Sigmund Freud wanted to show the importance of a force outside of everyday experiencing that we cannot know directly which governs our actions—the unconscious part of the mind. According to Freud, the unconscious is the source of wishes arising in childhood that are socially reprehensible and blocked from consciousness. We can only be certain of the unconscious because wishes regarding intimacy with care-givers that emerge in the preschool years attempt partial satisfaction, disguised as slips of the tongue or dreams. Freud relied both on the force of his argument as a distinguished scientist and on his autobiography in demonstrating that there is an unconscious. If he had used reports by his clients, his theory might have been dismissed as the accounts of troubled persons. Further, considerations of confidentiality limited the detail he could provide from his clients’ accounts. For this reason, to understand his theory it is particularly relevant to know about Freud’s history.
Sigismund Freud, as he was called in his youth, was born in the Austrian Empire, in what is now the Czech Republic. He was the firstborn son of Amalia Nathansohn, a woman 20 years younger than her husband, and Jacob Freud, an impoverished wool merchant who had two grown sons, Emmanuel and Philipp.
Early Developmental Influences
Emmanuel had two children, John and Pauline, who were close to Freud’s age. In a 1899 paper on screen memories (i.e., memories of early life experiences that presumably are a cover for even earlier psychologically significant memories that are censored from awareness because they are more painful), Freud described an incident in which he and John, rivals for Pauline’s attentions, snatched away the bunch of yellow flowers Pauline was picking in a mountain meadow. He connected this incident with the early awakening of his sexuality. (Freud reports that a yel-low flower was the only one that he had difficulty identifying on his medical school examination, an instance of a “neurotic inefficiency.”)
Freud’s parents had eight children. Freud’s next youngest brother, Julius, and his mother’s brother Julius both died as young Freud approached his second birthday. His mother was emotionally preoccupied with mourning her losses and transferred Freud’s care to a succession of governesses. When Freud was 2V2 years old and still acutely suffering the loss of his mother’s emotional support, he lost this favorite governess, who was arrested for petty theft. When Freud was 4, his father decided to move the family to Vienna. Biographer Peter Gay recounted that years later, while in the midst of his self-analysis following his father’s death, Freud recalled that he had shared a bedroom on the train with his mother and saw her naked while preparing for bed. The wish stimulated by this encounter, together with the social prohibitions against awareness of this wish, led Freud to experience anxiety which was displaced onto train travel, and this accounts for Freud’s lifelong phobia of train travel.
It is striking how much these early childhood experiences shaped Freud’s writing and clinical technique. Mothers are almost always missing from Freud’s most well-known case studies. Further, Freud insisted that personality development does not begin until sometime between ages 3 and 5. At this age the little boy experiences rivalry with his father for the attention of his mother, and the little girl experiences rivalry with her mother for her father’s attention. Freud devoted little study to the quality of the very young child’s tie to his or her mother.
After World War II psychoanalysis followed developmental psychology into the detailed study of the child’s attachment and the course of the mother-child relationship. At this point Freud’s daughter Anna, the “gatekeeper” of psychoanalysis following her father’s death, observed that her father’s theory emphasized problems arising from conflicting wishes and desires arising during the preschool years rather than the experiences of earliest childhood. It would appear that Freud never completely resolved his grief following his emotional loss of his mother. Further, Freud’s case studies are replete with incidents in which governesses contributed to the client’s later distress.
Freud excelled in his studies in Vienna and entered the Gymnasium, or academic high school, which emphasized instruction in the classical languages. He learned to read, write, and speak many European languages, as well as English, and would have liked to become a classical scholar. His father explained he couldn’t afford to support Freud’s graduate studies, and that “denominational” concerns (the family was Jewish) would prevent Freud from obtaining a university professorship. At that time all such appointments were approved by the government education ministry, which opposed the appointment of Jewish scholars. The collapse of the Hapsburg monarchy in 1867 marked the end of a socially and politically liberal period in Vienna and the emergence of the anti-Semitism that overspread Europe in the 20th century.
Inspired by an essay on natural philosophy, Freud entered medical school at the University of Vienna. It was there that Freud met physician Josef Breuer, the “doctor’s doctor” to the medical school faculty, who had returned to medical school to learn the new physiological psychology. Breuer became Freud’s mentor in medical school, and helped to pay for his medical studies. Despite the pragmatic decision to pursue a career in which he could expect to find employment, Freud’s scholarly interests are reflected in the fact that he took 8 years rather than the usual 5 to complete his degree. He filled his extra time by reading Aristotle’s metaphysics with the renowned philosopher-psychologist Franz Brentano and conducting research on issues that today would fall into the discipline of developmental neurobiology in Ernst Briicke’s laboratory. Breuer became Freud’s mentor in medical school, and in the late 1880s, when Freud was becoming the preeminent neurologist in Central Europe, they collaborated on the psychotherapy of hysteria.
