Sigmund Freud

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Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, was the founder of modern psychoanalysis. He is also the intellectual figure most responsible for bringing issues of sexuality to the center of European and North American consciousness. A medical doctor, Freud studied nervous conditions and other mental disorders, believing that some maladies arise from the repression of early thoughts and desires rather than as an effect of physical disease. He refined the talking cure, in which he discerned patients' anxieties from what they said as well as they ways in which they said it. He hypothesized that the repression of specifically sexual desires underlay most nervous symptoms. In his long career Freud showed that the unconscious—that of ourselves which we cannot know—operated according to specific rules. In his work he showed the effects of the unconscious on conscious behavior, established the presence and influence of infantile sexuality, increasingly believed that the innate disposition of human beings was bisexual, developed the idea of the Oedipus complex, and thought that even civilization itself could be analyzed. His work focused on hysterics (patients with nervous symptoms that had no physical cause), dreams, psychic development, the sexual causes of nervous conditions, and the dynamism of the human mind, which he thought worked according to Newtonian principles of conservation. His centering on sexuality and his understanding of the dynamic functioning of the human psyche changed the way Europeans and North Americans think about the complex mental processes by which they become individuals.

Early Life

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia, on May 6, 1856. He was the first son of his father's third marriage. His mother, Amalia, was twenty years younger than his father, Jacob Freud, and Sigmund had half brothers who were older than his mother and a nephew who was a year older than himself. The Freuds were Jewish and not wealthy. Freud's father was a wool merchant who was not always successful, though circumstances improved as Freud grew older. In 1860 the Freuds moved to Vienna, where Sigmund was to live for almost the rest of his life. By 1866 Freud's mother had given birth to five more children: four girls and a boy. They lived in a modest six-room apartment, where the serious Sigmund occupied his own bedroom while the rest of the family shared the three others. Freud adored his mother and liked his father.

Freud attended the local gymnasium, or high school, and was first in his class for seven years. He read widely, liking in particular the work of German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616). In 1873 Freud began studies in medicine at the University of Vienna. He worked as a research assistant in 1876 on a zoology project in Trieste, trying to determine if there were gonads in eels. When he returned from Trieste, he began working in the physiology laboratory of Ernst Brücke (1819–1892), investigating the nervous systems of fish and the physiology of human nerves. Freud learned most of his positivist, empiricist scientific assumptions from Brücke and the faculty of the University of Vienna, which meant that he believed there were physical mechanisms for phenomena, which could be discerned through careful scientific method and observation. Freud did not believe that there were any mystical or metaphysical causes for biological phenomena.

In 1879 and 1880 Freud served his time in the military as a medic, completing his medical degree in 1881. The following year he took a junior post at the General Hospital in Vienna, where he worked for three years gaining both clinical experience and more specialized experience in the psychiatric clinic, working with Theodor Meynert (1833–1898) and Hermann Nothnagel (1841–1905), who became two of Freud's supporters. He researched the effects of cocaine as a local anesthetic, and in 1885 was awarded a travel grant to work with the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) in Paris.

Charcot's work with hysterical patients began to move Freud from his studies of brain physiology to psychology. Charcot, who believed hysteria was a psychological disorder rather than a physical condition, treated his patients through hypnosis. Freud returned to Vienna convinced that mental diseases were less physical than psychological and that the same psychological laws applied to all people, healthy or not. He also saw that the physiologists had done all they could and set out to help develop methods by which the neuroses—nervous ailments without physical cause—could be treated.

Freud's Early Work

When he returned from Paris, Freud opened his own practice specializing in nervous diseases. He married, settled down, and also became friends with an otolaryngologist, Wilhelm Fliess (1887–1904), who for the next fifteen years served as Freud's specific audience, commenting on Freud's manuscripts and sharing ideas, especially Fliess's insight that humans were intrinsically bisexual in disposition.

