Sigmund Freud

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Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856September 23, 1939; [ˈziːgmʊnt ˈfrɔʏ̯t]) was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology, based on his theory that unconscious motives control much behavior, that particular kinds of unconscious thoughts and memories, especially sexual and aggressive ones, are the source of neurosis, and that neurosis could be treated through bringing these unconscious thoughts and memories to consciousness in psychoanalytic treatment. He was initially interested in hypnotism and how it could be used to help the mentally ill, but 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 initially especially interested in what was then called hysteria (now known as conversion syndrome), but expanded his work to other forms of neurosis, especially obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The name Freud is generally pronounced /fɹɔɪd/ in English and /frɔɪt/ in German. He is commonly referred to as "the father of psychoanalysis."


His life

Freud was born Sigismund Schlomo Freud, into a Jewish family in Freiberg (Příbor), Moravia, the Austrian Empire (now the Czech Republic) on May 6, 1856. In 1877, at the age of 21, he abbreviated his given name to "Sigmund." Although he was the first-born of three brothers and five sisters among his mother's children, Sigmund had older half-brothers from his father's previous marriage. His family had limited finances and lived in a crowded apartment, but his parents made every effort to foster his intellect (often favoring Sigmund over his siblings), which was apparent from an early age. Sigmund was ranked first in his class in 6 of 8 years of schooling. He went on to attend the University of Vienna at 17, in 1873-1881 despite intense anti-Semitism in Austria.

In his 40's, Freud "had numerous psychosomatic disorders as well as exaggerated fears of dying and other phobias" (Corey 2001, p. 67). During this time Freud was involved in the task of self-analysis. He explored his own dreams, childhood memories, and the dynamics of his personality development. During this self-analysis, he came to realize the hostility he felt towards his father (Jacob Freud), and "he also recalled his childhood sexual feelings for his mother (Amalia Freud), who was attractive, warm, and protective" (Corey 2001, p. 67). Corey (2001) considers this time of emotional difficulty to be the most creative time in Freud's life.

Overall, little is known of Freud's early life, as he destroyed his personal papers at least twice, 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. Freud had little tolerance for colleagues who diverged from his psychoanalytic doctrines. For example, he attempted to expel those who disagreed with the movement (Corey, 2001).

Memorial plaque of Sigmund Freud at his birthplace in Pribor (Příbor), The Czech Republic.
Memorial plaque of Sigmund Freud at his birthplace in Pribor (Příbor), The Czech Republic.

Following the Nazi German Anschluss, Freud fled Austria with his family with the financial help of his patient and friend Princess Marie Bonaparte. On June 4th, 1938 they were allowed across the border into France and then they traveled from Paris to Hampstead, London, England, where they lived at 20 Maresfield Gardens, now the Freud Museum. As he was leaving Germany, Freud was required to sign a statement that he had been treated respectfully by the Nazis.

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, politician and writer Clement Freud, and the great-grandfather of journalist Emma Freud, and fashion designer Bella Freud.

Sigmund Freud was also both a blood uncle and an uncle-in-law to public relations and propaganda wizard Edward Bernays. Bernays's mother, Anna Freud Bernays, was sister to Sigmund. Bernays's father, Ely Bernays, was brother to Sigmund's wife, Martha Bernays Freud.

Freud smoked cigars for most of his life; even after having his jaw removed due to malignancy, he continued to smoke until his death on September 23, 1939. He smoked an entire box of cigars daily. After contracting cancer of the mouth, he underwent over 30 operations to treat the disease; his death was by a physician-assisted morphine overdose.

Freud's innovations

Freud has been influential in two related, but distinct ways. He simultaneously developed a theory of the human mind and human behavior, and clinical techniques for attempting to help neurotics.

Early work

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 that his speculations were confirmed by more modern research.

Freud was an early user and proponent of cocaine as a stimulant. He wrote several articles on the antidepressant qualities of the drug, and he was influenced by his friend and confidant, Wilhelm Fliess, who recommended cocaine for the treatment of the "nasal reflex neurosis." Fleiss operated on Freud and a number of Freud's patients whom he believed to be suffering from the disorder. Emma Eckstein underwent disastrous nasal surgery by Fleiss.

