This lecture concerns the relationship between dreams and occultism (or mysticism). Freud notes that dreams have “often been regarded as the gateway into the world of mysticism,” but that the terms “occultism” and “mysticism” lack clear meanings, outside of referring to some "other world" beyond our normal senses (38). He paraphrases Hamlet, saying there are perhaps "more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy" (38).
Freud suggests approaching the question scientifically, to determine whether such mystical events actually occur. However, such a scientific approach is hindered by certain intellectual, psychological, and historical factors, all of which he addresses.
First, he poses the intellectual difficulty, which leads us to usually reject claims that we find audacious. As example, he suggests that we would dismiss a hypothesis that the earth's core consists of jam, even though we have no direct evidence of what actually sits there. However, he notes that many great scientific discoveries were made despite hasty dismissals, and provides as example psychoanalysis, which continues to face intellectual opposition from some people. Freud warns, therefore, that psychoanalysts should be wary of rejecting new hypotheses on purely intellectual grounds.
The psychological difficulty in acknowledging the occult derives from the human tendency to believe too easily in miraculous events. Because we take such pleasure in imagining a world divorced from reality, there is good reason to be skeptical of occultism. In other words, we are by nature too easily inclined to accept them as true, which requires extra diligence in investigating them objectively.
The third and final difficulty in investigating occultism is historical. Freud observes that many mystical stories and myths have been handed down to us from ancient times, mostly to support religion through tales of a miraculous or superhuman nature. If we are to believe in the power of the occult, we must consider accepting all of these tales as equally true (rather than as symbolic myths). Because the "interest in occultism is [often] in fact a religious one" that seeks to proliferate a particular faith, it is wise to be skeptical of it (42).
Because of these three difficulties, Freud chooses to analyze occultism in the present historical moment. He begins with an examination of telepathy, since there seems to be a link between telepathy and dreams. However, he does not believe that dreams truly explain telepathy, or vice-versa. Rather, he argues that the condition of sleep is suited to receive both dreams and telepathic messages.
As example, he offers the case study of a patient who experienced a telepathic dream, in which the dreamer's second wife gave birth to twins. This was confusing to him because he had no desire to have children with her, and had even admitted that they no longer had sexual relations. Two days later, the man received word that his daughter had given birth to twins on the night of his dream. Freud interprets the dream as a wish-fulfillment of the man's desire for his second wife to be more like the daughter (from his first marriage), who was obviously pregnant at the time. Though Freud believes psychoanalysis addressed the dream's seemingly telepathic content, he also cautions that he cannot be sure whether the dream was actually mystical.
Freud next discusses thought-transference, or the phenomenon by which “ideas, emotional states, [or] conative impulses” seem to be transferred from one person to another, without the use of any signs or language (49). He relates several cases of patients who seem to have performed thought-transference; these include: a woman unable to conceive children with her husband; a young man in love with his sister; and another young man suffering from a compulsion to abuse his mistress. Freud believes that all of these patients experienced some form of thought-transference, but insists again that he can only exhibit the possibly of occult phenomena, and has no evidence to empirically prove its existence.
The next part of the lecture is devoted to a long case study of "Herr P," another of Freud’s patients who seemed to have experienced thought-transference. Shortly after receiving a visit from an English Doctor named Forsyth, Freud saw Herr P., who shared that he had recently been called “Herr von Vorsicht,” which translates to “Mr. Foresight.” Because of the similarity in names, Freud wonders whether his own thoughts had been transferred to Herr P., or vice-versa.
Overall, Freud asserts that his experience with patients suggests the existence of thought-transference, which would mean some occult phenomena exist. However, he also hypothesizes that his experience might simply signify the human equivalent to insect communities, who share a common purpose without the use of language of communicative signs. This would serve as a scientific explanation for his case studies.