In his medical practice Freud became unhappy with the modes of treatment and began to look for better ways to understand the causes and treatment of mental disorders. He translated the French psychiatrist Hippolyte Bernheim's (1840–1919) work on hypnosis, and worked with senior colleague Josef Breuer (1842–1925) on Studies in Hysteria (1895), a collection of studies on five hysterical patients. The most famous of these patients was Anna O., a patient whom both Breuer and Freud had treated in the 1880s. As a result of Anna's intelligence and own processing of her hysteria, Breuer began development of the talking cure, which replaced hypnosis. In the talking cure patients talk out their crises, finding in their own accounts the clues to their symptoms. In hearing their speech Freud also began to discern that the basis for his patients' nervous symptoms was often repressed sexual desires. He also found that the process of talking not only produced catharsis for the patient, it also proceeded through a much more difficult process. Patients inevitably were resistant, both consciously and unconsciously, to revealing material. Hence the physician needed to listen closely to what they said indirectly and inadvertently.

In studying hysterical patients Freud noticed that often the patients revealed an early sexual trauma, or seduction. At first Freud believed that his patients had literally been abused by relatives or caretakers and that abuse, repressed, formed the traumatic kernel around which hysterical symptoms later emerged. In the talking cure patients occasionally recalled such incidents. Freud first concluded that a great deal of sexual misconduct was occurring in middle-class households and that children were suffering at the hands of nannies and perhaps even male relatives. But Freud later revised this seduction theory, positing that patients' fantasies of such sexual contact were sufficient to produce a type of trauma as these guilty desires were repressed. Freud's recanting the idea of literal seduction has caused some to accuse him of not listening to his patients' claims. But Freud could not believe that so many people suffered at the hands of late Victorian patriarchs.

The material—the dreams, fantasies, and anxieties—presented by his hysterical clients inadvertently provided hints about their unconscious desires and fears. Freud became interested in this unconscious, a concept that had existed for much of the nineteenth century. Freud determined that one of the most fruitful sites to explore the unconscious was dreams, and he began an ambitious study of dream work, published in 1900 as The Interpretation of Dreams. After reviewing all available theories about dreams, Freud suggested that dreams were essentially fulfilled wishes. More important he suggested that the material in the unconscious represented by the dream was organized by a combination of condensation, whereby many different figures were combined into one; and of displacement, in which ideas, wishes, or events from one time and place played out in another set of circumstances.

In addition to its insights about how the unconscious worked, The Interpretation of Dreams also presented a large measure of Freud's own self-analysis, in particular his discovery of what he called his Oedipal wishes. Freud saw in his early childhood self the desire to eliminate his father so he could have his mother all to himself, a wish thwarted by his father's power. Freud's formulation of the Oedipal wish contributed to his increasing understanding of the underlying sexual component that operated in the unconscious.

Between 1900 and 1905, Freud continued to write studies about the ways in which the unconscious is revealed, including The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904) and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). The first was written for a more general audience and provided numerous examples of mistakes and inadvertent slips, which have come to be known as Freudian slips and which often reveal an unconscious wish or sexual desire. The second showed that jokes often have a sexual basis.

Freud's more important work of this time was Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). In this collection, Freud set out two crucial ideas about sexuality. In the collection's first essay, he examined what are perceived as sexual deviations and perversions, such as homosexuality, fetishism, and voyeurism, arguing that these perversions are a normal part of human sexuality. Basing his analysis on the idea that human beings are innately bisexual, he suggested that the range of sexual desires and particular desires within that range are not pathological. Human beings, he said, have both a sexual aim—what it is they want to do, and a sexual object—with whom they want to accomplish their aim. A sexual aim might be heterosexual sexual intercourse or it could be voyeuristic—wanting to see sexual relations, or the aim could be oral stimulation of the genitals or the desire to be spanked. The sexual object could be male or female or even inanimate, as was sometimes the case with fetishists. If the sexual aim of a male was sexual intercourse and the sexual object was a female, then the result would be typical heterosexual sex. If the aim of a female was oral sex with another female, then the result would be female homosexuality. The point of Freud's first essay was that all of these permutations are a natural part of human sexual existence.

