Oddly enough, Sigmund Freud's ideas are currently most influential in disciplines such as literary criticism.

Freud, who prided himself on being a scientist and creating a scientific psychology, receives less respect in the scientific and clinical professions.

Freud is little read today, but he was actually a very engaging and amusing writer who is a joy to read. And in fact, although we are not generally aware of it, Freudian ideas permeate modern consciousness. Indeed, the very idea of consciousness, and its corollary, unconsciousness, was popularized and concretized by Freud.

Another idea developed by Freud which is pretty widely accepted today is that experiences that happen to us as children affect how we behave as adults. It was a pretty unusual idea at the time, when people were often thought of as born into what they are. It's interesting to see how this concept has worked its way into popular consciousness in a distorted form. Think about the whole discourse of repressed memory. The idea here is that very traumatic experiences in childhood, like sexual abuse, can be repressed - that is, pushed into the unconscious - only to suddenly reappear much later in life, when the memories return. Now I don't in any way want to suggest that sexual abuse of children doesn't happen; clearly it does, and it's abhorrent and disgusting, and should be stopped. But what I do want to point out is that, in Freud's view, what is in the unconscious will continually "speak", if you will, in symbolic form. When something is repressed, it doesn't mean that the horror will disappear for a long time and then reappear wholesale. Rather, the painful incident will constantly throw up reminders in disguised form. That's the point of the slips and the phobias and the neuroses; it's the unconscious reminding the sufferer again and again about what happened. So, if Freud's right (and I think here he may be), repressed memories don't represent truth as such, but rather symbolic representations of past events. So if you suddenly "remember" at 35 that your father raped you when you'd never had any memories of such a thing before, it may be a sign that he was a nasty prick, and did awful things to you like shouting or hitting or taking away your Slinky - all of which you do remember - and perhaps the rape of children has figured in popular discourse, and so your mind renders his abuse to you in a symbolic form which resonates with popular discourse today.

This is just my view of Freud's view, and not the truth, so please don't get too mad at me about it.

Another aspect of Freud's thinking which is still quite influential today is the idea that talking about something will help you get over it. Thus psychoanalysis is sometimes called the talking cure. It makes sense in this theoretical paradigm that talking would help, since talking can render conscious what was unconscious; it un-represses the repressed. In the west we're pretty obsessed with "talking things over", "getting things off our chest", and "clearing the air"; we render everything into discourse. (I didn't find this to be the case at all in Thailand, where lots of things are just never said. People communicate quite effectively, I found, just not with words. That's not our way here in the west. But that's another story.) Now Foucault, who was a better historian than Freud, recognized that the talking cure had a genealogical connection with Catholic confession, and he saw, in a way Freud couldn't, how discourse is a tool of power. But Foucault's ideas about this are rather alien to us today, while Freud's are more familiar and accepted, if only in a veiled way. (I'm not trying to be obscure here, I'm just saying that I think in some way we're all Freudians, we just don't know it.)

Freud had some other ideas that look pretty quirky to modern eyes. Like many thinkers of his time, he was interested in the connection between human evolution and personal development. In Civilization and Its Discontents (a great read, by the way), Freud postulated that, early in human history, people lived in promiscuous hordes. The only biological link recognized at first was that between mother and child - this link being difficult to ignore. Paternity was largely unknown at first. Gradually, the link between sexuality and reproduction became clear, and thus, in a way, the Father came to be. (For Jacques Lacan, by the way, this all became transmuted into the symbolic, so that children learn the Name of the Father as they learn language. But that, too, is another story.)

Anyway, in time people gathered together into simple family groups. The problem is that the boys wanted sex, specifically, sex with their mother. (There hardly ever seem to be daughters in stories like this.) So one day they killed the father so they could have sex with the mother. A parricide! A horrible crime! They were overcome with guilt, (and also lascivious delight at gaining access to good old mom, but that, too, is another story). The point of all this is that sexuality is a dangerous and anti-social power that must be tamed if we are to live together in society. Neat story: father versus son, desire versus civilization, nature versus culture: it's human evolution, and personal development (as Freud saw it) all rolled into one!

Today, it's difficult for us to know how to read narratives such as the one in Civilization and Its Discontents. Did Freud think his theories were factually true? Or was he writing a myth? Or, strange thought, is the distinction between the two a false dichotomy? I suspect that, for a subtle thinker like Freud, the latter is the most likely scenario.

If you want a good read, and you don't mind dense but clever writing, try Freud some time. I think he's great fun.

One thing which the above writeup fails to mention is the striking and obvious dichotomy between those who believe in Freud's theories and accept his case studies, and those who think that Freud was a charlatan and a faker and cured no one.

