An Introduction to Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis founder Sigmund Freud is one of the modern world’s most controversial figures. Often derided as pseudo-scientific and “phallocentric,” Freud is nonetheless responsible for much of contemporary society’s understanding and approach to the human mind. Leaving behind a mixed-bag oeuvre of far-fetched notions and penetrating insights, Freud impacted a wide variety of fields including clinical psychology, commercial advertising, and propaganda. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, the at-times childish Freud should be criticized where criticism is due and acknowledged as a seminal influence on the philosophy of mind as well as a thinker whose ideas about the psyche’s desires, conflicts, and defenses remain instructive today.

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born to Jewish parents on May 6, 1856. His birthplace was Freiberg, a Moravian town located in the Austrian Empire that is now part of the Czech Republic. His father Jakob was a wool merchant of Hasidic heritage known for his Torah studies. Jakob had been in two previous marriages before meeting Freud’s mother Amalia, who was 20 years his younger. The couple had eight children, with Freud being the eldest.

Freud’s siblings included a brother who died in infancy along with one surviving brother and five sisters. Freud also had two half brothers from Jakob’s first marriage. The younger half brother, Emanuel, had a son Freud’s age named John, and the two were reportedly “inseparable playmates” during Freud’s childhood. One cannot help but wonder whether Freud’s theorized phallic stage of psychosocial development, in which children undress and explore one another’s bodies, was in some way autobiographical. Freud also fantasized that his older half-brother, Philip, was really his father; a fantasy that he later attributed to his repressed desire to have his real father dead so that he alone could receive his mother’s affections.

Yet when his father actually died in 1896, Freud was crestfallen. He suffered from heart arrhythmia, depression, and disturbing dreams. The latter symptom prompted Freud to write what many believe to be his master work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). In the book, Freud argues that the function of dreams is to fulfill wishes that are too shameful to act out in waking life. By decoding the “manifest contents” of dreams to reveal their latent meaning, Freud suggests that we can access the hidden material of our unconscious minds.

By undergoing this process himself, Freud was able to admit that he both hated and loved his father. Freud believed that it is common to feel conflicted about others in this way and used the term “ambivalence” to describe the emotional mixture. Notably, while ambivalence is present to some degree in virtually all relationships, there is, according to Freud, one important exception: the relationship between mother and son. Freud writes that such a relationship is,

“…the most perfect, the most free from ambivalence of all human relationships. A mother can transfer to her son the ambition she has been obliged to suppress in herself.”

Freud was very fond of his own mother, and she of him. Amalia called Freud “my golden one Sigi” and was convinced that Freud was destined for greatness. It is easy to infer from these anecdotes where Freud’s idea of the Oedipus Complex — that a son will compete with his father for the sexual attention of his mother — may have arisen. As is evident in his relations with his mother, John, and his father, Freud’s family history provides a window into the childhood experiences that shaped his adult theories.

But before Freud developed any theories he was a young child growing up in Vienna, where his parents relocated the family when he was four years old. He attended high school there and was an exceptional student with a penchant for literature and a knack for foreign language. He graduated in 1873 and enrolled at the University of Vienna at age 17. Freud initially planned to pursue a degree in law, but switched to medicine to study under distinguished faculty members including the biologists Ernste Brücke and Carl Claus and the philosopher Franz Brentano. After almost a decade of study, including lab work that led to the discovery of the neuron, along with a compulsory one-year military term, Freud finally received his MD in 1881.

Freud began his career the following year at the Vienna General Hospital. During this time, he worked at a psychiatric clinic run by the neuropathologist Theodor Meynert, which reinforced his interest in mental illness. In 1885, after spending three months with the neurologist and hypnotist Jean-Martin Charcot, Freud was persuaded to abandon neurology research in favor of psychopathology and opened up his own private practice in 1886. His talk-therapy approach was influenced by his colleague Joseph Breuer, who successfully treated a patient nicknamed Anna O. by encouraging her to free-associate about the onset of her neuroses. After acquainting himself with the case, Freud began to employ Breuer’s method in his own practice. His clinical experiences with patients such as Dora and Rat Man informed his subsequent diagnostic writings. Also in 1886, Freud married his fiancé Martha Bernays. The two had six children together and enjoyed a happy and healthy relationship despite rumors that Freud was engaged in an affair with Martha’s sister.

