Freud and Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud is described by Anthony Kenny as the Continental thinker who had the ‘greatest influence’ on Anglo-American philosophical thought. Freud regarded himself as a scientist and was an inventor of a new science rather than a philosopher.

In 1895, neurologist Joseph Breuer and Freud published a work on hysteria, presenting an original analysis of mental illness. Over time, Freud stopped using hypnosis as a method of treatment and replaced it with a different form of therapy which he called psychoanalysis consisting in what he believed to be nothing more than an ‘exchange of words between patient and doctor’.

Hysterical symptoms were considered the result of memories of a psychological trauma which had been repressed by the patient. However, Freud believed that these repressed memories could be recovered by means of a process of free association. Kenny explains how the patient, lying on the couch, was encouraged to talk about whatever came to mind. Freud maintained that the relevant psychological traumas dated back to infancy and had a sexual content. Such theories of infantile sexuality led to conflicting ideas with Breuer.

Isolated from his medical colleagues, Freud continued to practice his new science in Vienna. In 1900 he published the most prestigious of his works, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, in which he argues that dreams no less than neurotic symptoms were a coded expression of repressed sexual desires. The theory he presented was applicable to both to normal and neurotic persons, and he followed it up a year later with a study entitled ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’.

In 1902 Freud was appointed to an extraordinary chair of neuropathology at Vienna University. Those among he acquired as pupils and colleagues were Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, both of which founded their own schools.

In 1923 Freud published ‘The Ego and the Id’, in which he presented what Kenny describes as ‘a new and elaborate anatomy of the unconscious mind’. Undeterred by controversy, Freud presented a deflationary account of the origin of religion in ‘The Future of an Illusion’ (1927).

Freud was an atheist, but this didn’t prevent him from identifying with Jewish culture or from suffering the assaults of anti-Semitism. Psychoanalysis was banned by the Nazis and when Austria was taken over by Germany in 1938 and Freud was forced to migrate to England. Despite this he was given a warm welcome to London, where his works had been translated and published by members of the Bloomsbury group.

Freud suffered for sixteen years from cancer of the jaw and with the help of his physician who administered him with the lethal injection, he died on September 23rd 1939. His psychoanalytic work was continued by his youngest daughter, Anna.

During a set of introductory lectures delivered between 1915 and 1917, Freud summed up psychoanalytic theory in two fundamental theses:

(1) the greater part of our mental life, whether feeling, thought, or violation, is unconscious

(2) sexual impulses, broadly defined, are supremely important not only as potential causes of mental illness but also as the motor of artistic and cultural creation.

If the sexual element in the work of art and culture remains to a great extent unconscious, this is because socialisation demands the sacrifice of basic instincts. Kenny explains how such instincts become sublimated (diverted from their original goals and channeled towards socially acceptable activities). However, sublimation is an unstable state, and untamed and unsatisfied instincts may take their revenge through mental illness and disorder.

Freud believes the existence of the unconscious is manifested in three different ways:

1) through everyday trivial mistakes

2) through reports of dreams

3) through the symptoms of neurosis

Dreams and neurotic symptoms do not appear to reveal the beliefs, desires, and sentiments of which the unconscious is deemed by Freud to consist. However, he believed that the exercise of free association in analysis, as interpreted by the analyst, reveals the underlying pattern of the unconscious mind. Kenny explains how it is sexual development that is the key to this pattern.

Freud explains how infantile sexuality begins with an oral stage, in which pleasure is focused on the mouth. This is followed by the ‘anal stage’, between the ages of one and three, and a ‘phallic’ stage, in which the child focuses on its own penis or clitoris. At the time, Freud maintained that a boy is sexually attracted to his mother, and resents his father’s possession of her. But his hostility to his father leads him to fear that his father will retaliate by castrating him. Kenny explains how the boy abandons his sexual designs on hid mother, and gradually identifies with his father. This is the Oedipus complex, a ‘crucial stage’ in the emotional development of every boy. Freud describes “neurotic characters” as people who have become fixated at an early stage of their development. Kenny believes the recovery of Oedipal wishes , and the history of their repression as an ‘important part of every analysis’. Freud was in no doubt that there was a feminine equivalent of the Oedipus complex (mutatis mutandis), but it was never fully worked out in a convincing argument.

