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Famous Psychologists - Sigmund Freud

Famous Psychologists: Sigmund Freud

Famous Psychologists - Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856–September 23, 1939) was a physiologist, medical doctor, and father of psychoanalysis, and is generally recognized as one of the most influential and authoritative thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was an Austrian neurologist and the co-founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychology.

Sigmund Freud

The following has been adapted from the Wikipedia website.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is commonly referred to as "the father of psychoanalysis" and his work has been tremendously influential in the popular imagination, popularizing such notions as the unconscious, defense mechanisms, Freudian slips and dream symbolism, while also making a long-lasting impact on fields as diverse as literature, film, Marxist and feminist theories, literary criticism, philosophy and psychology. 

Freud is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind, especially involving the mechanism of repression; his redefinition of sexual desire as mobile and directed towards a wide variety of objects; and his therapeutic technique, especially his understanding of transference in the therapeutic relationship and the presumed value of dreams as sources of insight into unconscious desires.

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born into a Jewish family in Príbor (Freiberg in German), Moravia, in the Austrian Empire (now belonging to the Czech Republic). He had his name after three Polish kings Zygmunts (Sigismunds): Zygmunt Stary, Zygmunt August and Zygmunt III Vasa. That was an old family tradition after the Freuds were living in Poland at the years of Zygmunt kings (XVI and XVII). In 1877, at the age of 21, he abbreviated his given name to "Sigmund." Although he was the first-born of three brothers and five sisters among his mother's children, Sigmund had older half-brothers from his father's previous marriage. His family had limited finances and lived in a crowded apartment, but his parents made every effort to foster his intellect (often favoring Sigmund over his siblings), which was apparent from an early age. Sigmund was ranked first in his class in six years at the "Gymnasium", his grammar school.  He went on to attend the University of Vienna at 17, from 1873 to 1881.

Little is known of Freud's early life, as he destroyed his personal papers at least twice, once in 1885 and again in 1907. Additionally, portions of his personal correspondence and unpublished papers were closely guarded in the Sigmund Freud Archives at the Library of Congress and for many years were made available only to a few members of the inner circle of psychoanalysis. Most of these previously restricted documents have now been declassified and are available to researchers who visit the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

In 1886, Freud returned to Vienna and, after opening a private practice specializing in nervous and brain disorders, he married Martha Bernays. He is often rumored to have had an affair later on with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays (C. G. Jung alleged as much), and a hotel log dated 13 August 1898 seems to support this allegation.

Freud experimented with hypnotism with his most hysteric and neurotic patients, but he eventually gave up the practice. One theory is that he did so because he was not very good at it. He switched to putting his patients on a couch and encouraging them to say whatever came into their minds, a practice termed free association.

In his 40s, Freud "had numerous psychosomatic disorders as well as exaggerated fears of dying and other phobias."[3] During this time, Freud was involved in the task of exploring his own dreams, memories and the dynamics of his personality development. During this self-analysis, he came to realize the hostility he felt towards his father (Jacob Freud) and "he also recalled his childhood sexual feelings for his mother (Amalia Freud), who was attractive, warm, and protective."

After publishing successful books on the unconscious mind in 1900 and 1901, Freud was appointed to a professorship at the University of Vienna, where he began to develop a loyal following.

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 central aspects of his theory: the most notable examples are Carl Jung*** and Alfred Adler.*** While Freud wrote a stinging attack on both of them in a piece called "On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement," he ostracized the dissidents Otto Gross and Wilhelm Reich by complete silence.

In 1930, Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize by the city of Frankfurt, in recognition of his exceptional qualities as a writer in the German language. His mother died the same year, at the age of ninety-five. In 1933, as Hitler and the Nazis seized power in Germany, Freud's books were burnt publicly by the SA.

Following the Nazi German Anschluss, Freud fled Austria with his family with the financial help of his patient and friend Princess Marie Bonaparte. On June 4, 1938, they were allowed across the border into France and then they traveled from Paris to Hampstead, London, England, where they lived at 20 Maresfield Gardens (now the Freud Museum). As he was leaving Germany, Gestapo forced him to sign a statement that he had been treated respectfully. Freud wrote sarcastically, "I warmly recommend the Gestapo to everyone."