Beginning in 1885, Freud became a lecturer at the University of Vienna. In 1902, he was made Professor Extraordinarius. That same year, Freud founded the Wednesday Psychological Society. The group quickly acquired distinguished members such as Carl Jung, Otto Rank, and Alfred Adler. In 1911, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded, but soon experienced upheaval after the foregoing individuals resigned one by one to found their own schools. Their breaks were occasioned by disagreements with Freud over the centrality of sexuality in psychopathology, the proper interpretation of dreams, and other psychoanalytic controversies. Freud demanded a strict adherence to his theories that was increasingly incompatible with the evolving ideas of his former pupils.

Freud had been a tobacco smoker since the age of 24 and believed that it enhanced his capacity to work. He wrote to his one-time friend, the disgraced doctor and scientist Wilhelm Fliess, that tobacco, like all addictions, was a substitute for masturbation, “the one great habit.” Even so, Freud maintained that, “sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar,” and thought that he could use tobacco in moderation. However, after decades of heavy smoking, Freud developed oral cancer. Soon after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria for Britain in 1938, Freud’s cancer was deemed inoperable. Less than a year later, Freud found himself in excruciating pain and implored his doctor Max Schur to euthanize him. After being administered multiple doses of morphine, Freud passed away on September 23, 1939.

A scientist by training, Freud grounded his philosophy of mind in the biology and physics of his time. As a prerequisite to launching into an inquiry of the psyche, the psyche must be regarded as capable of being studied. While taken for granted today, this was not always the prevailing view. In fact, before Freud, neuroses were largely assumed to be inexplicable. Freud was emboldened to break with tradition after reading Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species (1859), which theorizes that humans are not eternally ensouled beings created in God’s image but animals that differ from other animals only in degree of structural complexity. Human thought and behavior could thus be understood in terms of earthly motivations rather than mysterious, divine ordination.

Freud’s other key scientific influence was the law of conservation of energy: that energy is neither created nor destroyed but only changes form. Freud, drawing from Brücke, applied this principle to psychic energy. Freud believed that the mind is an energy system and that the job of the psychologist is to investigate changes in psychic energy and how they impact our mental life. This principle is the basis of Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, which proposes that human sexual energy, or libido, undergoes five phases of development from infancy to adulthood:

  1. Oral phase (0-18 months): the libido of the infant is located in the mouth and is satisfied by acts such as sucking, biting, and breastfeeding.

In a revolutionary move, Freud theorized that our childhood experiences, far from being irrelevant as previously thought, play a major role in forming our adult personalities and that successfully passing through each phase of psychosexual development is necessary for a healthy adult life. When a child’s libido is either frustrated (not adequately met) or overindulged (given too much) in one of the stages, “fixations” in the stage occur in which the libido is “dammed up” and prevented from moving on. Examples of fixations include oral fixation, anal retentiveness, exhibitionism, impotence, and nymphomania.

Now, while fixated individuals engage in these types of behaviors, they are typically not aware of why. This is because humans often repress unwanted thoughts, feelings, desires and memories to avoid the anxiety that they induce. Repression, the act of burying unpleasant psychic material in the unconscious mind, implies a multi-layered psyche. Contrary to those who came before him, Freud suggested that the conscious mind is not the whole mind, but only the small visible component of a much larger hidden structure—the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Windows into the submerged parts of the psyche include dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue, or “Freudian” slips. In The Ego and the Id (1923) Freud writes that the human psyche consists of three functional forces:

  1. The id: the instinctual and appetitive part of the psyche that exists from birth and contains carnal impulses such as lust, hunger, and aggression.

The id is said to operate by the pleasure principle, which seeks to maximize its pleasure and minimize its unpleasure irrespective of the consequences. The superego, in contrast, operates by the “reality principle,” which seeks to curtail impulsive behaviors to maintain a respectable relationship with society. The hedonism of the id and the moralism of the superego constantly clash, which causes the ego enormous stress. To manage this stress, the ego employs what Freud calls defense mechanisms. In addition to repression, which is both itself a defense mechanism and at play in the others, Freud identifies the following psychic defenses:

  • Rationalization: explaining away a bad thought or behavior with an inappropriate justification or a dishonest explanation. Example: an individual who apologizes for “forgetting” to respond to their friend when in reality they just chose not to respond.

