Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Not one of Freud’s most famous musings, but it is representative of his philosophy, humour and intelligence. Sigmund Freud is one of the 20th century’s most controversial icons. He has been likened to marmite, you either love him or you hate him. But as a past student of psychology, I love him.
Freud is the undefeated Godfather of psychology; before Don Corleone; there was Freud, a cigar smoking, intellectual heavyweight. Following on from the early teachings of philosopher extraordinaire Rousseau, Freud progressed the developmental method of psychology; a branch of psychology focussing on how and why we develop the way we do from birth to adulthood. Freud’s teachings in this area had a significant impact on the public’s understanding.
“His method of investigating a subject over a prolonged period of time (childhood to adulthood) in order to study development is probably one of the most reliable methods that a scientist can employ”
Undoubtedly, Freud is most remembered for his theories on the ‘Oedipus’ complex. His theory of the Oedipus complex (the idea that men are in love with their mothers and desire to kill their fathers) has been widely criticised being called “pure fiction” but, the importance of this theory is the scientific method behind his findings. Freud conducted extensive psychoanalysis upon himself and other subjects before finally concluding that his own feelings of desire for his mother, and jealousy for his father, were actually a universal event in early childhood, and not unique to himself.
His conclusions were underpinned by the idea that we all have a conscious, preconscious, and unconscious level. In the conscious we are aware of our mental process. The preconscious involves information that, though not currently in our thoughts, can be brought into consciousness. Lastly, the unconscious includes mental processes we are unaware of.
“Freud progressed the developmental method of psychology; a branch of psychology focussing on how and why we develop the way we do from birth to adulthood. Freud’s teachings in this area had a significant impact on the public’s understanding”
He believed there is tension between the conscious and unconscious. To explain this he developed three personality structures: the Id, Ego, and Superego. The id, the most primitive of the three, functions according to the pleasure principle: seek pleasure and avoid pain. The superego plays the critical and moralising role; and the ego is the organised, realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the superego.
Based on this, he proposed five universal stages of psychosexual development, that each are characterised by the erogenous zone that is the source of the child’s psychosexual energy: the oral stage, the anal stage, the phallic stage, the latent stage, and the genital stage.
Modern science is reluctant to accept Freud’s theories, leaning heavily on biological and cognitive psychology to explain behaviour via brain structures and hormone levels. However, Freud is not to be ignored. His theories, when applied to certain cases do make sense, there is validity to his arguments; surely we can all agree that humans seek pleasure and we all want to avoid pain, don’t we? Furthermore, his method of investigating a subject over a prolonged period of time (childhood to adulthood) in order to study development is probably one of the most reliable methods that a scientist can employ and has been employed by scientists for years.
Freud provided science with a new way of considering behaviour. Although the Id, Ego and Superego cannot be seen literally in our brains, neither can our thoughts but we still argue that they exist. These are huge metaphysical questions, ultimately the point to make is that science alone cannot explain the complex inner workings of the human brain, therefore we shouldn’t dismiss Freud; merely build on what he started.
Was Sigmund Freud really a groundbreaking visionary that pioneered a modern way of viewing the human psyche? Or was he merely an individual that excelled in articulating preposterous, nonsensical ideas in to something that sounded like science?
You can’t deny that Freud certainly popularised psychology. He helped drag it from the fringes of society and in to the spotlight. This should be a marvellous achievement, yet it is far from it. His outdated and ludicrous ideas have become so entrenched that even logic cannot tear their insidious roots from the earth. Freud may well have contributed to scientific thinking on human nature and furthered the notion of the unconscious mind, but as in all fields, early progress is often deeply flawed.
“Freud may well have contributed to scientific thinking on human nature and furthered the notion of the unconscious mind, but as in all fields, early progress is often deeply flawed.”
Take for example medical science. For centuries the dominant theory in Europe was the four humours. It proposed that the health of the human body relied on the equilibrium between blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile - which each corresponded to the elements of air, water, earth and fire. When a person was ill, physicians would blister a patient’s skin with hot iron or let blood from the body because they believed the patient had too much. Of course, this is absolutely absurd. But one day, we may all look back on the theories of psychoanalysis with the same incredulity that we do the four humours.
The subjective nature of psychoanalysis means its claim as a scientific approach is tenuous at best. When so much of its methodology relies on interpretation by the analyst, objectivity is nullified. The tale (no pun intended) of Little Hans embodies this point very well. Though there is more to the story, the gist of it is that Freud interpreted Little Han’s phobia of horses as a displacement for the fear he had of his father. This was because Little Hans had developed incestuous feelings for his mother and the poor lad was scared his father was going to castrate him as punishment. Which all supported Freud’s existing theory that there are latent sexual desires between a child and the parent of the opposite sex, known as the Oedipus Complex. Could this have been interpreted another way? Without doubt. Yet Freud said this process was universal and applied to us all.
“Like the science from bygone times, Freud has filled in so many unknowns with the wild, fanciful and downright bizarre”
What possibly reveals just how archaic his theories are, is his attitude towards women. Freud claimed that they too suffer from castration anxieties, though in a woman’s case, their inferior genitalia create ‘penis envy’. This in turn makes women sexually desire their fathers and seek out children - all in their quest for the coveted penis.
Like the science from bygone times, Freud has filled in so many unknowns with the wild, fanciful and downright bizarre. We need to recognise that his theories have merely skimmed the surface of something we do not yet fully understand. Science and psychology must strive forward away from the ideas of ‘psychic energy’ and the ‘phallic phase’, before these outlandish concepts do more harm, than good.
Looking for inspiration?
There is a lot to say for and against Freud. Yes, Oedipus Complex might be one of the most controversial Freudian theories (just like all his phallocentric theories) but it is not a reason to discard everything else he said as rubbish. Just look at Id, Ego and Superego, which are successfully employed in basically every advertising and marketing campaign. There are many more Freudian theories and some people spent years reading on and trying to understand them. Since we have just this page, let’s agree that Freud is controversial and move on.
What else has Freud said? Here are some more or less known quotes:
“There are no mistakes”
“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books”
“Time spent with cats is never wasted”
“Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise”
“Civilisation began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock”
“Yes, America is a gigantic, but a gigantic mistake”
“One is very crazy when in love”
“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness”
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful”
“Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair”
“Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it”