Einstein and Freud: The Democratization of Scientific Knowledge in the 20th Century

1905 was a year of temporal change in the sciences: Albert Einstein disproved the existence of ether using his theory of special relativity while Sigmund Freud laid the foundation of his psychoanalytic theory through a series of lectures delivered at an American university. While Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity represented a significant departure from the accepted mechanical worldview in physics — one inextricably linked to the existence of ether — Freud’s discourse was none other than the burgeoning of a completely new scientific field of thought. However unique their contributions to their respective fields were, both men’s critical acclaim can be attributed to the democratization of scientific knowledge long underway in the 20th century, which led to the wide dissemination of their ideas to larger audiences.

Both utilized different modes of presentation — Einstein the book and academic paper, Freud the lecture — and rhetorical styles to present logical argumentative roadmaps characterized by their aesthetic elegance, symmetry and relatability. Thus, their scientific theories became more accessible to non-academics, representing the popularization of science and its increasing practicality.

Freud, an oratorical mastermind

Freud’s Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, the elucidation of his theory of psychoanalysis delivered at Clark University in 1909, is a masterwork of an effective orator. Freud’s persuasive rhetoric, gender-inclusive language and adept usage of rhetorical questions, repetition and the mode of presentation itself — the lecture — set up the proper medium by which his ideas of childhood sexual repression, subconscious desire, the ‘Oedipus’ complex and his psychosexual stages of development gained traction amongst a larger audience.

In a rare act of gender-inclusion, Freud addresses the audience of “expectant inquirers” as “Ladies and Gentlemen” at the beginning of each of the five lectures, repeatedly invoking the phase throughout. It is therefore implied that his audience refers to both German-speaking men and women (since the lectures were originally delivered in German), already a significant departure from the patriarchal nature of the scientific field, its historical exclusion of women and its use of gendered language. Because he expounds his psychoanalytic theory verbally through lectures — as opposed to a scientific academic paper — literacy is not a required skill to understand his concepts. Therefore, his implied audience also encompasses those previously marginalized by the scientific community that had, up until then, dominated scientific discourse within the halls of academia: illiterate people (oftentimes the poorest, most uneducated segments of society) and women.

Following this inclusive tone, Freud cleverly employs persuasive rhetoric by relating directly to his audience, invoking an image of a collective “we” (instead of referring to himself solely) and going as far as to credit his theory as everyone’s theory — “our view” of Anna O. instead of his view; his keen observations of a female patient’s “hysteria” become the audience’s observations as well. This has the effect of not only fomenting trust with his audience (he repeatedly points out his personal biases and errors, particularly in the third lecture when he addresses a mistake he made in his second lecture) by emphasizing his own fallibility and humility, but also simplifying his scientific concepts by putting the audience directly in his shoes and providing a conceptual framework by which his listeners can logically follow his thought processes in real-time. For example, to demonstrate repression, one of the tenets of his psychoanalytical theory, Freud laid out a thought experiment:

“Let us suppose that in this lecture-room and among this audience, whose exemplary quiet and attentiveness I cannot sufficiently commend, there is nevertheless someone who is causing a disturbance and whose ill-mannered laughter, chattering and shuffling of his feet are distracting my attention from my task…”

Instead of referring to abstract examples beyond the scope of his clinical observations, Freud’s use of his audience as subjects of his theory aids in his effectiveness as a speaker whose ideas resonate clearly with those who may not be well-acquainted with the academic jargon of psychoanalysts. He gains authority by consistently referencing his audience and setting himself at their behest (“with your permission, I would like to pause a moment over this event”). He is able to adroitly predict (and answer) their reactions (“no doubt you will now ask me for some further instances of the causation of hysterical symptoms besides the one I have already given you”) as they follow along with his lecture, therefore mimicking the epistemological nature of knowledge-formation, how the mind itself processes stimuli.