In this writeup, I will use, as an example of the pro-Freud camp, the section on Freud and his case studies in An Incomplete Education by J. Jones and W. Wilson, a book intended to bring the average American know-nothing up to date on history, philosophy, literature, music, and a bevvy of other social and hard sciences in under 550 pages; thus, it covers everything while going in-depth about nothing. For the anti-Freud camp, I will make use of A.K. Dewdney's Yes, We Have No Neutrons: An Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Bad Science, a work dedicated to sniffing out the honest mistakes, rather than the deliberate frauds, of science.

A relatively lengthy chapter in each work is dedicated to Freud's theories, but here I will treat only their respective opinions on three of his six published case studies.

  1. "The Rat Man," real name Ernst Lanzer. He had a compulsive fear of rats, which (according to Education) he acquired after hearing tales of a form of torture wherein "a pot of rats was overturned on a man's naked buttocks and left to gnaw their way through the anus" (Ibid). As An Incomplete Education would have it, Freud "helped restore the man to health"; Dewdney's book, however, tells us that Lanzer left therapy after "only a few weeks," not the eleven months that Freud had claimed to the 1908 Psychoanalytic Congress, and that Freud himself admitted that Lanzer suffered from a "father complex," even after his "treatment."
  2. Little Hans. I will reproduce here a section of Education's treatment of Little Hans verbatim:
    The trouble had started when Hans was three-and-a-half and his mother tried to discourage him from masturbating by warning him--as mothers did in those days--that if he didn't keep his hands where they belonged she'd send for the doctor to "cut off your widdler and then what will you widdle with?" Little Hans, who was developing quite a fascination with widdlers in general, had not failed to notice that horses had great big widdlers and that his mother had none. Before you knew it, horses, Mommy, and the possibility of castration were all mixed up with his fears of competing with his father.
    This starry-eyed acceptance of Freudist thought is typical of this section; Neutrons, however, tells us that "in a fit of common sense rare in five-year-olds [five or three-and-a-half?], Little Hans tried to convince both his father and Freud that he had been frightened of horses ever since witnessing a carriage accident." Nowhere does An Incomplete Education mention this perspective.
  3. "The Wolf Man," real name Sergei Pankieff. Education tells us that Pankieff "could make contact with reality only after he'd emptied the contents of his intestines with an enema"; this rather curious factoid is not mentioned in Neutrons. Both, however, mention Pankieff's condition--"obsessional neurosis," according to Freud--as well as his dream, in which he had seen "some white wolves sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window..." From this piece of evidence alone, Freud concluded that a young Pankieff had accidentally viewed the primal scene-- despite the fact that in Pankieff's Russian childhood days, children did not sleep in the same bedroom as their parents, a fact which Education--surprise!--omits. Education leaves the conclusion of the Wolf Man's tale vague in the extreme, while Neutrons tells of an interview with Pankieff in the 1970s, in which he reports that he had "lived his entire life with the same problem," and that he had never been convinced of "the correctness either of [Freud's] diagnosis or of the dream interpretation."

So. Which of these two viewpoints is correct? Looking through the lens of these two works, the anti-Freud camp certainly seems to come out the victor; however, An Incomplete Education's title says much about the quality and depth of its research. Perhaps I will read a better-researched pro-Freud book tomorrow; as it stands, however, the great Freud's pedestal seems to be ever shrinking.

"In my experience, the chief part in the mental lives of all children
who later become psychoneurotics is played by their parents."

One of the greatest theorists and psychologists in history, Sigmund Freud was born as Sigismund Schlomo Freud on May 6, 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, now the Czech Republic. He was the son of Jacob Freud and his third wife Amalia, who was 20 years younger than Jacob. "Sigi" also had seven younger brothers and sisters. Freud's early family dynamic was unusual; he had two half-brothers, Emmanuel and Philipp, who were almost the same age as his mother. Emmanuel had a son John who was actually a little older than his uncle Sigmund.

Jacob was a Jewish wool merchant who lived modestly. He and the family moved to Leipzig, Germany in 1859 and then finally settled in Vienna in 1860 where Freud would live until 1938. Before Freud was 10 years old, he was already reading the works of Shakespeare and contemplating the theories of Goethe. At first, he considering taking up law, but finally decided to pursue medical research and began to study at Vienna University in 1873. He abbreviated his name to "Sigmund," as he is now known, in 1877.

He began to research the central nervous system under Ernst von Brücke and became a medical doctor in 1881. He became employed at Theodor Meynett's Psychiatric Clinic from 1882 until 1883. From 1885 to 1886, he went to Paris to study under Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpetricre. There, he was influenced by Charcot's clinical research on hypnosis. This began Freud's active interest into the unconscious mind. In 1887 Freud met Wilhelm Fleiss, a Berlin doctor, who further interested him in psychology.