Freud felt that cocaine would work as a cure-all for many disorders, and wrote a well-received paper, "On Coca", explaining its virtues. He prescribed it to his friend Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow to help him beat a morphine addiction he had acquired while treating a disease of the nervous system. Freud also recommended it to many of his close family and friends. He narrowly missed out on obtaining scientific priority for discovering cocaine's anesthetic properties (which Freud was aware of but had not written extensively on), after Karl Koller, a colleague of Freud's in Vienna, present a report to a medical society in 1884 outlining the ways in which cocaine could be used for delicate eye surgery. Freud was bruised by this, especially because this would turn out to be one of the only safe uses of cocaine, as reports of addiction and overdose began to filter in from many places in the world. Freud's medical reputation became somewhat tarnished for his early enthusiasm. Furthermore, Freud's friend, Fleischl-Marxow developed an acute case of "cocaine psychosis" as a result of Freud's prescriptions, and died a few years later. Freud felt great regret over these events, which later biographers have dubbed "The Cocaine Incident".

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.

The unconscious

The Interpretation of Dreams - a powerful early work of Freud
The Interpretation of Dreams - a powerful early work of Freud

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 belief that people could ascertain real knowledge concerning themselves and their environment and judiciously exercise control over both. Freud, however, suggested that such declarations of free will are in fact delusions; that we are not entirely aware of what we think and often act for reasons that have little to do with our conscious thoughts. The concept of the unconscious was groundbreaking in that he proposed that awareness existed in layers and that there were thoughts occurring "below the surface." Dreams, which he called the "royal road to the unconscious", provided the best access to our unconscious life and the best illustration of its "logic", which was different than the logic of conscious thought. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud both developed the argument that the unconscious exists and described 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. Thus for Freud the ideals of the Enlightenment, positivism, and rationalism could be achieved through understanding, transforming, and mastering the unconscious, rather than through denying or repressing it.

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.

Psychosexual development

What's on a man's mind – Sigmund Freud
What's on a man's mind – Sigmund Freud
Main article: Psychosexual development

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 through their stages of development—first in the oral stage (exemplified by an infant's pleasure in nursing), then in the anal stage (exemplified by a toddler's pleasure in controlling his or her bowels), then in the phallic stage. Freud argued that children then passed through a stage where they fixated on the parent of the opposite sex and thought the same-sexed parent a rival. Freud named his new theory the Oedipus Complex after the famous Greek tragedy by Sophocles.“I found in myself a constant love for my mother, and jealousy of my father. I now consider this to be a universal event in childhood,” Freud said. 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 gratification. (see Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.)

Freud hoped to prove that his model 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 he believed that people (young boys in particular) 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 a tribal Oedipal conflict.

No discussion of Sigmund Freud is complete without some mention of his highly influential and controversial views on the role and psychology of women. Freud was an early champion of both sexual freedom and education for women (Freud, "Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness"). Some feminists, however, have argued that at worst his views of women's sexual development set the progress of women in Western culture back decades and that at best they lent themselves to the ideology of female inferiority. Believing as he did that women were a kind of mutilated male, who must learn to accept her deformity (the lack of a penis) and submit to some imagined biological imperative, he contributed to the vocabulary of misogyny. Terms such as "penis envy" and "castrating" (both used to describe women who attempted to excel in any field outside the home) contributed to discouraging women from obtaining education or entering any field dominated by men, until the 1970s. On the other hand, feminist theorists such as Juliet Mitchell, Nancy Chodorow, Jessica Benjamin, and Jane Flax have argued that psychoanalytic theory is essentially related to the feminist project and must, like other theoretical traditions, be adapted by women to free it from vestiges of sexism. Freud's views are still being questioned by people concerned about women's equality.

The id, ego and superego

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 (überich in German) represented our conscience and counteracted the Id with moral and ethical thoughts. Freud based the term Id on the work of Georg Groddeck. The Ego (ich) 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.

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.

Defense mechanisms

Sigmund and Anna Freud 1913 on a holiday in the Dolomits
Sigmund and Anna Freud 1913 on a holiday in the Dolomits

According to Freud, the defense mechanisms are the method by which the ego can solve the conflicts between the superego and the id. The use of the mechanisms required eros, and they are helpful if moderately used. The use of defense mechanisms may attenuate the conflict between the id and superego, but their overuse or reuse rather than confrontation can lead to either anxiety or guilt which may result in psychological disorders such as depression. His daughter, Anna Freud, had done the most significant work on this field, yet credited Sigmund with Defense Mechanisms as he began the work. The defense mechanisms include, denial, reaction formation, displacement, repression/suppression (the proper term), projection, intellectualisation, rationalisation, compensation, sublimation and regressive emotionality.

  • Denial means that someone will not (deliberately) admit to the truth. For example, a student may have received a bad grade on a report card but tells himself that grades don't matter.
  • Repression occurs when someone cannot remember a past traumatic experience, while suppression is a conscious effort to do the same.
  • Intellectualisation involves removing one's self, emotionally, from a stressful event. Intellectualisation is often accomplished through rationalisation rather than accepting reality, one may explain it away to remove one's self.
  • Compensation occurs when someone takes up one behavior because one cannot accomplish another behavior. For example, the second born child may clown around to get attention since the older child is already an accomplished scholar.
  • Sublimation is the channeling of impulses to socially accepted behaviours. For instance, the use of a dark, gloomy poem to describe life by such poets as Emily Dickinson.
  • Reaction formation takes place when someone takes the opposite approach consciously compared to what he wants unconsciously. For example, someone may engage in violence against another race because, he claims, they are inferior, when unconsciously it is he himself who feels inferior.