Lastly, the lectures are structured in such a logical manner that Freud becomes the quintessential instructor, always delineating specific points and summarizing concepts before moving on from lecture to lecture, providing a sense of continuity in the elaboration of his theory. “If I may be allowed to generalize […] I should like to formulate what we have learned so far,” he explains. Again, the use of the pronoun “we” emphasizes the academic journey that he is undertaking alongside his audience, contributing to the persuasive rhetorical effect that makes his psychoanalytic theory compelling and ultimately, received by his audience.

What this achieves is not only the revelation of science’s democratization to a wider array of people in the early 20th century, but also its increasing practicality in everyday matters beyond industrialization. “But, just as we do not count on our machines converting more than a certain fraction of the heat consumed into useful mechanical work, we ought not to seek to alienate the whole amount of energy of the sexual instinct from its proper ends,” Freud explains before concluding with an ominous forewarning, another rhetorical effect that makes his theory ever more persuasive and relevant to his audience.

Einstein, the industrial physicist

While Freud relies on his oratorical skills to reach a wider audience, Einstein utilizes a common medium — books and academic articles — to transcend the elitist barrier of academia; when academic papers were once the source of audience exclusion, limited to those scientists and academicians who had access (capital, resources, etc.) to such papers and the knowledge to understand the scientific concepts, Einstein made them more accessible to a larger audience.

It is obvious that Einstein adapted his scientific content to the implied audience, evident in the juxtaposition of two of his most famous works. His On the electrodynamics of moving bodies is an example of academic work meant for a literate, highly-educated audience, specifically physicists knowledgeable about the scientific discourse of the time (the debate surrounding the existence of ether, Maxwell’s electrodynamic equations, etc.) and comfortable with higher-level mathematics; the paper is essentially a compendium of differential and mechanical equations.

On the other hand, his book Relativity, in which he lucidly lays out his theory of special and general relativity (for the purposes of this essay, I will focus only on his special theory), is meant for a lay audience, which he defines in the preface as “those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics.” Thus, the stark contrast in the scientific content between both works — each discussing the same topic of special relativity but to different levels of specificity — further reinforces the point that Einstein was fluid in his style of writing in accordance with the intended audience. However, despite the shift in language registers (going from extreme mathematical specificity in Electrodynamics of moving bodies to more generalized principles in Relativity), Einstein codified his signature aesthetic elegance and used provincial language in both works to demystify and simplify the highly theoretical mathematics behind his theory, even for those readers highly attuned to his work.

Einstein’s pursuit of stylistic symmetry and balance — he did, after all, conceive his theory of relativity as a way to reconcile the “asymmetries” “inherent” in Maxwell’s theories for moving bodies and the existence of ether — is evident in the clear, standardized and elegant equations he used, all proportional in the page-word ratio. Like Freud, he also utilized industrial metaphors (trains) and thought experiments, which served to not only engage the readers with familiar scenarios, but to represent the technological advancement of the 20th century and the practicality of physics as a metaphorical vehicle that transcends several disciplines — a unifying force.

Consequentially, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Einstein’s simultaneous manipulation of time and space (which he deemed relative to the observer) changed the way people perceived science and its applicability to the real world. This was not an isolated phenomenon, but rather the byproduct of the increasing accessibility of science to non-academics (and further clarification for those academics already attuned to the work of Freud and Einstein) via different modes of presentation — the lecture, academic papers and books — and rhetorical devices.

It is no surprise then, in the context of a more knowledgeable public and consolidated scientific community, that the early 20th century was characterized by race-based eugenics and chemical experimentation for war purposes (chlorine and mustard gas) in Germany, both pertinent examples of scientific advancement (although not necessarily “progression,” since this oftentimes had negative consequences) and the extent to which scientific principles could be applied to further industrial, political and personal ends.

This essay has been readapted from an original essay written by the author for a Princeton University course.


Einstein, Albert. On the electrodynamics of moving bodies. Einstein’s miraculous year: five papers that changed the face of physics, Roger Penrose, 1998, p. 123–139.

Einstein, Albert. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1961.

Freud, Sigmund. Five Lectures on Psycho-analysis. New York: Norton, 1977.

Hentschel, Klaus and Ann. Physics, Physics and National Socialism, p. 110.

Health IT by day. Historian by night. Texan forever.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store