Skip navigation

The Core Curriculum

Sigmund Freud

1856 CE – 1939 CE

  Portrait of Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt, 1921 (Wikimedia Commons) Portrait of Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt, 1921 (Wikimedia Commons) Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, which revolutionized the modern understanding of the mind, was born in Freiburg, Moravia, in 1856. His family moved to Vienna, Austria in 1860, where Freud lived until the last year of his life. Freud had a precocious interest in a variety of subjects—the natural sciences, but also classical Greek and Latin literature, German literature, and philosophy. While Freud unequivocally understood himself as a scientist, and insisted on the scientific status of psychoanalysis, the richness and wide interest of psychoanalysis is largely due to its assimilation of such a diverse variety of kinds of inquiry. Freud entered medical school at the University of Vienna in 1873 and graduated in 1881, after which he took his first position as a psychiatrist at Vienna’s General Hospital.

The basic ideas of psychoanalysis were developed during Freud’s early experience as a psychiatrist, treating patients whose mental pathologies and eccentricities largely escaped explanation by contemporary medical understanding. Freud also benefited from a number of close associations with colleagues. In 1885, Freud received a fellowship to study with Jean-Martin Charcot, the eminent French neurologist who had begun investigating hysteria and hypnosis. (Charcot is particularly famous for staging spectacle-like exhibitions in which, using hypnosis, he was able to induce in a patient a hysterical attack.) After beginning a private practice in 1886, Freud began to work with Josef Breuer, an older psychiatrist and, for Freud, a father figure. Breuer and Freud treated patients who displayed a bizarre and disconnected range of symptoms: nervousness, sleeplessness, delusions, incapacities in seeing and speaking, and partial paralysis. Breuer—and primarily in his treatment of a young woman whom he named “Anna O.,” but who is now known to have been Bertha Pappenheim—had the insight that these symptoms originated in traumatic memories, of which, in their lucid lives, patients were unaware. Breuer also discovered that patients, through consciously recollecting these traumatic memories, or through talking about them, could relieve the symptoms which they caused. Freud agreed with Breuer on these two points. But Freud insisted on the sexual content of the traumatic memories, a view which Breuer did not share, and which led to the end of their collaboration. They published their findings in 1895, in Studies on Hysteria.

In the next ten years, Freud, through his work with patients, but also through his own “self-analysis,” in which he treated himself as his own patient, developed, tested, and wrote about the ideas which are still the cornerstones of psychoanalysis. In 1900, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, which not only addressed the nature of dreams, whose secret Freud believed he was the first to discover, but which also introduced the crucial ideas of unconscious ideas and mental processes, the repression of unconscious ideas from normal, waking, conscious life, and the relationship between unconscious ideas and sexual wishes. In 1905, Freud published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. This text provided an explanation of the origin of the sexual wishes which can be discovered in unconscious ideas: they are the sexual wishes which belong a person’s childhood, and which, Freud maintained, are forgotten by adults in whom, nevertheless, they survive. Three Essays caused a scandal and quickly gained the hostility of the medical establishment. Freud claimed that infants and children are not innocent, sexually ignorant, cherubic beings, but rather possess a wide-ranging and colorful sexual life, and are deeply preoccupied with the meaning and origin of their sexual experiences. It also located the source of adult perversions—like sadism, masochism, exhibitionism, and voyeurism—in this infantile sexuality, which had the effect of giving perversion a place in the nature of human beings, and, indeed, in the nature of all human beings.

  André Breton, 1924. (Wikimedia Commons)  In the Surrealist Manifesto, Breton - influenced by Freud - defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism." André Breton, 1924. (Wikimedia Commons) In the Surrealist Manifesto, Breton - influenced by Freud - defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism." Interest in psychoanalysis rapidly grew after Freud’s initial publications. Freud attempted to consolidate a group of psychiatrists and students who could use psychoanalytic ideas and techniques in normal psychiatric practice, and who could also introduce psychoanalysis to the wider psychiatric world. The early analysts who were drawn to Freud included Sandor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Ernest Jones, and Alfred Adler. Freud’s relationship with this group was close but contentious. Freud, as his close friends acknowledged, understood himself to be a Moses-like figure, giving a tablet of laws—psychoanalytic science—to disciples. To Freud’s deep consternation, these early analysts developed Freud’s ideas in their own, independent directions. While many of Freud’s earliest followers therefore broke with him, this diversity in psychoanalytic thinking, which still continues today, contributed to the vitality of psychoanalysis. Freud—partially concerned with establishing a set concepts which could constitute a psychoanalytic orthodoxy—began writing what is referred to as his “metapsychological” and “technical” papers. The metapsychological papers worked out the fundamental concepts of the psychoanalytic theory of the mind—repression, defense, the unconscious, the pleasure principle, the reality principle, and instinct or drive (Trieb). The technical papers clarified the basic rules by which psychoanalytic treatment is carried out—the patient’s free association, and the analyst’s maintenance of an evenly-suspended attention—as well as the peculiar phenomena that the psychoanalyst will encounter in the course of a treatment—transference, resistance, and the love of the patient for the doctor.

Toward the end of his life, Freud engaged with a rising interest in psychoanalysis among artists and intellectuals. Freud was visited by one of the fathers of surrealism, André Breton, whose followers had begun to create artworks which exhibited the very same contents that Freud claimed to discover in the unconscious; the novelist Thomas Mann and the playwright Arthur Schnitzler were also inspired by Freud’s ideas; and Freud corresponded with Einstein about the causes of war in human beings, which can be read today. Freud’s work from the last period of his life also reflects his growing preoccupation with the role of aggression and violence in the mind. Beginning in 1920, Freud developed the second topology, or the structural theory of the mind, which divided the mind into three constituent agencies—the ego, the id, and the superego. Just as novel and important as this new model of the mind was the emphasis that Freud placed on what he called the “death instincts”: instincts, operative in a person’s mind, which aim at returning a person to an inorganic state, or a state of death. Freud published a number of texts during this period which reflect his sober but dark evaluation of human existence.
Civilization and its Discontents proposed that human aggression is curtailed by civilization, but is also generated by civilization, leaving human beings uneasy or discontented within it. And Moses and Monotheism, a partially historical text which argued that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian, suggested that the history of religions can be understood to be a response to an original act of violence—the Jews’ murder of Moses, which Freud believed had occurred but had been repressed in Jewish history.

The end of Freud’s life confirmed his pessimism. After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1939, Freud, suffering from cancer, was forced to flee to London. Freud was by no means a believing or observant Jew, but he always had an acute sense of his Jewish identity. Psychoanalysis had been attacked as a “Jewish science,” and Freud, showing both conviction and courage, had never retreated from publicly confronting any instance of anti-Semitism. Moses and Monotheism, which was completed while he was in England, began with an eloquent, but resigned condemnation of the violence which had forced Freud out of Vienna, and which would have more severe effects on others. But Freud was in a good position to understand the seemingly unimaginable actions that were just beginning. His science was meant to show how the love and hatred which governs human life both escapes conscious acknowledgment and control, but also gives rise to pathologies which can define human life itself.


Written by Beau Shaw, Philosophy, Columbia University


Work Consulted: 

Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: Norton, 1998)