sigmund freudOverview

Freud popularized a contemporary view of the unconscious, and developed various treatments. His work liberalized attitudes to sex, and that influence continues in today's vast therapy industry.

Unfortunately, though much invoked by literary theory, Freud's views are without foundation — are no more than a trivializing reductionism that offers therapies that do not work, and notions of mental activity now superseded by experimental psychology.


Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) founded psychoanalysis. The unconscious was a concept familiar in nineteenth century thought, and there were many attempts to both to study and treat its supposed ailments by hypnosis, electrotherapy and narcotics, but Freud was the first to draw these together and devise procedures of treatment. Freud was an ambitious man, paranoid at times, and he wavered until the 1890's between an academic career and private practice, and between psychiatry and neurology. In 1885 he studied hypnosis under the celebrated Charcot in Paris, and for twenty years was materially assisted by Josef Breuer, with whom he published a paper on hysteria in 1897. But recognition did not arrive until the 1900 publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, which represented dreams as wish-fulfillment and probably resulted from his own self-analysis and the death of his father. In 1909 he spoke at the Clark University in the USA and his fame grew steadily thereafter, though his last years were made difficult by cancer of the mouth and the Nazi invasion of Austria.

As is well-known, Freud divided the human psyche into three interactive components. Wholly unconscious and the seat of powerful, instinctive drives, many of them sexual, was the id. The largely conscious component attempting to reconcile the id to the world outside was the ego. The third, relatively independent component, was the superego, which internalized parental and social demands and acted as censor over the ego's activities. Disharmony between the three components led to mental disorders, which could be investigated in dreams, free association sessions and art.

Freud based his theories on clinical observations. His concept of transference (the patient transferring feelings for others to the therapist) grew out of Breuer's experiences with Anna O, for example. That psychic energy had a sexual basis was also suggested by patient's reports of traumatic sexual experiences which had possibly never happened. Psychic energy which served the life instinct he called the libido, and supposed it to originate in stimulation of erogenous areas of the body. The libido's reservoir was the id, from which it tried to find outlets and reduce its pent-up tensions by the pleasure principle, i.e. blindly, without knowing or caring how the energy was used. In the ego there is greater contact with reality, and the libido sometimes postpones immediate gratification to serve larger ends. There was also a death instinct, in which the individual strove to destroy itself and return to its former non-living state. The superego, however, does not operate under the pleasure principle, but serves a conscience (which punishes) and an ego ideal (which rewards).

The ego attached itself to psychic representations of external reality: cathexis. A young boy cathected onto his mother, whom he loved, growing jealous and resentful of his father as a rival for his mother's affections. His incestuous expressions were blocked and repressed into the unconscious as a fear of castration by the father — to emerge again at puberty and sometimes in symptoms of mental disturbance. Treatment of the latter lay in bringing to the surface the repressed contents of experience or imagined experience. And this was very difficult. Even the outermost rim of the unconscious (the preconscious as Freud called it) would resist probing. Freud's approach was to employ hypnosis, analysis of dreams and free association so that patients themselves would open up their unconscious to healing. Since the childhood years were critical to personality development, the patient had to dig deep into memories: a process that was lengthy and painful, required a great bond of trust between patient and analyst, and often involved transference of libidinal energy, with results that should not be misunderstood or abused. But once the patient had dug out the splinters of traumatic childhood experience they were on the road to understanding themselves, of bringing the libido under the control of the ego, and effecting a cure. They could still be unhappy, but not inappropriately so.


Freud did not have a high opinion of artists. {1} They were 'people who had no occasion to submit their inner life to the strict control of reason' — i.e. immature and narcissic individuals. Whereas adults satisfied their erotic urges in private imagination, the artist flaunted his in public fantasies. Art was sexual sublimation, and only bold technique hid the flagrant egoism from public affront. Freud did not analyze these artistic techniques as such, but suggested that four principles operated in the formation of similar dreams and jokes. First was condensation, whereby two or more elements combined into a composite image. Second was displacement, whereby an image is replaced by a psychologically more significant one. Third was representation, whereby thoughts took on the form of images. And finally, there was secondary revision, whereby the disparate elements of a dream were combined into an intelligible, coherent whole. {2}


