Freud took up the study of medicine at Vienna; he eventually choose a specialty, neurology. While no evolutionist would argue with Freud's theory of the Universe1 Freud's extended views have gotten us into some serious difficulty. He advanced the theory "that hysteria can be cured by making a patient recall painful memories under hypnosis." His colleagues frowned, and Freud changed over from neurology to psychopathology.
Freud was big on hypnosis, but it eventually took a second seat to another of his ideas, that of "free association." Freud placed much emphasis on infantile sexuality and emphasized that many of our problems in later life come from our relationships with our parents, the so-called Oedipus complex.2 The symptoms of neurosis, according to Freud, "are essentially substitute gratifications for unfulfilled sexual wishes." From Freud's teachings sprang a whole industry; which has milked, and continues to milk, most all of western society; as a sizable portion of the population goes about psychoanalyzing their fellows. This intrusive Freudian exercise, I might add, is carried out, mainly, at the expense of the hard working portion of the population who would hardly think they have any need for psychoanalysis themselves; nor, if they knew something of the subject, would they consider that anyone else needs it either, and certainly not at their expense.3 Some4 disagreed with Freud and his central emphasis on sexuality, but basically most practitioners of psychiatry today would agree with fundamental Freudian principles. Freud's work effected a profound revolution in man's attitude towards, and comprehension of, his mental processes, constituting after Copernicus and Darwin, a third blow to man's self-esteem.5
Now, from my opening volley, you may well get the impression that I am not a supporter of Freudian theory: and you would be mostly right. However, not everything that Freud did was wrong. As I have already stated Freud's Theory of the Universe seems to be right. He believed, -- unlike Plato, the dualist -- that there was just the one universe, that we have only the one existence; and not a duel one. On a more mundane level, certain of his other theories seem to have proven out right, for example, his theory of the stages of infantile sexual development. Likely, too, he was right in his proposition that a substantial part of man, his mind, exists in a state of unconsciousness.
"To use a familiar but helpful analogy, the mind is like an iceberg, with only a small proportion of it visible above the surface, but a vast hidden bulk exerting its influence on the rest. For the unconscious is dynamic in nature, that is, it actively exerts pressures and influences on what a person is and does. For instance, there are unconscious desires, which can cause someone to do things that he cannot explain rationally, to others or even to himself." (Leslie Stevenson.6)
Personality is a result of both the individual's heredity; and, in addition, his experience. Most, I imagine, would agree with this proposition, but I suppose there might be a number of persons prepared to debate as to what extent personality is governed by experience; personally, I do not think by much. Experience, undoubtedly, governs our actions; but personality changes, -- I believe they come about as a result of physical changes to the brain. Freud's theory of individual human character, his theory of psychoanalysis (the "talking cure," is, to my mind, akin to modern day witchcraft), starts from Josef Breuer's discovery7 that "traumatic" experiences could, although the events of the trauma may well be forgotten, exercise a baneful influence on a person's mental health.
Neurosis, according to Freud, comes about from the frustration of basic instincts, either because of external obstacles or because of internal mental imbalance. Another mental misadaption which Freud describes is repression with the most decisive repressions occurring in earlier childhood, usually of a sexual nature:
"In a situation of extreme mental conflict, where a person experiences an instinctual impulse which is sharply incompatible with the standards he feels he must adhere to, it is possible for him to put it out of consciousness, to flee from it, to pretend that it does not exist. So repression is one of the so-called "defence mechanisms," by which a person attempts to avoid inner conflicts. But it is essentially an escape, a pretence, a withdrawal from reality, and as such is doomed to failure. For what is repressed does not really disappear, but continues to exist in the unconscious portion of the mind. It retains all its instinctual energy, and exerts its influence by sending into consciousness a disguised substitute for itself - a neurotic symptom. Thus the person can find himself behaving in ways which he will admit are irrational, yet which he feels compelled to continue without knowing why. For by repressing something out of his consciousness he has given up effective control over it; he can neither get rid of the symptoms it is causing, nor voluntarily lift the repression and recall it to consciousness." (Leslie Stevenson.)Freud classified mental activity to exist at three levels: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. The Id is the centre of our primitive instincts; it is blind and ruthless and caters to the business of gratifying our desires and pleasures; the new born infant is the personification of the Id. The Ego develops out of the Id as the child grows. The Ego is not so inward seeking and recognizes that there does exist a world beyond; the Ego acts as censor to the Id, checking the primitive desires for immediate gratification, recognizing the larger picture, so to speak. Conflict between the Id and the Ego can result in a person having neuroses. The third state is the Superego. The Superego is the highest state at which we have arrived in our evolutionary "progress." The Superego is an overseer, our conscience; and, like the Id, is something of which we are not conscious. Though we are not aware of the struggle, according to Freudian theory, there exists a continuing battle between the Id and the Superego with the Ego in the center trying to keep them apart.
Freud came out with his first influential work, in 1900, The Interpretation of Dreams. In this work there is contained nearly all his fundamental observations and ideas. "Dreams," Freud said, "are invariably the product of a conflict ... [they help sleep] releasing tensions that come from unattainable wishes." It is, according to Freud, the Id which unleash our dreams; and their meanings are expressed in symbols that require "expert" interpretation. But it is not just from dreams that a trained psychoanalyst might take his or her clue: just everyday behaviour of the subject will be telling (to those in the know). For instance: to forget a name means that you unconsciously dislike the person; if a man misses his ride to work or school, its because he or she unconsciously dislikes going to school or work; or if a man forgets his house keys it is because he has an unhappy marriage (whether he thinks it or not). Such is the psycho-babble which has invaded our ranks.8
As far as I am concerned, Freudian theories are ready made excuses for every bad actor that comes along; his theories have created great problems for the social fabric. Now, my view of it might well be different if Freudian theory could some how be demonstrated: but it cannot be demonstrated. Scientific theory as may be found in the area of, say chemistry or physics, can be demonstrated; but not so when it comes to psychological theory. As one facetious critic has said (and I forget who): "For the layman, as Freud's theories spread, he emerged as the greatest killjoy in the history of human thought, transforming man's jokes and gentle pleasures into dreary and mysterious repressions, discovering hatreds at the root of love, malice at the heart of tenderness, incest in filial affections, guilt in generosity, and the repressed hatred of one's father as a normal human inheritance."
A featured sketch in a book
Biographical Sketches: The Thinkers
1 All phenomena are determined by the laws of physics and chemistry and that man is one of these phenomena, a product of evolution, subject to the same laws which apply to all matter of the universe.
2 Oedipus was a Greek mythological figure who, unknowingly, killed his father and married his mother.
3 Psychoanalysis being any and all therapy that "seeks to uncover ... repressions for what they are and replace them by acts of judgment."
4 Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was one.
5 See Stephen Jay Gould's An Urchin in the Storm, p. 214, for a development of Freud's "three great discontinuities."
6 Leslie Stevenson is, or was, a reader in logic and Metaphysics at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland; and, I must say, that I found his little book, Seven Theories of Human Nature (1974) (Oxford University Press, 1987) a most useful work in the earlier stages of my study.
7 Breuer was a friend of Freud's in earlier times.
8 Another of Freud's works is Civilization and Its Discontents. This work, published in 1930, was a discussion about the conflicts between the demands of civilized society and the instincts implanted in every person.
Brushed Up: May, 2003.