Sigmund Freud

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Sigmund Freud


Austrian Neurologist and Psychiatrist

Between 1895 and 1939 Sigmund Freud created psychoanalysis, a therapy for the mentally ill, a tool for cultural criticism, and a field of psychiatric and philosophical research. His theories of human behavior and motivation amounted to no less than a revolution in psychiatry and social mores. Few thinkers affected the arts and sciences of the twentieth century as profoundly as did Freud. His thought has influenced the development of the fine arts (art, literature), the social sciences (history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, education), and the health sciences (psychiatry, social work, psychology). Freud's ideas constitute a core element in the social and political transformations of the century.

Sigmund Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia (then in Austria, now in the Czech Republic) in 1856, the son of a poor, Jewish merchant. The family relocated to the capital of the Austrian Empire, Vienna, at an early age, and Freud spent almost his entire life in that German-speaking city. He received a classical education and earned his M.D. degree in 1881. The combination of Austrian, German, Hellenic, Jewish, and Roman Catholic cultures created an intellectual and social environment that catalyzed the synthesis of nineteenth-century neurology and psychiatry with Freud's creativity and productivity. In 1885 he spent several months in Paris with J. M. Charcot (1825-1893), an expert in neurology and hysteria, which led him to theorize new approaches to treating hysteria.

In the century since the publication of Freud's landmark book The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, his ideas have so fundamentally transformed our treatment for mental illness, our language, and the way we view ourselves and our society that, as W. H. Auden wrote in elegy, "he is no more a person now, but a whole climate of opinion." Freud brought the scientific study of the unconscious to the forefront of academic psychology, psychiatry, and neurology as well as to the public consciousness.

Before 1900, Freud was a neurological researcher with an interest in psychopathology. In 1895 he combined with Josef Breuer (1842-1925; Breuer used a "talking cure" to discover the roots of his patients' neuroses) on Studies on Hysteria, which theorized that hysterical patients suffered from the undischarged emotional energy of repressed (i.e., consciously forgotten but unconsciously active) memories of infantile seduction in which fathers sexually abused their children.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud theorized that the Greek mythological figure Oedipus (abandoned at birth, miraculously surviving to unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother) symbolized the primal wish of every boy to supplant the father and claim the mother. He later called his discovery of this, the Oedipus complex, his most important theoretical contribution. He then rejected infantile seduction as untenable and hypnosis as unreliable, developing instead free association, a technique that permitted unconscious emotions to surface. Freud continued to emphasize the sexual nature of repressed memories.

After 1905 Freud's ideas began to gather converts across Europe and in the United States; in 1910 he established the International Psychoanalytical Association. He further elaborated his theories of the unconscious and sexuality, adding aggression during the First World War as an instinctual force as powerful as sexuality. "The Ego and the Id" (1923) proposed a structural model to contrast the earlier topographic model of instinctual energies passing between unconscious, preconscious, and consciousness. Many of Freud's most influential papers on culture, literature, and art appeared between 1913 and 1930, such as "Totem and Taboo" (1913), "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" (1921), "The Future of An Illusion" (1927) and "Civilization and Its Discontents" (1930).

To clinical mental health Freud contributed the concept of psychic determinism, the lawfulness of all psychological phenomena, even the most trivial such as dreams, fantasies, and "Freudian slips." He furthermore demonstrated that the subject matter of an investigation into psychosexual development and character formation consists of life histories. The concept of "psychodynamics" and the awareness of the importance of sexuality and aggression are now omnipresent in psychological and psychiatric treatment. The ideas of conflict, anxiety, and defense are Freudian, although much is owed to other dynamic theoreticians such as Carl Jung (1875-1961), Alfred Adler (1870-1937), and Sigmund's daughter Anna Freud (1895-1982).

Freud's research into irrational human behavior was underway while warfare on scales hitherto unimaginable and the mass extermination of entire populations and cultures based on racist theory and industrial efficiency belied the hope that a greater understanding of our minds would lead to greater peace and prosperity. His theories permit clinicians, artists, and social scientists to comprehend these, and many other, phenomena.