Sigmund Freud: The Life, Work, and Legacy of a Brilliant Mind
“Thinking is an experimental dealing with small quantities of energy, just as a general moves miniature figures over a map before setting his troops in action.” These are the words of a man who has shaped our views about childhood, sexuality, dreams, personality, and therapy. He was one of the most criticized thinkers of his time but one of the most influential personalities of all time. He was a curious rebel who moved the world out of the hypocritical norms of his time with his brilliant mind. He is Sigmund Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis. At the age of 17, he entered the University of Vienna where he joined the medical faculty and received his doctor’s degree in Medicine in 1881. Freud started his medical career in 1882 at the Vienna General Hospital where he worked in various departments of the hospital. There, he met Martha Bernays, who was once his patient, with whom he had seven years of long distance relationship before marrying her in 1886. They had six children. In 1939, Freud was suffering from jaw cancer and was, upon his advice to his physician, ‘mercy-killed’ by an overdose of morphine.
Among the works of Freud, he was most famous for his developmental theory of Psychoanalysis. Freud delved to the understanding and treatment of psychological disorders where he and his friend Josef Breuer discovered the “talking cure” after making a patient suffering from hysteria named Anna O to talk about her traumatic experiences which eventually led to a more developed form of therapy called “free association”. This contributed to the birth of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis assumes that the unconscious mind is the most powerful force behind thought and behavior and that dreams have meaning and are the most direct route to the unconscious mind arguing that the conflicting impulses, thoughts, and feelings that threaten the waking mind are released as visual compromise in distorted and disguised form by the sleeping mind. It also assumes that our childhood experiences are a form of a powerful drive in the development of our adult personality and that sexual and aggressive impulsion and the repression thereto are part of the maladaptive behavior of adults.
Freud’s theories are not without criticism but nevertheless his works remain to be a strong influence not only in the fields of psychology and medicine, but also to the day to day lives of every person. As W.H. Auden wrote in his 1939 poem, In Memory of Sigmund Freud, "if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion."
Psychoanalytic treatment is highly individualized and seeks to show how the unconscious factors affect behavior patterns, relationships, and overall mental health. Treatment traces the unconscious factors to their origins, shows how they have evolved and developed over the course of many years, and subsequently helps individuals to overcome the challenges they face in life (National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, 1998).
In addition to being a therapy, psychoanalysis is a method of understanding mental functioning and the stages of growth and development. Psychoanalysis is a general theory of individual human behavior and experience, and it has both contributed to and been enriched by many other disciplines. Psychoanalysis seeks to explain the complex relationship between the body and the mind and furthers the understanding of the role of emotions in medical illness and health. In addition, psychoanalysis is the basis of many other approaches to therapy. Many insights revealed by psychoanalytic treatment have formed the basis for other treatment programs in child psychiatry, family therapy, and general psychiatric practice (Farrell, 1981, p. 202).
The value and validity of psychoanalysis as a theory and treatment have been questioned since its inception in the early 1900s. Critics dispute many aspects of psychoanalysis including whether or not it is indeed a science; the value of the data upon which Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, based his theories; and the method and effectiveness of psychoanalytic treatment. There has been much criticism as well as praise regarding psychoanalysis over the years, but a hard look at both the positive and negative feedback of critics of psychoanalysis shows, in my opinion, that psychoanalysis is indeed a "great idea" in personality that should not be overlooked.
Sigmund Freud was the first psychoanalyst and a true pioneer in the recognition of the importance of unconscious mental activity. His theories on the inner workings of the human mind, which seemed so revolutionary at the turn of the century, are now widely accepted by most schools of psychological thought. In 1896, Freud coined the term "psychoanalysis," and for the next forty years of his life, he worked on thoroughly developing its main principles, objectives, techniques, and methodology.
