Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist, medical doctor, psychologist and highly influential thinker of the early twentieth century.

Freud has substantially influenced how we think about human behaviour and cognitive processes. His theories of the Ego as the driving force in human nature and repression as our dominant defence mechanism are widely accepted as descriptions of the way the mind is organised.

Similarly, his argument that the sexual drive (libido) is the primary motivational force of human life is uncontested (though Freud also argued that we have an instinctual ‘death wish’). He also stressed the importance of childhood experiences as determinants of adult behaviours and pathologies.

Early life and career

Freud was born to German-speaking Jews in Feiburg, Moravia (now in the Czech Republic). He was clever scholastically and despite the family’s poverty was able to complete his schooling and enter the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Vienna.

He began medical research under a Darwinist professor, and after initially specialising in the study of cerebral palsy began practising as a neurologist. He was attracted to philosophical theories of perception and early work on the unconscious, and attentive to the ideas of influential German philosopher and writer Friedrich Nietzsche.

Sigmund Freud
IMAGNO/Austrian Archives

Development of psychoanalysis

In 1885, Freud studied in Paris with Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist and exponent of hypnosis in the treatment of hysteria. This was a turning point in Freud’s intellectual and professional life and initially influential in his treatment of patients.

Abandoning the use of hypnosis, Freud went on to develop his own method of encouraging his patients to talk through their psychological problems to release trauma buried (or repressed) in what he postulated as the unconscious mind. This ‘talking cure’ came to be known as Psychoanalysis. The treatment had as a central tenant the notion that the patient should ‘freely associate’, saying whatever came to mind without too much intervention from the therapist.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, Freud’s therapeutic technique of psychoanalysis and his theories about the human psyche and its psychopathologies were central to psychotherapy and the discipline of human psychology, though they became increasingly disputed.

Treatises on behaviour

Freud published his first book The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901, followed by Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905. He continued to write and publish important treatises on behaviour such as Beyond the Pleasure Principle as well as essays on cultural themes.

While Freud wasinitially surrounded by a group of like-minded colleagues, of whom he expected loyalty. Dissenting voices increasingly splintered Freud’s circle and psychotherapy itself.

A secular Jew, Freud was forced to flee Vienna when Hitler’s Nazi Party annexed Austria in 1938. He died in London in 1939.

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