Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis and proved to be the most influential writer about the unconscious mind in the twentieth century. He received a medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1881 and took a position as a doctor in a hospital. He also set up a private practice to treat psychological disorders such as hysteria; from his patients came the evidence used for many of his theories about human psychology. Freud eventually believed that he was creating a new science, and he attempted to keep his work as “scientific” as possible, tying it to biology and physiology when he could. He even applied the law of conservation of energy, from physics, to mental processes. Yet he also determined that psychology required its own vocabulary, because its largely unexplored territory resisted simple identification with physical or biological processes. Freud turned to data that could not be quantified: dreams and fantasies. Subjecting such phenomena, which existed purely in the mind, to rigorous analysis formed the basis of psychoanalysis.
In the late nineteenth century, Freud worked to treat victims of hysteria, using techniques such as hypnosis. He and his colleague Josef Breuer (1842–1925) determined that many neuroses originated in traumatic experiences from early life that had somehow been forgotten. Through his clinical practice, Freud recorded what he came to call the workings of the “unconscious” mind. Part of the role of psychoanalysis, when treated as a therapy, was to bring the elements of the “unconscious” mind into consciousness, to better understand the conflicts that influence human thought and activity without the person knowing it. In 1900, he published The Interpretation of Dreams, which became a seminal work in the history of psychoanalysis. Not only did it include his ideas about the unconscious and the conscious, it also revealed Freud’s tendency to view many psychological conflicts as rooted in sexuality. After establishing dream interpretation as the cornerstone of psychoanalysis, Freud published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905. Here he analyzed the development of the libido (sexual drive), drawing connections between its development and the formation of character traits. The libido, according to Freud, was the most important natural motivating force in life.
Freud’s emphasis on sexuality alienated many of his colleagues, including Breuer, and initially his work was not received with enthusiasm. He described human instincts, of which there were many, in two general categories: life (Eros) instincts and death (Thanatos) instincts. The death instincts included destructive impulses and aggression, whereas the life instincts were oriented not only toward self-preservation but also toward erotic desire. By defining these categories broadly, Freud gave an unprecedented importance to sexuality, which seemed scandalous at the time. Gradually, however, his ideas became influential, and he embarked on a lecture tour in the United States, which culminated in his 1916 book, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Freud’s work entered popular culture, with references to the unconscious mind—“Freudian slips” referred to misstatements that perhaps reflected unconscious desires, and the “Oedipus complex” came to describe father-son antagonism as competition for the love of the wife/mother.
In his 1923 book, The Ego and the Id, Freud extended these ideas further, constructing a
theory of the mind based on the id, the ego, and the superego. The id represented instinct, the great sexual motivating force. The superego was based on external influences throughout life, and sought to control or limit the desires of the id. Both of them were unconscious. The ego was the conscious mind, representing the tension between instinct and control, the “self” that must satisfy the demands of each. The key concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis derived from the dynamic relationships among these three aspects of the mind. “Repression,” for example, occurs when a strong instinctive desire comes into conflict with an even stronger value of the superego; to avoid traumatic conflict, the desire is pushed into the unconscious. A boy’s erotic desire for his mother is the classical example of this; when the superego finds such thoughts detestable, it is repressed.
Freud’s conception of psychoanalysis, despite its influence, sparked rival schools of thought and competing interpretations. In particular, two of his most noted followers, Alfred Adler (1870–1937) and Carl Jung (1875–1961), ultimately broke with him and developed their own interpretations of the meaning of the unconscious. All of them believed that they were laying the groundwork for a new science. Freud continued his work in Vienna well into the 1930s. However, the politics of Austria swayed toward Nazism in the late 1930s, culminating in annexation by Germany. Because he was a Jew, Freud decided to leave Austria and move to England. He died of cancer there in 1939.
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