Towards the end of his life, Freud replaced the earlier dichotomy of conscious and unconscious with a threefold scheme of the mind.

‘The mental apparatus’, he wrote in The Ego and the Id, ‘is composed of an id which is the repository of the instinctual impulses, of an ego which is the most superficial portion of the id and one which has been modified by the influence of the external world, and of a superego which develops out of the id, dominates the ego, and represents the inhibitions of instinct that are characteristic of a man’.

Freud believes the purpose of the ego is to effect a reconciliation between the parts of the soul. As long as the ego is in harmony with the id and the superego, all will be well. However, in the absence of such harmony mental disorders are said to develop.

Conflicts between the ego and the id lead to neuroses; conflicts between the id and the superego lead to melancholia and depression. When the ego conflicts with the external world, psychoses develop.

Freud regarded himself as a scientist, dedicated to discovering, what Kenny describes as, ‘the rigid determinisms that underlie human illusions of freedom’.

Some medical professionals disagree how far psychoanalytic techniques are effective forms of therapy, and if they are, from where they derive their efficacy. Kenny explains how when they do achieve success it appears to be not by uncovering deterministic mechanisms, but by ‘expanding the self-awareness and freedom of choice of the individual’.

Despite all the theoretical criticisms Freud has had a monumental influence on society in relation to our understanding of mental illness, sexual attitudes, our appreciation of art and literature, and our interpersonal relationships.

Freud had been preceded by many theologians who considered our actual human condition as having been shaped by a sin of Adam which was sexual in origin. Indeed, he loved to quote a dictum of Schopenhauer that ‘it was the joke of life that sex, a man’s chief concern, should be pursued in secret’. Sex was, Schopenhauer said, the true hereditary ‘lord of the world’, treating with scorn all preparations made to bind it.

Freud’s contemporaries were shocked by his emphasis on infantile sexuality. Victorian sentimentality about children was an attitude of recent origin. Kenny describes how it is not that Freud recommended sexual licence in his published writings, but that he gave currency to an influential metaphor: the vision of sexual desire as a psychic fluid that must find an outlet through one channel or another. Considering that metaphor, sexual abstinence appears as a ‘dangerous damming-up of forces’ that will eventually break through any restraining barriers with a ‘disastrous’ effect on mental health.

The concept of mental health may be said to date from the time when Freud, Breuer and Charcot began to treat hysterical patients as genuine invalids instead of malingerers.

Freud is said to have redrawn the boundaries between morals and medicine taking more of a modern, moral decision than regarding mental illness as merely a medical discovery. Rather than seeing forms of behaviour as transgressions worthy of punishment Freud saw them as maladies fit for therapy.

Kenny highlights how the difficulty in making a hard and fast distinction between clinical judgment and moral evaluation is ‘strikingly’ illustrated by changing attitudes to homosexual behaviour. Long having been regarded as ‘heinously criminal’, was for nearly a century regarded as symptomatic of a psychopathological disorder and now accepted as the key element of a rationally chosen alternative lifestyle.

Freud’s influence on art and literature has been great: Novelists make use of associative techniques similar to those if the analyst’s couch; critics interpret works of literature in Oedipal terms; historians write psychobiography based on episodes of public figures’ childhoods; and painters and sculptors have taken Freudian symbols out of a dream world and given them concrete form.

Kenny concludes that no other philosopher since Aristotle has made a greater contribution to the everyday vocabulary of psychology and morality as people who have never read a word of Freud can still identify their own and other’s Freudian slips as in discussion of our relationships with our family and friends we talk unconsciously of repression and sublimation, and describe characters as anal or narcissistic.

The Freudian Unconscious

In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis Freud states as one of the two main foundations of his theory that the greater part of our mental life, whether of feeling, thought, or volition, is unconscious.

Kenny describes how there are ‘several’ possible sense of the word, and depending on which sense we take, Freud’s thesis may result in a truism or a piece of hardy speculation.

