Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis.
Sigmund Freud was born in Moravia. When he was three years old, his family moved to Vienna, the city where he was to live until the last year of his life. At the age of 17, Freud entered the University of Vienna's medical school, where he pursued a variety of research interests. Although primarily interested in physiological research, Freud was forced to enter into clinical practice due to the difficulty of obtaining a university appointment—aggravated, in his case, by anti-Semitic attitudes and policies. After additional independent research and clinical work at the General Hospital of Vienna, Freud entered private practice, specializing in the treatment of patients with neurological and hysterical disorders.
During this period, Freud learned about his colleague Josef Breuer's "cathartic" treatment of hysterical symptoms, which disappeared when a patient recalled traumatic experiences while under hypnosis and was
able to express original emotions that had been repressed and forgotten. Pursuing this idea further, Freud spent several months in France studying Jean-Martin Charcot's method of treating hysteria by hypnosis. Upon his return to Vienna, Freud began the task of finding a similar method of treatment that did not require hypnosis, whose limitations he found unsatisfactory. In addition to learning by observing the symptoms and experiences of his patients, Freud also engaged in a rigorous self-analysis based on his own dreams. In 1895, he and Breuer published Studies on Hysteria, a landmark text in the history of psychoanalysis, and in 1900 Freud's own ground-breaking work, The Interpretation of Dreams, appeared.
By this time, Freud had worked out the essential components of his system of psychoanalysis, including the use of free association and catharsis as a method of exploring the unconscious, identifying repressed memories and the reasons for their repression, and enabling patients to know themselves more fully. The patient, relaxed on a couch in his office, was directed to engage in a free association of ideas that could yield useful insights, and was asked to reveal frankly whatever came to mind. Through both his work with patients and his own self-analysis, Freud came to believe that mental disorders which have no apparent physiological cause are symbolic reactions to psychological shocks, usually of a sexual nature, and that the memories associated with these shocks, although they have been repressed into the unconscious, indirectly affect the content not only of dreams but of conscious activity.
Freud published The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1904 and three more works the following year, including Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, which set forth his ideas about the development of the human sex instinct, or libido, including his theory of childhood-sexuality and the Oedipus complex. While recognition from the scientific community and the general public was slow in coming, by the early 1900s Freud had attracted a circle of followers, including Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Otto Rank (1884-1939), who held weekly discussion meetings at his home and later became known as the Vienna Psychological Society. Although Jung and Adler were eventually to break with Freud, forming their own theories and schools of analysis, their early support helped establish psychoanalysis as a movement of international importance. In 1909, Freud was invited to speak at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, by its president, the distinguished psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), and was awarded an honorary doctorate. After World War I, Freud gained increasing fame as psychoanalysis became fashionable in intellectual circles and was popularized by the media.
Freud contended that the human personality is governed by forces called "instincts" or "drives." Later, he came to believe in the existence of a death instinct, or death wish (Thanatos), directed either outward as aggression or inward as self-destructive behavior (noted mainly as repetition compulsions). He constructed a comprehensive theory on the structure of the psyche, which he viewed as divided into three parts. The id, corresponding to the unconscious, is concerned with the satisfaction of primitive desires and with self-preservation. It operates according to the pleasure principle and outside the realm of social rules or moral dictates. The ego, associated with reason, controls the forces of the id to bring it into line with the reality principle and make socialization possible, and channels the forces of the id into acceptable activities. The critical, moral superego— or conscience—developed in early childhood, monitors and censors the ego, turning external values into internalized, self-imposed rules with which to inhibit the id. Freud viewed individual behavior as the result of the interaction among these three components of the psyche.
At the core of Freud's psychological structure is the repression of unfulfilled instinctual demands. An unconscious process, repression is accomplished through a series of defense mechanisms. Those most commonly named by Freud include denial (failure to perceive the source of anxiety); rationalization (justification of an action by an acceptable motive); displacement (directing repressed feelings toward an acceptable substitute); projection (attributing one's own unacceptable impulse to others); and sublimation (transforming an unacceptable instinctual demand into a socially acceptable activity).
Freud continued modifying his theories in the 1920s and changed a number of his fundamental views, including his theories of motivation and anxiety. In 1923, he developed cancer of the jaw (he had been a heavy cigar smoker throughout his life) and underwent numerous operations for this disease over the next 16 years. Life in Vienna became increasingly precarious for Freud with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, and he emigrated to London in 1938, only to die of his illness the following year. Many of the concepts and theories Freud introduced—such as the role of the unconscious, the effect of childhood experiences on adult behavior, and the operation of defense mechanisms—continue to be a source of both controversy and inspiration. His books include Totem and Taboo (1913), General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1916), The Ego and the Id (1923), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).
See also Consciousness; Memory; Psychosexual stages
Fromm, Erich. Sigmund Freud's Mission. New York: Grove Press, 1959.
Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: Norton, 1988.