The second essay argued for the existence of sexual feelings in very young children. Freud showed the ways infants already have a sexuality fixed on erogenous zones, such as the mouth, the anus, and the genitals. Although, as he suggests, this sexuality goes underground until puberty, the nature of the infant's sexual pleasures tend to set the individual's preferences for life. In addition, sexual traumas and seductions, which Freud believed were also sexual in nature, often dated from this period in a child's life.

The third essay discussed the ramifications of puberty when sexuality reappeared and developed into its adult forms. Although Freud would later revise his idea that sexuality ever disappeared, this last essay was perhaps the least inflammatory of the collection. Public and even expert reception of Freud's Three Essays tended to reduce the work to an argument for perversion and libertinism. Freud was seen as immoral and advocating free love.

Although other physicians had noted evidence of sexuality in children, denials of this idea have persisted into the early twenty-first century.

In 1905 Freud also published a single case study of a hysterical patient in which he had tried to use the insights garnered from his work on dreams as a part of his analytic method. "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria," or the Dora case, has become one of Freud's most notorious case studies, along with "Little Hans," the "Wolf Man," and the paranoid senate president Daniel Paul Schreber (1842–1911). Dora had come to Freud with nervous symptoms—a nervous cough, a hysterical whisper, migraines, and depression. Her situation, as Freud's novel-like case study recounts, involved a sick father unhappy with his wife, and another couple, Herr and Frau K. Dora told Freud that her father was having an affair with Frau K and had traded her to Herr K so he could be with Herr K's wife. Dora despised Herr K, whom she accused of having tried to kiss her. Dora also recounted two suggestive dreams to Freud, who read the case as an instance of repressed sexual desire. Dora, Freud decided, was reacting to her own desire instigated by feeling Herr K's erect penis against her when he tried to kiss her and had displaced her erotic feelings to her throat, which caused her symptoms. One of Dora's dreams about fingering a jewel case seemed to confirm Freud's analysis. Dora, however, did not agree and terminated the analysis before it was completed. Freud concluded that her termination had been revenge against him, but later Freud came to a different conclusion, one that involved an understanding of how transference worked in the analytical situation.

Transference is a necessary process in analysis. Transference occurs when the patient's unconscious ideas are displaced into and are expressed through other ideas, actions, and people. In the analytical situation the patient transfers unconscious thoughts onto the person of the analyst. In the Dora case Freud thought that Dora's treatment of him revealed Dora's transference onto him of her repressed erotic feelings for Herr K. Later, however, Freud realized that the analyst also transferred unconscious feelings onto the patient during analysis, a phenomenon called countertransference. Freud recognized that his belief in Dora's erotic attraction to Herr K had been an effect of his unconscious wish that Dora have erotic feelings for himself, a revision he acknowledged in footnotes appended to later editions of the text. He also indicated that he believed that Dora's hysterical symptoms came from her repression of an attraction to Frau K.

Case Studies

In 1909 Freud, who had gained both recognition and notoriety for his work on sexuality, continued publishing case studies of patients whose symptoms and analysis provided instructive material to the developing field of psychoanalysis. Freud had begun hosting meeting for interested practitioners at his home and had thus begun to gather followers both in Vienna and internationally, including Karl Abraham (1877–1925) from Berlin, the Viennese Otto Rank (1844–1939), Ernest Jones (1879–1958) from Britain, Sándor Ferenczi (1873–1933) from Budapest, Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) from Switzerland, and Lou-Andreas Salomé (1861–1937) from Germany. Although Freud and Jung would soon part ways, during the first decade of the twentieth century, they were friends and allies working for the common cause of psychoanalysis—Freud the father figure, Jung the son.

