The pathologizing of catharsis in the 19th century: Bernays, Freud, Nietzsche (119)

Principal Investigator:

In 1857, Jacob Bernays breaks with the Aristotelian catharsis tradition by introducing "solicitation" to philology, observing that Aristotle had used a medical model as the basis for poetic catharsis.

In describing the effect of tragedy as a catharsis ("cleansing" or "purgation") of tragic emotions ("pity and fear"), Aristotle generates a discussion that continues to this day. Jacob Bernays, in his 1857 philological work, Grundzüge der verlorenen Abhandlung des Aristoteles über Wirkung der Tragödie  ("Main Features of Aristotle's Lost Treatise on the Effect of Tragedy"), emphatically rejects the moral (Lessing) and aesthetic (Goethe) tradition of catharsis. He introduces the concept of "solicitation", in other words, the intentional arousal and "discharge" of emotions, to the discussion.

Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud are following this impulse when they describe their "hysteria therapy" as a "cathartic method" in their 1895 publication, Studien über Hysterie ("Studies in Hysteria"); Friedrich Nietzsche, too, had been referred to Bernays since 1872, with his Geburt der Tragödie ("The Birth of Tragedy"), and placed cathartic "discharge" in the service of an enhanced life.

At the core of the project is the redefinition of the term and the dissolution of its boundaries; no longer does "catharsis" belong only to the classical fields of poetics and ethics, religion and politics, but rather also to the fields of medicine and psychology as well as aesthetics and cultural theory. Bernays turns catharsis into a key term in the conception of new "languages of emotion".


Vöhler, M., Linck, D. (Eds.) (2009). Grenzen der Katharsis in den modernen Künsten. Zur Rezeption des Katharsistheorems seit Jacob Bernays. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.

Vöhler, M., Malinar, A. (Eds.) (2009). Un/reinheit: Konzepte und Praktiken im Kulturvergleich. München: Fink.

Vöhler, M., Malinar, A. (2009). Un/Reinheit: Konzepte und Praktiken im Kulturvergleich. Vöhler, M., Malinar, A. (Eds.). Un/Reinheit: Konzepte und Praktiken im Kulturvergleich. 9-18. München: Fink.