Sigmund Freud, physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist, and father of psychoanalysis,
is recognized as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Freud
articulated the concepts of the unconscious, of infantile sexuality, and of repression. He proposed
a tripartite account of the structure of the mind, as part of a radically new therapeutic reference
for the understanding of human psychological development, and the treatment of abnormal
mental conditions. Freud is also known as the Father of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis
refers to the method of investigating unconscious mental processes, and is also a form of
psychotherapy. Not regarding the multiple manifestations of psychoanalysis as it exists today, it
can, in almost all respects, be traced directly back to Freuds original work (Brome 12).
Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856, at Freiberg in Moravia, which is now a part of
Czechoslovakia. He was born into a family full of enough complexity and confusion to give him
significant material for his ruminations on the individual mind and its connections with others.
His mother, Amalia, an assertive, good-looking woman, was twenty years younger than her
husband Jacob. Freuds father was Jewish, and was said to be a wool merchant. His siblings
were two half-brothers, who were already grown-up, which provided a constant reminder of the
oddity of his position. His own confusions, hatreds, loves, and desires from this period appear to
have had significant impact on his later work on development. The decline of the textile market,
and an increase of anti-Semitism in the city, forced his family to relocate to Vienna, the capitol
of Austria when he was four. While in Vienna, Freud developed a liking for the medical field,
especially the nervous system, and the works of the mind. He graduated from the medical school
of the University of Vienna in 1881. Freud later decided to specialize in neurology, the study
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and treatment of disorders of the nervous system (Brill V).
He left the University, secretly engaged, and found a job at the Vienna Hospital in hopes of earning enough money to get married. While at the hospital, he concentrated on the study of cerebral anatomy and also conducted research on the possible clinical uses of cocaine.In September 1886 he married Martha Bernays after an engagement of four years. Within a decade the couple had six children, the youngest of whom, Anna, grew up to be her fathers confidante and disciple and later a celebrated psychoanalyst in her own right (Bloom 2).
Four years after Freud graduated, he moved to Paris to study under Jean Martin Charcot, a famous neurologist. At the time, Charcot was working with patients who suffered from hysteria. Some of these people had no physical defects, but seemed to be blind or paralyzed. Charcot believed that their real problem was mental, and that the physical symptoms could be erased by hypnosis. Freud carefully analyzed Charcots work and began to assemble his own thoughts and theories.
Freud returned to Vienna in 1886 and began to work specifically with hysterical patients using hypnosis, but found that its beneficial effects did not last long enough for the patient. He set up private practice as a consultant in nervous diseases and became a leading authority on the cerebral palsies of children. He met and collaborated with Josef Breuer, who used a different method with hysterical patients. Breuer had discovered that when he encouraged a hysterical patient to talk uninhibitedly about the earliest occurrences of the symptoms, the latter sometimes gradually abated. Working with Breuer, Freud developed the idea that many neuroses, or phobias, had their origins in deeply traumatic experiences that occurred in the earlier life of the patient, but were hidden from consciousness. The treatment Freud formulated was to enable the patient to recall the experience to consciousness, and confront it in a deep way, both intellectually and emotionally. Freud states in the book Freud and His Early Circle, Personify the powers within you, talk to them, and they will be stripped of their dangerous autonomy and brought into a proper relationship with consciousness. (Brome 78). This technique, and the
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theory from which it is derived, was given its classical expression in Standard Edition: Studies in Hysteria, jointly published by Freud and Breuer in 1895 (Stevenson).
Freud gradually formed more ideas about the origin and treatment of mental illness. He devised the term psychoanalysis for both his theories and his type of treatment. A period of intense work and self-analysis, further inspired by the death of his father, led Freud to his best known publication, The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, and Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901. During this period of rigorous self-analysis, Freud introduced two new theories, including infantile sexuality, and the description on Oedipus complex.
When he first began to present his psychoanalytic theories, other physicians reacted with hostility. Other theorists and psychologists disagreed with his new thoughts, and his theory was not well received. Freud responded to the claims in Freud and His Early Circle, Every time we are laughed at anew, I am more than ever convinced that we are in the possession of something great (Brome 79).It was not until late in the decade, when the first International Psychoanalytical Congress was held at Salzburg, that Freuds importance began to be generally recognized. This was greatly facilitated in 1909, when he was invited to give a course of lectures in the United States, which were to form the basis of his 1916 book Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. From this point on, Freuds reputation and fame grew enormously, and he began to reach out to a group of followers, known as Freudians. By 1910, he had gained international recognition.
In 1904, Freud began to meet with other physicians, including Alfred Adler, every Wednesday night in his apartment to ponder psychoanalytic questions. The group eventually became the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. His new field began to gain wider acceptance. This period was marked by extensive case studies and theoretical work; as well, he published papers on religion, literature, sculpture, and other non-scientific fields.
