Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856 -
September 23, 1939) was an Austrian neurologist, who became interested in hypnotism
and how it could be used to help the mentally ill. He later abandoned hypnotism
in favor of free association and dream analysis in developing what is now known
as "the talking cure." These became the core elements of psychoanalysis. Freud
was especially interested in what was then called hysteria, and is now called
Freud, his theories, and his treatment of his patients
were controversial in 19th century Vienna, and remain hotly debated today. His
ideas are often discussed and analyzed as works of literature and general culture
in addition to continuing debate around them as scientific and medical treatises.
He was born Sigismund Schlomo Freud
in Freiberg, Moravia, the Austrian Empire (now Pribor in the Czech Republic).
In 1877, he abbreviated his name from Sigismund Schlomo Freud to Sigmund Freud.
Little is known of Freud's early life as he twice destroyed his personal papers,
once in 1885 and again in 1907. Additionally, his later papers were closely guarded
in the Sigmund Freud Archives and only available to Ernest Jones, his official
biographer, and a few other members of the inner circle of psychoanalysis. The
work of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson shed some light on the nature of the suppressed
In 1938 following the Nazi German Anschluss of Austria, Freud escaped
with his family to England. He died in England in 1939. Freud's daughter Anna
Freud was also a distinguished psychologist, particularly in the fields of child
and developmental psychology. Sigmund is the grandfather of painter Lucian Freud
and comedian and writer Clement Freud, and the great-grandfather of journalist
Emma Freud, fashion designer Bella Freud and PR man Matthew Freud. Freud was a
smoker of Churchill-style cigars for most of his life; even after having his cancerous
jaw removed, he continued to smoke until his death. It is said that he would smoke
an entire box of cigars daily.
Freud has been influential in two related, but distinct ways. He simultaneously
developed a theory of the human mind and human behavior, and a clinical technique
for helping unhappy (i.e. neurotic) people. Many people claim to have been influenced
by one but not the other.
Perhaps the most significant contribution Freud has
made to modern thought is his conception of the unconscious. During the 19th century
the dominant trend in Western thought was positivism, the claim that people could
accumulate real knowledge about themselves and their world, and exercise rational
control over both. Freud, however, suggested that these claims were in fact delusions;
that we are not entirely aware of what we even think, and often act for reasons
that have nothing to do with our conscious thoughts. The concept of the unconscious
was groundbreaking in that he proposed that awareness existed in layers and there
were thoughts occurring "below the surface." Dreams, called the "royal road to
the unconscious" provided the best examples of our unconscious life, and in The
Interpretation of Dreams Freud both developed the argument that the unconscious
exists, and developed a method for gaining access to it.
The Preconscious was
described as a layer between conscious and unconscious thought—that which we could
access with a little effort. (The term "subconscious" while popularly used, is
not actually part of psychoanalytical terminology.) Although there are still many
adherents to a purely positivist and rationalist view, most people, including
many who reject other elements of Freud's work, accept the claim that part of
the mind is unconscious, and that people often act for reasons of which they are
Crucial to the operation of the unconscious is "repression."
According to Freud, people often experience thoughts and feelings that are so
painful that people cannot bear them. Such thoughts and feelings—and associated
memories—could not, Freud argued, be banished from the mind, but could be banished
from consciousness. Thus they come to constitute the unconscious. Although Freud
later attempted to find patterns of repression among his patients in order to
derive a general model of the mind, he also observed that individual patients
repress different things. Moreover, Freud observed that the process of repression
is itself a non-conscious act (in other words, it did not occur through people
willing away certain thoughts or feelings). Freud supposed that what people repressed
was in part determined by their unconscious. In other words, the unconscious was
for Freud both a cause and effect of repression.
Freud sought to explain how
the unconscious operates by proposing that it has a particular structure. He proposed
that the unconscious was divided into three parts: Id, Ego, and Superego. The
Id (Latin, = "it" = es in the original German) represented primary
process thinking — our most primitive need gratification type thoughts. The Superego
represented our conscience and counteracted the Id with moral and ethical thoughts.
