Freudian Psychology

The Porcupine Dilemma: What Sigmund Freud Knew

“Most friendship is feigning, most love mere folly.” —As You Like It

Posted Oct 21, 2020

When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Sigmund Freud fled with his daughter, Anna, to England.  Their home in London now houses the Freud Museum.  Among the exhibits at the museum is a small metal porcupine that Freud kept on his desk.  As Freud himself said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but in this case a porcupine is not just a porcupine.  It has a deeper meaning.

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, published in 1921, Freud referred to a parable penned by the German Philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer.  It goes like this:  Several porcupines were trying to stay warm on a cold winter night.  They huddled together to share body heat, but their quills were too painful and drove them apart.   So they remained separated until the freezing temperatures drove them together again.  Back and forth they went, first together and then apart, until they found a proximity that provided some small comfort and no pain. 

This is the porcupine dilemma (also called the hedgehog dilemma).  It appears in Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena, in which he  observed:  “In the same way the need of society [i.e., love, friendship, companionship] drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature…By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked.”

A  few years later, Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, an elaboration on the porcupine dilemma:  “Their [i.e., human beings’] neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.” 

In that article Freud was specifically writing about the threat of latent aggression as a universal feature of human nature.  In Freudian psychology, aggression comes from the id and, unless unchecked by the superego, makes the ego a slave to the id’s wanton greed, lusts, covetousness, envy, etc. – all  toxic byproducts of latent aggression.  The id knows no boundaries and like a toddler it wants what it wants when it wants it.  A well-developed superego in the parent role is needed to set limits for the id.  One need only look around to see multitudes of people fueled by aggression, their ids unchecked by a strong superego, allowing their egos to slavishly serve their darker impulses.

With this in mind, perhaps it is unsurprising that Freud called America "a gigantic mistake."  He only visited the U.S. once, but held America and Americans in contempt.

The advent of Covid-19 has made the porcupine dilemma even more complex in that we have had to re-negotiate acceptable personal boundaries via “social distancing,” so that each of us is at minimal risk of infection and yet still able to interact with others.  Politicizing of masks has brought the porcupine dilemma to the fore – and  now you have a name for this phenomenon.

The scientific name for porcupines is Erethizon dorsaum.  Fittingly, a group is called a “prickle" of porcupines.

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too.”  —Yogi Berra