As his ideas circulated abroad they attracted the attention of the young Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whom Freud later privately named as his successor. In 1909, the two journeyed
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together to the United States to lecture. Their close involvement, however, created tension within the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. In 1911, Adler and others withdrew from the group. Differences between Freud and Jung caused a gradual estrangement. In 1914, Freud ended their friendship, delivering a powerful statement against both Jung and Adler in The History of the Psychoanalytical Movement. Also, Totem and Taboo, an application of psychoanalysis to social anthropology, was viewed by some as a denunciation of Jung, and other members of the movement (Brome 78).
During the following decade, Freuds reputation continued to grow. He constantly modified his own theories, when he considered that the scientific evidence demanded it, and in 1923, published a revised version of many of his earlier theories. Also in 1923, Freud learned he had cancer of the mouth, and underwent the first of many operations to remove the malignant tumors from his palate. Although rarely free of pain, he never stopped working. As Freud grew older, his speculative tendencies came more and more into the foreground. His writings entered into the realm of religion and cultural anthropology in attempts to explain society, myth, and religions from a psychoanalytic standpoint.
The up-rise of Nazism tore down much of what the Psychoanalytical society had developed. There were massive book burnings of Freuds books which were considered to be Jewish literature. Eventually he was forced to flee from his beloved Vienna to England. His cancer dehabilitated him so much that he requested his doctor to give him a legal overdose of
morphine so that he would die. He died in England at the age of 83 (Stevenson)
Some years before Freuds death, Hermann Hesse made this observation about his lifework in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud:
The beautiful and strikingly attractive thing about Freuds writings is the preoccupation of a
remarkably strong intellect with questions that all lead into the supra-rational, the constantly
renewed, patient, and yet daring attempt of a disciplined mind to capture life itself in the net
of pure sciencetoo coarse though that net always is. The conscientious researcher and lucid
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logician, Freud has created for himself a magnificent instrument in a language that is not only
intellectualistic, but razor-sharp, with its precise definitions and occasional joy in conflict and
derision. Of how many of our scholars can this be said?
Although a highly original thinker, Freud was also deeply influenced by a number of
factors which overlapped and interconnected with each other to shape the development of his
thought. Both Charcot and Breuer had a direct and immediate impact upon him, but some of the
other factors, though no less important than these, were of a different nature. First of all, Freud
himself was very much a Freudian. His father had two sons by a previous marriage, Emmanuel
and Philip. The young Freud often played with John, the son of Philip, who was his own age.
His own self-analysis, which forms the core of his book, The Interpretation of Dreams,
originated in the emotional crisis which he suffered with the death of his father, and the
series of dreams to which this caused a rise. This analysis revealed to him that the love and
admiration which he had felt for his father were mixed with very contrasting feelings of shame
and hate, with which he termed ambivalence. The most revealing was his discovery that he had
often fantasized as a youth that his older half-brother Philip was really his father, and certain
other signs convinced him of the deep, hidden meaning of this fantasy.He discovered that
he had wished for his real father to die, because he was his rival for the affections and attention
of his mother. This was to become the personal, though by no means exclusive, basis for his
theory of the Oedipus complex (Roazen 237).
When Freud came up with the theory of Infantile Sexuality, he saw it as a broader
developmental theory of human personality. This had its origins in the earlier discovery from
Breuer, who said that traumatic childhood events may have devastating effects on an adult
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individual. This became the general thesis that sexual experiences in childhood were the crucial
factors in the determination of the adult personality. From his account of the instincts that
followed from the moment of birth, the infant is driven in his actions by the desire for
bodily or sexual pleasure, which is seen by Freud as the desire to release mental energy.
Infants gain such release, and derive such pleasure through the act of sucking, that Freud
accordingly termed this the oral stage of development. This is followed by a stage in which the
pleasure or energy release is the anus, particularly in the act of defecation, and this is
accordingly termed the ‘anal’ stage. Then the young child develops an interest in the sexual
organs as a site of pleasure, and is named the phallic stage. The child also begins to develop a
sexual attraction for the parent of the opposite sex, and a hatred of the parent of the same
sex, which Freud called the Oedipus complex. This, however, gives rise to socially derived
feelings of guilt in the child, who recognizes that it can never supplant the stronger parent. In the
case of a male, it also puts the child at risk, which he perceives – if he persists in pursuing the
sexual attraction for his mother, he may be harmed by the father; specifically, he comes to fear
that he may be castrated. Both the attraction for the mother, and the hatred are usually repressed,
and the child usually resolves the conflict of the Oedipus complex by coming to identify with the
parent of the same sex (Gay 662). This happens around the age of five, whereupon the child
enters a latency period, in which sexual motivations become much less pronounced. This lasts
until puberty, when mature genital development begins, and the drive for pleasure refocuses
around the genital area (Wasner 301).
