Freud, Sigmund

In 1856 Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was born above a blacksmith shop in the Moravian town of Freiberg, his father an unsuccessful wool merchant. The family moved to Leipzig, then to Vienna, but continued to experience economic hardship. His mother—young, beautiful, and dynamic—was the center of his emotional life while his father was described as distant and ineffectual. Freud came of age during a renewal of anti-Jewish sentiment in Vienna after a more liberal policy had encouraged the belief that people would be judged on their merits rather than their religion.

Freud earned his medical degree at the University of Vienna and became an adept neuroscientist whose research advanced knowledge of the nervous system and uncovered the anesthetic properties of cocaine. Nevertheless, his discoveries failed to win a secure position. Unable to support a wife, he corresponded daily with his beloved Martha Bernay while studying in Paris with a superstar physician and researcher, Jean Martin Charcot, who opened Freud's eyes to the importance of psychological factors (especially displaced sexuality) in producing physical symptoms. History has not been kind to Charcot's assertions, but he opened up a new world of possibilities to young Freud.

Setting himself up in clinical practice in order to support a family, Freud married Bernay and together they eventually had six children, including daughter Anna who became a distinguished psychoanalyst and child advocate in her own right. Freud's clinical practice started in a discouraging way. Patients were few and difficult to treat successfully. He used the methods then in vogue and also tried, but abandoned, hypnosis. Freud had expected much of himself, longing to be part of the new wave of scientists who were transforming medicine and society—and here he was, barely able to pay the bills. The death of his father was a further blow. The way out of these difficulties proved to be the way in—to the secrets of his own mind. Freud became both the first psychoanalyst and the first analysand (one undergoing psychoanalysis).

New Theory of the Human Mind

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) he reported (in a selective form) his self-analysis but also set forth an audacious new theory of the human mind. He elaborated, applied, and at times revised this theory over the years. Freud offered a complex vision of the human condition. He contended that adult personality is the outcome of experiences and conflicts beginning in early childhood. Neuroses result from difficulties in coping with fears, desires, and conflicts during the process of psychosexual development. Freud further held that conscious thought is a surface activity beneath

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud became, perhaps, the first major thinker to recognize both the importance and the pervasiveness of grief. CORBIS
Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud became, perhaps, the first major thinker to recognize both the importance and the pervasiveness of grief.
which the unconscious operates according to its own rules. Much of the individual's emotional energy is tied up in an attempt to prevent threatening memories and conflicts from breaking through into consciousness. Furthermore, he believed that society itself has its own neurotic processes that often take the form of rituals and taboos. Mature persons are the ones who have become liberated from the hold of the past and accepted and integrated their basic impulses into a larger and more functional self.

Freud's new way of thinking about human thought and relationships led troubled people to seek his therapy and aspiring disciples to want to study with him. He was financially secure and in the midst of the international intellectual ferment for the remainder of his long life, but he was troubled throughout that life by a series of harrowing events: Friends died, some by their own hand; the brutality of two wars intensified his concern about the future of civilization; physical pain tormented him for years; and the Nazis systematically destroyed his books and the works of other Jewish authors, leading to his reluctant departure from Vienna.

Freud on Death

At first Freud was dismissive of death concerns (thanatophobia). He believed that people who express fears of dying and death are—way deep down—actually afraid of something else, such as castration or abandonment. Humans could not really fear death because they had never had this experience and because finality and death are not computed by the unconscious. This view remained influential for many years after Freud himself started to take death more seriously.

It was grief that came foremost to Freud's notice. Not only had many died during World War I, but also many of Freud's family members and friends were suffering from depression, agitation, physical ailments, and suicidal thoughts and behavior. Later he realized that many people lived in grief for deaths not related to the war and that these losses might account for their various emotional and physical problems. Freud's grief-work theory suggested the importance of expressing grief and detaching emotionally from the deceased in order to recover full function.

His most sweeping—and controversial—suggestion took the form of death instinct theory, which postulated that all living creatures engage in an ongoing scrimmage between competing impulses for activity and survival on the one hand, and withdrawal and death on the other. This theory was associated with Freud's ever-intensifying fears that human destructive impulses would eventually destroy civilization if not all life on Earth unless they were rechanneled by improved child-rearing, psychoanalysis, and more effective societal patterns. To the last he hoped that acts of love could counteract the destructive impulses. It was not long after his death in London on September 23, 1939, that Anna Freud organized an effective mission to save the children of that city from Nazi rockets and bombs.

See also: Anxiety AND Fear ; Death Instinct ; Grief: Theories ; Psychology


Anzieu, Didier. Freud's Self-Analysis. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1986.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Norton, 1960.

Freud, Sigmund. "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. IV. London: Hogarth Press, 1953.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Random House, 1938.

Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York: Norton, 1988.

Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.

Schur, Max. Freud: Living and Dying. New York: International Universities Press, 1972.


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