Freud's theories had and still have great effects on psychiatry, psychology, and related fields. For many, Freud is the most influential intellectual of his age because his theories provided a completely new interpretation of culture, society, and history.
Freud was born into a Jewish family in Freiberg (today Príbor), Moravia, in the Austrian Empire (now the Czech Republic). His large family had only limited finances but made every effort to foster his intellect, which was apparent from an early age.
In 1873 Freud entered the University of Vienna as a medical student, and in 1881 he received a doctorate. Beginning in 1882, he worked as a clinical assistant at the Central Hospital of Vienna. In 1885 Freud was appointed lecturer of neuropathology.
At this time he also developed an interest in the pharmaceutical benefits of cocaine, which he pursued for several years. Despite some limited successes, the general outcome of this research was disastrous and tarnished Freud's medical reputation for some time.
In late 1885 Freud left Vienna and traveled to Paris to continue his studies under the guidance of the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot's work with patients classified as hysterics confronted Freud with the possibility that some, if not all, mental disorders might be caused by psychological factors rather than by organic diseases.
This insight proved to be a turning point in Freud's career. Having been confronted with the use of hypnosis in therapy, Freud returned to Vienna in February 1886 with the seed of his revolutionary method implanted.
Several months after his return, Freud married the daughter of a prominent Jewish family, Martha Bernays. She was to bear him six children, one of whom, Anna Freud, was later to become a distinguished psychoanalyst in her own right. Freud then turned to a clinical practice in neuropsychology.
Shortly after his marriage Freud entered into a fruitful partnership with his fellow physician Josef Breuer. Their main cowritten work was Studies in Hysteria, published in 1895. This book contains a presentation of Freud's psychoanalytical method of free association.
This pioneering method of psychoanalysis—a term Freud created in 1896—allowed him to arrive at numerous insights. Freud and Breuer discovered that for many of their patients the very act of verbalization of their problems seemed to provide some relief. Such a "talking cure" resulted in an abreaction.
Freud subsequently developed a theory of the human mind and clinical techniques for helping neurotics. The goal of Freudian therapy is to bring to consciousness repressed feelings.
Typically, this is achieved by encouraging the patient to talk in free association and to repeat his or her dreams. Another important element of psychoanalysis is a lack of involvement by the analyst, which is meant to encourage the patient to project emotions onto the analyst.
Through this transference the patient can resolve repressed conflicts. Freud also observed the power of what he called the patient's defenses against any expression of unconscious thoughts and feelings. He looked for a method to overcome such blockages. Freud was the first one to believe that the most insistent source of resisted material was sexual.
Perhaps the most significant contribution Freud made to modern interpretations of human nature is his conception of the dynamic unconscious. He suggested that we are not entirely aware of what we think and often act for reasons that have little to do with our conscious thoughts.
On the contrary, Freud proposed that there were thoughts occurring below the surface. His basic assumption was that all dreams, even nightmares manifesting apparent anxiety, are the fulfillment of imaginary wishes.
One could also regard dreams to be the disguised expression of wish fulfillments. Many commentators consider The Interpretation of Dreams Freud's masterwork because it provides a hermeneutic for the unmasking of the dream's disguise.
Crucial to the operation of the unconscious is repression. Because of the incompatibility of the unconscious with conscious thoughts, these feelings are normally hidden, forgotten, or unavailable to conscious reflection.
Such thoughts and feelings cannot, Freud argued, be banished from the mind, but they can be banished from consciousness. Freud observed that the process of repression is itself a nonconscious act. He supposed that what people repressed was determined by their unconscious.
Freud sought to explain how the unconscious operates by proposing that it has a particular structure divided into three parts: id, ego, and superego. The unconscious id represents primary process thinking, our primitive need-gratification thoughts. The superego represents our socially induced conscience and counteracts the id with moral and ethical thoughts.
The largely conscious ego stands in between both to balance our primitive needs and our moral beliefs. A healthy ego provides the ability to adapt to reality and interact with the outside world in a way that accommodates both id and superego. Freud was especially concerned with the dynamic relationship between these three parts of the mind.
According to Freud, the defense mechanisms are the method by which the ego can solve the conflicts between the superego and the id. The overuse of defense mechanisms can lead to either anxiety or guilt, which may result in psychological disorders.
In 1905 Freud published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The book established its author as a pioneer in the serious study of sexology. Sexuality, Freud concluded, is the prime mover in a great deal of human activities and behavior.
Freud believed that humans were motivated by two drives, libidinal energy/Eros and the death drive/Thanatos. Freud's description of Eros/libido included all creative, life-producing drives. The death drive represented an urge inherent in all living things to return to a state of calm or of nonexistence.
According to Freud, children pass through a stage where they fixate on the parent of the opposite sex and think of the same-sexed parent as a rival. Every male child has the desire to sleep with his mother and remove his father, who is the obstacle to the realization of that wish. Turning, as he often did, to evidence from literary and mythical texts, Freud named his theory the Oedipus complex after the Greek tragedy by Sophocles.
Freud expressed highly influential and controversial views on the psychology of women. He was an early champion of both sexual freedom and education for women. Some feminists, however, have argued that Freud's views of women's sexual development set the progress of women back decades.
Believing as Freud did that women are a kind of mutilated male who must learn to accept her deformity (the lack of a penis), he contributed to the vocabulary of misogyny. Terms such as penis envy and castrating discouraged women from entering any field dominated by men.
Psychoanalysis today maintains the same ambivalent relationship with medicine and academia that Freud experienced during his life. His psychological theories are still hotly disputed. Although Freud has been long regarded as a genius, psychiatry and psychology have been recast as scientific disciplines.
Freud examined the rationality to be found even in material regarded as thoroughly irrational and meaningless, such as dreams, verbal slips, neurotic symptoms, and the verbal productions of psychotics. Conversely, he discovered irrationality even in material that is manifestly rational.
Freud introduced a novel discursive technique in the talking cure. Psychoanalysis enables people to mitigate distress through the indirect revelation of unconscious content. The other schools of psychology have produced alternative methods of psychotherapy.
In 1909 Freud, together with Carl Gustav Jung and Sándor Ferenczi, visited the United States and lectured there. Generally, Freud had little tolerance for colleagues who diverged from his psychoanalytic doctrines.
He attempted to expel those who disagreed with the movement or even refused to accept certain aspects of his theory that he considered central. The most widely noted schisms occurred with Adler in 1911 and Jung in 1913. These clashes were followed by later breaks with Ferenczi and Wilhelm Reich in the 1920s.
Freud lived and worked in Vienna for nearly 78 years, deeply inspired by the town's intellectual atmosphere. Following Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in March 1938, Freud fled Austria with his family.
On June 4, 1938, they were allowed across the border into France, and then they traveled to London. Freud died there three weeks after the first shots of World War II had been fired.