The Origins of Psychoanalysis
Freud's many writings detail many of his thoughts on mental life, including the structural theory of the mind, dream interpretation, the technique of psychoanalysis, and assorted other topics. Eventually psychoanalysis began to thrive, and by 1925, it was established around the world as a flourishing movement. Although for many years Freud had been considered a radical by many in his profession, he was soon accepted and well-known worldwide as a leading expert in psychoanalysis (Gay, 1989, p. xii). In 1939, Freud succumbed to cancer after a lifetime dedicated to psychological thought and the development of his many theories (Gay, 1989, p. xx).
Although Freud's life had ended, he left behind a legacy unmatched by any other, a legacy that continues very much to this day. Whereas new ideas have enriched the field of psychoanalysis and techniques have adapted and expanded over the years, psychoanalysts today, like Freud, believe that psychoanalysis is the most effective method of obtaining knowledge of the mind. Through psychoanalysis, patients free themselves from terrible mental anguish and achieve greater understanding of themselves and others.
In An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud (1949) explains the principal tenets on which psychoanalytic theory is based. He begins with an explanation of the three forces of the psychical apparatus--the id, the ego, and the superego. The id has the quality of being unconscious and contains everything that is inherited, everything that is present at birth, and the instincts (Freud, 1949, p. 14). The ego has the quality of being conscious and is responsible for controlling the demands of the id and of the instincts, becoming aware of stimuli, and serving as a link between the id and the external world. In addition, the ego responds to stimulation by either adaptation or flight, regulates activity, and strives to achieve pleasure and avoid unpleasure (Freud, 1949, p. 14-15). Finally, the superego, whose demands are managed by the id, is responsible for the limitation of satisfactions and represents the influence of others, such as parents, teachers, and role models, as well as the impact of racial, societal, and cultural traditions (Freud, 1949, p. 15).
Principles of Freud's Theory of Psychoanalysis
Freud states that the instincts are the ultimate cause of all behavior. The two basic instincts are Eros (love) and the destructive or death instinct. The purpose of Eros is to establish and preserve unity through relationships. On the other hand, the purpose of the death instinct is to undo connections and unity via destruction (Freud, 1949, p. 18). The two instincts can either operate against each other through repulsion or combine with each other through attraction (Freud, 1949, p. 19).
Freud (1949) contends that sexual life begins with manifestations that present themselves soon after birth (p. 23). The four main phases in sexual development are the oral phase, the sadistic-anal phase, the phallic phase, and the genital phase, and each phase is characterized by specific occurrences. During the oral phase, the individual places emphasis on providing satisfaction for the needs of the mouth, which emerges as the first erotogenic zone (Freud, 1949, p. 24). During the sadistic-anal phase, satisfaction is sought through aggression and in the excretory function. During the phallic phase, the young boy enters the Oedipus phase where he fears his father and castration while simultaneously fantasizing about sexual relations with his mother (Freud, 1949, p. 25). The young girl, in contrast, enters the Electra phase, where she experiences penis envy, which often culminates in her turning away from sexual life altogether. Following the phallic phase is a period of latency, in which sexual development comes to a halt (Freud, 1949, p. 23). Finally, in the genital phase, the sexual function is completely organized and the coordination of sexual urge towards pleasure is completed. Errors occurring in the development of the sexual function result in homosexuality and sexual perversions, according to Freud (1949, p. 27).
Freud (1949) defines the qualities of the psychical process as being either conscious, preconscious, or unconscious (p. 31). Ideas considered to be conscious are those of which we are aware, yet they remain conscious only briefly. Preconscious ideas are defined as those that are capable of becoming conscious. In contrast, unconscious ideas are defined as those that are not easily accessible but can be inferred, recognized, and explained through analysis (Freud, 1949, p. 32).
Freud spent many years hypothesizing about the role of dreams and their interpretation. He defines the states of sleep to be a period of uproar and chaos during which the unconscious thoughts of the id attempt to force their way into consciousness (Freud, 1949, p. 38). In order to interpret a dream, which develops from either the id or the ego, certain assumptions must be made, including the acknowledgment that what is recalled from a dream is only a facade behind which the meaning must be inferred. Dreams are undoubtedly caused by conflict and are characterized by their power to bring up memories that the dreamer has forgotten, their strong use of symbolism, and their ability to reproduce repressed impressions of the dreamer's childhood (Freud, 1949, p. 40). In addition, dreams, which are fulfillments of wishes, according to Freud (1949), are capable of bringing up impressions that cannot have originated from the dreamer's life (Freud, 1949, p. 45).
