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Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis


Where did the study of psychology, as distinct from biology and philosophy begin? Freud is popularly, though inaccurately, considered the father of psychology. He, and Darwin, produced ideas that changed the world, and it is difficult, nowadays, to appreciate their courage in doing so.

Indeed, Darwin spent many years preparing his case, before he dared to publish his work. Linnaeus, too, when he developed his classification of different species, the foundation of modern taxonomy, initially placed in humans in a genus of their own, understanding what the public reaction would be. Even so, many were outraged that he even included humans in the next higher classification, in the same order as apes and monkeys.

For centuries, we had believed that human beings were unique in the world, then Darwin came along and suggested that we were a specialised form of animal. Never mind, we could still take comfort in the idea that our minds were something special. Then Freud came along and suggested that the basis of our mental processes lay in negotiating a truce with the urges that came from our animal selves.


Sigmund Freud (1) was born in 1856 in Freiburg, in what was then Austria. His father was 41, and a cloth merchant. He was the first son of his father's third wife and was especially loved by her, though she went on have seven more children. When Freud was about five, his father was probably preoccupied with his business, which was beginning to fail. In the end, the family moved to Vienna.

After an extremely successful time at school, he entered the University of Vienna, studying chemistry, zoology and, finally, physiology, and published a number of research papers. He took his degree in 1882, became employed as junior physician, but was still able to carry out research. By now his interest was neurology, and he studied for a while with Charcot in Paris, and became interested in the latter's hypnotic therapy.

His interest changed from neurological to psychological approaches to the mind, and he brought his ideas back to Vienna. Finding that hypnosis was not strictly necessary, and impracticable in those clients who couldn't be induced into a sufficient state of hypnosis, he began to experiment with free association.

Ego and Id.

It was in 1923, in his book The Ego and The Id that Freud published what has become the first great theory of psychology. In proposing two psychological entities: our animal selves, in the form of the id, and our social selves, the ego and super-ego, he directly addressed the relationship between biology and socialisation, and the dynamic between them. For Freud, being human was individual people's endless negotiation between the two.

He proposed a metaphorical entity called the id, literally the 'it' within us, producing our basic biological drives. These drives, or urges, are regulated by the ego, in German, das Ich, according to what is possible. It develops as self-control develops. Through early childhood, attitudes and moral values are introjected into the Super-ego, becoming the conscience. Thus the ego mediates between the urges of the id and the moral strictures of others in the super-ego.

We still like to think of sexual feelings as somehow separate from everyday ones. Freud made no such distinction. He pointed out that every minute of our lives we are sexual beings, though not all feelings go on to being erotic feelings. He suggested that the ego causes us to convert them by sublimation - diverting them into other modes of behaviour, not only in sports but in our careers. Freud referred to the biological urges of the id as the 'libido', another word that has passed into the language. Because of the link with Freudian sexuality, it is popularly linked with eroticism, even by psychiatrists, who speak of the sexual libido. Freud wrote mainly about men. As a man, it was his main source of experience, but because men, rather than women, are socially seen as sexual beings, the libido is seen as a male feature. I prefer to see it as a life force, the love of life, excitement, sensation, enjoyment, the urge to explore and to discover new things. In a word, vitality, and I see no reason to deny women the right to a libido.

Many writers restrict the term libido to sexual drives. It may because sexual drives are somehow 'different.' For myself I see little difference. Psychological arousal is psychological arousal is psychological arousal. Perhaps we should investigate how sexual frustration is sublimated into aggressive frustration.

There is a study into the relationship between psychological arousal and sexual arousal by Dutton and Aron in 1974, called the Stanford Bridge experiment.(2) This involved a group of subjects, and a group of associates of the experimenters, both male and female. The associates acted as interviewers of the subjects who were unaware of the purpose of the experiment. Half the subjects met the interviewer in the middle of a broad, sturdy concrete bridge, half in the middle of a rickety wooden bridge above a deep gorge. They answered questionnaires which had the hidden purpose of measuring psychological, specifically sexual, arousal and were given the interviewer's phone number in case they wished to discuss the experiment later. (The interviewer was of the opposite sex to the respondent) Interviews given on the unsafe bridge gave significantly higher scores for arousal, and, out of thirty-three subjects, two from the safe bridge, compared to nine from the unsafe bridge, later phoned up.

What Freud was saying was controversial, but he attracted a great deal of attention, for he proposed a model of human mental life that remains the backbone of modern psychology. He described it in a manner that people could relate to, and such terms as 'Freudian slip' and 'having an inflated ego' have entered everyday speech. His idea of the unconscious mind is still important, though we look for the results it produces in terms of people's behaviour.