Freud married Martha Bernays and settled into a comfortable apartment at 19 Bergasse (Mountain) Street in Vienna, on the road leading to the university and the medical school. The Freuds had six children, the youngest of whom, Anna, became an internationally renowned child psychoanalyst. She continued as the most important figure in psychoanalysis from her father’s death in 1939 until her own death in 1983.
Freud’s collaboration with his mentor, Josef Breuer, from 1886 to 1893, on the innovative psychotherapy of hysteria focused on the psychological meaning of symptoms rather than posthypnotic suggestion. Their 1895 book, Studies in Hysteria, reported on their clinical studies, but by that time, Freud had ended his friendship with Breuer. While Breuer maintained that the origin of hysteria was based on a set of associations split off from consciousness, Freud posited that hysterical symptoms were used as a defense to prevent the individual from becoming aware of desire that conflicted with prevailing social standards.
A striking feature of Freud’s psychotherapy of hysteria was his observation of a nearly universal recollection of a father’s seduction of his daughter during early childhood. In an 1897 letter to his confidante, Wilhelm Fliess, Freud suggested that this seduction may not be a reality, but rather a universal fantasy of early childhood arising from the daughter’s wish for intimacy with her father. Freud’s father had died in October of the preceding year, at age 81, and Freud was propelled into an introspective self-analysis, discovering that the father whom he loved was also a rival for his mother’s love. Freud believed that this family dilemma was analogous to that in Sophocles’ trilogy of plays about Oedipus. His self-analysis enabled him to discover the significance of dreams as disguised or socially acceptable expressions of the nuclear wish (later called the Oedipus complex) that arises during the preschool years. This wish arises in the aftermath of the triangular conflict of love of the opposite-gender parent, and rivalry for this parent for the love with the parent of the same gender. The nuclear wish is always pressing for satisfaction, but it is socially unacceptable and therefore is repressed to keep it out of consciousness.
The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, is the masterpiece of the 23 published volumes of Freud’s work. In this book, he depicted the nuclear wish (the Oedipus complex) as the determinant of all mental life. Over the succeeding decade, Freud argued that many aspects of the personality were compromise formations whose function was to provide at least partial satisfaction of the nuclear wish while shielding the individual from awareness through repression. In addition to dreams, compromise functions included fears, phobias, hysterical and obsessive afflictions, works of art, so-called unintentional actions such as slips of the tongue, and all human relationships, including the relationship with the analyst.
Freud’s Topographic Model
Freud’s first topographic model of the mind depicted variations in the individual’s level of awareness from unconscious to consciousness. Freud maintained that this model explained attention; what we notice at any moment is determined by the effort to satisfy wishes originating in childhood desires. These desires always remain out of awareness but always seek satisfaction. Freud believed that all thought is ultimately determined by aspects of the personality that lie outside the range of consciousness.
From 1905 to World War I, Freud developed his model depicting the mind as motivated by the need to defend the individual against the awareness of socially unacceptable wishes and intents. Freud was invited in 1909 to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he delivered five lectures that systematically portrayed the model of the mind he first portrayed in The Interpretation of Dreams. The case reports and essays he published in the years before World War I elaborated his model to show that, in addition to dreams, so-called unintended actions (or the psychopathology of everyday life) and psychological or psychoneurotic symptoms also represented dis-guised satisfaction of the nuclear wish. Freud’s topographic model was most fully portrayed in the lectures he delivered to a mixed medical school and lay audience (with then-educator-daughter Anna in attendance) in the winter terms of 1915-1916 and 1916-1917. The lectures were later published as the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.
Illustrations From Case Reports
The concept of repression as the determinant of consciousness was demonstrated in Freud’s case reports, such as his 1909 Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy, in which Freud described “Little Hans,” the son of one of his early collaborators, who had developed a phobia about going out in the street. The power of the nuclear wish as a cause of hysteria was shown in his 1905 An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, a failed analysis of Dora, a so-called hysterical young woman. Only in retrospect did Freud realize his own contribution to his conflicted relationship with his patient. Freud’s report of his work with Dr. Ernst Lanzer (the “Rat Man”), in his 1909 Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis, described a brief analysis of a man with obsessive symptoms who died tragically in the first days of the war. Freud’s notes on his sessions with Lanzer are the only published record of how Freud worked during that time. In his 1918 From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, Freud reported on his work with Sergei Pankejeff, a Russian nobleman Freud described as the “Wolf Man,” a name inspired by Pankejeff’s childhood dream featuring still white wolves on a tree outside his parents’ bedroom. Freud also wrote a psychobiography based on the 1911 book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Schreber, a troubled German jurist struggling with his paranoid feelings regarding his punitive father (inventor of the first gym “workout” machines). His detailed 1910 psychobiographical study Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood showed how the censored nuclear wish could appear in a culturally valued or sublimated form.
