Freud, Sigmund - (1856-1939)

Freud Austrian psychologist; founder of psychoanalysis who made a systematic study of the Unconscious and introduced many key concepts still used in modern psychology. For all its faults, Freud’s theory was the first materialist theory of the psyche; like his contemporary Pavlov, Freud was a philosophical materialist of the old school, and between them they mark a watershed between the psychology of the 19th and that of the 20th centuries. While Freud was careful not to claim expertise outside his own area of work, his followers have freely applied his concepts to history and society in a way that Freud would not have supported.

Freud's father was a Jewish merchant who had been married once before and was 40 years old when Freud was born, a relatively remote and authoritarian figure. In 1860 the family moved to Vienna, where Freud remained until the Nazi invasion in 1939.

In 1873, Freud entered the University of Vienna to study medicine, where he worked with Ernst von Brücke, an exponent of Hermann von Helmholtz's anti-vitalism. In 1882, he entered the General Hospital in Vienna to train in psychiatry, and was appointed lecturer in neuropathology. It was during this period that Freud advocated the use of cocaine, leading to a close friend becoming addicted, and this episode left somewhat of a cloud over his reputation for a time.

In 1885, Freud went to Paris, to work under Jean-Martin Charcot who was using hypnosis to cure patients suffering from paralysis. The idea of treating apparently physiological disorders by treating the mind, ran directly counter to the dominant positivistic spirit of the science of the day. Freud never succeeded in mastering the art of hypnosis, and this obliged him to develop an alternative method of working on the mind. Nevertheless, Freud now had the key idea which was to determine his future work, and returned to Vienna after a very short stay in Paris.

It was the physician Josef Breuer, who had cured an hysterical patient by simply encouraging her to talk about her problem, who provided Freud with a line of research, and 10 years later he published a joint paper with Breuer on the use of free association as a technique for uncovering the roots of psychosis.

The key insight to which the work with free assoication led Freud was that there was something called the “Unconscious” (not a concept that Freud invented, but he was the first to systematically investigate it and develop a definite conception of the structure of the psyche), but for whatever reason the content of this Unconscious mind was repressed and hidden from consciousness; however, from time to time people would make a “slip of the tongue” or in one way or another say something from which the contents of the Unconscious could be inferred. The point then was to develop ways of bringing these unconscious thoughts to light so that the patient themselves could deal with them.
In the course of this study – to which he gave the name ‘Psychoanalysis’ in 1896 – Freud formed the view that the principal content of this unconscious was sexual, even though the patients did not directly articulate this. For example, a recollection of sexual contact with an adult in their childhood, Freud took to be evidence of sexuality on the part of the child, expressed in the form of fantasy.
Freud's early work concentrated on female hysteria, but in order to formulate a general theory of the mind, Freud had to broaden his work to study the psyche of the normal male. Freud began by studying the one psyche to which he had direct access – his own. However, the psychoanalytic movement he began reserved the privilege of self-analysis for its founder alone; every psychoanalyst is inducted into the profession by being psychoanalysed by a psychoanalyst, thus joining a genealogy linking back to Sigmund Freud's original self-analysis.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, he interspersed evidence from his own dreams with evidence from those recounted in his clinical practice. Freud saw dreams as essentially a form of wish fulfilment, in which the real meaning of the unconscious is “coded” in the form of images taken from everyday experience, and regarded dreams as teh “royal road to the unconscious”.

Centred on the concept of repression of sexual desire, Freud developed explanations for hysteria, obsessive compulsions, paranoia, and narcissism. However, it should be noted that a considerable part of Freud's achievement is easily separable from his conviction that sexual frustration lay at the root of all these disorders. Although Freud's theories scandalised the sexually repressed Vienna of his day, they attracted wide interest across Europe, and in 1902 Freud's so-called Psychological Wednesday Circle began to gather, including Alfred Adler and Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung among participants. In 1908, the group was renamed the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society which grew to become an international organisation, but the Society was always marked by sharp splits between its founder and others who grew to rival him, such as Alfred Adler who Freud broke with in 1911, followed by breaks with Stekel, Jung and Wilhelm Reich.

Freud constructed a very elaborate “topology” for the Mind, including the division of the psyche into the Unconscious, Preconscious, and Conscious and structural components called the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. See his Lecture The Anatomy of the Mental Personality for an outline. For a sketch of his ideas on science and knowledge see Weltanschauung.
In 1914, Freud revised his theory to include an innate drive to end life's inevitable tensions, called the Nirvana principle with the drive underlying it called the Death Instinct, and the contrary drive, the Life Instinct, or Eros.


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