Poor Sigmund Freud. Everyone seems to have an opinion about him and it’s usually negative - or perhaps this relates more to the people I work with. I can’t say I’m a particular fan of Freudian ideas but I try to be charitable and place both the man and his contributions in a historical context. In this way, I feel, it is possible to acknowledge the forces that shaped his thinking and which ultimately sparked a series of intellectual endeavours to try and refine our understanding of the nature of the human condition.
A Very Brief History
Freud qualified as a medical doctor in 1881. His interest in psychiatry developed as he gradually moved between various specialist departments at the Vienna General Hospital. Around 1890, Freud struck up a friendship and working relationship with Josef Bruer, a neurologist, and together they collaborated on a series of case studies called, Studies on Hysteria. Freud concluded that hysteria was due to exclusively sexual conflicts, a belief that generated widespread hostility and ended his friendship with Bruer.
After a period of some intellectual isolation, Freud began publishing his new ideas on psychoanalytic theory. His famous, Interpretation of Dreams, where he laid out his views on psychoanalysis, received a lukewarm reception initially. Gradually however his ideas were adopted by respected scholars and practitioners, including Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung.
Although many of Freud’s initial supporters fell out with his ideas and ultimately with Freud, he was, by 1919, something of an international celebrity and was appointed to a professorial post at the University of Vienna. Freud died in 1939. The last decade of his life was interrupted by 33 operations for mouth cancer, a legacy of a life-time of cigar smoking.
Freud’s Big Idea
In a nutshell, the big contribution made by Freud, is that we all experience conflicts between unconscious drives and desires and conscious behaviors and actions.
Freud reasoned that the cause of neurotic behavior resulted from traumatic experiences in early life. These memories were located deep in the patients’ unconscious mind. Freud originally used hypnosis as the means to unlock these experiences but he later favored a technique he called free association, which encourages the patient to talk freely about their thoughts without censorship.
Freud wrestled with why the unconscious mind seemed so removed from the conscious mind. He concluded that the unconscious mind was a place for our most basic and primitive needs and desires. The id, as Freud called it, was present from birth, driven by a pleasure principle for immediate gratification such as eating, drinking, sex and other pleasures.
Some of the most popular and controversial of Freud’s ideas stemmed from his view that children fixate on a series of pleasurable stages during their early development. Up to the age of 1, a child fixates on sucking. Around the age of 2-3 the child fixates on toilet activities. In turn, around the ages of 3-6, this gives way to the child noticing they have genitals. Freud reasoned that these oral, anal and phallic stages needed to be properly resolved or they would result in later neurosis. Failure to resolve the anal stage, for example, would later lead to issues of control and obsessive compulsive behavior.
Freud went on to develop his earlier ideas of the id by suggesting two other mental processes which he called the ego and the super-ego. A state of perpetual tension exists between the ego which acts as a kind of mediator between the pleasure-seeking id and the persons’ moral compass and conscience called the super-ego.