The basic objective of psychoanalysis is to remove neuroses and thereby cure patients by returning the damaged ego to its normal state (Freud, 1949, p. 51). During analysis, a process that often takes many years, patients tell analysts both what they feel is important and what they consider to be unimportant. An aspect of analysis that has both positive and negative repercussions is transference, which occurs when patients view their analysts as parents, role models, or other figures from their past. Transference causes patients to become concerned with pleasing their analysts and, as a result, patients lose their rational aim of getting well (Freud, 1949, p. 52).
The method of psychoanalysis involves several significant steps. First, analysts gather material with which to work from patients' free associations, results of transference, dream interpretation, and the patients' slips and parapraxes (Freud, 1949, p. 56). Second, analysts begin to form hypotheses about what happened to the patients in the past and what is currently happening to them in their daily life. It is important that analysts relay the conclusions at which they arrive based on their observations only after the patients have reached the same conclusions on their own accord. Should analysts reveal their conclusions to patients too soon, resistance due to repression occurs. Overcoming this resistance requires additional time and effort by both the analysts and the patients. Once patients accept the conclusions, they are cured (Freud, 1949, p. 57).
In the final chapters of An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud (1949) insists that it is neither practical nor fair to scientifically define what is normal and abnormal, and despite his theory's accuracy, "reality will always remain unknowable" (p. 83). He claims that although his theory is correct to the best of his knowledge, "it is unlikely that such generalizations can be universally correct" (Freud, 1949, p. 96).
In his "Précis of The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique," Grünbaum (1986) asserts that "while psychoanalysis may thus be said to be scientifically alive, it is currently hardly well" (p. 228). The criticisms of Freud's theory can be grouped into three general categories. First, critics contend that Freud's theory is lacking in empirical evidence and relies too heavily on therapeutic achievements, whereas others assert that even Freud's clinical data are flawed, inaccurate, and selective at best. Second, the actual method or techniques involved in psychoanalysis, such as Freud's ideas on the interpretation of dreams and the role of free association, have been criticized. Finally, some critics assert that psychoanalysis is simply not a science and many of the principles upon which it is based are inaccurate.
Evaluating the Criticisms of Psychoanalysis
Criticisms of Freud's EvidenceGrünbaum (1986) believes that the reasoning on which Freud based his entire psychoanalytic theory was "fundamentally flawed, even if the validity of his clinical evidence were not in question" but that "the clinical data are themselves suspect; more often than not, they may be the patient's responses to the suggestions and expectations of the analyst" (p. 220). Grünbaum (1986) concludes that in order for psychoanalytic hypotheses to be validated in the future, data must be obtained from extraclinical studies rather than from data obtained in a clinical setting (p. 228). In other words, Grünbaum and other critics assert that psychoanalysis lacks in empirical data (Colby, 1960, p. 54).
Other critics disagree with Grünbaum and insist that although extraclinical studies must and should be performed, clinical data are a reliable and necessary source of evidence because the theory of psychoanalysis would be impossible to test otherwise (Edelson, 1986, p. 232). Shevrin (1986) insists that "Freud's admirable heuristic hypotheses did not come out of the thin air or simply out of his imagination" (p.258) as other critics might have the reader believe. Instead, Shevrin (1986) continues, "extraclinical methods must be drawn upon in addition to the clinical method because the clinical method is the only way we can be in touch with certain phenomena" (p. 259). Only with quantification, many critics assert, can supposedly scientific theories even begin to be evaluated based on their empirical merits.
