Sigmund Freud

Born in Freiberg in Austria, today called Příbor and part of Czech Republic on May 6, 1856, Sigmund Freud was to cement his legacy as eminent neurologist and psychiatrist. Freud is undoubtedly one of the critical thinkers who has most influenced the thought of his century. Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, an widely famous approach to cure neuroses by psychological analysis, which he defined as not only a method of investigation of mental processes, as well as a therapeutic method, but also a theory of psychic functioning. Freud was an atheist who fought against religion, which he considered an obstacle to human intelligence and its development. Psychoanalysis as a theory of psychic workings allowed Freud to give an explanation of collective phenomena such as the prohibition of incest, in Totem and Taboo (1913), and a potent analysis of religion in The Future of an Illusion (1927). Freud taught at the University of Vienna from 1883 until he had to move to London in 1938 to escape anti-Semitism.

Born into a Jewish family from Bohemia who had fled to Vienna, Austria, Freud showed very early an aptitude for studies and read Shakespeare at the early age of eight years old. With a curious mind, the young Freud shared his time with several centers of interest including in particular medicine, but also law and philosophy. At seventeen years of age, having completed high school, Freud ultimately opted that his further studies would be in medicine. Focusing in 1876 on the study of the nervous system, Freud obtained his medical degree in 1881.

In spite of doing brilliant medical and biological studies, Freud must give up a career in academia because of his modest income and his Jewish origins. Instead Freud opened a medical practice and become interested more and more in psychological disorders. Freud first directed his post-graduate interest towards neurology. In October 1885, Freud joined the French neurologist Professor Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93) in Paris and gained from his work on hysteria, also becoming familiar with hypnosis. In the intellectual ferment that characterized Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Freud distinguished himself by giving the world a new medical discipline, psychoanalysis. Breaking with the choice between physical causes and simulation to understand hysteria, Freud developed an innovative approach to the human mind by providing a fundamental role to the unconscious.

As a result of a general lack of scientific evidence of its effectiveness and due to sectarian behaviors deemed of its supporters, psychoanalysis has been subject to much criticism over the 100 years or so of its existence. Even so, psychoanalysis has has managed to re-invent itself several times over, most notably through the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) and more recently that of, for example, the famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s (1949-) inspiring re-appropriation of Lacan’s work and the critical work of American philosopher Judith Butler’s (1956) critical re-appropriation of Freud’s work. Therefore, psychoanalysis is today arguably more alive than ever.

Back in Vienna, Freud worked with Josef Breuer (1842-1925) on the case of Anna O, who was diagnosed as hysterical, and whose examination laid the foundation of psychoanalysis, including its links to sexuality. While he practiced medicine traditional nerve in his medical practice, Freud decided due to a lack of convincing results, to try the method of hypnosis. It is in the now famous case of Anna O.  that Freud’s research first obtained conclusive results, which were published in Studies on Hysteria (written with Josef Breuer) in 1895.

The fundamental discovery in these studies were the link between the symptoms of the patient and her repressed memories of which she was unaware. In reviving the patient’s memories under hypnosis, the symptoms subside. This is what Freud called catharsis, that is to say, a purification. However, at that point Freud the physician will then face the hostility of the medical profession. It is around that time that Freud conceive of the therapeutic possibilities of free association. From the case of Anna O, Freud embarked on a new path and develop psychoanalysis. Freud’s method took a new turn as he abandoned hypnosis for free association, accepting the request of a patient known as Elisabeth von R. Now patients expressed themselves consciously but without practicing the usual social language censorship and are simply guided by what comes to mind.
The death of Freud’s father in 1896 also accelerated the birth of psychoanalysis. For the first time Freud highlights the principle of repression. Indeed, affected by the death of his father, Freud decided to practice self-analysis and dedicated himself at the same time to the interpretation of his dreams. It is in fact in 1897 that Freud began researching dreams more deeply which led him to his most important discoveries: the existence of fantasy and the Oedipus complex. By this latter term, Freud describes the test that awaits the children between the ages of 3 and 5. The Oedipus complex latter is the simultaneously hostile and romantic attachment of the child to the parental couple, which includes hate towards the father and love of the mother. According to Freud such attachment is resolved by identification.

The concept of transference, that is to say, the projection of childhood repressed feelings on those around, as well as Freud’s theory of the phases of sexuality in children are theorized in this prosperous period. Yet his research on infantile sexuality at that time also took him away from his friend Joseph Breuer. With successive publications including The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, (1905) Freud invented a theory which earned him many critics among physicians but also led to a real school of thought joined for example by very important thinkers of the time including the Austrian psychologist and psychiatrist Alfred Adler (1870-1937) and the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961).

From 1920 onward, Freud made the theoretical move of focusing on two big binary principles: life and death. According to Freud, they make up each individual human being, which by now he defined as the combination the id, the ego and the superego. As the recognized and celebrated founder of psychoanalysis, Freud trained motivated followers, including his daughter Anna (1895-1982). But above all, Freud's psychoanalytic theories at that time start to extend to civilization and he criticizes the weight of of religion, especially in the book The Future of an Illusion (1927).

In spite of the controversies that Freud continued to raise, he benefited from a wide recognition and as such was awarded the 1930 prestigious Goethe prize in Germany. However, a victim of cancer of the jaw since 1923 and caught up by the Nazis who did not appreciate a new vision of man expounded by a Jew, Freud will live through difficult times for the last years of his life. Freud’s books are actually burned in 1934 in Berlin, Germany. Sick with cancer and wary of rising anti-Semitism, Freud fled for London in 1938 just before World War II and died there on September 23rd 1939, having committed suicide with the help of his doctor and his daughter Anna. Two centigrams of morphine plunged Freud into a coma. Death took him only two days later, just twenty-two days after the outbreak of the war.

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