Article from Encarta

Freud, Sigmund (1856-1939), Austrian physician and founder of psychoanalysis. Through his skill as a scientist, physician, and writer, he created an entirely new approach to the understanding of human personality by bringing together ideas prevalent at the time, along with his own observation and study, into a major theory of psychology. Most importantly, he applied these ideas to medical practice in the treatment of mental disorders. These newly created psychotherapy treatments and procedures, many of which in modified form are applied today, were based on his understanding of unconscious thought processes and their relationship to neurotic symptoms. Regarded with scepticism at the time, Freud’s ideas have waxed and waned in acceptance ever since. Nevertheless, he remains regarded as one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century.

Early Life

Freud was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Freiberg, Moravia (now Pribor in the Czech Republic) on May 6, 1856. When he was three years old, the family was forced to flee riots that characterized the strong anti-Semitic feeling that prevailed within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After a brief period in Leipzig the family settled in Vienna, where Freud remained for most of his life. At school the young Freud was at first drawn towards study of the law, but on reading the work of Charles Darwin he became intrigued by the rapidly developing sciences of the day. Especially inspired by the scientific investigations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, he decided to become a medical student based on his having heard Goethe’s essay on nature read aloud shortly before he left school.


The Unconscious

Perhaps Freud’s greatest contribution has been to describe the unconscious and to postulate that it obeys the principle of psychic determinism, which holds that human thoughts, feelings, and impulses, rather than being random, are linked in a system of causally related phenomena, behind which lies some reason or meaning. Freud concluded that on this basis unconscious processes could be investigated and understood. Some experiences which are not immediately accessible to conscious appreciation can be brought into the conscious mind by the process of remembering. Freud referred to these as the preconscious. Still deeper thoughts cannot be remembered and are actively repressed in the unconscious.

Unconscious experiences are not held to be subject to the same logic characteristic of conscious experience. Unconscious ideas, images, thoughts, and feelings can be condensed or dramatized in the form of abstract concepts and imagery. Often the relationship between the original experience and the unconscious symbolic representation can seem obscure.

Role of Conflict

The central theme of conflict had arisen early in Freud’s work. Conflict arises in a person’s conscious mind when one set of beliefs impacts adversely on another area of belief, causing emotional suffering felt as disappointment, anger, or frustration. Freud was interested in the unconscious aspect of mental conflict. He described the "pleasure principle" as another fundamental of psychoanalytic theory. This holds that human beings have a tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The principle is said to dominate in early life, bringing the developing individual into conflict with their external world. These conflicts are retained in the unconscious.

Freud’s original concept held that the conflicts of early life arose as a result of innate drives. Also translated as "instincts" from the German word Triebe, drives are states of excitation occurring in response to stimuli. Freud described a libidinal drive that serves the species by directing individuals to reproduce. Later, he extended his model to include the psychoses (serious mental disorders in which patients have a distorted view of reality). In this, he described aggressive drives which he felt would serve to protect the species. These ideas were published in On Narcissism in 1914, reconsidered in The Metapsychological Papers in 1915, and further elaborated in The Dual Instinct Theory in 1920.

The term "Freudian" is often used in connection with these theories, many of which were to become major concepts in psychiatry. They were infused with rich symbolism, and were in the main preoccupied with reconciling the conflict between biological factors of human existence and what Freud believed were the civilizing aspects of human behaviour: aesthetics, intellectual capacity, and religion.

Major Influences

Freud’s early psychological work shows the influence of the sciences of the day on his thinking. Ideas from physics, chemistry, and evolutionary theory occur regularly in his writing. Although Jewish by birth and cultural tradition, Freud saw all religion as illusory and was non-practising. Instead, he can be seen as a determinist viewing the world and human experience as understandable in terms of cause and effect.

At the time, Darwin’s writings on the descent of human beings—the theory of evolution suggesting human beings were somehow related to, or descended from, their fellow animals—was challenging contemporary Judeo-Christian belief. Indeed it was Darwin who emphasized instincts for survival and reproduction, formulated in Freud’s theory as basic drives.

Freud’s ideas can be seen in the same context. He too challenged philosophical and religious thinking by suggesting that human beings were rather less in control of their own thoughts and actions. His contention that unconscious thoughts and actions had to arise from within the self rather than from God conflicted with the contemporary notion of soul. From this period the disciplines of philosophy and psychology developed separately.

Freud was particularly interested in the "association" school of psychology, which included Johann Friedrich Herbart and Wilhelm Max Wundt, the first of whom may have contributed to free association as a therapeutic technique. Psychodynamic theory also has its origins in the physical concepts of opposing forces and vector analysis, with conversion symptoms reflecting the principle of conservation of energy held by the first law of thermodynamics. Freud considered Marxist theory and drew comparison with philosophy and religion, but did not become heavily involved in the politics of the day.

Criticism and Acclaim

With his exposition of such new and radical ideas, it is easy to see why Freud came into conflict so readily with the society and establishment of his time. In the early years he came to rely on the support of friends such as Breur and later Karl Abraham and Ernst Jones. What is perhaps more remarkable is how debate over his work has continued to the present day. Freud’s contention that his theory represented a science has been firmly disputed by the philosopher Karl Popper. The psychologist Hans Eysenck dismisses psychoanalysis on the basis that there is no experimental evidence to substantiate it as a scientific discipline.

Freud’s contributions extended beyond psychoanalysis into the psychology of religion, mythology, art, and literature. Perhaps it was in the nature of his obsessional personality that he would wish to generalize his theory of psychoanalysis to all avenues of life. In doing so he attracted criticism and scepticism.

International Acceptance

Increasing recognition of the psychoanalytic movement made possible the formation in 1910 of a worldwide organization called the International Psychoanalytic Association. As the movement spread, gaining new adherents throughout Europe and the United States, Freud was troubled by the dissension that arose among members of his original circle. Most disturbing were the defections from the group of Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav Jung, each of whom developed a different theoretical basis for disagreement with Freud’s emphasis on the sexual origin of neurosis. Freud met these setbacks by developing further his basic concepts and by elaborating his own views in many publications and lectures.

After the onset of World War I Freud devoted little time to clinical observation and concentrated on the application of his theories to the interpretation of religion, mythology, art, and literature. In 1923 he was stricken with cancer of the jaw, which necessitated constant, painful treatment in addition to many surgical operations. Despite his physical suffering he continued his literary activity for the next 16 years, writing mostly on cultural and philosophical problems.

His contributions included The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1902), Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious (1905), Three Essays on Sexuality (1905), Totem and Taboo (1913), New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), in which he added further revisions to his theory, The Ego and the Id (1923), and Moses and Monotheism (1939).

Once again threatened with religious persecution, renewed as a result of the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Freud escaped with his family to England. He died in London on September 23, 1939.

Freud’s ideas have stood the test of time. They are revisited by other schools of psychology and neuroscience as these various disciplines attempt to refine our still uncertain understanding of human mental processes. Despite their opposition, Adler and Jung and other successors further studied and modified many of his concepts. These concepts are fundamental to so many of the variants of psychoanalysis now in existence, and have evolved with it.

Contributed By:

Peter Aitken