Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805
Sigmund Freud (froyd) is undoubtedly one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century; the concept of the individual would be unthinkable without his psychological analyses of the self. Freud was the son of a wool merchant; the family moved to Vienna when he was four years old. He began studying medicine at the University of Vienna in 1873 but never intended to be a practicing physician, wanting instead to be a research scientist. He graduated in 1881 with a specialty in neurology, but because of Vienna’s anti-Semitism (which would have made a university career difficult), he established a medical practice for the treatment of patients with nervous disorders. Freud married Martha Bernays in 1886, and they had six children. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930’s Freud left Vienna and emigrated to London, where he died in 1939 at the age of eighty-three.
From 1885 to 1886 Freud studied in Paris with the French doctor Jean Charcot, who was having some success using hypnosis as a method of treatment. The Viennese physician Joseph Breuer used a form of talk therapy to treat the disorder of hysteria, and Freud adapted these techniques to his practice. Through analyses of his patients’ speech in free association, Freud gradually came to recognize the existence of an unconscious mind that appeared to be the repository of psychic conflict. These conflicts—which he believed were rooted in sexual trauma—seemed to be expressed, in veiled fashion, through the structure of dreams. A combination of these methods led him to posit the functions of the unconscious self and to devise a method of treatment—called psychoanalysis—that sought to resolve the mental disorders that plagued his patients. The Interpretation of Dreams was his first major work, in which he described, through case studies and analyses of his own dreams, the dream processes of condensation and displacement through which the unconscious was expressed. The scientific analysis of dreams was one of Freud’s greatest contributions to the field of psychotherapy.
Freud then began a systematic study of the unconscious. In his work The Ego and the Id he posited a structural model of the self that consists of three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the most basic and primitive (infantile) part of the personality and operates on the “pleasure principle” (Lustprinzip), the instinctual demand for immediate satisfaction of all desire. The ego emerges as the infant begins to come to terms with its environment. As the child becomes socialized through parents, teachers, and society at large, it develops a superego or conscience that operates on the “reality principle” (Vernunftprinzip), that is, that instinctual desires must often be postponed in the interests of more rational and social goals. This postponement involves a process of repression and sublimation in which the instinctive energy—the libido—of the psyche is channeled into other outlets. The issue of infant toilet training is one of the first instances, for example, of the individual’s confrontation with the reality principle.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, one of his last essays, Freud discussed how his view of the psyche and its development influenced the course of civilization. There he argues that all society is based on the repression and sublimation of instinctive libidinal urges, and a degree of neurotic behavior is fundamental to the civilized individual. In some cases the sublimation or rechanneling of these desires produces personalities of great artistic or intellectual creativity; the important strides of human civilization in the arts and sciences are a result, in part at least, of the forces of sublimation and repression. In other cases, the action of repression distorts and perverts the personality and may produce individuals capable of great violence and destruction. In this essay, as in his earlier Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud also discusses the existence of a death instinct as well as a pleasure instinct within the energy structure of the psyche. Pleasure or happiness is really the lack of tension or pain (unhappiness), and the ultimate absence of tension is the inanimate state of death. Thus the erotic is intimately linked to the thanatological. Suicidal and aggressive urges in the individual—or wars and genocide on the societal scale—are again closely related to the expression or repression of the individual’s erotic energy.
The Freudian view of the self is deterministic, in that unconscious psychic forces seem to control the manifestations of conscious behavior. The goal of Freudian psychoanalytic therapy is then to free the individual from such unconscious controls and to allow the “normal” development of the self. This development is achieved by analysis or the rational scrutiny of the unconscious. Although there are definite problems with aspects of Freud’s theories, his contribution to the understanding of the psyche is one of the great achievements of the twentieth century.