Charges of mendacity, plagiarism, false accounting, dogmatism and paranoia have been laid at Freud's door. {3} And as far as therapy is concerned, the record is now clear: it doesn't work. {4} The treatment is expensive, lengthy and usually less effective than other forms of therapy. A cure is not made permanent by analysis: however much is claimed for entrance by free association into the patient's unconscious, remissions occur. {5} Schizophrenia and psychosis may be ameliorated by therapy in combination with drugs, but drugs are effective on their own. {27} The less severe mental disturbances are made more bearable by both drugs and therapies, and possibly cured — though many such illnesses cure themselves spontaneously in time. {6} There is little evidence that psychotherapies of any description — there are over one hundred competing schools in the USA — appreciably speed up recovery, and there is some evidence that psychoanalysis itself delays recovery or makes the patient worse. {7}

The Unconscious

What then of the unconscious? In some sense, perhaps that envisaged in medical circles of Freud's day and before, when E. von Hartman wrote his 1100-page Philosophy of the Unconscious in 1868, the unconscious clearly does exist. Much of the brain's functioning is hidden from us, beyond our awareness or understanding. {8} Certainly mental operations are not rational in a scientific or logical sense. {9}

But Freud's unconscious is both a good deal more and a good deal less than this. In the larger sense, the unconscious is possession by the Devil, an entanglement with the guileful serpent, the seat of neuroses and desires repressed in childhood: a mendacious, fearful and deceptive entity writhing with sexual longings and forbidden desires. But in the smaller sense, the unconscious is a human world, a private party in someone's lockup to which the free association of psychoanalysis alone provides the key — a party attended, moreover, by beings very recognizably ourselves and friends, albeit unusually drunk, resentful and uninhibited.{10}

However much a pseudo-science, psychoanalysis has been very persuasive. Any criticism from the patient is seen as resistance: the evidence can always be reinterpreted, and the theory made to escape refutation. High fees and the arcane initiation of its priesthood command respect. Our lusts, deceits and our terrible inhumanity are no longer our fault but crimes of the unconscious. And from the malevolence of this unconscious, and the general malaise of living, psychoanalysis offers salvation: pastoral care in a world where personal attention and significance are not easily won. The intense, prolonged encounter of analysand with analyst generates deep bonds of affection and mutual dependence. What is offered and to some extent given is a new outlook, an attitude the analysand can grasp with certainty, a core belief in a society that has long forgotten the old verities. The unconscious is a means of understanding ourselves, not explaining matters (Geistwissenshaft rather than Naturwissenschaft as the German puts it). Scientific evaluation is therefore irrelevant, perhaps impossible, and the client's treatment continues until he has understood and come to terms his unhappiness, which may take years: firm promises are not usually made. And if the client breaks off treatment before completion it is clearly the client who is to blame in his failure to work through the treatment and face the realities disclosed.{11}

But is such a concept true? Is this an adequate description of the deep physiological roots of our mentality and behaviour? Experimental psychologists say no. They call it not only a vast confidence trick but a serious hindrance to a proper understanding of ourselves.{12} Some argue that psychoanalysis is more the problem than the cure. {13} Phenomenologists like Bretano and Husserl call an unconscious mental event a contradiction in terms. {14}

But are the alternatives, in the thin, jargon-ridden, tentative rationalisms of science, any more palatable? Possibly Freud built a theory on his own paranoia, creating out of his morbid suspicions a self-sustaining drama from the everyday frailties of society: their self-deceptions, hypocrisies, resentments, posturings and furtive lusts. His emphasis on the libido perhaps reflected the sexual puritanism of Vienna, itself a reflection of the widespread prostitution that came with rapid industrialization. {15}