In 1886, he married Martha Bernays and had six children with her: Mathilde, born in 1887, Jean-Martin, born in 1889, Olivier, born in 1891, Ernst, born in 1892, Sophie, born in 1893, and Anna, born in 1895. He founded his private practice which focused on nervous disorders. He moved to Berggasse which would later become The Freud Museum Vienna in 1971.

From 1895 until 1900, Freud began to seriously develop the principles of psychoanalysis. He created the term 'psychoanalysis' in 1896 and began to break with some of his earlier research partners. His father died, which began his self-analysis of his thoughts and dreams in 1897. Die Traumdeutung, or The Interpretation of Dreams, was published in 1899. He considered it to be the most important of his books and his greatest discovery. During this time, he worked alone, as his research was dismissed by many members of the medical community.

In 1902, he became a professor at the University of Vienna and founded the Wednesday Society, a small group of his friends who met to discuss their research. Later, this group would become the Viennese Association of Psychoanalysis in 1908. He began to attract a following, including such thinkers as Carl Jung, Eugen Bleuler, William Stekel, and Otto Rank. Sándor Ferenczi and Ernest Jones joined the circle later, and they held a conference in 1908 which attracted forty psychologists from five different countries.

In 1909, Freud began his lecture series at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. in the United States. This set of lectures was published in 1910, and it was vital in terms of drawing more of an audience for his work. In 1912, as the psychoanalytic movement spread, the magazine based upon its theories, Imago, was founded in 1912. During this period, several of the psychologists who were previously members of Freud's circle began to express dissenting opinions. Adler and Jung both left, disagreeing with Freud's theories on the libido as the origin for psychological problems. Jung had been training to become Freud's successor, so his leaving shook the psychoanalytic movement considerably. In 1914, World War I was also breaking out, which was also hard on Freud; all three of his sons fought in the war. This has been said to be a major influence on his death drive theory, as introduced in 1920's Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In 1923, Freud officially introduced his famous notion of the id, ego, and superego as well as the unconscious, preconscious and subconscious.

By 1923, Freud had his first diagnosis of cancer of the palate, but he couldn't quit smoking which aggravated the pain. In 1930, he was given the Goethe Prize for Literature and was elected an Honorary Member of the British Royal Society of Medicine in 1935. This coincided with Hitler's rise to chancellor in 1933. The Gestapo searched Freud's house and arrested his daughter Anna for one day. Freud left Austria in 1938 for England aided by Princess Marie Bonaparte. He died the following year on September 23, 1939 at age 83. He was euthanized after suffering for a long time from the pain of cancer.

The Theories of Sigmund Freud

Reality, according to Freud, contains objects. Human beings are among these objects, but it is different in that it acts to further its own existence by certain impulses like hunger, thirst, sexual drive, and the avoidance of pain stimuli. As such, one of the most important aspects of an organism's functioning is the central nervous system which is sensitive to its needs. At birth, that system is comparable to an animal's; it responds to triebe, or instincts. This is what Freud calls the id. The id operates according to the pleasure principle, which is simply a demand that needs be fulfilled immediately. This is most obviously observed in the crying infant, which may not be able to sort out exactly what it wants, just simply that it has that desire. Freud describes the infant as pure id.

As a child matures, consciousness expands to include the objects around it. Sensory impulses are translated on a more complex level, and the id splits, forming the ego. The ego represents a human being's problem solving capacity, or the capacity for reason. The actual activity of problem solving is known as the secondary process in Freud's work. The ego functions more according to the circumstances of reality, in that needs will be satisfied when the appropriate object in reality is found in order to satisfy it.

While the ego goes through this process of satisfying the id, it encounters various obstacles. Particularly, as a child, certain rewards and punishments are associated with need fulfillment, and therefore the child will develop an even more advanced set of strategies in order to avoid obstacles. This signals the formation of the superego. Freud projects that it is formed at approximately age 7. Many times, it is full of flawed stategies or skewed perspectives due to whatever reward-punishment types of situations that the child encounters at a young age. The superego develops into two parts. The first part is the conscience, which is an internal representation of the punishments it has encountered. The other part is called the ego ideal. It is formed from rewards. These two halves interact to form emotions like pride and guilt.

Freud also developed the notions of the conscious, unconscious, and preconscious minds. The conscious mind is the state of being aware in the present, involving perceptions, memories, thoughts and emotions in the present moment. The preconscious mind is derived from the conscious mind; it is anything that can be made conscious, memories that are not consistently being thought of, but can be readily recalled. According to Freud, these are the smallest parts to the overal mind.