In England, in 1938, Freud's longing to be embraced by society as an important scientist was partly realized when two secretaries of the Royal Society brought the book of the Society for Freud to sign. Freud wrote to his friend Arnold Zweig: "They left a facsimile of the book with me and if you were here I could should show you the signatures from I. Newton to Charles Darwin. Good company!"

Freud began smoking at age 24, and smoked cigars for most of his life. When his colleague Wilhelm Fliess, a nose and throat specialist, suggested that he quit in order to clear up some nasal catarrhs, Freud was unwilling to do so.  Even after having his jaw removed due to malignancy, he continued to smoke until his death on September 23, 1939. After contracting cancer of the mouth in 1923 at the age of 67, he underwent over 30 operations to treat the disease, and for several years wore a painful prosthesis to seal off his mouth from his nasal cavity. In the end, Freud could no longer tolerate the pain associated with his cancer. He requested that his personal physician visit him at his London home for the purpose of helping him end his own life. Freud's death was by a physician-assisted morphine overdose.

Freud has been influential in two related but distinct ways. He simultaneously developed a theory of the human mind and human behavior, as well as clinical techniques for attempting to help neurotics.

The goal of Freudian therapy, or psychoanalysis was to bring to consciousness repressed thoughts and feelings. According to some of his successors, including his daughter Anna Freud, the goal of therapy is to allow the patient to develop a stronger ego; according to others, notably Jacques Lacan, the goal of therapy is to lead the analysand to a full acknowledgement of his or her inability to satisfy the most basic desires.

Classically, the bringing of unconscious thoughts and feelings to consciousness is brought about by encouraging the patient to talk in free association and to talk about dreams. Another important element of psychoanalysis is a relative lack of direct involvement on the part of the analyst, which is meant to encourage the patient to project thoughts and feelings onto the analyst. Through this process, transference, the patient can reenact and resolve repressed conflicts, especially childhood conflicts with (or about) parents.

The origin of Freud's early work with psychoanalysis can be linked to Joseph Breuer. Freud actually credits Breuer with the discovery of the psychoanalytical method. One case started this phenomenon that would shape the field of psychology for decades to come, the case of Anna O. In 1880 a young girl came to Breuer with symptoms of what was then called female hysteria. Anna O. was a 21 year old highly intelligent young girl. She presented with symptoms such as paralysis of the limbs, split personality and amnesia; today these symptoms are known as conversion disorder. After many doctors had given up and accused Anna O. of faking her symptoms, Breuer decided to treat her sympathetically, which he did with all of his patients. He started to hear her mumble words during what he called states of absence. Eventually Breuer started to recognize some of the words and wrote them down. He then hypnotized her and repeated the words to her; Breuer found out that the words were associated with her father's illness and death. Anna O. coined the term 'talk therapy' to describe this process.

In the early 1890s Freud used a form of treatment based on the one that Breuer had described to him, modified by what he called his "pressure technique". The traditional story, based on Freud's later accounts of this period, is that as a result of his use of this procedure most of his patients in the mid-1890s reported early childhood sexual abuse. He believed these stories, but then came to realize that for the most part his patients were fantasizing the abuse scenes.

However in recent decades several researchers have returned to the original documents and found that the received story, based on Freud's late retrospective account of the episode, is false in many respects. In 1896 Freud posited that the symptoms of 'hysteria' and obsessional neurosis derived from *unconscious* memories of sexual abuse in infancy, and claimed that he had uncovered such incidents for every single one of his current patients (one third of whom were men). However a close reading of his papers and letters from this period indicates that these patients did not report early childhood sexual abuse as he later claimed: rather, he arrived at his findings by analytically inferring the supposed incidents, using a procedure that was heavily dependent on the symbolic interpretation of somatic symptoms.

The Unconscious

It has often been claimed that the most significant contribution Freud made to Western thought was his argument for the existence of an unconscious mind. During the 19th century, the dominant trend in Western thought was positivism, which subscribed to the belief that people could ascertain real knowledge concerning themselves and their environment and judiciously exercise control over both. Freud, however, suggested that such declarations of free will are in fact delusions; that we are not entirely aware of what we think and often act for reasons that have little to do with our conscious thoughts. The concept of the unconscious as proposed by Freud was allegedly groundbreaking in that he proposed that awareness existed in layers and that there were thoughts occurring "below the surface." Nevertheless, as psychologist Jacques Van Rillaer, among others, pointed out, "contrary to what most people believe, the unconscious was not discovered by Freud. In 1890, when psychoanalysis was still unheard of, William James, in his monumental treatise on psychology, examined the way Schopenhauer, von Hartmann, Janet, Binet and others had used the term 'unconscious' and 'subconscious'".  Moreover, the historian of psychology Mark Altschule writes: "It is difficult - or perhaps impossible - to find a nineteenth century psychologist or medical psychologist who did not recognize unconscious cerebration as not only real but of the highest importance."

