The course of Rieff's career as a semi-public intellectual led from the formal academic rigor of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, which made his reputation in 1959, to the ontological polemics of his 2006 work My Life Among the Deathworks. Rieff's works are written in a multilayered and allusive style characterized by frequent irony and paradox. His scholarly interests were wide-ranging, and his interpretations of cultural life intermix psychology, philosophy, theology, and literary criticism.
In his major works Rieff is concerned above all to understand and explain cultural change. His analyses of cultural change focus heavily on the workings of authority, and the modes – "interdictory", "remissive", and "transgressive", in his theoretical vocabulary – through which authority manifests itself in culture.
In Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), Rieff argues that Sigmund Freud revolutionized the Western concept of morality by inverting the prevailing concepts of individual, mind, and society. Rieff identifies two central Freudian inversions: considering the body as symptomatic of the mind, and the individual as symptomatic of the social. What Freud thinks of as the "social" roots of individual thought and behavior are not, Rieff points out, John Dewey's "society." Instead of faulty social arrangements, Freud has the instincts. In Freud it is instinct and the unconscious that drive social conflict, not ineffective social structures which are tasked with the facilitation of human striving for pleasure and away from pain. For this reason, Rieff concludes, social science in the liberal tradition is "an assortment of technologies for the overcoming of history," whereas social science for Freud is "a therapeutic for institutional history, as Freud intended psychoanalysis to be for personal history."
Rieff continues the theme established in Freud in which he sees the therapeutic ethos – as exemplified by Freud's analytic attitude – become the dominant cultural attitude in its placing of the conflicted individual at the center of his own stage. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1965), Rieff traces the way in which therapy, which aims not at "the good life" but at "better living," has become the reigning mode of life in Western culture. The rise of "Psychological Man" marks for Rieff the death of a culture whose ideals had lost their power to sink deep into the character of its members. In modern culture, virtue gives way to value, and what is of value is whatever conduces to the well-being of the individual. Except as therapeutic devices, commitments (faiths) cease to be possible: "the psychologizers, now fully established as the pacesetters of cultural change, propose to help men avoid doing further damage to themselves by preventing live deceptions from succeeding the dead ones." The therapeutic mode of thinking and acting calls for a flight from the discomforts of fear, the responsibility inherent in identity, and authority itself. In the therapeutic, everything is a game, and all truths are contingent and negotiable. "Truth" is a means to the end of present therapy.
Rieff was interested in the question of whether a culture with such a foundation can long endure. In Triumph, he left open the possibility, both rhetorically and analytically, that it can.
In Fellow Teachers (1973), Rieff presents his argument that it cannot. Chief among the reasons for this is that the therapeutic mode leads in the absence of all other modes to an abyss of identity nihilism. Rieff observes that the deconstructive effort coming out of art and the academy itself is working tirelessly, and in cooperation with the technologists, to instruct fresh generations in the murder of their own culture's authoritative interdicts.
Rieff's theory of culture does not allow the simplistic possibility of never saying Yes and obeying all the Nos of culture. He includes in his analysis the remissive, which is the highly complex and ritualized doing of that which is not to be done yet sometimes done. In that grey area is the enactment of culture, the ongoing negotiation of the problem of human nature in human life within the tension of interdict and transgression.
Fellow Teachers embodies Rieff's dilemma: how does one react when one's fellow teachers are most actively engaged in de-teaching? Rieff's interest was in crafting a guide for those uncertain of the reason for their present cultural condition, and uncertain as to how to effectively face it in the absence of any compelling alternatives.
The Feeling Intellect, published in 1990, is a compilation of articles and fragments that shows the developmental arc of Rieff's scholarship. These are mostly minor works, though some major articles, particularly on the use of the aesthetic in politics and on Oscar Wilde as the modern prophet of "the impossible culture," are crucial to anticipating the direction of Rieff's later work.
Rieff's recent work My Life among the Deathworks can be read as a series of incursions against mounted attacks on culture (the titular "Deathworks"). Much more than his previous work, Deathworks devotes serious attention to the fleeting passions of culture. Those fleeting passions have now become, in Rieff's judgement, the battlefield upon which the fleetingness of culture itself is being determined.
Perhaps the central Deathwork in Rieff's analysis is Marcel Duchamp's "Being Given," which depicts a decayed nude female body lifting a lighted lamp. Rieff declares forcefully against the zombification of society: a culture of death as violent as it is erotic. Though Rieff takes aim at Picasso as well as Duchamp, Rieff is not anti-art or anti-artist. His overarching aim is, however, to place the second commandment in context – to justify it, in the sense of explaining why it might have been so high on the list. The necessity of God to Rieff emerges in that light – permanent authority that is fixed but not fossilized. For Rieff, culture begins with renunciation, and therapy with the renunciation of renunciation.
The contrast between Rieff and Leo Strauss is instructive in placing Rieff's work and its relevance in context. Both men were Jews, both academics, and the peculiar sacred form of literate teaching and learning was vital to the methodology and philosophy of both. Much of Rieff's work, like that of Strauss, comes in the form of erudite analyses of the writings of others. Authorial insight and theory emerges in hints, asides, and subtle commentaries from the critical text. But whereas Strauss was distrustful of the power of absolute truth revealed to the masses, Rieff's posture toward absolute truth is one that understands reverence – the proper fear of the limits of human power – as necessary to the placing of humans in the vertical in authority of interdicts that prevent people, especially masses, from transgressing into anticultural violence.
Rieff was in many ways subversively postmodern in his approach to an applied sociology. It is not until Deathworks that Rieff truly and unconditionally places himself in the service of a battle against anticulture, and much of his statements in the earlier texts on the significance of reticence and distance in academia remain key to understanding his approach to the exertion of powerful truths. Rieff was not afraid to admit that there is little point in writing when what is written are wordier and staler rehashes of essential expressions of authority. ("Desire not the night," he will quote, for example, from the Bible.)
Rieff's essential disappearance from the public eye from the 1980s confirmed that the establishment of a school (such as Strauss') has been unimportant and even antithetical to his object as a social philosopher. Still, he maintained a small but steady and solid base of interest among, now, largely conservative intellectuals. Rieff should not be understood, for all his insistence upon the necessity of cultural authority and contempt for those whose professional recreation is its destruction, as a reactionary or "cultural conservative" in the popular sense. He has repeated in print his conviction that the old forms of cultural authority – those church-faith based Nos of what he terms "the second world" – are largely failed and exhausted, and that to return to them would likewise fail to provide this, "third" world with the new articulations of eternal authorities requisite to a healthy culture.