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1. Kathleen Higgins's Psychoanalysis and Art in David Cooper's A Companion to Aesthetics (1995).
2. Leo Bersani's The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art, Chapters 1 and 5 of Antony Storr's Solitude. (1988), and Jack Spector's The Aesthetics of Freud: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Art. (1974).
3. Chapters 1-5 of Frederick Crew's Skeptical Engagements (1986), Chapter 1 and pp. 172-9 of Eysenck's Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (1985), Frank Cioffi's Freud (1973), John Farrell's Freud's Paranoid Quest: Psychoanalysis and Modern Suspicion (1996), p. 228 in Patrick Mahony's Psychoanalysis and Discourse (1987) and Russel Jacoby's The Repression of Psychoanalysis (1983).
4. Charles Rycroft's Psychoanalysis Observed (1966), Hans Eysenck and Glen Wilson's The Experimental Study of Freudian Theories (1973), and B.A. Farrell's The Standing of Psychoanalysis (1981). Alternative findings are given in A.E. Bergin and M.J. Lambert's The evaluation of therapeutic outcomes, in S.L. Garfield and A.E. Bergin's Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavioural Change: An Empirical Analysis (1978).
5. pp. 198-9 and 207-10 in Ernest Gellner's The Psychoanalytic Movement. 1985. Paladin. London. Also p. 21 of Crews 1986.
6. Gerald Davison and John Neale's Abnormal Psychology (1986).
7. pp. 1-10 in D.A. Shapiro's Science and Psychotherapy: The State of the Art. British Journal of Medical Psychology, V 3, 1 (1980). Also pp.157- 62 in Gellner 1985, Adolf Grünbaum's The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique (1984), Richard Webster's Why Freud was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (1995), Allen Esterson's Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud (1993) and Malcolm Macmillan's Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc (1991).
8. Horace Barlow, Colin Blakemore and Miranda Weston-Smith's Images and Understanding (1990) for an introduction to perception and brain functioning.
9. See Hans and Michael Eysenck's Mind Watching: Why we Behave the Way we Do. (1995) for a popular account.
10. Chapter 5 of Ernest Gellner's The Psychoanalytic Movement. (1985).
11. Gellner 1985t.
12. Eysenck and Eysenck 1995.
13. Tana Dineen's Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People (1999).
14. p. 27 in Mary Warnock's Existentialism (1970).
15. pp. 17-22 in Gellner 1985.

Internet Resources

1. Psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud. Mary Klages. Sep. 2001. Simple introduction.
2. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Stephen P. Thornton. 2001. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article.
3. The Assault on Freud. Jeremy Holmes. Jun. 1999. Online Dictionary of Mental Health article supporting a modified psychoanalysis.
4. Psychoanalysis and Its Critics. Christian Perring. Very extensive listings of psychoanalysis, psychoanalysts and criticisms of psychoanalysis.
5. Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend. Mark Bauerlein. Oct. 1999.
Review from the Skeptical Inquirer.
6. Theory for the 90s: Traumatic Seduction in Historical Context. Douglas A. Davis. Importance of Freud's seduction theory.
7. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Apr. 2003. Wikipedia article on Masson and his criticisms of psychoanalysis.
8. Jeffrey Masson and Freud's seduction theory: a new fable based on old myths. Allen Esterson. Feb. 1998. Contributions to the Masson controversy.
9. Gellner E (1968) Words and Things. Brief review of Gellner's work, touching on psychoanalysis.
10. Ernest Gellner. Chris Hann. Nov. 1995. Independent obituary.
11. The Psychoanalytic Movement by Ernest Gellner. Dan Geddes. 1999.
. Book review.
12. Jung, Freud, Rank, Adler: Narrators of the psyche in meta-perspective. Herman Pietersen. 2003.
. Differing intellectual predispositions in the founders of psychoanalysis.
13. Whatever Happened to Human Nature? Robert M. Young. Jan. 2004. Reflections on psychoanalysis: extended series of articles.
14. The psychology of consumers. Lars Perner. Brief account of the many approaches.
15. A Guide to Psychology and its Practice. Raymond Lloyd Richmond. 2003. Cover the main types, with links and further reading.
16. Scholarly Psychology Resources on the Web. Russell A. Dewey. Sep. 2002. Excellent listing of resources.
17. Famous Figures in Psychology. J.W. Nichols. Jun. 2001. Much biographical material, not limited to psychoanalysts.
18. Some doubt this. See 25 reasons why psychiatry is a fraud. Aug 2003 A short hit-list.
19. Psychology Schools By State. Largest online directory of accredited psychology schools and programs (both campus and online).