The largest and most complex layer of the mind, according to Freud, is the unconscious mind. It is all things which aren't available for immediate awareness, drives and instincts which aren't considered in daily life. Such things like memories or emotions associated with traumatic events are in the unconscious mind. It is ultimately the source of all motivations, from simple things like obtaining food or sex to the complex drives of an artist or scientist. The unconsious mind is something that most people ignore, according to Freud, because its contents are too painful to remember.

The Writing of Sigmund Freud

Freud's early work is characterized by his interest in neurology and medicine; this was his chosen career at first. Later, as he developed his interest in psychology, his works begin to illustrate his principles of psychoanalysis more thoroughly. Finally, at the end of his life, he began to broaden his approach to writing as he took on social issues.

The Legacy of Sigmund Freud

Freud's influence today is enormous in the field of literary criticism, as is noted in the writeups in the Sigmund Freud's legacy node. To be more specific, Jacques Lacan is perhaps the best known theorist to work further with Freud's research. In modern debates over gender relations, Freud's pioneering work on human sexuality remains central. Recent attempts to apply Freud's theories come in terms of the analysis of the "subject" in postmodern theory, and what role Freud's notion of "unconcious mind" plays in such developments.

In terms of literary theory, this is combined with ideas about language. Since human beings are born into linguistic communities, what role will language play in terms of constructing a person's awareness? Lacan's approach to Freud involves the idea of "identity" that the subject is more of a reflection of the world which perceives it.

In terms of psychological accuracy, Freud's work is often dismissed as being scientifically invalid. Much of Freud's clinical work cannot be reproduced and therefore it can't be reasonably validated in many ways. Inconsistencies in his theories, which often built upon one another, are the main criticism of his work by scientists. However, his influence in the humanities astounds this student of literature; his legacy permeates across disciplines and will surely be felt for generations.


1Sigmund Freud. Oedipus, the Child. © 1900.

Many of Freud's contributions to psychology were revolutionary for their time, despite the modern view that he was mostly incorrect. His most important concept was that of the importance of early childhood on the development of the mind and personality. He revealed that the events in a child's life between the ages of 0-1.5 (the oral stage), 1.5-3 (the anal stage), and 3-5 (the phallic stage) affect the development of the child's personality in different ways. Prior to Freud's theories, the Victorian concept of children was that they were simply smaller adults, and were treated as such (without regard to the child's psychological state).

Freud put a large amount of emphasis on sexual instincts, to the chagrin of his peers and followers. He theorized that sexual desires were the base of each stage, and the base of a different conflict at each stage. A fixation in that stage would be caused by improper treatment of the child (an unresolved or misresolved conflict due to lack of or excessive gratification).

The oral stage is characterized by placing objects into one's mouth (as long as they fit). According to Freud, biting and sucking things gives sexual pleasure as well as nourishment. The conflict here is of course the amount of oral gratification in the form of breast feeding. Fixation in the oral stage could lead to dependency, gullibility, or excessive optimism or pessimism.

The anal stage is characterized by releasing waste through the anus. Generally, this stage is the time when children are "potty trained". Sexual gratification is given through contraction and release of the anal muscles during the release of waste (control of these muscles does not become voluntary until this stage). The conflict is with the parents, and has to do with potty training: the child resists potty training, opting for gratification instead of self-control. Fixation in the form of anal-retentiveness is caused by harsh potty training, and results in perfectionism, a strong need for order, or cleanliness. Fixation in the form of anal-expulsiveness is caused by too much gratification, and results in carelessness, messiness, or even sadism.

The phallic stage is characterized by stimulation of the "phallic region" - the penis or clitoris. Sexual gratification is caused mainly through this erogenous zone, and conflict arises when parents discipline the masturbation of the child. Due to this conflict, the child becomes attached to his or her parent of the opposite sex, but generally resolves this conflict by the age of five or six. Fixation in this stage (by not resolving that conflict) could result in (according to Freud) oral or anal stimulation, masturbation, and sexual activity with people of the same gender, which Freud viewed as "pregenital fixations inconsistent with the life instinct, eros". Resolution of this conflict leads to a latency stage, in which no sexual gratification is desired, and finally a genital stage at puberty, the "normal" sexual stage in which people are attracted to those of the opposite gender, but not their parents.

While Freud may have missed the mark on the specifics (modern research has shown that his views on the "fixations" in different stages were incorrect), his attention to early childhood was important given his time period. Previous to Freud, people commonly ignored the development of children and attempted to treat them as they would treat adults (as was normal in the Victorian era), leading to all kinds of psychological problems. Freud even influenced the artistic and literary movement of Modernism as an escape from the constraints of Victorian society.

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