Dreams, which he called the "royal road to the unconscious", provided the best access to our unconscious life and the best illustration of its "logic", which was different from the logic of conscious thought. Freud developed his first topology of the psyche in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) in which he proposed the argument that the unconscious exists and described a method for gaining access to it. The preconscious was described as a layer between conscious and unconscious thought—that which we could access with a little effort. Thus for Freud, the ideals of the Enlightenment, positivism and rationalism, could be achieved through understanding, transforming, and mastering the unconscious, rather than through denying or repressing it.

Crucial to the operation of the unconscious is "repression." According to Freud, people often experience thoughts and feelings that are so painful that people cannot bear them. Such thoughts and feelings—and associated memories—could not, Freud argued, be banished from the mind, but could be banished from consciousness. Thus they come to constitute the unconscious. Although Freud later attempted to find patterns of repression among his patients in order to derive a general model of the mind, he also observed that individual patients repress different things. Moreover, Freud observed that the process of repression is itself a non-conscious act (in other words, it did not occur through people willing away certain thoughts or feelings). Freud supposed that what people repressed was in part determined by their unconscious. In other words, the unconscious was for Freud both a cause and effect of repression.

Later, Freud distinguished between three concepts of the unconscious: the descriptive unconscious, the dynamic unconscious, and the system unconscious. The descriptive unconscious referred to all those features of mental life of which we are not subjectively aware. The dynamic unconscious, a more specific construct, referred to mental process and contents which are defensively removed from consciousness as a result of conflictual forces or "dynamics". The system unconscious denoted the idea that when mental processes are repressed, they become organized by principles different from those of the conscious mind, such as condensation and displacement.

Eventually, Freud abandoned the idea of the system unconscious, replacing it with the concept of the Ego, super-ego, and id (discussed below). Throughout his career, however, he retained the descriptive and dynamic conceptions of the unconscious.

Freud hoped to prove that his model was universally valid and thus turned to ancient mythology and contemporary ethnography for comparative material. Freud named his new theory the Oedipus complex after the famous Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. “I found in myself a constant love for my mother, and jealousy of my father. I now consider this to be a universal event in childhood,” Freud said. Freud sought to anchor this pattern of development in the dynamics of the mind. Each stage is a progression into adult sexual maturity, characterized by a strong ego and the ability to delay gratification. He used the Oedipus conflict to point out how much he believed that people desire incest and must repress that desire. The Oedipus conflict was described as a state of psychosexual development and awareness. He also turned to anthropological studies of totemism and argued that totemism reflected a ritualized enactment of a tribal Oedipal conflict.

Freud originally posited childhood sexual abuse as a general explanation for the origin of neuroses, but he abandoned this so-called "seduction theory" as insufficiently explanatory, noting that he had found many cases in which apparent memories of childhood sexual abuse were based more on imagination than on real events. During the late 1890s Freud, who never abandoned his belief in the sexual etiology of neuroses, began to emphasize fantasies built around the Oedipus complex as the primary cause of hysteria and other neurotic symptoms. Despite this change in his explanatory model, Freud always recognized that some neurotics had been sexually abused by their fathers, and was quite explicit about discussing several patients that he knew to have been abused.

Freud also believed that the libido developed in individuals by changing its object, a process designed by the concept of sublimation. He argued that humans are born "polymorphously perverse", meaning that any number of objects could be a source of pleasure. He further argued that, as humans develop, they become fixated on different and specific objects through their stages of development—first in the oral stage (exemplified by an infant's pleasure in nursing), then in the anal stage (exemplified by a toddler's pleasure in emptying his or her bowels), then in the phallic stage. Freud argued that children then passed through a stage in which they fixated on the mother as a sexual object (known as the Oedipus Complex) but that the child eventually overcame and repressed this desire because of its taboo nature. (The lesser known Electra complex refers to such a fixation upon the father.) The repressive or dormant latency stage of psychosexual development preceded the sexually mature genital stage of psychosexual development.

