Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a movement that popularized the theory that unconscious motives control much behavior. He 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 conversion syndrome.
Freud, his theories, and his treatment of his patients were controversial in 19th century Vienna, and remain hotly debated today. Freud's 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 material.
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 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 not conscious.
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.)
Freud's 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 relations).
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.
Freudian Psychoanalysis, Psychology, and Psychiatry
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.
Criticism of Freud
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."
More on Sigmund Freud:
- Freudian Psychology
Master Freudian approaches to psychology. Freudian Psychology
Stages of Psychosexual Development
What happens at each stage of childhood, according to Freud. Freud's Stages of Psychosexual Development
of Freud's Theories
Oedipus and Electra complexes, and more. Summary of Freud's Theories