Additional critics contend that Freud's clinical data are flawed or invalid. Greenberg (1986) believes that Freud's case studies do not place enough stress on revealing the outcome of the treatment and that Freud's aim was more to illustrate his theoretical points (p. 240). In addition, Freud fully presented only twelve cases, but he mentioned over one hundred minor cases. Greenberg asserts that many of the presented cases would not even be considered acceptable examples of psychoanalysis and, in short, that virtually all of the case studies had basic shortcomings (p. 240). Finally, Greenberg finds it "both striking and curious" (p. 240) that Freud chose to illustrate the usefulness of psychoanalysis through the display of unsuccessful cases. "We were forced to conclude," maintains Greenberg, "that Freud never presented any data, in statistical or case study form, that demonstrated that his treatment was of benefit to a significant number of the patients he himself saw" (p. 241). Many other powerful criticisms about Freud's inaccurate and subsequently flawed evidence have been published. These critics contend that Freud's evidence is flawed due to the lack of an experiment, the lack of a control group, and the lack of observations that went unrecorded (Colby, 1960, p. 54). In addition, critics find fault with the demographically restricted sample of individuals on which Freud based the majority of his data and theory (Holt, 1986, p. 242).
Criticisms of Freud's Technique"Free association" is a method employed in psychoanalysis where the patients speak about any subject matter whatsoever and the analyst draws conclusions based on what is said. According to Storr (1986), "Grünbaum forcefully argues that free association is neither free nor validating evidence for psychoanalytic theory" (p. 260). "For my own part, however," Grünbaum (1986) concludes, "I find it unwarranted to use free association to validate causal inferences" (p. 224). Grünbaum (1986) contends that free association is not a valid method of accessing the patients' repressed memories because there is no way of ensuring that the analyst is capable of distinguishing between the patients' actual memories and imagined memories constructed due to the influence of the analyst's leading questions (p. 226).
Spence (1986) is critical of Grünbaum's argument, although he acknowledges that
we simply do not know the amount of contamination, the spread of infection within the session, and the extent to which suggested responses are balanced by unexpected confirmations which support the theory and take the analyst by surprise. (p. 259)Spence contends that free associations are not necessarily contaminated and also makes note of the fact that psychoanalysts "are particularly sensitized (in the course of their training) to the dangers of suggestion, and schooled in a tradition which places an emphasis on minimal comment and redundant examples" (p. 259). Spence concludes that the answer to the important question concerning the validity of free association will only be realized through close inspection of the transcripts of meetings between the patient and analyst.
In addition to his criticism of free association, Grünbaum (1986) finds fault with Freud's theory of dreams. In spite of Freud's view that this theory represented his greatest insight and success, it has very much failed in the eyes of most of today's critics.
Finally, many people feel that a major flaw of psychoanalysis is that, according to Farrell (1981), "it appears to encourage analytic and psychodynamic practitioners to overlook the place and great importance of ordinary common sense" (p. 216). Because psychoanalysis deals chiefly with unconscious motives and repressed emotions, common sense no longer seems to be applicable. Farrell (1981) and other critics believe that it is increasingly important for analysts to be aware of common sense and the role that it can, should, and does play in psychoanalysis (p. 216).
Criticisms of the Principles of PsychoanalysisStorr (1981) insists, "Only a few fundamentalist psychoanalysts of an old-fashioned kind think that Freud was a scientist or that psychoanalysis was or could be a scientific enterprise," and that, "...to understand persons cannot be a scientific enterprise" (p. 260). Although many psychoanalysts themselves would undoubtedly consider psychoanalysis to be a science, many critics would disagree.
Popper, by far one of psychoanalysis' most well-known critics and a strong critic of Grünbaum, insists that psychoanalysis cannot be considered a science because it is not falsifiable. He claims that psychoanalysis' "so-called predictions are not predictions of overt behavior but of hidden psychological states. This is why they are so untestable" (Popper, 1986, p. 254). Popper (1986) claims that only when individuals are not neurotic is it possible to empirically determine if prospective patients are currently neurotic (p. 254). Popper (1986) asserts that psychoanalysis has often maintained that every individual is neurotic to some degree due to the fact that everyone has suffered and repressed a trauma at one point or another in his or her life (p. 255). However, this concept of ubiquitous repression is impossible to test because there is no overt behavioral method of doing so (p. 254).