The Ego stands in between both to balance our primitive needs and our moral/ethical
beliefs. A healthy ego provides the ability to adapt to reality and interact with
the outside world in a way that accommodates both Id and Superego. The general
claim that the mind is not a monolithic or homogeneous thing continues to have
an enormous influence on people outside of psychology. Many, however, have questioned
or rejected the specific claim that the mind is divided into these three components.
Freud was especially concerned with the dynamic relationship between these
three parts of the mind. Freud argued that the dynamic is driven by innate drives.
But he also argued that the dynamic changes in the context of changing social
relationships. Some have criticized Freud for giving too much importance to one
or the other of these factors; similarly, many of Freud's followers have focused
on one or the other.
Freud developed the concept of overdetermination to account
for the multiple determining causes in the interpretation of dreams rather than
rely on a simple model of one-to-one correspondence between causes and effects.
Freud believed that humans were driven by two instinctive drives, libidinal
energy/eros and the death instinct/thanatos. Freud's description of Eros/Libido
included all creative, life-producing instincts. The Death Instinct represented
an instinctive drive to return to a state of calm, or non-existence and was based
on his studies of protozoa. (See: Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Many
have challenged the scientific basis for this claim.
Freud also believed that
the libido developed in individuals by changing its object. He argued that humans
are born "polymorphously perverse," meaning that any number of objects could be
a source of pleasure. He further argued that as humans developed they fixated
on different, and specific, objects—first oral (exemplified by an infant's pleasure
in nursing), then anal (exemplified by a toddler's pleasure in controlling his
or her bowels), then phallic. Freud argued that children then passed through a
stage where they fixated on the parent of the opposite sex. Freud sought to anchor
this pattern of development in the dynamics of the mind. Each stage is a progression
into adult sexual maturity, characterized by a strong ego and the ability to delay
need gratification. (see Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.)
model of psycho-sexual development has been criticized from different perspectives.
Some have attacked Freud's claim that infants are sexual beings (and, implicitly,
Freud's expanded notion of sexuality). Others have accepted Freud's expanded notion
of sexuality, but have argued that this pattern of development is not universal,
nor necessary for the development of a healthy adult. Instead, they have emphasized
the social and environmental sources of patterns of development. Moreover, they
call attention to social dynamics Freud de-emphasized or ignored (such as class
Freud hoped to prove that his model, based primarily on observations
of middle-class Viennese, was universally valid. He thus turned to ancient mythology
and contemporary ethnography for comparative material. Freud used the Greek tragedy
by Sophocles Oedipus Rex to point out how much we (specifically, young boys) desire
incest, and must repress that desire. The Oedipus conflict was described as a
state of psychosexual development and awareness. He also turned to anthropological
studies of totemism and argued that totemism reflected a ritualized enactment
of an tribal Oedipal conflict (see Totemism and Taboo). Although many scholars
today are intrigued by Freud's attempts to re-analyze cultural material, most
have rejected his specific interpretations as forced.
Freud hoped that his
research would provide a solid scientific basis for his therapeutic technique.
The goal of Freudian therapy, or psychoanalysis, was to bring to consciousness
repressed thoughts and feelings, in order to allow the patient to develop a stronger
ego. Classically, the bringing of unconscious thoughts and feelings to consciousness
is brought about by encouraging the patient to talk in "free-association" and
to talk about dreams. Another important element of psychoanalysis is a relative
lack of direct involvement on the part of the analyst, which is meant to encourage
the patient to project thoughts and feelings onto the analyst. Through this process,
called "transference," the patient can reenact and resolve repressed conflicts,
especially childhood conflicts with (or about) parents.
A lesser known interest
of Freud's was neurology. He was an early researcher on the topic of cerebral
palsy, then known as "cerebral paralysis". He published several medical papers
on the topic. He also showed that the disease existed far before other researchers
in his day began to notice and study it. He also suggested that William Little,
the man who first identified cerebral palsy, was wrong about lack of oxygen during
the birth process being a cause. Instead, he suggested that complications in birth
were only a symptom of the problem. It was not until the 1980s when his speculations
were confirmed by more modern research. Freudian theory and practice have been
challenged by empirical findings over the years. Some people continue to train
in, and practice, traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, but most psychiatrists
today reject the large majority of Freud's work as unsupported by evidence and
best used for inspiration or historical study, if at all. Although Freud developed
his method for the treatment of neuroses, some people today seek out psychoanalysis
not as a cure for an illness, but as part of a process of self-discovery.