Freud's way of interpretation has been called phallocentric by many contemporary thinkers. This is because, for Freud, the unconscious always desires the phallus (penis). Males are afraid of castration - losing their phallus or masculinity to another male. Females always desire to have a phallus - an unfulfillable desire. Thus boys resent their father (fear of castration) and girls desire theirs. For Freud, desire is always defined in the negative term of lack - you always desire what you don't have or what you are not, and it is very unlikely that you will fulfill this desire. Thus his psychoanalysis treatment is meant to teach the patient to cope with his unsatisfiable desires.

In his later work, Freud proposed that the psyche was divided into three parts: Ego, super-ego, and id. Freud discussed this structural model of the mind in the 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and fully elaborated it in The Ego and The Id (1923), where he developed it as an alternative to his previous topographic schema (conscious, unconscious, preconscious).

Defense Mechanisms

According to Freud, the defense mechanisms are the method by which the ego can solve the conflicts between the super-ego and the id. The use of defense mechanisms may attenuate the conflict between the id and super-ego, but their overuse or reuse rather than confrontation can lead to either anxiety or guilt which may result in psychological disorders such as depression. His daughter Anna Freud had done the most significant work on this field, yet she credited Sigmund with defense mechanisms, as he began the work. The defense mechanisms include: denial, reaction formation, displacement, repression/suppression (the proper term), projection, intellectualisation, rationalization, compensation, sublimation and regressive emotionality.

Denial occurs when someone fends off awareness of an unpleasant truth or of a reality that is a threat to the ego. For example, a student may have received a bad grade on a report card but tells himself that grades don't matter. (Some early writers argued for a striking parallel between Freudian denial and Nietzsche's ideas of ressentiment and the revaluation of values that he attributed to "herd" or "slave" morality.)
Reaction formation takes place when a person takes the opposite approach consciously compared to what that person wants unconsciously. For example, someone may engage in violence against another race because, that person claims, the members of the race are inferior, when unconsciously it is that very person who feels inferior.
Displacement takes place when someone redirects emotion from a "dangerous" object to a "safe" one, such as punching a pillow when one is angry at a friend.

Repression occurs when an experience is so painful (such as war trauma) that it is unconsciously forced from consciousness, while suppression is a conscious effort to do the same.

Psychological projection occurs when a person "projects" his or her own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, feelings — basically parts of oneself — onto someone or something else. Since the person is experiencing particular desires, feelings, thoughts, or anxieties, s/he is more prone to attribute those same characteristics into the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of others.

Intellectualization involves removing one's self, emotionally, from a stressful event, by focusing on rational and factual components of the situation.

Rationalization involves constructing a logical justification for a decision that was originally arrived at through a different mental process. For example, Jim may drink red wine because he is an alcoholic, but he tells himself he drinks it because it has some health benefits, in order to avoid facing his alcoholism.

Compensation occurs when someone takes up one behavior because one cannot accomplish another behavior. For example, the second born child may clown around to get attention since the older child is already an accomplished scholar.

Sublimation is the channeling of impulses to socially accepted behaviors. For instance, an aggressive or homicidal person may join the military as a cover for their violent behavior.

The life and death instincts

Freud believed that humans were driven by two conflicting central desires: the life drive (Eros) (incorporating the sex drive) and the death drive (Thanatos). Freud's description of Eros and Libido included all creative, life-producing drives. The Death Drive (or death instinct) represented an urge inherent in all living things to return to a state of calm, or, ultimately, of non-existence. The presence of the Death Drive was only recognized in his later years, and the contrast between the two represents a revolution in his manner of thinking. The death instinct is also referred to as the Nirvana Principle.

Freud's legacy

Freud's theories and research methods were controversial during his life and still are so today, but few dispute his huge impact on psychologists and the academically inclined.

Most importantly, Freud popularized the "talking-cure"--an idea that a person could solve problems simply by talking over them, something that was almost unheard of in the 19th century. Even though many psychotherapists today tend to reject the specifics of Freud's theories, this basic mode of treatment comes largely from his work.

Most of Freud's specific theories--like his stages of psychosexual development--and especially his methodology, have fallen out of favor in modern experimental psychology.

Some psychotherapists, however, still follow an approximately Freudian system of treatment. Many more have modified his approach, or joined one of the schools that branched from his original theories (see Neo-Freudian). Still others reject his theories entirely, although their practice may still reflect his influence.

