Freud, Sigmund (1856–1939)
From Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality
The founder of psychoanalysis, which is an extensive body of theories concerning normal and abnormal behavior as well as special techniques for the treatment of persons diagnosed as neurotic. Born in Moravia, Freud grew up in Austria and completed medical school at the University of Vienna, where he concentrated on neuroanatomical research. After serving at the Vienna General Hospital, Freud went to Paris (1885–1886) to study with the French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot. After observing the use of hypnosis in the treatment of hysterical disorders, he became interested in the hidden or “unconscious” factors in normal and abnormal behavior. While Freud did not invent or discover the unconscious, he made it the central point of his emerging theories about human behavior and motivation.
Freud returned to Vienna and began a private medical practice specializing in nervous disorders. He became disillusioned with the temporary effects of hypnosis in the treatment of neurosis and developed the basic technique of psychoanalysis: free association, in which the patient relaxes and relates to the therapist whatever comes to mind. These free associations, with their supposedly symbolic meanings, were believed by Freud to be clues to the unconscious processes within the human mind and a path to learning the causes and maintenance of a patient’s neurosis.
Freud’s work with patients was the basis for his psychoanalytic theories based on a conceptualized framework of the mind: a hypothetical model of the id, ego, and superego, described in The Ego and the Id (1923). These are not physical parts of the brain but categories of mental processes and functions. The id constitutes the biological, instinctual drives of libido (Latin for “lust”) and aggression. It is present at birth and operates on a “pleasure principle” that causes the individual to want to discharge sexual and aggressive tensions. Freud described the ego as the repository of rational processes based upon memory, perceptions, and communication. The ego is said to be the source of the “reality principle” controlling and keeping the id from becoming dangerous to the individual. While the ego is partially conscious, it often works in an unconscious manner to protect the person through the use of “defenses.” Freud considered the superego to be a kind of mediator between the id and ego by providing moral support (the conscience) to help curb the id and aid the individual in making moral choices of behavior. He also theorized that the id is present at birth while the ego develops in the early stages of childhood, followed by the superego as the child grows and learns the moral norms of the society.
Freud’s writings, as well as the work of many of his followers, have led to the formulation of theories and models of the psychosexual stages of development: the oral stage, the anal stage, and the phallic stage. During the phallic stage, which occurs at the age of four or five, children’s sexuality focuses on the genital area. It is during this stage that boys become sexually attracted to their mothers (the oedipus complex) and girls to their fathers (the electra complex). By the age of six, most children will have realized that they cannot have their opposite-sex parent as a love partner and move on to the latency stage, during which children are supposed to have virtually no sexual feelings or urges until puberty, when they reappear but are directed toward peers of the opposite sex (the genital stage). Central to Freudian theory is the belief that many adult neuroses are the result of the patient not having successfully moved through each of the stages with a normal resolution of urges appropriate for that stage of development.
One controversial aspect of Freud’s thinking was his belief that women have two types of orgasms: vaginal and clitoral. He believed that “vaginal orgasm” was an indication that a woman had successfully reached the genital stage, Women who could have only “clitoral orgasms” probably had not successfully resolved the conflicts of the phallic stage. Modern researchers (see Masters and Johnson) claim that there is no scientific evidence for such a differentiation of women’s orgasms, but merely differences in the techniques that bring on orgasm in women and variations in the intensity of orgasmic responses to different techniques under differing circumstances. Furthermore, the belief that vaginal orgasm exists and is superior to or more mature than clitoral orgasm may itself create conflicts in women, who may need manual stimulation through masturbation during or after intercourse to achieve orgasm. Another of Freud’s beliefs that has come under criticism was the notion that all young females go through a period of “penis envy” during the phallic stage. He claimed that this has an impact on the development of female personality and leads to adult feelings of inferiority relative to men.
Freud extended his theories to include the arts, religion, and even society itself. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud discussed the restriction that society places upon the instinctual drives of people and how these may result in conflicts and neuroses. In Moses and Monotheism, he reinterprets the historical Moses. Freud had strong negative feelings toward religion, which he saw as a social device to meet infantile wishes to overcome mortality and existential helplessness by creating and believing in an omnipotent father who will save his children.
While Freud’s work, particularly his writings related to female sexuality, has come under criticism, its importance is undiminished. A product of the Victorian era, in which expression and discussion of sexuality were greatly suppressed and denied, Freud wrote and taught that sex is an important part of the developing child and, perhaps even more important, that sex is a legitimate subject for scientific analysis and research.
Freud, a Jew, was driven into exile following Austria’s incorporation into Nazi Germany in 1938. He went from Vienna to London, where he continued his work until his death from cancer the following year. His work was continued in London by a core of collaborators, among them his daughter, Dr. Anna Freud.