Freud trained as a medical doctor, and
consistently claimed that his research methods and conclusions were scientific.
Nevertheless, his research and practice were condemned by many of his peers. Moreover,
both critics and followers of Freud have observed that his basic claim, that many
of our conscious thoughts and actions are motivated by unconscious fears and desires,
implicitly challenges universal and objective claims about the world (proponents
of science conclude that this invalidates Freudian theory; proponents of Freud
conclude that this invalidates science). Psychoanalysis today maintains the same
ambivalent relationship with medicine and academia that Freud experienced during
his life. Clinical psychologists, who seek to treat mental illness, relate to
Freudian psychoanalysis in different ways. Some clinical psychologists have modified
this approach and have developed a variety of "psychodynamic" models and therapies.
Other clinical psychologists reject Freud's model of the mind, but have adapted
elements of his therapeutic method, especially his reliance on patients' talking
as a form of therapy. Experimental psychologists generally reject Freud's methods
and theories. Like Freud, Psychiatrists train as medical doctors, but—like most
medical doctors in Freud's time—most reject his theory of the mind, and generally
rely more on drugs than talk in their treatments.
Freud's psychological theories
are hotly disputed today and many leading academic and research psychiatrists
regard him as a charlatan. Although Freud was long regarded as a genius, psychiatry
and psychology have long since been recast as scientific disciplines, and psychiatric
disorders are generally considered diseases of the brain whose etiology is principally
genetic. Freud's lessening influence in psychiatry is thus largely due to the
repudiation of his theories and the adoption of many of the basic scientific principles
of Freud's principal opponent in the field of psychiatry, Emil Kraepelin. In his
book "The Freudian Fraud", research psychiatrist E. Fuller-Torrey provides an
account of the political and social forces which combined to raise Freud to the
status of a divinity to those who needed a theoretical foundation for their political
and social views. Many of the diseases which used to be treated with Freudian
and related forms of therapy (such as schizophrenia) have been unequivocally demonstrated
to be impervious to such treatments.
Freud's notion that the child's relationship
to the parent is responsible for everything from psychiatric diseases to criminal
behavior has also been thoroughly discredited and the influence of such theories
is today regarded as a relic of a permissive age in which "blame-the-parent" was
the accepted dogma. For many decades genetic and biological causes of psychiatric
disorders were dismissed without scientific investigation in favor of environmental
(parental and social) influences. Today even the most extreme Freudian environmentalists
would not deny the great influence of genetic and biological factors. The American
Psychiatric Association's "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual" (the latest edition
of which is the DSM-IV), the official standard for diagnosing psychological disorders
in the USA, reflects the universal adoption of the neo-Kraepelinian scientific-biological
approach to psychiatric disorders, with its emphasis on diagnostic precision and
the search for biological and genetic etiologies—largely ignored during the earlier
Freud-dominated decades of the twentieth century.
A paper by Lydiard H. Horton, read in 1915 at a joint meeting
of the American Psychological Association and the New York Academy of Sciences,
called Freud's dream theory "dangerously inaccurate" and noted that "rank confabulations...appear
to hold water, psychoanalytically".
Anthony Grayling, Reader in Philosophy
at the University of London, and a Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford, writing
in The Guardian in 2002, said "Philosophies that capture the imagination never
wholly fade....But as to Freud's claims upon truth, the judgment of time seems
to be running against him."
- Freudian Fraud: The Malignant Effect
of Freud's Theory on American Thought and Culture, by E. Fuller Torrey (New York,
NY: HarperCollins, 1992), xvi, 362 pages. ISBN 1929636008
- Madness on the Couch:
Blaming the Victim in the Heyday of Psychoanalysis by Edward Dolnick
Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend by Frederick C. Crews
- The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud, Ernest
Jones, Edited and Abridged in One Volume by Lionel Trilling and Steven Marcus,
Basic Books, New York, 1961
Hundred Years of Sigmund Freud