of The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute

Why this book?

This well-written, tightly-argued little book of 1995 gathers together four feature articles from The New York Review of Books that together represent a watershed moment in ‘Freud Studies.’ For here was the NYRB, a long-standing bastion of psychoanalysis, publishing splashy articles that functioned like a Hollywood expose of Freud’s failings as a man, thinker, and therapist. In truth, Crews was simply giving voice to a ‘revisionist’ portrait of Freud that started in earnest in the wake of Jones’s three-volume ‘life and work’ of Freud (1953-57). Best of all: Crews connects it all to the ‘recovered memory’ movement of the 1980s and 90s, thereby drawing a  disturbing portrait of Freud’s legacy.  

Freud's Patients: A Book of Lives

By Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen,

Book cover of Freud's Patients: A Book of Lives

Why this book?

In principle, psychoanalytic theory and practice rely on evidence adduced from the clinical case studies of patients. Freud, however, presented very few such cases. With this in mind, Borch-Jacobsen has done something of permanent importance to the field: he researched and wrote 38 ‘lost’ and unofficial case studies of Freud’s patients and gathered them all into one volume. The book as such functions as a shocking disconfirmation of everything we thought we knew about Freud the man, the theorist, and the therapist. And, best of all, it does so in plain, highly accessible language.  

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and psychiatry?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and psychiatry.

Psychoanalysis Explore 60 books about psychoanalysis
Sigmund Freud Explore 31 books about Sigmund Freud
Psychiatry Explore 20 books about psychiatry

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Governing the Soul, History of Madness, and Rewriting the Soul if you like this list.