The life and death instincts

Freud believed that humans were driven by two drives, libidinal energy/Eros and the death drive/Thanatos. Freud's description of Eros/Libido included all creative, life-producing drives. The Death Drive represented an urge of automatic inherent in all living things to return to a state of calm, or, ultimately, of non-existence.

Psychology of religion

Freud gave explanations of the genesis of religion in various of his writings. In Totem and Taboo he applied the idea of the Oedipus complex (involving unresolved sexual feelings of, for example, a son toward his mother and hostility toward his father) and postulated its emergence in the primordial stage of human development.

In Moses and Monotheism Freud reconstructed biblical history in accord with his general theory, but biblical scholars and historians would not accept his account since it was in opposition to the point of view of the accepted criteria of historical evidence. His ideas were also developed in The Future of an Illusion. When Freud spoke of religion as an illusion, he maintained that it is a fantasy structure from which a man must be set free if he is to grow to maturity; and in his treatment of the unconscious he moved toward atheism.

Freud's view of the idea of God as being a version of the father image and his thesis that religious belief is at bottom infantile and neurotic do not depend upon the accounts of prehistory and Biblical history with which Freud dressed up his version of the origin and nature of religion. Authoritarian religion, according to Freud, is dysfunctional and alienates man from himself.

Freud's legacy

Freud on the Austrian 50-Schilling Note
Freud on the Austrian 50-Schilling Note

Freud trained as a medical doctor, and as such, he believed his research methods and conclusions were scientific. However, his research and practice were condemned by many of his peers, as well as later psychologists and academics. Some, like Juliet Mitchell, have suggested that this is because 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 (some proponents of science conclude that this invalidates Freudian theory as a means of interpreting and explaining human behavior; some proponents of Freud conclude that this invalidates science as a means of interpreting and explaining human behavior). 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. This could be more to do with modern drive to a 'quick fix' rather than problems with Freud's theories, however.

Freud's psychological theories are hotly disputed today and many leading academic and research psychiatrists regard him as a charlatan - but there are also many leading academic and research psychiatrists who can agree at least with the core of his work. Although Freud was long regarded as a genius, psychiatry and psychology have long since been recast as scientific disciplines. Psychiatric disorders are often considered purely diseases of the brain, the etiology of which is principally genetic. This consideration holds that childhood and environment don't have much influence on the human mind and its well-being. However, many people reject this view as an over-simplification.

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).

Some criticize Freud's rejection of positivism. The philosopher of science Karl Popper formulated a method to distinguish science from non-science, or "pseudoscience". For Popper, all proper scientific theories are potentially falsifiable. If a theory is incapable of being falsified, then it cannot be considered scientific. Popper pointed out that Freud's theories of psychology can always be "verified", since no type of behaviour could ever falsify them. Although Popper's demarcation between science and non-science is widely accepted among scientists, it remains a controversial one itself within philosophy of science and philosophy in general.

Within psychiatry, there are disputes over the causes of mental illness. Some psychiatrists argue that all mental illnesses are caused by neurological disorders but most still admit that many of them are combination of neurological disorders and "learned problems". The work of Emil Kraepelin established scientific psychiatry, which maintains neurological disorder view, although it is worth noting that Freud made significant contributions in this area. Other critics, such as Thomas Szasz, argue that mental illness does not even exist, since there is no objective pathology to observe.

Behaviourism, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive psychology reject psychoanalysis as a pseudoscience. Humanistic psychology maintains that psychoanalysis is a demeaning and incorrect view of human beings. The other schools of psychology have produced alternative methods of psychotherapy to psychoanalysis, including behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and person centred psychotherapy.


