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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud was born Sigismund Schlomo Freud on May 6, 1856, in Freiburg, Moravia, which later became the Czech Republic. As the founder of modern psychoanalysis, Freud was to change the conceptions of human mental life by showing that many seemingly illogical, unconscious psychological processes ignored by contemporary conventional science are powerful influences shaping human beings across the lifespan, including day-to-day actions, attractions, and avoidances.

Freud entered the University of Vienna in 1873 at age seventeen to study medicine. He studied the humanities for his first year and read philosophy widely (admiring Ludwig Feuerbach), which validated his reservations about the specialized study of medicine. Freud worked in Carl Claus's laboratory in Vienna (a propagandist of Darwin) and saw himself as an "intellectual researcher into nature" (Gay 1998). Freud completed his education at the University of Vienna in 1881 at the age of twenty-five. His education continued when, as a trained neurologist, he studied under the tutelage of eminent mentors such as Ernst Brucke, a famous physiologist, and Theodore Meynert, a brain anatomist and psychiatrist.

Freud's innovation in the field of human mental health was to give a developmental account of a dynamic, embodied mind in which unconscious processes played a determining role. Freud was an evolutionary naturalist. He saw humans as Oedipal apes, driven to survive and reproduce; and as cultural creatures, born more dependent than most animals into nuclear families, capable of identifying with those we love and of internalizing parental sanctions and ideals. This legacy has informed child development's concerns with the quality of parent-child interactions and the acquisition of abilities and morality alike.

Freud used clinical methods and observation since his theory suggests bias may arise in self-report due to defensiveness where impulses or thoughts conflict with morals. His case study method privileged the unique in-depth study of an individual; his theory development on this basis showed his equal commitment to generality, to discovering lawlike patterns. Privileging the early years as formative of personality (even where individuals may consciously recollect very little of them), his clinical work revealed the active contribution of the child to development. His essays on infantile sexuality in 1905 (which posited an active infantile sexuality that could scarcely be countenanced in his late-nineteenth-century culture) suggested personality was shaped by the pattern and quality of parental attendance to a child's bodily and affectional needs. He never renounced his conviction that drives—the most prominent of which in his early thought was the sex drive—were the impetus for much of our mental life.

Having studied hysteria with Jean Charcot at the Salpêtriére, a pathological laboratory in Paris (1885-1886), Freud went on to reveal how some bodily symptoms were psychological in origin (i.e., psycho-genic). Wishes, losses, conflicts, of which humans may consciously know very little, may be expressed as dreams, physical symptoms, inhibitions, wordless anxieties, slips of the tongue, and bungled actions. His work with Josef Breuer in 1895 displaced hypnosis with the use of the "talking cure," where unconscious conflicts were traced via free association, whereby the patient said anything that came to mind without self-censorship. The talking cure was supplemented Sigmund Freud changed the conception of human mental life by showing that many seemingly illogical, unconscious psychological processes are powerful influences shaping human beings across the lifespan. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection Limited/Corbis) after 1900 by the analysis of dreams. Symptoms could be relieved when conflicts were emotionally recontextualized, in part through the relationship to the analyst where past issues came alive again in the present (a technique called transference).

As a Jewish scholar in bourgeois Vienna, Freud was influenced by and an observer of a civilized sexual morality that he felt required of us a surplus repression (where urges and associated longings are pushed from awareness and denied expression), which damaged health and hindered contributions to culture. Financial problems had delayed his marriage to Martha Bernays (they were engaged in 1882 and married in 1886), and the realities of marriage were not equal to his expectations. Freud believed that World War I confirmed his theories about aggression and the regression to more primitive behavior that collectivities made possible. Freud suffered much loss in his life and wrote poignantly about the links between mourning and depression. In 1923 he discovered a cancerous growth on his palate, but, cherishing his cigars, sought neither specialists nor oral surgeons, going instead to general practitioners. His daughter Anna, who was to be his professional successor, tended the father who had analyzed her until his death in 1939.


Appignanesi, Lisa, and John Forrester. Freud's Women. London: Virago Press, 1993.

Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Times. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1998.

Wollheim, Richard. Freud. London: Fontana, 1971.

Publications by Freud

The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: Hogarth, 1953.

Doris McIlwain

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3