Psychoanalysis today maintains the same ambivalent relationship with medicine and academia that Freud experienced during his life.

Critical reactions

Although Freud's theories were quite influential, they have also come under widespread criticism during his lifetime and afterward. A paper by Lydiard H. Horton, read in 1915 at a joint meeting of the American Psychological Association and the New York Academy of Sciences , called Freud's dream theory "dangerously inaccurate" and noted that "rank confabulations...appear to hold water, psychoanalytically". A. C. Grayling, writing in The Guardian in 2002, said "Philosophies that capture the imagination never wholly fade....But as to Freud's claims upon truth, the judgment of time seems to be running against him] Peter D. Kramer, said "I'm afraid [Freud] doesn't hold up very well at all. It almost feels like a personal betrayal to say that. But every particular is wrong: the universality of the Oedipus complex, penis envy, infantile sexuality." A 2006 article in Newsweek magazine called him "history's most debunked doctor.

Some critics, rather than attacking the body of Freud's work, have delved into individual topics. For instance, Juliet Mitchell, has suggested that Freud's basic claim — that many of our conscious thoughts and actions are driven by unconscious desires and fears — should be rejected because it implicitly challenges the possibility of making universal and objective claims about the world. Some proponents of science conclude that this invalidates Freudian theory as a means of interpreting and explaining human behavior.

Another frequently criticized aspect of Freud's theories is his model of psychosexual development. Some have attacked Freud's claim that infants are sexual beings, and, implicitly, Freud's expanded notion of sexuality. Others have accepted Freud's expanded notion of sexuality, but have argued that this pattern of development is not universal, nor necessary for the development of a healthy adult. Instead, they have emphasized the social and environmental sources of patterns of development. Moreover, they call attention to social dynamics Freud de-emphasized or ignored, such as class relations. This branch of Freudian critique owes a great deal to the work of Herbert Marcuse.

Freud has also come under fire from many feminist critics. Freud was an early champion of both sexual freedom and education for women (Freud, "Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness"). Some feminists, however, have argued that at worst his views of women's sexual development set the progress of women in Western culture back decades, and that at best they lent themselves to the ideology of female inferiority. Believing as he did that women are a kind of mutilated male, who must learn to accept their "deformity" (the "lack" of a penis) and submit to some imagined biological imperative, he contributed to the vocabulary of misogyny. Terms such as "penis envy" and "castration anxiety" contributed to discouraging women from obtaining education or entering any field dominated by men, until the 1970s. Some of Freud's most criticized statements appear in his 'Fragment of Analysis' on Ida Bauer such as "This was surely just the situation to call up distinct feelings of sexual excitement in a girl of fourteen" in reference to Dora being kissed by a 'young man of prepossessing appearance' implying the passivity of female sexuality and his statement "I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion for sexual excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable".

On the other hand, feminist theorists such as Juliet Mitchell, Nancy Chodorow, Jessica Benjamin, Jane Gallop, and Jane Flax have argued that psychoanalytic theory is essentially related to the feminist project and must, like other theoretical traditions, be adapted by women to free it from vestiges of sexism. Freud's views are still being questioned by people concerned about women's equality. Another feminist who finds potential use of Freud's theories in the feminist movement is Shulamith Firestone. In "Freudianism: The Misguided Feminism", she discusses how Freudianism is essentially completely accurate, with the exception of one crucial detail: everywhere that Freud writes "penis", the word should be replaced with "power".

Dr. J. Von Schneidt speculated (with little evidence) that most of Freud's psychoanalytical theory was a byproduct of his cocaine use. Cocaine enhances dopaminergic neurotransmission increasing sexual interest and obsessive thinking. Chronic cocaine use can produce unusual thinking patterns due to the depletion of dopamine levels in the prefrontal cortex.

Finally, Freud's theories are often criticized for not being real science. This objection was raised most famously by Karl Popper, who claimed that all proper scientific theories must be potentially falsifiable. Popper argued that no experiment or observation could ever falsify Freud's theories of psychology (e.g. someone who denies having an Oedipal complex is interpreted as repressing it), and thus they could not be considered scientific.

Areas of Controversy

More specifics regarding areas of controversy are included below.  The following has been adapted from the Sigmund Freud and the Freud Archives website.

