Article abstract: Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis and as such has had a tremendous impact on contemporary thought and popular culture by baring the irrational and subconscious roots of much human action.
Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in Freiberg, a small Moravian town within the Austrian Empire. The infant, who was named Sigismund Schlomo, was the son of a somewhat ineffectual and rather poor, nonreligious Jewish wool merchant, Jacob Freud, and his young and energetic third wife, Amalia Nathansohn. Young Freud had two half brothers, who were older than his mother, and a nephew, simultaneously his best friend and archrival, who was his senior by a year. Freud’s later recall of his ambivalent feelings toward these relationships within his family served as the basis for the discovery and elaboration of many of his psychoanalytic theories.
In 1860, Freud’s family, after a brief stay in Leipzig, settled in Leopoldstadt, the old Jewish section of Vienna. There, the family’s poverty was exacerbated by the birth of seven children between 1857 and 1866. Such hardships in Vienna, in contrast to romantic memories of Freiberg, left in Freud an ambivalence toward the city, which he loved but in which he never felt comfortable. The period of liberal ascendancy in Vienna, which accompanied his youth and early adulthood, was both a stimulation and an encouragement. Despite the family’s relative poverty, Freud, always the favorite of whom great things were expected, was pampered. By the time Freud entered the University of Vienna in 1873 to study medicine, his family’s fortunes had improved.
Freud began his university studies shortly after a stock market crash. In the wave of anti-Semitism that followed the collapse, Freud, although intensely antireligious, became acutely aware of his own Jewishness, an experience that prompted the development of a critical independence. Freud was drawn to medicine as a means of channeling his insatiable curiosity and love of nature along more empirical and less speculative lines. The normal five-year course was extended by Freud’s broad curiosity and fascination for research, and he did not receive his degree until 1881. Among the most influential of his professors was the physiologist Ernst Brücke, a positivist who aspired to a complete understanding of humankind through scientific investigation.
Freud spent another year in Brücke’s laboratory before taking a junior position at Vienna’s General Hospital to gain the clinical experience necessary for a medical practice. The compelling reason for Freud’s beginning his practical career was the twenty-one-year-old daughter of a prominent Hamburg Jewish family, Martha Bernays, whom he met in April, 1882, and to whom he became engaged in June. In October, 1885, Freud went to Paris for several months to study under Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière Clinic. Freud was strongly influenced by the personality and skill of Charcot, who indicated the psychological rather than organic origins of hysteria and demonstrated the therapeutic value of hypnosis. It was Charcot who nudged Freud down the path, which had already attracted him, to psychology. A particular legacy of Charcot was a dedication to theory rooted in observable facts.
In April, 1886, Freud, having returned to Vienna, established his private medical practice and, in September, married Bernays. The first of six children was born in October, 1887. Dissatisfied with the results of hypnosis in the treatment of his neurotic patients and influenced by his friend and mentor Josef Breuer, Freud turned to the “talking cure” as a means of evoking a catharsis in his patients. In 1895, Freud and Breuer published Studien über Hysterie (Studies in Hysteria, 1936), the founding statement of psychoanalysis, in which they described their success with this technique.
Freud’s professional and personal relationship with Breuer was ruptured, as were those with a number of subsequent associates, because of theoretical and personal differences. By the mid-1890’s, Freud was convinced that problems in sexual development were the dominant factor in neuroses. He particularly emphasized the importance of infantile sexuality and what he called the Oedipus complex. Although he rejected his earlier belief that neuroses were rooted in the...
(The entire section is 1815 words.)