Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis have taken something of a battering over the last few decades. On the 150th anniversary of Freud's birthday, here is the case for the defenceby Robert Maxwell Young / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sigmund Freud was born in Frieberg, Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) 150 years ago on 6th May 1856 and died in Hampstead, London in September 1939. His writings, along with those of Darwin and Marx, constitute one of the three grand narratives that dominated 20th-century thought. Freud greatly admired Darwin—but thought little of Marx and Marxism. He deplored Marx’s failure to give credit to psychological factors in human nature and said of the goals of the Bolshevik revolution, “A transformation of human nature such as this is highly improbable.” Someone said to him that the Russian revolution would involve great distress followed by great happiness. He replied that he half agreed.
Freud did not set out to work in psychology. He wanted to pursue a career as a research scientist in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, did laboratory work in Vienna after his medical training and wrote many purely scientific papers. Indeed, his first extensive treatise (unpublished) was an attempt to express psychology in neurological terms, and his first book, On Aphasia (1891), was a neurological treatise . But a Jew could not make a living in neurological research, so Freud turned to clinical work, taking on the cases other doctors could not help. He and his mentor, Josef Breuer, applied various nostrums, including hypnosis and electrotherapy, but mostly they listened and began to make interpretations about the sexual fantasies of their patients. This material proved too much for Breuer (or, more accurately, for Mrs Breuer), who abandoned this line of work. Freud persevered, eventually coming to attribute neuroses to unconscious sexual impulses and conflicts. He initially stressed sexual abuse but moved on to attribute neuroses to both actual and fantasied sexual distress.
The result was, in the first instance, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria (1895) and then Freud’s masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which had this motto, from Virgil: “If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will stir up the lower depths.” The latter sold only 351 copies in the six years after its publication, but eventually came to be seen by some as one of western culture’s great works. Freud also wrote some popular works— The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious—and was not above the odd populist potboiler to help the psychoanalytic press keep solvent. His complete psychological works make up 24 volumes, but at the heart of it all is the role of sexuality, interpreted very broadly, in human nature and of the unconscious in human motivation. He argued that by far the largest portion of our thought processes are unconscious, and that unconscious motivation is by far the most determinate part of our minds. His discoveries in this area place him in the tradition of ideas that diminish human arrogance and status. In this his work follows the Copernican dethronement of the Earth from the centre of the solar system, the Darwinian removal of humankind from a special place at the peak of living nature, and the Marxist assertion that economic causation lies at the heart of human arrangements and culture.