Tuesday, October 20, 2009


In Parerga and Paralipomena, published in 1851, Arthur Schopenhauer created a parable about the dilemma faced by porcupines in cold weather. He described a "company of porcupines" who "crowded themselves very close together one cold winter's day so as to profit by one another's warmth and so save themselves from being frozen to death. But soon they felt one another's quills, which induced them to separate again." And so on. The porcupines were "driven backwards and forwards from one trouble to the other," until they found a "mean distance at which they could most tolerably exist."

Schopenhauer's tale was later quoted by Freud in a footnote to his 1921 essay Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, where it was invoked to illustrate what Freud called the "sediment of feelings of aversion and hostility" adhering to any long-lasting human relationship [...]

Freud may have kept the true basis for his fascination with porcupines secret from his followers because exposing it would have meant conceding a familiarity with Schopenhauer, thereby contracting the boundaries of his own originality - and, perhaps, revealing the limitations of the scientific as opposed to philosophical authority of his claims.
George Prochnik, "The Porcupine Illusion", Cabinet, Issue 26, 2007.