Sigmond Freud the father of Psychology

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Anupama Nair


The human mind is one of the most complex of God’s creations. The study of the human mind only began a few centuries ago and is a very important topic today. Psychology's most famous figure is also one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud's theories and work “helped in shaping our views of childhood, personality, memory, sexuality, and therapy”. Later, many other thinkers have contributed their theories that evolved out of Freud's legacy, while others developed new theories in opposition to his ideas.

Freud may be called the most influential intellectual legislator of his times. His creation of “psychoanalysis was at once a theory of the human psyche, a therapy for the relief of its ills, and an optic for the interpretation of culture and society”. In spite of “repeated criticisms, and qualifications of Freud’s work, its spell remained powerful well after his death and in many fields far removed from psychology as it is narrowly defined”. The American sociologist Philip Rieff believed that , “psychological man replaced such earlier notions as political, religious, or economic man as the 20th  century’s dominant self-image, it is in no small measure due to the power of Freud’s vision and the seeming inexhaustibility of the intellectual legacy he left behind”.

Freud (6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939) is considered to be the father of the ‘psychodynamic’ approach to psychology, which looks to unconscious drives to explain the human behavior. His parents were Joseph and Amalie Freud. In 1859 the Freud family was compelled for economic reasons to move to Leipzig and then a year later to Vienna, till Hitler attacked Austria. In 1873, Freud graduated from the Sperl Gymnasium and, apparently was inspired by a public reading of an essay written by Goethe’s on nature, and then turned to medicine as a career. In the University of Vienna, he worked with one of the leading physiologists of his day, Ernst von Brücke, an exponent of the materialist, anti-vitalist science of Hermann von Helmholtz. In 1882 he entered the General Hospital in Vienna as a clinical assistant to train with the psychiatrist Theodor Meynert and the professor of internal medicine, Hermann Nothnagel.

In 1885, Freud was appointed lecturer in neuropathology, and did research on the brain’s medulla. Freud’s scientific training remained of cardinal importance in his work, or at least in his own conception of it. In such writings as his “Entwurf einer Psychologie” ,written 1895, and was published 1950 after his death. He affirmed his intention to find a physiological and materialist basis for his theories of the psyche. In late 1885, Freud left Vienna to continue his studies of neuropathology at the Salpêtrière clinic in Paris, where he worked under the guidance of Jean-Martin Charcot. His stay in France, proved as a turning point in his career, for Charcot’s work with patients classified as ‘hysterics’ introduced Freud to the possibility that psychological disorders might have their source in the mind rather than the brain. Charcot’s demonstration of a link between hysterical symptoms, such as paralysis of a limb, and hypnotic suggestion implied the power of mental states rather than nerves in the etiology of disease. Freud soon abandoned his faith in hypnosis, he returned to Vienna in February 1886 with the “seed of his revolutionary psychological method implanted”.

Several months after his return Freud married Martha Bernays, the daughter of a prominent Jewish family and they had six children, one of whom, Anna Freud, was to become a distinguished psychoanalyst in her own right. Although the glowing picture of their marriage was painted by Ernest Jones in his study ‘The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud’. It is believed that Martha presence in Freud’s life during his tumultuous career.

Freud soon turned to a clinical practice in neuro-psychology, and the office he founded at Berggasse  was to remain his consulting room for nearly 50 years. Freud’s scientific training remained a major part of his work, or at least in his own conception of it. In his books, he affirmed his intention to find a physiological and materialist basis for his theories of the psyche.


Freud, in 1923 developed a more structural model of the mind comprising the entities id, ego, and superego that Freud referred to as ‘the psychic apparatus’. These are not physical areas within the brain but rather hypothetical conceptualizations of important mental functions. The id, ego, and superego have most commonly been conceptualized as three essential parts of the human personality.

Freud believed, the id operated at an unconscious level according to the pleasure principle or gratification from satisfying basic instincts. The id comprised two kinds of biological instincts or drives called Eros and Thanatos. Eros, or life instinct, helped the individual to survive and it directed the life-sustaining activities such as respiration, eating, and sex. Freud termed “the energy created by the life instincts as libido”. Thanatos or death instinct is viewed as a set of destructive forces present in all human beings. When this energy is directed outward onto others, it is expressed as aggression and violence. Freud believed that “Eros is stronger than Thanatos, thus enabling people to survive rather than self-destruct. The ego develops from the id during infancy. The ego's goal is to satisfy the demands of the id in a safe a socially acceptable way. In contrast to the id, the ego follows the reality principle as it operates in both the conscious and unconscious mind”.

The superego developed during early childhood i.e., when the child identifies with the same sex parent and is responsible for ensuring that moral standards are followed. “The superego operates on the morality principle and motivates us to behave in a socially responsible and acceptable manner. The basic dilemma of all human existence is that each element of the psychic apparatus makes demands upon us that are incompatible with the other two. Inner conflict is inevitable”.

Freud believed that the superego can make a person feel guilty if he does not follow a rule. “When there is a conflict between the goals of the id and superego, the ego must act as a referee and mediate this conflict. The ego can deploy various defense mechanisms to prevent it from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety”.

Freud (1900) considered dreams to be the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ as it is in dreams that the ‘ego's defenses’ are lowered so that some of the repressed material comes through to awareness, albeit in distorted form. Dreams perform important functions for the unconscious mind and serve as valuable clues to how the unconscious mind operates.

The question modern scientists ask is Freudian psychology supported by evidence. The answer would be Freud's theory is good at explaining, but not at predicting behavior, which is one of the goals of science. It is concluded that Freud’s theory can neither be proved true or refuted. It is believed by modern psychologists that Freud's theory is highly unscientific. We need to remember Freud lived nearly two centuries ago and his theories are the beginning of the study of psychology.








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