Defence Mechanisms.

Freud's description of the defence mechanisms, that we use to protect ourselves against emotional issues, is probably the most valuable and intuitively accessible picture of our internal mental life that we have.

Although there are no distinctly separate kinds of defensive processes, Freud and, later, his daughter Anna, developed a conceptual list of the common strategies which are ways people deal with psychic distress.

Freud saw as the most significant, repression, whereby disturbing issues are shut out of one's conscious thoughts. Allied to this is denial, whereby the actual existence of a behaviour or disturbing phenomenon is denied. Another is displacement, whereby the anger we feel towards someone is directed on to someone else, perhaps more accessible, or less able to react to any hostility. Projection is a similar defence whereby another person is conceived to be the source of the guilt or unpleasant feelings. Some forms of prejudice are said to arise from this.

Central to civilisation, Freud saw sublimation as a way of dissipating sexual, erotic or aggressive feelings in some neutral activity such as sport, or by becoming a 'workaholic'.

Transference occurs when, for instance, a person transfers love onto someone, that should have been returned by some other person, usually a parent, in the hope that the other will return it instead. Transference, and its opposite, counter-transference, is important to counsellors, who have to be aware of its occurrence, and to psychoanalysts, who work with it.

Describing these processes as 'protecting the ego', implies pathological behaviour, especially as there is a background of therapy for people who are disturbed. Freud stated quite clearly that defending the ego can be expressed in everyday day terms in saying that we defend ourselves against emotional discomfort. Many psychologists see a self-balancing system in a person's emotional life and Freud's defence mechanisms are as useful a model as any. They are something we do for ourselves every day of our lives. They might be as simple as combatting the frustration of seeing a nice dress in a shop window that is too expensive and thinking "Oh well! It wouldn't suit me anyway!"

There is another concept in psychology called homeostasis which suggests that the organism balances itself physically. While actively seeking stimulation, it sets up defences against the balance being too greatly disturbed. For instance the insulin process of the body continually regulates the balance of the blood sugar, provided that the pancreas is not damaged. Another is the adrenaline 'fight or flight' system, which regulates various hormones, epinephrin, norepinephrin, endorphins, among others.

Freud, I believe, did not mean to refer to the experiences as threatening in themselves. He suggested that they threatened the defences of the ego itself, or what we might call the psychic homeostasis. In other words, all feelings, even good ones, disturb the balance; 'threaten,' I think, is too strong a word.

This is an all-too-brief and inadequate summary. They are described here because they are part of a total theory that includes two that are important to this discussion, incorporation and identification.

These are central to the theory of the Oedipus complex, to be discussed later in the chapter. In essence the person takes on the persona of some figure against which he, or she, feels powerless, by incorporating features of that figure. This incorporation may be so complete that it leads to identification. Stevens (3) quotes several examples, including the child who is afraid to cross the landing in the dark, because of the ghost, and pretends to be one itself.

It is frequently observed that prisoners, under great threat and deprived of personal power, set out to become like their guards. Bettelheim, (4) who spent some time in a concentration camp, recorded this phenomenon, some prisoners taking "great pride in modelling their behaviour and appearance on . . . their guards . . . collecting scraps of their clothing, imitating their gait and posture, adopting their values and leisure interests." It is something that is often seen in normal prisons and also in hostage situations.

Freud's critics.

Much criticism of Freud comes from the way his theories are portrayed in the popular imagination, partly from a still-lingering negativism about sex.

Freud's work also suffered in its translation from the German by the interpretations of his English and American translators. Both critics and supporters have read into his theories things he may never have intended to express.

There is often the suggestion that early psychoanalytic theory asserted that humans were comprised of primitive brain structures upon which new rational and ethical structures were somehow imposed. Certainly Freud never suggested this. Anatomical knowledge at the time was not sufficiently advanced to even attempt to find such structures. Freud dealt solely with trying to develop a conceptual model of the brain's overall function. Neither did he describe his work as theories in the meaning that they could be tested empirically. He often referred to them as 'myths', an attempt to find a construction of human mental life which would provide common explanations.

He did forecast that the future would be able to provide a basis of scientific understanding, and his theories are often said to be biologically deterministic. My belief is that they dealt with the intrinsic interaction between biology and socialisation. The conflict between the id and the ego is no more than what is nowadays described as the nature-nurture debate, the tension between biology and environment. Or, in these days of the human genome project, the genotype and the extended phenotype.

The Oedipus and Electra Complexes.

