A Short History of Schopenhauer’s Porcupines

In 1851 Schopenhauer published his final work, a book of essays, Parerga and Paralipomena. It was the book that would finally make him known and respected. The last section of the Paralipomena ends with a short tale about porcupines:

On a cold winter’s day, a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order through their mutual warmth to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effect of their quills on one another, which made them again move apart. Now when the need for warmth once more brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so that they were tossed between two evils, until they discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the need for society, which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s lives, drives them together; but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities and insufferable drawbacks once more drive them apart. The mean distance which they finally discover, and which enables them to endure being together, is politeness and good manners. Whoever does not keep to this, is told in England to ‘keep his distance.’ By virtue thereof, it is true that the need for mutual warmth will be only imperfectly satisfied, but, on the other hand, the prick of the quills will not be felt. Yet whoever has a great deal of internal warmth of his own will prefer to keep away from society in order to avoid giving or receiving trouble and annoyance.

Schopenhauer – Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2 Chapter XXXI – Similes, Parables, and Fables, #396 Translation: E. F. J. Payne, Oxford University Press (Pages 651-2)

Freud brought this short parable into the literature of psychology and psychoanalysis by mentioning it in a key section of his 1921 book on the psychology of crowd behavior, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. About half the original tale is replicated in the footnote of Strachey’s English translation for The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud:

Let us keep before our eyes the nature of the emotional relations which hold between men in general. According to Schopenhauer’s famous simile of the freezing porcupines no one can tolerate a too intimate approach to his neighbor. [1] The evidence of psycho-analysis shows that almost every intimate emotional relation between two people which lasts for some time—marriage, friendship, the relations between parents and children—contains a sediment of feelings of aversion and hostility, which only escapes perception as a result of repression.

[1] ‘A company of porcupines 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 now, when the need for warmth brought them nearer together again, the second evil arose once more. So that they were driven backwards and forwards from one trouble to the other, until they had discovered a mean distance at which they could most tolerably exist.’ (Parerga und Paralipomena, Part II, 31, ‘Gleichnisse und Parabeln.’

Freud – Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) Chapter VI – Further Problems and Lines of Work, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Translation: James Strachey, Vol. XVIII(Page 101))

Because of its mention in Freud, the story has become well known among members of the psychology profession in the English-speaking world (not usually known to read a great deal of Schopenhauer). It has been mentioned in widely read popular works like Deborah Tannen’s That’s Not What I Meant! (1986) (See Chapter Two: The Workings of Conversational Style page 31) and was the main metaphor and title of Deborah Anna Luepnitz’s Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and its dilemmas (2002) (see pages 2-5, 18-19, 218, 248-249).


~ by severalfourmany on September 16, 2004.

One Response to “A Short History of Schopenhauer’s Porcupines”

  1. […] convincingly argue that you have never read someone when you directly quote them in your writings. Freud’s celebrated use of Schopenhauer’s porcupine metaphor is just one […]

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