Other critics claim that psychoanalysis cannot be considered a science due to its lack of predictions. Psychoanalysts, critics maintain, state that certain childhood experiences, such as abuse or molestation, produce certain outcomes or states of neurosis. To take this idea one step further, one should be able to predict that if children experience abuse, for instance, they will become characterized by certain personality traits. In addition, this concept would theoretically work in reverse. For instance, if individuals are observed in a particular neurotic state, one should be able to predict that they had this or that childhood experience. However, neither of these predictions can be made with any accuracy (Colby, 1960, p. 55).
Additional critics insist that psychoanalysis is not a science because of the lack of interpretive rules or regulations. Colby (1960) contends that critics of psychoanalysis have difficulties with the idea that "there are no clear, intersubjectively shared lines of reasoning between theories and observations" (p. 54). For instance, one psychoanalyst will observe one phenomenon and interpret it one way, whereas another psychoanalyst will observe the same phenomenon and interpret it in a completely different way that is contradictory to the first psychoanalyst's interpretation (Colby, 1960, p. 54). Colby (1960) concludes that if analysts themselves cannot concur that a certain observation is an example of a certain theory, then the regulations that govern psychoanalytic interpretation are undependable (p. 55).
Eysenck (1986) maintains:
I have always taken it for granted that the obvious failure of Freudian therapy to significantly improve on spontaneous remission or placebo treatment is the clearest proof we have of the inadequacy of Freudian theory, closely followed by the success of alternative methods of treatment, such as behavior therapy. (p. 236)Whereas critics, such as Popper (1986), insist that Freud's theories cannot be falsified and therefore are not scientific, Eysenck claims that because Freud's theories can be falsified, they are scientific. Grünbaum (1986) concurs with Eysenck that Freud's theory is falsifiable and therefore scientific, but he goes one step further and claims that Freud's theory of psychoanalysis has been proven wrong and is simply bad science.
In order to evaluate the strengths of Freud's theory of psychoanalysis, one must consider a few of the qualities that make a theory of personality or behavior "great." Among the many qualities that people consider to be important are that the theory addresses its problem, can be applied in practical ways, fits with other theories, and withstands the test of time. In addition, a good theory, according to many philosophers of science, is falsifiable, able to be generalized, leads to new theories and ideas, and is recognized by others in the field. Clearly psychoanalysis meets many of these criteria.
Evaluating the Strengths of Psychoanalysis
As noted previously, Freud coined the term "psychoanalysis" in 1856. Even today, as we are rapidly approaching the twenty-first century, psychoanalysis remains as a valid option for patients suffering from mental illnesses. The acceptance and popularity of psychoanalysis is apparent through the existence of numerous institutes, organizations, and conferences established around the world with psychoanalysis as their focus. The theory of psychoanalysis was innovative and revolutionary, and clearly has withstood the test of time.
Perhaps even more noteworthy than the longevity of psychoanalysis is the fact that it has served as a catalyst to many professionals in the field of psychology and prompted them to see connections that they otherwise would have missed. Psychoanalysis enlightened health professionals about many aspects of the human mind and its inner workings, phenomena that had previously been inexplicable. As a direct result of psychoanalysis, approaches to psychological treatment now considered routine or commonplace were developed worldwide (Farrell, 1981, p. 202).
By far one of the greatest strengths of psychoanalysis is that it is a very comprehensive theory. Psychoanalysis, originally intended as a theory to explain therapeutic or psychological concepts, explains the nature of human development and all aspects of mental functioning. However, many experts contend that psychoanalysis can also be used to describe or explain a vast array of other concepts outside of the realm of the psychological field. For example, religion, Shakespeare's character "Hamlet," the nature of companies and their leaders, or an artist's paintings can all be explained by the principles of psychoanalysis. This comprehensiveness suggests that the theory of psychoanalysis is, at least to some extent, pointing in the general direction of the truth (Farrell, 1981, p. 195).