This is a partial list of patients whose case studies were published by Freud, with pseudonyms substituted for their names:

Freud's couch used during psychoanalytic sessions
Freud's couch used during psychoanalytic sessions
  • Anna O. = Bertha Pappenheim (1859 - 1936)
  • Cäcilie M. = Anna von Lieben
  • Dora = Ida Bauer (1882-1945)
  • Frau Emmy von N. = Fanny Moser
  • Fräulein Elizabeth von R.
  • Fräulein Katharina = Aurelia Kronich
  • Fräulein Lucy R.
  • Little Hans = Herbert Graf (1903-1973)
  • Rat Man = Ernst Lanzer (1878-1914)
  • Wolf Man = Sergei Pankejeff (1887-1979)

People on whom psychoanalytic observations were published but who were not patients:

Other patients:

Major works

See also

Books about Freud and psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis: theory and practice

  • Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)
  • Anthony Bateman and Jeremy Holmes, Introduction to Psychoanalysis: Contemporary Theory & Practice (London: Routledge, 1995)

Conceptual critiques

  • Eysenck, H. J. and Wilson, G. D. The Experimental Study of Freudian Theories, Methuen, London (1973)
  • Hobson, J. Allan Hobson, Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). ISBN 0192804820. (Critique of Freud's dream theory in terms of current neuroscience)
  • Mitchell, Juliet. Psychoanalysis and Feminism: A Radical Reassessment of Freudian Psychoanalysis Originally published in 1974; Basic Books reissue (2000) ISBN 0465046088


The area of biography has been especially contentious in the historiography of psychoanalysis, for two primary reasons: first, the vast majority of historical material on Freud has been, since his death, made available only at the permission of his biological and intellectual heirs (his daughter, Anna Freud, was extremely protective of her father's reputation); second, much of the data and theory of Freudian psychoanalysis hinges upon the personal testimony of Freud himself, and so to challenge Freud's legitimacy or honesty has been seen by many as an attack on the roots of his enduring work.

The first biographies of Freud were written by Freud himself — his On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914) and An Autobiographical Study (1924) provided much of the basis for discussions by later biographers, including "debunkers" (as they contain a number of prominent omissions and potential misrepresentations). A few of the major biographies on Freud to come out over the twentieth century were:

  • Helen Walker Puner, Freud: His Life and His Mind (1947) — an associate editor of Parents magazine, Puner's book was for a thoroughly popular audience, and was the source of many long-lasting "myths" about Freud (that psychoanalysis was a religion; that Freud hated his father; etc.)
  • Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 3 vols. (1953-1958) — the first "authorized" biography of Freud, made by one of his former students with the authorization and assistance of Anna Freud, with the hope of "dispelling the myths" from earlier biographies.
  • Henri Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) — was the first book to, in a compelling way, attempt to situate Freud within the context of his time and intellectual thought, arguing that he was the intellectual heir of Franz Mesmer and that the genesis of his theory owed a large amount to the political context of turn of the 19th century Vienna.
  • Frank Sulloway, Freud: Biologist of the Mind (1979) — Sulloway, one of the first professional/academic historians to write a biography of Freud, positioned Freud within the larger context of the history of science, arguing specifically that Freud was, in fact, a biologist in disguise (a "crypto-biologist", in Sulloway's terms), and sought to actively hide this.
  • Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988) — Gay's work was published as a response to the anti-Freudian literature and the "Freud Wars" of the 1980s (see below).

The creation of Freud biographies has itself even been written about at some length — see, for example, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, "A History of Freud Biographies," in Discovering the History of Psychiatry, edited by Mark S. Micale and Roy Porter (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Biographical critiques

Freud himself, and psychoanalysis generally, have proved sufficiently unheimlich[1] (disturbing) to many readers that something of a cottage industry in exposes of Freud's alleged personal faults has grown up, mostly in the USA, and especially starting from the 1980s. For example:

  • Bakan, David. Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, D. Van Nostrand Company, 1958; New York, Schocken Books, 1965; Dover Publications, 2004. ISBN 0486437671
  • Crews, F. C. Unauthorized Freud : doubters confront a legend, New York, Viking 1998. ISBN 0670872210
  • Dufresne, T. Killing Freud, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003, ISBN 0826468934
  • Eysenck, H. J. The Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire, Scott-Townsend Publishers, Washington D. C., (1990) ISBN 1878465015
  • Jurjevich, R. M. The Hoax of Freudism: A study of Brainwashing the American Professionals and Laymen Dorrance (1974) ISBN 0805918566
  • LaPiere, R. T. The Freudian Ethic: An Analysis of the Subversion of Western Character Greenwood Press (1974) ISBN 0837175437
  • MacDonald, K. The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements Authorhouse (2002) ISBN 0759672229
  • Macmillan, Malcolm. Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc MIT Press, 1996 ISBN 0262631717 [originally published by New Holland, 1991]
  • Stannard, D. E. Shrinking History: On Freud and the Failure of Psychohistory Oxford University Press, Oxford (1980) ISBN 0195030443
  • Thornton, E. M. Freud and Cocaine: The Freudian Fallacy, Blond & Briggs, London (1983) ISBN 0856341398
  • Webster, Richard. Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science, and Psychoanalysis BasicBooks, 1995. ISBN 0465095798

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