Freud believed that the developmental process for a child is a movement through a series of
conflicts. The successful resolution of this process is then crucial to the mental health of the
adult. Many mental illnesses, particularly hysteria, Freud said, can be traced back to unresolved
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conflicts experienced at this stage, or to events which otherwise disrupt the normal pattern of
infantile development. For example, homosexuality is seen by some Freudians as resulting from
a failure to resolve the conflicts of the Oedipus complex, particularly a failure to identify with
the parent of the same sex. The obsessive concern with washing of hands, and personal hygiene,
which characterizes the behavior of some neurotics, is seen as resulting from unresolved
conflicts occurring at the anal stage (Wasner 302).
Perhaps the most famous theory Freud had, was his tripartite model of the structure of the
mind, which has many points of similarity with the account of the mind offered by Plato over
2,000 years earlier. It is termed tripartite because, like Plato, Freud distinguished three structural
elements within the mind. He called these the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id is the part
of the mind that holds the instinctual sexual drives, which require satisfaction. The super-ego is
the part which contains the conscience, and the ego is the conscious self created by the
interactions between the id and the super-ego. All objects of consciousness reside in the ego,
while the contents of the id belong permanently to the unconscious mind. The superego is an
unconscious mechanism which seeks to limit the pleasure-seeking drives of the id by the use of
restrictive rules. If the external world offers no scope for the satisfaction of the pleasure drive of
the id, then an inner confict occurs in the mind. A failure to resolve this, Freud thought, can lead
to later neurosis. A key concept introduced here by Freud, is that the mind possesses a number
of defense mechanisms to attempt to prevent conficts from becoming too acute. Repression is
one of these mechanisms, which Freud defined as pushing back events into the unconscious.
Another mechanism is sublimination, which is channeling the sexual drives into social goals, as
in art, science, and poetry. The last mechanism Freud introduced was fixation, which he called
the failure to progress beyond one of the developmental stages (Wasner 388).
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With his account of the sexual genesis and nature of neuroses, naturally led Freud to develop
a clinical treatment for treating such disorders. The aim of this method is to re-establish a
harmonious relationship between the three elements of the mind, by resolving unconscious
repressed conflicts. The actual method of treatment grew out of the discovery Breuer made
earlier in Freuds life. Breuer said that when a hysterical patient was encouraged to talk freely
about the earliest occurrences of the symptoms and fantasies, the symptoms began to disappear,
and were eliminated entirely. The patient would then recall the initial trauma, which caused
them to appear. He turned away from his earlier attempts to explore the unconscious through
hypnosis, and began to further develop this talking cure (Fonda). He acted on the assumption
that the repressed conflicts were buried in the deepest parts of the unconscious mind. Freud got
his patients to relax in a position in which they were deprived of sensory stimulation, and even of
the presence of the analyst. He then encouraged them to speak freely, preferably without
forethought, in the belief that he could uplift the unconscious forces lying behind what was said.
This is the method of free association, which is similar to that involved in the analysis of dreams.
In both cases, the super-ego is disarmed, its goal of a screening mechanism is moderated, and
material is allowed to filter through to the conscious ego, which would otherwise be completely
repressed (Brome 76).
After his father died, Freud began going through a period of vigorous self-analysis, in which
he began to study dreams, and how they play a part in the unconscious mind. He studied
himself and other patients, and began to realize dreams are a key to the lock of the unconscious.
By taking dreams apart piece by piece, he found that the events in the life, even those of many
years before, reappear unconsciously in the dream. He began to come up with theories of dream
analysis, and years later published the book, The Interpretation of Dreams, which recalled all of
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his thoughts on dreams, and even some of his own personal dreams with interpretations. He
found that dream analysis fit into psychoanalysis and free association. During a session, he
would not only have the patient speak freely without forethought, but would also ask them about
their dreams. He would then analyze the dreams, and with the help of the patient, figure out
what the dream held in it that gave the patient the neuroses. The source of these dreams supplies
a significant experience which is constantly represented in the dream by allusion to a recent, but
indifferent impression (Brill 217).
In the book Sigmund Freud, editor Harold Bloom describes the significance of his thinking:
In some sense, we are all Freudians, whether we want to be or not. Freud is much more than
a perpetual fashion; he seems to have become a culture, our culture. He is at once the
principal writer and the principal thinker of our century. If one seeks the strongest authors in
the West in our time, most readers would agree upon the crucial figures; Proust, Joyce, Kafka,
Yeats, Mann, Lawrence, Eliot, Rilke, Faulkner, Valery, Stevens, Montale, Beckett certainly
would be among them. The essential thinkers might constitute a shorter and more
controversial canon, whether of scientists or philosophers, and I will not venture to list them
here. Freud is unique in that he would dominate the second group and successfully challenge
even Proust, Joyce, and Kafka in the first. Nor can one match him with any of the religious
figures or scholars of the century. His only rivals indeed are Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare,
or even the anonymous primal narrator of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, called the J writer
of Yahwist in biblical scholarship.
Sigmund Freud is generally recognized as one of the most influential and authoritative
thinkers of the twentieth century. Even today, a century after Freud lived, all of his theories are
debated and discussed, and some are still practiced in the psychotherapy field.