During this period, Freud would report three case studies and a more prolonged study of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). These case studies confirmed and extended Freud's ideas about the sexual cause of neuroses. The first case, known as "Little Hans," involved a young boy, the son of a friend, who was pathologically afraid of horses. Little Hans's father often reported his son's symptoms to Freud, who talked to the boy himself only occasionally. After gathering the boy's symptoms—a fear that horses would bite him, a fear that they would fall over—Freud concluded that the source of Little Hans's phobia was an ambivalence about his father. It was, in short, an Oedipal ambivalence. Little Hans both hated and loved his father, was afraid his father would castrate him because he adored his mother, and sometimes wished his father were dead. The boy had displaced anxieties about his father onto horses. His fear of their biting him was a fear of castration—that he would lose his penis. His fear of the horses falling over was a fear that his father would die. The boy ultimately resolved this love/hate feeling about his father by deciding that his father should marry his own mother so that Little Hans could marry his mother.

Freud's next case study was the "Rat Man," the case of a man plagued with obsessive thoughts of torture by rats. Freud traced this obsession, too, to sexual ambivalence. Freud's reaffirmations of the sexual cause for nervous disorders, however, finally caused the break between him and his disciple Jung. Jung, who had risen to be the first president of the International Psycho-Analytic Association, was not convinced that sexual anxieties were the cause of all neuroses or that all libido, or life energy and drive, was ultimately sexual in nature. In advancing the idea of a more universalized and less sexual libido, Jung broke openly with Freud and his supporters.

Freud, however, continued to demonstrate, through additional case studies, the centrality of sexuality not only to neuroses but to most human activities. In a long paper on da Vinci, undertaken to illustrate the use of psychoanalysis on broader cultural issues, Freud concluded that da Vinci's talent and creative energy derived from his adoration of his mother and his sublimation of homoerotic feelings. The idea of sublimation—that one substitutes a more acceptable form of energy in place of less accepted desires such as homosexuality—became an important concept to ideas about art and science developing in the early twentieth century. Art and scientific research represented the sublimation of erotic energies into artistic energies.

For his study of da Vinci, Freud had used a painting and one of da Vinci's childhood memories as the texts he analyzed. In 1910 Freud became interested in the case of Schreber, a judge in Saxony's highest law court. After reading Schreber's memoirs, Freud wrote a study of Schreber's paranoia. Schreber heard voices, thought the world and God were in a conspiracy against him, and believed that he could save the world if he transformed into a woman. Freud interpreted Schreber's paranoia as love turned to hate and his desire for gender transformation as a way of defending himself against his wish to love a man. Again, repressed sexual wishes constituted the core of the mental disorder.

Freud's final case study of this period, "Wolf Man," emphasized one of Freud's other key points: that the sexual repression that produced neurosis was a product of infancy. The Wolf Man, a wealthy Russian nobleman, was almost debilitated by neurosis and liked sexual activity only with servants and in a position in which intercourse was accomplished from the rear. Like Dora, the Wolf Man told Freud a dream, this one about a window suddenly opening and him seeing five white wolves sitting in a tree. Freud, who had explored the patient's background of early sexual play with an older sister and threats of castration from his nanny, interpreted the dream as the expression of his trauma at seeing what Freud called the primal scene—the scene of his parents having sexual intercourse. The Wolf Man had developed a castration anxiety that had turned into sadism and the masochistic desire to be punished by his father. By the end of the four-year treatment, the Wolf Man was engaged to marry.

Sexual Difference

During World War I Freud continued to refine his ideas about psychoanalytic technique, infantile sexuality, and the structure of the psyche. He wrote a brief paper published in 1915 on the origins of fetishism, a sexual preference in which individuals are aroused by objects such as shows or lingerie, or body parts such as the nose or feet. Freud's theory of fetishism was a part of his developing theory about the relations between the body and the psyche, especially around issues of sexual difference. According to Freud, fetishists tend to be males because fetishism arises at the moment the little boy realizes that all people do not have penises, usually when seeing his mother undressed. If all people do not have penises, then he may also lose his. Upon recognizing this the young child imports a substitute penis, or fetish, for that which is missing from his mother, usually an item closely associated with her. The fetish becomes an ambivalent object. On the one hand it supplies a substitute penis that allays the child's fear of castration. On the other hand, the presence of the substitute signals the absence of a penis. With the fetish, individuals can disavow castration, meaning that they can know that some people are without penises, but all the same, they still have penises by means of the fetish.