He mentions a final example, in which a mother and her young son were in analysis with the same psychoanalyst, Dorothy Burlingham. Burlingham published a paper discussing how the mother once spoke of a golden coin from her childhood, then returned home from her session to find her son wished her to safeguard a different gold coin. A few weeks later, when the mother sat to record the story, the son appeared, asking for the coin to be returned. Burlingham could discover in analysis no reason for the boy's action, which Freud describes as having come upon him “like a foreign body” (69).
The lecture ends somewhat abruptly, as Freud suggests that this story returns the subject to psychoanalysis.
An avid reader, Freud often used literary examples to explain his theories, such as the Oedipus complex, the unconscious, super-ego and dream work (Frankland). This essay contains one such allusion. At the beginning of the lecture, he paraphrases Act I, Scene V of Hamlet. At this moment in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet has learnt from his father's ghost that his father had been murdered by Hamlet's uncle Claudius. When Horatio describes the ghost's appearance as “wondrous strange,” Hamlet responds “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (I.v.163-66).
This allusion gives great insight into Freud's purpose in proving a lecture on occultism. In the play, Hamlet attempts to convince the skeptical Horatio that the rational intellect is limited. Likewise, Freud addresses an audience he likely assumes might be skeptical of such theories. While it is clear that Freud is himself quite skeptical of the topic, he nevertheless wishes to stress that scientific investigation cannot explain everything, and that there may indeed be forms of occult knowledge that are worthy of investigation.
In many ways, this approach parallels the defenses he lays out in the previous lecture. In both cases, Freud wishes to convince his listeners/readers that psychoanalysis is a legitimate science. By addressing these mystical possibilities so early in the collection, he is giving voice to one of the most frequent claims against it - that it involves mystical, symbolic, religious topics, rather than scientific ones. Without immediately dismissing the possibility of the occult, he wishes to show how psychoanalysis can both help explain such mysteries, which being as ill-equipped to disprove them as any other science is. Overall, he wishes to show the particular value of his field.
This central point motivates Freud’s consideration of the occult. Because psychoanalysis investigates a part of the human mind (the unconscious) that other methods cannot, it produces forms of knowledge that established sciences do not recognize and cannot verify. He acknowledges the experimental and relatively nascent nature of psychoanalysis, especially through his hypothetical case of a claim that the earth's core was made of jam. His example here has a metaphoric resemblance to the situation of the unconscious - we don't empirically 'know' how the unconscious is constructed since it is not palpable, and hence is it subject to being intellectually dismissed. In the case of the jam, he suggests we would be less inclined to investigate the claim than to question the speaker's sanity. And yet because this would also be a dismissal of the scientific process, our intellectual prejudice would have ironically compromised the very method we wished to protect. His overall point is that we must always be aware of the prejudices we face, lest our investigations be hampered and new knowledge be lost to us. By approaching a possibly ridiculous topic like the occult through the scientific method, Freud is suggesting that true knowledge requires us to consider assumptions not immediately apparent, and thereby suggesting that knee-jerk opposition to his field could have dangerous consequences for the evolution of knowledge.
The next part of the lecture is devoted largely to case studies. By shifting to examples gleaned through the psychoanalytic method, Freud is implicitly foreshadowing the lecture's final claim - that the mysteries of human experience will lead us back to psychoanalysis, and the truths which it has the potential to unpack.
The example of Herr P. is particularly interesting because Freud himself plays a part in it. He must not only face a mystery presented by his patient, but by himself. His uncertainty in the incident - both as to whether thought-transference took place, and as to the direction in which it went - only reaffirms his professed objectivity. He makes no claim; he merely presents evidence gleaned through his case study, and leaves it open for scientific hypothesis.
Freud concludes his lecture somewhat abruptly, insisting that the story of the gold coin leads us back to “psycho-analysis, which was what we started out from” (70). This sudden ending resembles the often abrupt endings of many analytic sessions, and even suggests that Freud imagines his lecture itself contains the type of unconscious associations that characterize psychoanalytic dream analysis and therapy. Perhaps, the parallel implies, Freud will trigger latent or unconscious associations through his tales of unexplainable mental phenomena, which will lead his audience to psychoanalysis as a way to understand its own encounters with difficult, complicated experiences.