Freud believed that defense mechanisms can be employed healthily or unhealthily depending on the circumstances and frequency with which they are used. Ultimately, Freud’s clinical goal was to have the patient become aware of the repressed psychic contents that begat their defense mechanisms and sublimate them into more productive and fulfilling behaviors. To this end, Freud pioneered the now-commonplace therapeutic method of creating an environment conducive to self-investigation and self-discovery. In doing so, Freud sought to give his patients the opportunity to discharge pent up psychic energy and, along with it, their psychological malaise. This is the basic approach of psychoanalysis.

For much of his career, Freud attributed human motivation largely to a single source: eros, or the life drive and its self-preserving and erotic impulses. But the horrific human behavior on display during WWI, along with clinical observation that his patients engaged in behaviors that increased their unpleasure, called this understanding into question. Patient reports of recurring nightmares and repetitions of harmful past experiences convinced Freud that there was another force at work in the psyche. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud labels this force death drives, which later came to be known as thanatos.

Death drives are responsible for the aggressive, destructive, and cruel impulses that we feel toward society and ourselves. Their origin traces back to the conflict between the id’s desire to express itself freely and the civilized world’s responsibility to limit individuals’ behavior to maintain social order and cohesion. The id develops a hostility toward the world that constrains it and a loathing toward itself for desiring what society forbids. This conflict finds expression in socially acceptable forms of tribalism, wherein the id engages in behaviors normally frowned upon through proxies such as sports teams, political parties, religions, etc.

Yet these vicarious outlets of aggression are not enough to assuage the psyche. The censorship of the id’s individuality by society leads to inevitable suffering. The human mind is said to cope with this suffering by engaging in a “repetition compulsion” in which harmful thoughts, dreams, and activities are repeated again and again, either in an attempt to master said suffering by handling it better than before or to return to an earlier, simpler state in which suffering is less acute. The latter, taken to the logical extreme, causes the psyche to imagine itself in a state of non-existence where suffering is reduced to zero. This suicidal ideation, or death drive to transcend the inherent suffering of modern life, is a central theme in Freud’s mature writings.

For all of Freud’s insight, he also has a sizeable collection of bad ideas. His seduction theory, which he renounced later in life, suggested a universal experience of sexual abuse in infancy as the root cause of human neuroses and hysteria. He also championed the palliative effects of cocaine for a period of time before publicly withdrawing his support following the cocaine-related death of his friend who suffered from morphine addiction and started using cocaine upon Freud’s recommendation. With regard to women’s issues, Freud infamously asserted that girls develop “penis envy” upon realizing that they do not possess a penis and that clitoral pleasure is a juvenile fixation that, when carried into adulthood, represents an unwillingness to transition to the more mature vaginal pleasure of the adult woman.

But while backwards in many ways, Freud is surprisingly progressive in others. He acknowledged that a female child’s complicated relationship to gender is replaced by a rigid, artificially imposed femininity in adulthood. Freud also rebuffed a mother’s request to have her son treated for homosexuality, stating that homosexuality is “nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness.” He continued that “many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.),” and that “it is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime — and a cruelty, too.” Finally, Freud challenged religious dogma, arguing that belief in God is a delusion borne out of the need for a universal father figure and the desire for psychic consolation in the face of death.

Clearly, Freud is guilty of sexist and pseudo-scientific views. In fact, Karl Popper regarded the entire discipline of psychoanalysis as pseudoscientific due to the untestability of its assertions. But it is equally clear that Freud left behind a wealth of insight that has transformed our understanding of the human psyche. We do a disservice both to ourselves and to the richness of Freud’s thought by reducing him to a quack. That being said, we can and should poke fun at Freud for his moments of foolishness. Freud, who held that humor is one of the psyche’s healthiest outlets, would have no choice but to approve.

Musician, writer, activist. If you enjoy my philosophy essays, consider supporting my work here:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store