A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis

by Sigmund Freud

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was an Austrian-born neurologist who pioneered the treatment of mental illness through psychoanalysis, a dialogue between the physician and the patient. His contribution to the world of psychology and psychiatry has been vast and his influence widespread and profound. He published many seminal works that have long since become classics, and Freud’s famous collection of lectures, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, first appeared in print in 1920.

This collection is made up of twenty-eight lectures divided into three parts: “The Psychology of Errors,” “The Dream,” and “A General Theory of the Neuroses.” Each section contains not only detailed information from the results of Freud’s research but also anecdotal evidence and many examples drawn from Greek mythology, Shakespeare, and other classics of Western literature and from the thoughts of philosophers, both ancient and modern.

In his introduction, Freud addresses the fact that his method of treating mental illness through dialogue between patient and doctor is looked upon with skepticism by many, especially relatives of the patient. To this challenge, he responds that there is and has always been great power in words. Words “call forth effects and are the universal means of influencing human beings.” He goes so far as to say that words are “magic.” This metaphor, especially given that it comes from an avowed rationalist, is a powerful statement. Freud also states that his work begins not with a hypothesis, but with investigation.

In “The Psychology of Errors,” Freud presents his observation that word errors, replacing one word for another (what has since been referred to as “the Freudian slip”), both verbal and written, are the work of a subconscious that has slipped through the barriers of repression. He draws examples from comical dialogue in Shakespearean characters’ speech in which the replacement of one word for another, often similar in sound, reveals an underlying thought that would have normally been kept in check. He includes in this category errors made by the “goblin” of the typesetting machine—mistakes in print that appear to reveal an underlying thought or opinion that would not normally be out in the open. One such example he provides is a headline in which a crown prince is referred to as a clown prince. The mislaying of objects is another of the errors that Freud puts into this category. If someone keeps misplacing something (e.g., keys), then perhaps a subconscious wish or desire is coming through.

In “The Dream,” Freud introduces his theory of dreams as wish fulfillment. Daily occurrences of the waking hours are woven together to express desires unattainable in real life, and, according to Freud, these are quite often based in sexual drives. The dream-work mechanism, however, has its own built-in censorship function. This allows for a muted or highly symbolic expression of the desire and its attainment, so that the dreamer is not overcome and can actually continue to sleep.

“A General Theory of the Neuroses” lays out the theoretical foundations for Freud’s ideas on why various types of neurosis occur. According to Freud, the origin of a neurosis such as a phobia can often be triggered by a disruption in a childhood psychosexual stage or by a repressed desire or memory.

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