With the translation of The Interpretation of Dreams into English and the critical acclaim for this epochal study and other papers published before World War I, European and American physicians and intellectuals flocked to Vienna to learn from Freud. First meeting as a regular Wednesday evening discussion group, these meetings were the foundation of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and, later, the International Psychoanalytic Association. During these interwar years, Freud’s work garnered international recognition and he was awarded numerous prizes for scientific achievement.
In his papers on the theory of psychoanalytic technique or method, written between 1911 and 1915, Freud discussed issues in the relationship of analyst and client. He further developed the concept of the transference (or displacement) of affections from earliest childhood to the analyst as a transference neurosis. Freud viewed transference as the experiencing of desires that are stimulated by the process of psychoanalysis. Freud warned of the dangers inherent in the analyst’s response to the expression of the patient’s loving feelings. He regarded these as the replay of childhood desire now displaced on to the analyst. He highlighted the importance of reliving or working through and putting to rest these unrequited desires and other remembered feelings and experiences. Freud identified forces in the psychoanalytic encounter that assist the process of working through and resolving childhood experiences and memories and those that create resistance to working thorough and resolving neurotic conflict. Falling in love with the analyst and tenaciously refusing to understand the basis of this desire provides at least partial satisfaction of the nuclear wish of childhood in the same manner as slips of the tongue, dreams, psychoneurotic symptoms, and sublimations. Clients inevitably experience resistance both to the awareness and to the resolution of this transference neurosis.
Following World War I, Freud turned his attention to the study of psychoanalysis and the necessity and discomfort inevitable in social life. This concern led Freud to revise his prewar topographic model of the mind. In 1923, Freud revised his theory to feature three interrelated personality structures: self, desire, and external social prohibitions and moral standards, translated from the German as ego, id, and superego. This model portrayed personality as driven by desires emanating from the unresolved nuclear conflict of the preschool years. The id demands immediate gratification of every desire, the superego demands that moral authority be obeyed, and the ego attempts to mediate these expectations to comply with the demands of the real world.
Freud managed his writing and clinical work from 1923, on even as he struggled with cancer. In 1938, following the German annexation of Austria, Freud’s friend, Princess Marie Bonaparte, directly interceded with Hitler on behalf of the Freud family, and the Freuds journeyed into exile in England. Freud died in London in September 1939.
Freud’s contributions to the study of mental life have continued to inform psychoanalytic technique and to provide innovative perspectives for study in the human sciences and the humanities. Psychoanalysis is now recognized both as a “one-person” or intrapersonal psychology and as a relationship or “two-person” psychology in which the analyst’s personality and experiences become a part of the collaboration to help the client gain greater self-understanding and resolve neurotic suffering. Freud’s legacy is that of compassionate concern for human welfare and profound wisdom concerning the human condition.
The founder of psychoanalysis occupies a unique although controversial position in psychology. Psychoanalysis is both an approach to understanding motivation and a systematic approach to psychotherapeutic intervention. Challenged by a variety of alternative psychotherapies from within both psychology and biological psychiatry, contemporary psychoanalysis has redoubled efforts at systematic study of the technique of clinical psychoanalysis. This inquiry includes the relationship between analyst and client, study of the interplay of biological substrate and personal distress, and process and outcome studies focused on the long-term success of psychoanalysis.
Few founders of intellectual perspectives have been as venerated and disparaged as Freud. Freud adopted the term ambivalence from Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler’s to refer to the concurrent positive and negative emotional attitudes of children toward their parent of the same sex. This ambivalence characterizes both lay and public attitudes toward the founder of psychoanalysis. Nearly 70 years after Freud’s death, many published papers in the psychoanalytic literature begin with a review of his work on their topic before proceeding to more recent commentary and perhaps a case formulation. The popular press continues major stories regarding the significance of Freud’s legacy with pronouncements that psychoanalysis is (or is not) dead as an intellectual discipline and method of psychotherapy.
- Chodorow, N. (1999). The power of feelings. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Freud, S. (1953). The interpretation of dreams. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vols. 4 & 5). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1900)
- Freud, S. (1957). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vols. 15 & 16). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1916-1917)
- Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and its discontents. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 21, pp. 57-220). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1930)
- Freud, S. (1961). The future of an illusion. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 21, pp. 1-56). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1927)
- Freud, S. (1961). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 22, pp. 1-82). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1933)
- Freud, S. (1964). Moses and monotheism. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 23, pp. 1-38). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1939)
- Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: Norton.
- Mitchell, S. A., & Black, M. J. (1995). Freud and beyond: A history of modern psychoanalytic thought. New York: Basic Books.
- Young-Bruehl, E. (1994). Anna Freud: A biography. New York: Norton.