Freud further developed his ideas about the libido and the sexual instinct—the drive to sexual pleasure, copulation, and reproduction—in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). In this short study Freud explained the dualistic system by which he believed the psyche operates. If individuals are generally governed by what Freud called the pleasure principle, meaning they seek a state of low energy and little tension, why did they repeat traumatic scenes? Using the example of his grandson, Freud saw the child's play with a spool of thread as a mastering of his mother's absence. The repetition of the game of throwing the spool away and then reeling it back in while repeating fort (there) and da (here), was a repetition of an attempt to master what the boy found unpleasant. Through this observation Freud saw the psyche as a dynamic system of conflicting forces—the urge for low energy, or the pleasure principle; the sexual instinct, or Eros; and the death drive, or the desire to die. Sexuality and libido are still central forces in psychic existence, but contend with other equally basic drives.

Freud also continued to refine his ideas about sexual development first treated in Three Essays. Having declared libido as masculine in that earlier work, as well as having developed his idea of the Oedipus complex around issues of threatened castration, Freud needed to account for the psychic development of females. He saw the early development of individuals as still the same, but at a certain point, the moment when a small boy might realize that all people do not have penises, girls recognize the same thing and see their own lack of penis as a problem. This results in penis envy. If human development is premised on the visibility of literal organs, and if the penis is the privileged organ because it is visible, then the male becomes the model and the female becomes merely a failed man.

Clearly, however, females develop sexually and psychically in their own ways, and in the last decade of his life, Freud tried to formulate how those developments occurred. Thinking of women as less clearly defined than men, Freud referred to feminine sexuality as a dark continent and never satisfactorily explained female sexual development, though he published two later essays on women: "Female Sexuality" (1931) and "Femininity" (1933). What he did offer was the idea that early female sexuality, focused on the clitoris, is masculine, and that girls switched both their affections and the erogenous cravings from their mother to their fathers and from the clitoris to the vagina. Their lack of penis was replaced by a craving for a child.

Freud and his family were forced to flee Vienna by the arrival of the Nazis in 1938. Relocating in London, Freud lived little more than a year, continuing to write and suffering from oral cancer brought on by his addiction to cigars. He died on September 23, 1939. His life's work ranged from attempts to understand what he called the preoedipal, that period of early life before speech, to working through cultural prehistories in such studies as Totem and Taboo (1913), Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), and the final Moses and Monotheism (1939).

Throughout his career he saw psychoanalysis as a kind of archaeology, a digging through layers to earliest memories, a practice aptly symbolized by his collection of ancient figurines. His establishment of the importance of sexuality to the human psyche changed European and North American culture, helping to accomplish the transition from Victorian repression to the freer expressions that took root in the late twentieth century. His ideas about the unconscious and the interpretation of dreams and symptoms form the basis of most of the North American and European modes of interpretation in the early twenty-first century.


  • Freud, Sigmund. 1953–1974. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press.
  • Gay, Peter. 1988. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: Norton.
  • Jones, Ernest. 1981. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. New York: Basic. (Orig. pub. 1953–1957.)
  • Mitchell, Stephen A., and Margaret J. Black. 1995. Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic.
  • Schreber, Daniel Paul. 1955. Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken [Memoirs of my nercvous illness], trans. and eds. Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter. London: W. Dawson.
  • Storr, Anthony. 2001. Freud: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Source Citation

  • Roof, Judith. "Freud, Sigmund 1856–1939." Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Ed. Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 580-585. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale.