Sigmund Freud, born in Freiberg, Moravia, on May 6, 1856, and now known as one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, was a physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist, and the father of psychoanalysis. He postulated that many neuroses (mostly phobias, hysteria, chronic pain, and sometimes forms of paranoia) had origins in past traumatic experiences that were forgotten or hidden in the unconsciousness. Discoveries such as this made Freud one of the most provocative thinkers of his time.
Although Freud was an extremely influential thinker, his pioneering thoughts were set in motion by the works of other influential thinkers that preceded him. Two in particular are Charles Darwin, a naturalist, and Freud’s early mentor Ernst Brucke, under whom Freud studied physiology while enrolled in medical school at the University of Vienna. Darwin revolutionized the conception of mankind when he published The Origin of Species in 1859. Up to that time, the human species was viewed as being distinct from the animal kingdom. However, Darwin theorized that not only is our species a part of the animal kingdom but it has also changed physically over time, just as all members of the animal kingdom have. This concept, known as evolution, suggested that mankind could be viewed as an object that can be investigated scientifically. Freud, first and foremost a scientist, accepted this idea implicitly and examined the human psyche analytically and scientifically.
The second groundbreaking concept that allowed Freud to develop his own original thought was work done by Freud’s teacher Ernst Brucke. Brucke published work stating that all living organisms (including our species) are, like inanimate objects, energy systems, which are subject to the laws of thermodynamics, in particular the principle of conservation. The principle of conservation as formulated by physicists Mayer, Joule, and later Helmholz states that “energy is neither created nor destroyed, rather it only changes form.” Brucke’s application of this law of conservation to living systems was called dynamic physiology. Freud adopted dynamic physiology with enthusiasm, and it was only a short time before he conceptualized that such a thing as psychic energy existed and that the human personality was also an energy system. This concept would form the cornerstone of his psychoanalytic theory.
Two fundamental concepts developed by Freud are the reality principle and the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle, in a basic sense, tells the organism to do whatever feels good or whatever brings pleasure, such as satiating hunger or thirst or avoiding painful stimuli. However, the organism is particular in the sense that it acts to survive and to reproduce. Therefore, the urge to have sex is a powerful motivating force behind an organism’s behavior. In addition, because the organism is a closed system and is dependent on the external environment that it experiences, it must be mindful of laws and rules involved with interacting with this environment. The reality principle tells the organism to subordinate pleasure to what is necessary, that is, procuring adequate food, work, and shelter, and so on.
In the human psyche, the conflict that arises between the pleasure principle and the reality principle is internalized by three properties explained by Freud, the id, the ego, and the superego. The inherited id operates in keeping with the pleasure principle, that is, the demand to take care of needs and, to an extent, instincts. Freud defined the translation of needs to wishes, provided by the pleasure-seeking id, as the primary process.
The ego is what relates man to reality by what Freud calls its consciousness. The ego functions in accordance to the reality principle. The problemsolving behavior that the ego uses to attain desired objects is known as the secondary process.
The ego struggles to satisfy the id but keeps track of the obstacles and strategies used to obtain its objects and the rewards and punishments encountered. This record of strategies and things to avoid becomes the superego, which also represents external society and its cultural restraints. According to Freud, the superego has two components, the conscience, which is an internalization of punishments and warnings, and the ego ideal, which is derived from rewards and positive models. In addition, the conscience and ego ideal relay their requirements to the ego with such feelings as pride, shame, and guilt.
According to Freud, the morals and ethics of a society may force an individual to repress desires and wishes presented by the id. Freud proposed a defense developed to cope with this dilemma and called it sublimation. He proposed that sublimation is the transformation of what society deems unacceptable impulses, such as sex or anger, into a socially acceptable form. An individual with a great deal of hostility may become a football player or a hunter. Someone with immense sexual desires may become an artist or a musician. Freud proposed that all creative activities were sublimations and were inherently motivated by the sex drive. (Freud called sexual energy the libido.)