I concur with the many critics who insist upon the invalidity of Freud's evidence due to the lack of empirical data and the demographically restricted sample of individuals on which Freud based the majority of his ideas. Like Farrell (1981), I agree that sometimes it appears as if common sense does not have a place in psychoanalytic theory and, as a result, I believe irrelevant and false assumptions are made all too frequently. In addition, parts of Freudian theory are too generalized and fail to leave adequate room for exceptions to the general rule. Finally, I find it hard to accept that all mental problems stem from issues concerning aspects of sex, such as unresolved Oedipal and Electra complexes. I believe that this is a gross exaggeration and overgeneralization.
Despite the weaknesses of psychoanalysis, I believe that the many strengths of the theory are extremely significant. Therefore, I maintain that psychoanalysis is a theory that should not be disregarded. Because psychoanalysis was developed a century ago and is still considered to be a credible and effective method of treating mental illnesses, I contend that at least significant parts of the theory are accurate. Second, I believe that psychoanalysis is a scientific theory due to the fact that it is falsifiable and has, in fact, been proven false because other methods of treatment have been proven effective. Third, I believe that psychoanalysis is comprehensive, can be applied in practical ways, and contains valid arguments. Finally, I believe that psychoanalysis is a substantial theory of personality because it is directly responsible for the development of additional psychological theories and hypotheses that otherwise may have been missed.
Psychoanalysis is widely disputed, but perhaps it is necessary to return to the founder of psychoanalysis himself. Freud (1949) wrote in his Outline of Psychoanalysis
the teachings of psychoanalysis are based on an incalculable number of observations and experiences, and only someone who has repeated those observations on himself and on others is in a position to arrive at a judgment of his own upon it. (p. 11)Although I am hardly an expert on psychoanalysis, I believe that to dismiss the theory completely would be a tremendous oversight because without it many other valuable psychological techniques and theories most likely would have remained undiscovered.
American Psychoanalytic Association (1998, January 31). About psychoanalysis [WWW document]. URL http://www.apsa.org/pubinfo/about.htm
Colby, K. M. (1960). An introduction to psychoanalytic research. New York: Basic.
Edelson, M. (1986). The evidential value of the psychoanalyst's clinical data. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 232-234.
Erwin, E. (1986). Defending Freudianism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 235-236.
Eysenck, H. J. (1986). Failure of treatment--failure of theory? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 236.
Farrell, B. A. (1981). The standing of psychoanalysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Freud, S. (1949). An outline of psychoanalysis. New York: Norton.
Gay, P. (1989). Sigmund Freud: A brief life. In J. Strachy (Ed.), An outline of psychoanalysis (pp. vii-xx). New York: Norton.
Greenberg, R. P. (1986). The case against Freud's cases. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 240-241.
Grünbaum, A. (1986). Précis of The foundations of psychoanalysis: A philosophical critique. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 217-284.
Holt, R. R. (1986). Some reflections on testing psychoanalytic hypotheses. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 242-244.
Loftus, E. F. (1993a). Desperately seeking memories of the first few years of childhood: The reality of early memories. Journal of ExperimentalPsychology: General, 122, 274-277.
Loftus, E. F. (1993b). The reality of repressed memories. AmericanPsychologist, 48, 518-537.
Loftus, E. F. (1995, March-April). Remembering dangerously. Skeptical Inquirer, 20-29.
National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (1998, January 31). The making of a psychoanalyst [WWW document]. URL http://www.npap.org/inst.htm
Notturno, M. A., & McHugh, P. R. (1986). Is Freudian psychoanalytic theory really falsifiable? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 250-252.
Popper, K. (1986). Predicting overt behavior versus predicting hidden states. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 254-255.
Rand, N., & Torok, M. (1997). Questions for Freud: The secret history of psychoanalysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Spence, D. P. (1986). Are free associations necessarily contaminated? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 259.
Wax, M. L. (1986). Psychoanalysis: Conventional wisdom, self knowledge, or inexact science? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9, 264-265.