In fact, the controversy which exists in relation to Freud is more heated and multi-faceted than that relating to virtually any other recent thinker (a possible exception being Darwin), with criticisms ranging from the contention that Freud's theory was generated by logical confusions arising out of his alleged long-standing addiction to cocaine to the view that he made an important, but grim, empirical discovery, which he knowingly suppressed in favor of the theory of the unconscious, knowing that the latter would be more acceptable socially.

It should be emphasised here that Freud's genius is not (generally) in doubt, but the precise nature of his achievement is still the source of much debate. The supporters and followers of Freud (and Carl Jung and Alfred Adler) are noted for the zeal and enthusiasm with which they espouse the doctrines of the master, to the point where many of the detractors of the movement see it as a kind of secular religion, requiring as it does an initiation process in which the aspiring psychoanalyst must himself first be analyzed. In this way, it is often alleged, the unquestioning acceptance of a set of ideological principles becomes a necessary precondition for acceptance into the movement - as with most religious groupings. In reply, the exponents and supporters of psychoanalysis frequently analyze the motivations of their critics in terms of the very theory which those critics reject. And so the debate goes on.

Here we will confine ourselves to: (a) the evaluation of Freud's claim that his theory is a scientific one, (b) the question of the theory's coherence, (c) the dispute concerning what, if anything, Freud really discovered, and (d) the question of the efficacy of psychoanalysis as a treatment for neurotic illnesses.

The Claim to Scientific Status

This is a crucially important issue, since Freud not alone saw himself first and foremost as a pioneering scientist, but repeatedly asserted that the significance of psychoanalysis is that it is a new science, incorporating a new scientific method of dealing with the mind and with mental illness. And there can be no doubt but that this has been the chief attraction of the theory for most of its advocates since then - on the face of it, it has the appearance of being, not just a scientific theory, but an enormously strong scientific theory, with the capacity to accommodate, and explain, every possible form of human behavior. However, it is precisely this latter which, for many commentators, undermines its claim to scientific status. On the question of what makes a theory a genuinely scientific one, Karl Popper's criterion of demarcation, as it is called, has now gained very general acceptance: that every genuine scientific theory must be testable, and therefore falsifiable, at least in principle - in other words, if a theory is incompatible with possible observations it is scientific; conversely, a theory which is compatible with all possible observations is unscientific. Thus the principle of the conservation of energy, which influenced Freud so greatly, is a scientific one, because it is falsifiable - the discovery of a physical system in which the total amount of energy was not constant would conclusively show it to be false. And it is argued that nothing of the kind is possible with respect to Freud's theory - if, in relation to it, the question is asked: 'What does this theory imply which, if false, would show the whole theory to be false?', the answer is 'nothing', the theory is compatible with every possible state of affairs - it cannot be falsified by anything, since it purports to explain everything. Hence it is concluded that the theory is not scientific, and while this does not, as some critics claim, rob it of all value, it certainly diminishes its intellectual status, as that was and is projected by its strongest advocates, including Freud himself.

The Coherence of the Theory

A related (but perhaps more serious) point is that the coherence of the theory is, at the very least, questionable. What is attractive about the theory, even to the layman, is that it seems to offer us long sought-after, and much needed, causal explanations for conditions which have been a source of a great deal of human misery. The thesis that neuroses are caused by unconscious conflicts buried deep in the unconscious mind in the form of repressed libidinal energy would appear to offer us, at last, an insight in the causal mechanism underlying these abnormal psychological conditions as they are expressed in human behavior, and further show us how they are related to the psychology of the 'normal' person. However, even this is questionable, and is a matter of much dispute. In general, when it is said that an event X causes another event Y to happen, both X and Y are, and must be, independently identifiable. It is true that this is not always a simple process, as in science causes are sometimes unobservable (sub-atomic particles, radio and electromagnetic waves, molecular structures, etc.), but in these latter cases there are clear 'correspondence rules' connecting the unobservable causes with observable phenomena. The difficulty with Freud's theory is that it offers us entities (repressed unconscious conflicts, for example) which are said to be the unobservable causes of certain forms of behavior, but there are no correspondence rules for these alleged causes - they cannot be identified except by reference to the behavior which they are said to cause (i.e. the analyst does not demonstratively assert: 'This is the unconscious cause, and that is its behavioral effect'; he asserts: 'This is the behavior, therefore its unconscious cause must exist'). And this does raise serious doubts as to whether Freud's theory offers us genuine causal explanations at all.