Freud also believed that from the moment an infant is born, it is driven by the id to desire bodily pleasure. This is known as infantile sexuality. As a result of infantile sexuality, Freud proposed, early childhood sexual experiences were the crucial factors that influenced the development of the adult personality. He described five psychosexual stages in this process of development. The first stage is called the oral stage, which lasts from birth to 18 months. During this stage the focus of pleasure involves the mouth. The infant satisfies this desire by sucking and biting. The second stage is the anal stage and lasts from 18 months to 3 or 4 years of age. During this stage, the focus of pleasure is the anus and the act of holding in and letting go of feces. The third stage is the phallic stage, which lasts from ages 3 to 7. In this stage the focus of pleasure is the genitalia, and masturbation is common. The fourth stage is the latent stage, which lasts until puberty. During this stage, sexual urges are suppressed in favor of learning. The fifth stage is the genital stage, which begins at puberty. Freud believed that the resurgence of the sex drive occurs in this stage. During this stage, the focus is the pleasures of sexual intercourse.
During a child’s development, Freud concluded, an Oedipus/Electra complex takes place. This complex is based on the psychology that a child’s first love is the mother and that the child desires physical contact with her (this satisfies the id). A male child realizes that the father, the bigger, stronger male, gets the mother’s love too and gets to sleep in the same bed with her. This eventually causes the male child to view the father as a threat, and this constitutes the Oedipus complex. With a female child, it becomes evident that there is a difference between boys and girls, that is, that boys have a penis and girls do not. It is also realized that the father has one, which is why his relationship with the mother is different, and that the female child will never be able to have that (this is known in Freudian terminology as penis envy). So the female child’s first love is the mother, but with all differences taken into consideration, she turns her attention toward the father and views the mother as a threat for his attention; this is the Electra complex.
The Oedipus and Electra complexes, according to Freud, may also influence sexual preference and bisexuality. He justified this theory with his fundamental concept of the id and the superego and believed that this was the time in which children begin (via the superego) to repress their attraction for one sex and develop an attraction for the other (usually the opposite). However, some children do not do so and instead develop attractions for the same sex or for both sexes. Freud also postulated that homosexuality and bisexuality were based in narcissism; however, he was never completely satisfied with his definition of homosexuality and bisexuality in respect to the human psyche.
Freud believed that an unconscious mind existed and based this idea on his belief that different mental states must exist. Freud pointed out that certain neurotic or compulsive behaviors could not be accounted for by the actions of the conscious mind. Therefore, an unconscious mental process must exist, which is hidden from consciousness. For Freud, instincts were rooted in the unconsciousness and were the principle motivating forces in the mental realm. He grouped instincts into two main categories: the eros (the life instinct) and the thanatos (the death instinct). Eros comprises the self-preserving and erotic instincts, whereas thanatos is geared toward aggression and self-destruction. Eros is motivated by the id and the sex drive. Thanatos is not motivated by the sex drive and is an irrational urge to destroy the self. According to Freud it was the root of suicidal urges in some of his patients. However, Freud also believed that the urge to commit suicide could not exist without a previously repressed urge to kill someone else.
Believing that an unconscious mind must exist, Freud went on to develop the psychoanalytical method, which in general terms was a method of reestablishing a harmonious relationship among the id, the ego, and the superego and of resolving any unconsciously repressed conflict. He developed this talking cure and encouraged his patients to relax by lying down on a couch. Then he reduced the amount of stimuli, even putting himself out of sight during the session. This method allowed his patients to discuss their problems freely and to relinquish the repression of the superego, allowing Freud to close in on the root of the problem. He also emphasized dreams and symbolism. He believed they were important because, during sleep, the superego is not able to repress the desires of the id and the feelings in the unconscious.
Today, many of Freud’s ideas are still a predominant force in psychoanalysis, although some psychoanalysts disagree and disregard some of his ideas. However, what Freud accomplished in his day and age must be acknowledged. His pioneering ideas and vision have in fact made it possible for modern thinkers to attempt to disprove his ideas. He will always be remembered as one of the first to brazenly delve into the unconscious human mind, grasp its fundamental meaning, and then attempt to explain it to the people of his time.
- Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (1962). The ego and the id (the standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud) W. W. Norton & Company.
- Freud, S., Strachey, J. & Gay, P. (1989). Civilization and its discontents. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Freud, S., Strachey, J. & Gay, P. (1989). The future of an illusion. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Gay, P. (1998). Freud: A life for our time. W. W. Norton & Company.