Few names in psychiatry are as recognizable to the public as Sigmund Freud’s. The father of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, Freud (1856-1939) pioneered the study of personality development and psychosexual development. He was also an early and influential theorist in the field of human drives and motivation. Freud’s 1895 publication of Studies on Hysteria brought psychoanalysis to life while generating tremendous controversy. Freud’s arguably greatest and most enduring contributions include his theories of human development and personality, as well as mental defense mechanisms. Freud’s personality theory was immediately controversial. What makes Freud important is that he is the first to formalize how the human personality is structured and how it develops through naturalistic observation. While philosophers across the ages have considered nature or character of humanity, Freud applied a more structured and more rational–or what seemed rational at the time–approach.
Freud’s Relevance in the 21st Century
Freud’s psychosexual developmental theory is no longer relevant to most practitioners of counseling or psychology and has not been for decades. However, his ideas about the structure of the human mind continue to inspire. Freud’s work is more useful nowadays in its implications, rather than treated as some kind of objective fact. For example, Freud was the first thinker to ascribe chaos to the human psyche. He thought of the human mind as a cauldron with a thin skim of rationality on top, with limitless oceans of drives and impulses, some ancient and powerful, seething underneath.
Freud was a structuralist who named fundamental drives, urges and levels of the human psyche. These levels were never conceived of as physical; they are instead, descriptors of psychological and intangible forces. He also developed a theory of the development of the personality, which was incendiary at the time. His theory was rooted in the idea that the sexual development of human beings was the primary force in the development of all behaviors. Freud’s theory of personality develop was psychosexual, with 5 stages, ranging from infancy through adulthood:
- Oral: 0 – 1.5 years of age. The struggle at this age, according to Freud, was moving from a fixation on the mouth and eating or placing things in the mouth. If a person failed to negotiate this stage, negative oral behaviors or habits might develop.
- Anal: 1.5 to 3 years of age. Toilet training is the key conflict in these years.
- Phallic: 3 – 5 years of age. The phallic stage presupposes that there is a sexual attraction children have for the parent of the opposite gender. This assumption has never stood up to any empirical measure.
- Latency: 5 – 12 years of age. Freud saw these years as a quiet precursor to “normal” sexuality.
- Genital: 12 – adulthood
Genital (12 – adulthood): All tasks from the previous four stages are integrated into the mind allowing for the onset of healthy sexual feelings and behaviors.
These 5 stages are important in their own right, but they also key onto Freud’s theory of personality. Freudian personality theory says that there are three levels of human consciousness, to wit:
- Conscious. The conscious mind is associated with the superego and makes up 10 percent of the human psyche. Freud believed the conscious mind was a mediator between the Id and the Superego. He thought the conscious constantly strived to maintain a balance between the ideals of the ethereal s
- Unconscious. The unconscious mind is a vast and deep expanse of the human psyche that is filled with primal forces, motivations and drives that we cannot consciously access or modify.
- Subconscious. The subconscious contains information, thoughts and emotions that are just beneath the surface of our active thoughts. The subconscious can be reached and acted upon, with effort.
Finally, Freud names two fundamental urges:
- a life urge (eros)
- a death drive (thanatos)
Eros refers to sexuality, love, a drive towards creation, “binding up, binding together,” while thanatos is uncontrolled destruction, violence, regression, and the stripping away of self-control. Freud himself never used the term “thanatos,” and instead referred to it as death instinct. Freud had no empirical evidence of these drives. This is one of the rare instances of a strict binary split among Freud’s rather monolithic constructs.
Freud spent extensive time and effort examining dreams, publishing The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. Freud believed that the unconscious could be accessed indirectly through a person’s dreams. Freud put forth that the unconscious constructs a kind of framework, called a wish, that is somehow acted on in dreams. This process is called wish fulfillment. Another process, called censorship, mutes the wish’s meaning to make it more tolerable to the conscious mind. He ascribed to dreams a manifest level of meaning, or the way the dream was remembered as happening. The latent meaning of dreams, however, full of personal symbolism and metaphorical imagery is a way for the unconscious mind to shroud the deeper and possibly painful meaning of a dream.
Criticisms of Freud
Freud has accumulated volumes upon volumes of criticism, most of which are accurate. Consider that Freud’s theories cannot be tested empirically. They’re not the work of a scientist trying to identify hypotheses to build a cogent theory. Rather, Freud’s entire concept bank comes from his own assumptions and presumptions that have endured largely as the result of his forceful personality, not scientific rigor. However, some of his concepts have resonated throughout the decades.
Ultimately, Freud’s importance lies in his groundbreaking work as a theorist. That kind of historical importance will not diminish. His theory of personality underwent ups and downs in popularity and relevancy over the past century, but has fallen out of favor in light of many newer, evidence-based and empirically rigorous theories and approaches. Although they are sometimes seen as a primary contributor to the historical study of the human mind, Freud’s theories today have no mainstream applications outside of the abstruse world of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. Freud and his theories are no longer useful as constructs or application, and no longer important for modern psychotherapists, except for psychoanalysts.
Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy are time-consuming, lasting for years, as opposed to cognitive-behavioral therapy and its many variants, all of which have treatment lengths that can be completed in 2 to 10 months.
Freud’s importance to psychology and psychiatry remains in the foundational aspects of the science of human behavior and the mind. Outside of Freudian psychoanalysis, Freud is no longer applicable or important to practical applications of psychological theory.
B.S. Psychology | Arkansas State University
M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling | Arkansas State University
M.A. English | Arkansas State University
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