Sigmund Freud (6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939), physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist, was an influential thinker of the twentieth century. Freud’s innovative treatment of human actions, dreams, and indeed of cultural object s as invariably possessing implicit symbolic significance has proven to be extraordinarily productive, and has had immense implications for a wide variety of fields, including anthropology, semiotics, and artistic creativity and appreciation in addition to psychology. However, Freud’s most important and frequently re-iterated claim, that with psychoanalysis he had invented a new science of the mind, remains the subject of much disapproval and controversy.
Contributions and Achievements:
Freud conceptualized the mind symbolically as an ancient ruin which had to been uncovered much like an archeologist would discover the treasures of an ancient civilization. This gave birth to Psychoanalysis. Freud’s account of the sexual genesis and nature of neuroses led him naturally to develop a clinical treatment for treating such disorders. This has become so influential today that when people speak of ‘psychoanalysis’ they frequently refer exclusively to the clinical treatment. The object of psychoanalytic treatment may be said to be a form of self-understanding, once this is acquired, it is largely up to the patient, in consultation with the analyst to determine how he shall handle this newly-acquired understanding of the unconscious forces which motivate him. Freud became more and more sophisticated in his technique of psychoanalysis, and he became particularly adept at using his patient’s biased impressions of him to help the patient to discover the origins of the unconscious memory which led to the symptoms from which they suffered.
Freud’s theories and research methods have always been controversial. He and psychoanalysis have been criticized in very extreme terms. For an often-quoted example, Peter Medawar, a Nobel Prize winning immunologist, said in 1975 that psychoanalysis is the “most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century”. However, Freud has had a tremendous impact on psychotherapy. Many psychotherapists follow Freud’s approach to an extent, even if they reject his theories.
The contemporary scientific climate in which Freud lived and worked should be taken into consideration. When the towering scientific figure of nineteenth century science, Charles Darwin, published his revolutionary Origin of Species, Freud was four years old. The evolutionary principle completely altered the existing conception of man, whereas before man had been seen as a being different in nature to the members of the animal kingdom by virtue of his possession of an immortal soul, he was now seen as being part of the natural order, different from non-human animals only in degree of structural difficulty.
This made it possible and reasonable for the first time to treat man as an object of scientific investigation, and to imagine of the vast and varied range of human behavior, and the motivational causes from which it springs, as being amenable in principle to scientific explanation. Much of the creative work done in a whole variety of diverse scientific fields over the next century was to be inspired by and derive nourishment from this new world-view which Freud, with his enormous esteem for science, accepted implicitly.
Freud also followed Plato in his account of the nature of mental health or psychological well-being, which he saw as the establishment of a melodic relationship between the three elements which constitute the mind. A key concept introduced by Freud was that the mind possesses a number of ‘defense mechanisms’ to attempt to prevent conflicts from becoming too acute, such as repression (pushing conflicts back into the unconscious), sublimation (channeling the sexual drives into the achievement socially acceptable goals, in art, science, poetry, etc.), fixation (the failure to progress beyond one of the developmental stages), and regression (a return to the behavior characteristic of one of the stages).
Freud’s work is preserved in a 23 volume set called The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Some of Freud’s most interesting works are The Interpretation of Dreams, his own favorite, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, about Freudian slips and other day-to-day oddities, Totem and Taboo, Freud’s views on our beginnings, Civilization and Its Discontents, his pessimistic commentary on modern society, and The Future of an Illusion, on religion. All are a part of The Standard Edition, but all are available as separate paperbacks as well. This renowned man died of the cancer of the mouth and jaw that he had been suffering since 20 years of his life.