Freud is characterised by extremely detailed and sensitive interpretations, on the one hand, and on the other, extremely bold conceptualisations, which have a tenuous background in fact.

A particular area that creates great controversy is his theories on child development. He was, it must be said, among the first to focus on the importance of the very early years. Not until it is about six does a child fully grasp the idea of causality. Fantasy is not, at first, clearly distinguished from reality. Gradually fantasies become a way of constructing schemas about the world and the child becomes quite clear that they are fantasy.

Nevertheless, actions are presumed to influence events in a way which an adult would regard as illogical or magical. Particular features of a child's world may take on undue significance, fears may be exaggerated.

It would seem reasonable to suppose that infantile fears and expectations are more prone to exaggeration and distortion, unconstrained as they are by the greater knowledge, logic, order and causality that characterise the more stable, waking world of the adult.

One can easily relate to the idea that for a small child, especially a baby, that a large part of its experience is of bodily sensations, and its reactions are extreme - either contentment or rage, for instance. Growing up is a process of balancing one's needs and wishes against the practicalities of fulfilling them.

Freud is often lauded as the first writer to point out that children have sexual feelings. It may seem an obvious question, but how do sexual feelings differ from other feelings? Certainly it would seem that an infant would not make any distinction. It would experience the whole range of feelings that a human physiological system is capable of, and love or hate the experience.

Freud originally suggested that the majority of his patients' neuroses were the outcome of sexual abuse in early childhood. Many authors suggest that the storm of controversy that this aroused led him to develop the ideas expressed in his Three Essays on Sexuality, as his way of retracting.(5) In fact, writers, like DeMause,(6) believe that sexual abuse was always much more commonplace than has ever been admitted.

Others such as Money (7) and Reiss (8) point out that sexual abuse can be taken to include extreme fundamentalist sexual negativism, which the child may internalise, often referred to under the possibly undeserved expression "Victorian attitudes" It seems unlikely that sexual repression is solely a British invention.

According to Freud, then, the emotionality of the child in its interactions with its environment, particularly its mother, becomes expressed in physical operations in terms of the oral and anal stages.

We will not look further at these stage, but the next, the genital stage calls for closer attention, since traditionally it has been seen as the beginning of gender and sexual identity.

The essence of the theory is that, at around five years old, a boy's love for his mother acquires sexual connotations. He becomes a rival with his father for her love. Because his father is a very powerful figure, he feels threatened, so takes on, or incorporates, the features of his father. By becoming his father, he removes the threat, and from this comes identification. Usually, it is suggested that he fears his father will castrate him, leading to castration anxiety. The parallels with the Greek legend of patricide, caused Freud to name this the Oedipus Complex.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of criticisms of this idea, and vociferous rejection of the theory he produced for girls, the Electra Complex, whereby a girl realises that she, like all other women, does not possess a penis, and feels devalued thereby. Most writer find his arguments even more shaky than I do the Oedipus complex, and they certainly aroused the ire of feminist writers. Yet Valentis and Devane, in Female Rage, build a whole feminist construction on a girl's presumed penis envy.(9)

The Oedipus

While Freud's theory was about biological drives, his theory about boys and girls was based on their perceptions about their bodies. Thus for him, the acquisition of a gender identity was a totally psychological process, in which children are born psychosexually neutral then learn to identify with their same sex parent.


Bibliography and good reading.

  1. Stevens, R., (1983) Freud and Psychoanalysis: An Exposition and Appraisal, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  2. Dutton D.G, Aron A.P (1974), Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 30 510-517
  3. Stevens, R., (1983) (p52)
  4. Bettelheim. B, (1943) Individual and mass behaviour in extreme situations, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 38 (417-52). in Stevens, R., (1983) p52.
  5. Freud, S., (1905) Three Essays on Sexuality, in Stevens, R., (1983) Freud and Psychoanalysis: An Exposition and Appraisal, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  6. DeMause, L., (1976) History of Childhood: Evolution of Parent-Child Relationships, London: Souvenir Press
  7. Money, J., Lamacz, M., (1989) Vandalised Lovemaps, Paraphilic Outcome of Seven Cases in Pediatric Sexology, New York: Prometheus Books.
  8. Reiss.I.L, (1990) An End to Shame: Shaping our next sexual revolution, New York: Prometheus Books.
  9. Valentis, M., Devane, A., (1994) Female Rage: How women can unlock their lives and empower their lives, London: Piatkus Books.

Gender and Psychoanalysis
Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis
Jung - The Golden Flower

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Bland. J. (2003) Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis.
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28.04.98 Last amended 27.09.03