People in History: Freud

Sigmund_Freud_Anciano People in History: Freud

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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a neurologist by training, best remembered today as the father of psychoanalysis. His theories on sexuality and childhood development are probably best known, although his work spanned a much broader spectrum, including writings on the development of civilisation, the unconscious and dream-states, and religion. He also extolled the virtues of cocaine, and regularly took enough to kill a horse.

Born to Galician Jewish parents in what is now part of the Czech Republic, Sigmund was the first of eight children his father had with his third wife. In 1860 the family moved to Vienna, Austria, Freud distinguished himself at the city’s best schools, graduating with honours in 1873, already proficient in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and with a love of the works of Shakespeare which would last him a lifetime.

After school, Freud attended the University of Vienna, initially intending to study law,but he ended up joining the medical faculty, studying zoology and physiology as well as philosophy. He graduated with an MD in 1881.

Taking a position at Vienna General Hospital the following year, Freud quickly moved into specialist practice studying cerebral anatomy, and produced a seminal research paper a year later (on the palliative effects of cocaine — he started early!). He quit the hospital to enter private practice in 1886, the same year he married.

It was in his practice Freud began to develop his theories of psychoanalysis. Specialising in nervous disorders, he used hypnotism as a way of getting his clients to explore traumatic events from their past (one client dubbed this the “talking cure”). From his observations, Freud theorised that getting somebody to discuss their feelings, experiences, and memories was the most effective way of curing them. From there, he also took to analysing dreams, interpreting them to understand how repression by the subconscious could cause physical symptoms. By 1896, Freud was using the term “psychoanalysis” to describe his method.

256px-Sigmund_Freud_LIFE People in History: Freud

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Around this period, Freud began to suffer heart palpitations, bouts of depression, and disturbing dreams — symptoms he called a “neurasthenia”, which he believed were caused by his father’s death. In an effort to cure himself, he began to analyse his dreams and the memories of his childhood. His adolescent hostility towards his father led to a drastic revision of all his theories to date.

Freud’s earliest theories had centred around childhood sexual abuse, which he believed to be a prerequisite for any neurosis. Exploring his own childhood, Freud realised (presumably because he wasn’t abused himself) that his initial theory was wrong. Instead, he expanded his theory to conclude that children were sexually autonomous beings, that infantile sexuality informed the way the psyche develops, and it is when this development is frustrated or interfered with that neurosis develops. More significantly, it didn’t matter if the “trauma” was real or imagined, providing the patient believed it to be real.

This theory became known as the Oedipus Complex: the idea that a child’s first sexual object is their opposite-sex parent. The Complex is predicated on castration anxiety (in boys) and penis envy (in girls). Essentially as children realise male and female anatomy is different, they will think that women are castrated men. Boys will fear befalling the same state; girls will feel envious because they have (in their minds) had their penises removed. That Freud didn’t consider a reverse scenario, which posits the phallus as a growth on an already intact body (biologically, the more accurate representation) says more about his biases than childhood development.

256px-Sigmund_freud_um_1905 People in History: Freud

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The dissolution of the Oedipus Complex comes about when the child begins to identify with their same-sex parent, thus providing them with a model for their adult sexual identity. If the Complex fails to resolve itself, it can lead to any number of psycho-sexual neuroses, including homosexuality.

Despite believing that diverse sexualities were the result of stunted childhood development, Freud was surprisingly relaxed about attempting to alter a person’s orientation. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (published 1905), he makes certain key distinctions. Firstly between the object of desire and the sexual aim (i.e. the acts intended with the object), noting that aberrations could occur with either or both. Secondly, between perversion (which was any desire not directly related to the act of procreation; Freud believed kissing to be a fetish) and neurosis. Using the example of paedophilia, Freud pointed out that society as a whole might wish it to be confined to the insane, but such desires had been recorded among countless otherwise “normal” people (although today there are plenty who would argue that the existence of such desire makes one insane by default).

“in [neurotics], tendencies to every kind of perversion can be shown to exist as unconscious forces…neurosis is, as it were, the negative of perversion.”

Recognising that healthy, happy, functional people could harbour all manner of sexual fantasies, Freud concentrated his efforts on treating only those whose desires caused them harm (and often his treatment was to get them to understand and become reconciled with what they desired, rather than attempting to change it). In his own words, “a disposition to perversions is an original and universal disposition of the human sexual instinct.”

While today the suggestion that our deepest desires might come as a result of suppressed rage for not having a penis, or unexpressed lust for a parent, might not be taken seriously by most, Freud’s thinking was nonetheless hugely influential when it came to the problem of responding to diverse sexualities. In arguing that sexuality was generally innate, unchangable, and not harmful, Freud began a discourse which was to change the way we understood (and punished) diverse sexual desire.


Born on this day: Jon-Marc McDonald (39, American), political activist and blogger; Chuck Panozzo (67, American), musician best known for rock band Styx; and Dan Gillespie Sells (37, English), singer-songwriter best known as lead vocalist for pop/rock bank The Feeling.

Died on this day: Tobias Schneebaum (1922-2005, American), anthropologist and AIDS activist.


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