The distinction between knowledge and its exercise was made by Aristotle as a distinction between first and second actuality:

  1. Knowing Greek
  2. Knowledge of Greek

There are three levels of the Freudian unconscious. To establish these there are three sets of phenomena that reveal the existence of the unconscious:

  1. Trivial everyday mistakes
  2. Reports of dreams
  3. Neurotic symptoms

‘Freudian slips’ or slips of the tongue are believed by Freud to be ‘parapraxes’ as they are not as accidental as they seem and may have hidden motives. Such slips can be revelatory of states of mind that the utterer would prefer to conceal and are, for Freud, the superficial level of the unconscious he sometimes called the ‘preconscious’.

Freud maintained that the interpretation of dreams ‘is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’. Dreams are almost always the fulfillment, in fantasy, of a repressed wish. Stripped of its symbolic form the latent content of the dream can commonly be identified as sexual and Oedipal. However, Freud warns ‘the straightforward dream of sexual relations with one’s mother which Jocasta alludes to in the Oedipus Rex is a rarity in comparison with the multiplicity of dreams which psychoanalysis must interpret in the same sense’.

Kenny describes how every dream can ‘easily’ be given a sexual significance but Freud did not believe that it was possible to create a universal dictionary linking symbols to what they signified. The significance of a dream item for a particular dreamer could only be discovered by finding out what the dreamer herself associated with that item. Only after this exploration could one discover the nature of the unconscious wish whose fulfilment was fantasised in the dream.

The third (though chronologically the first) method by which Freud purported to explore the unconscious was by the examination of neurotic symptoms or ‘senseless obsessional behaviour’.

Freud’s procedure for discovering the deeper levels of the unconscious is proved by the evidence of dreams and neuroses.

Freud replaced the dichotomy of conscious and unconscious with the threefold scheme: ‘superego, ego and id’. These, he said in New Introductory Lectures (1933), ‘are the three realms, regions, or provinces into which we divide the mental apparatus of the individual’.

  • The id is the ‘unconscious locus of hunger and love and instinctual drives’, ruled by the pleasure principle, and it is more extensive and more obscure than other parts of the soul. ‘The logical laws of thought’, Freud tells us, ‘do not apply in the id, and this is true above all of the law of contradiction. Contrary impulses exist, side by side, without cancelling each other out or diminishing each other’.
  • The ego represents reason and common sense, and it is devoted to the reality principle. It is part of the soul most in touch with the external world perceived by the senses. The ego is the ‘rider’ and the id is the ‘horse’. As the ego’s control is not absolute, psychoanalysis can strengthen the ego’s hold on the id, and assist it in its task of controlling instinctual desires, choosing ‘harmless’ moments for their satisfaction or diverting their expression. The ego has to try to satisfy three tyrannical masters: the external world, the superego, and the id.
  • The superego observes, judges, and punishes the behaviour of the ego. This guilt is not present from birth; in early childhood the superego is present through parental authority. The superego is the ‘vehicle of the ego ideal by which the ego measures itself, which it emulates and whose demand for ever greater perfection it is always striving to fulfill’.

Kenny explains how Freud’s threefold scheme of superego, ego and id closely resembles the tripartite soul of Plato’s Republic. The id corresponds to what Plato calls ‘appetite’, the source of the desires for food and sex. The ego is Plato’s ‘power’ as the part of the soul most in touch with reality with the task of controlling instinctual desire. Finally, the superego resembles Plato’s ‘temper’ as both are non-rational punitive forces in the service of morality – the source of shame and self-directed anger.

Kenny concludes that like Plato, Freud regards mental health as harmony between the parts of the soul, and mental illness as unresolved discord between them. ‘So long as the ego and its relations to the id fulfill these ideal conditions (of harmonious control) there will be no disturbance’. The ego’s endeavor is ‘a reconciliation between its various dependent relationships’. It is thus in the absence of such reconciliation that mental disorders develop, and Freud details the symptoms of different kinds of internal conflict.

About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
This entry was posted in History and Context (Western Philosophy) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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