Freud's Discovery?

At a less theoretical, but no less critical level, it has been alleged that Freud did make a genuine discovery, which he was initially prepared to reveal to the world, but the response which he encountered was so ferociously hostile that he masked his findings, and offered his theory of the unconscious in its place.  What he discovered, it has been suggested, was the extreme prevalence of child sexual abuse, particularly of young girls (the vast majority of hysterics are women), even in respectable nineteenth century Vienna. He did in fact offer an early 'seduction theory' of neuroses, which met with fierce animosity, and which he quickly withdrew, and replaced with theory of the unconscious. As one contemporary Freudian commentator explains it, Freud's change of mind on this issue came about as follows:

Questions concerning the traumas suffered by his patients seemed to reveal [to Freud] that Viennese girls were extraordinarily often seduced in very early childhood by older male relatives; doubt about the actual occurrence of these seductions was soon replaced by certainty that it was descriptions about childhood fantasy that were being offered. (MacIntyre).

In this way, it is suggested, the theory of the Oedipus complex was generated.

This statement begs a number of questions, not least, what does the expression 'extraordinarily often' mean in this context? By what standard is this being judged? The answer can only be: by the standard of what we generally believe - or would like to believe - to be the case. But the contention of some of Freud's critics here is that his patients were not recalling childhood fantasies, but traumatic events in their childhood which were all too real, and that he had stumbled upon, and knowingly suppressed, the fact that the level of child sexual abuse in society is much higher than is generally believed or acknowledged. If this contention is true - and it must at least be contemplated seriously - then this is undoubtedly the most serious criticism that Freud and his followers have to face.

Further, this particular point has taken on an added, and even more controversial significance in recent years with the willingness of some contemporary Freudians to combine the theory of repression with an acceptance of the wide-spread social prevalence of child sexual abuse. The result has been that, in the United States and Britain in particular, many thousands of people have emerged from analysis with 'recovered memories' of alleged childhood sexual abuse by their parents, memories which, it is suggested, were hitherto repressed. On this basis, parents have been accused and repudiated, and whole families divided or destroyed. Unsurprisingly, this in turn has given rise to a systematic backlash, in which organizations of accused parents, seeing themselves as the true victims of what they term 'False Memory Syndrome', have denounced all such memory-claims as falsidical, the direct product of a belief in what they see as the myth of repression.  In this way, the concept of repression, which Freud himself termed 'the foundation stone upon which the structure of psychoanalysis rests', has come in for more widespread critical scrutiny than ever before. Here, the fact that, unlike some of his contemporary followers, Freud did not himself ever countenance the extension of the concept of repression to cover actual child sexual abuse, and the fact that we are not necessarily forced to choose between the views that all 'recovered memories' are either veridical or falsidical, are, perhaps understandably, frequently lost sight of in the extreme heat generated by this debate.

The Efficacy of Psychoanalytic Therapy

It does not follow that, if Freud's theory is unscientific, or even false, it cannot provide us with a basis for the beneficial treatment of neurotic illness, because the relationship between a theory's truth or falsity and its utility-value is far from being an isomorphic one. (The theory upon which the use of leeches to bleed patients in eighteenth century medicine was based was quite spurious, but patients did sometimes actually benefit from the treatment!). And of course even a true theory might be badly applied, leading to negative consequences. One of the problems here is that it is difficult to specify what counts as a cure for a neurotic illness, as distinct, say, from a mere alleviation of the symptoms. In general, however, the efficiency of a given method of treatment is usually clinically measured by means of a 'control group' - the proportion of patients suffering from a given disorder who are cured by treatment X is measured by comparison with those cured by other treatments, or by no treatment at all. Such clinical tests as have been conducted indicate that the proportion of patients who have benefited from psychoanalytic treatment does not diverge significantly from the proportion who recover spontaneously or as a result of other forms of intervention in the control groups used. So the question of the therapeutic effectiveness of psychoanalysis remains an open and controversial one.

Additional Information

For more information about Sigmund Freud and mental health treatment, please click on the websites listed below.

Sigmund Freud Page
Freud Museum in London
Quotations of Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud and the Freud Archives
Time Magazine: Time100 Sigmund Freud
International Psychoanalytical Association

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