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Sigmund Freud: Biography and Work Analysis Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 17th, 2021

The name of Sigmund Freud is not unfamiliar to most people in the modern world regardless of their level of education. This name has become synonymous with psychoanalysis, the science he essentially invented at the beginning of the 19th century. Sigmund Freud was a medical doctor who worked with mental patients in Vienna prior to 1959 and is considered one of the founding fathers of modern day psychology because of his development of the psychoanalytic theory. Originally trained as a neurologist, Freud’s work with his patients, frustrated by a mediocre ability to hypnotize, necessarily took on a more imaginative turn that revolutionized the way people approached the treatment of the mind (Robbins, 1999).

Although others had been doing work to understand the inner workings of the mind before him and others have come after him to refine and build on his theories, as well as add theories of their own, Freud is generally credited with the first break-through in treating the mind as an entity separate from the body. His identification of different levels of thought and how these levels interact and intertwine led to his development of psychotherapy. Within this theory, Freud outlines three major components of an individual’s psyche – the id, the ego and the superego. This intuitive leap, however, did not occur by accident. To understand Freud’s theories, his concept of the human mind and how that translates into his theories regarding human culture, then, it is necessary to understand a little bit about how these ideas were developed as well as how Freud himself expressed them.

With his origins in the medical field, it should not be surprising to learn that Freud’s psychoanalytic theory had its earliest basis in the fields of 19th century biology and physics. One of the theories that held particular importance to Freud’s theories was that of Hermann von Helmholtz. According to Helmholtz’s dynamic theory of energy, “energy cannot be destroyed but can only be transformed into other states. Drawing upon this notion of undestroyable energy, Freud formulated a dynamic psychology, one of whose key points is that whenever a psychic drive or urge is suppressed, repressed or driven below (or out of) consciousness, its energy inevitably appears elsewhere” (Landow, 1988).

This idea is supported in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents as he discusses the aggressive energy associated with the super-ego. “According to one view, that energy merely carries on the punitive energy of the external authority and keeps it alive in the mind; while, according to another view, it consists, on the contrary, of one’s own aggressive energy which has not been used and which one now directs against that inhibiting authority” (Freud, 1930: 85). In addition, he highlights this concept of energy transfer as a key element in the development of guilt: “When an instinctual trend undergoes repression, its libidinal elements are turned into symptoms, and its aggressive components into a sense of guilt” (Freud, 1930: 86). In other words, guilt is the aggressive energy of thwarted desire finding an alternate outlet rather than simply being destroyed by a controlling force. To understand the nature of that controlling force, it is necessary to understand Freud’s model of the human mind.

Prior to the turn of the Nineteenth Century, psychiatrists did not consider the role dreams or the unconscious mind played in an individuals psyche. Many believed that dreams emanated from an outside, supernatural influence that was transmitting messages during the sleep state. Freud’s findings altered this perception of dreams. He proposed that the individuals own mind creates dreams, a circumstance taken for granted by psychiatrists, scientists and laymen alike. “Freud’s theory on dreams became as significant to modern therapy, as the theory of relativity was to physics. He was the first person to demonstrate that dreams came from within you, it was not some spirit coming from the outside. But, dreams were created by the person himself” (Reynolds, 1999). Dreams are the bridge from the conscious to unconscious mind according to Freud. Dreams represented an individual’s unfulfilled conscious aspiration that remained unfulfilled. Freud claimed that the dream itself was “made up of images called the manifest content, or those seemingly random images that disguised the true message of the dream” (Reynolds, 1999).

He named this phenomenon latent content. So as to better appreciate the latent substance of dreams, Freud theorized that it must be scrutinized by a technique termed association. Essentially, association can be characterized as ‘brainstorming.’ The subject recalls an image within the dream then describes it with ideas and words without regard to how disturbing or peculiar. “He believed that traumatic dreams such as getting in a car accident could re-occur in order to help a person overcome something bad that happened in their life” (Reynolds, 1999). Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis and dream therapy became widely utilized following World War II when his methods were successful in treating soldiers with returning with traumatic physical, emotional and psychological injuries. “Probably 90 percent of our thinking is outside of our awareness. Freud was the first person to really study the way the person’s mind works unconsciously” (Reynolds, 1999).

Although the concept of the unconscious mind had existed well before Freud began his work, and the concept of hypnosis had been around for at least a century prior to his failure to work with it, it was Freud’s understanding of what the effects of hypnosis were in the treatment of the mind, as well as why these effects manifested themselves, that ultimately led to his development of the psychoanalytic process and the concepts therein. To place his theory in basic terms, Freud determined that the human mind consisted of three main elements, which he called the Id, the Ego and the Super-ego. The id is the essentially biological element of the human mind that conceives of basic impulses and instinctual desires. As such, this element of the brain is treated as being essentially unconscious (Pagewise, 2002). The conscious mind was more associated with the ego, which was the socializing element of the human mind, functioning to help us navigate through the outer world by bringing the impulses and the desires of the id into socially acceptable bounds.

This was ruled over by the super-ego, what most people term their conscience, in which judgments are made regarding whether the individual’s determination to act or not to act on a specific impulse, including the methods in which any action is pursued, was good or bad. This area of the mind is also the one to dispense punishment whenever the rules are broken in the form of guilt. “Put more idiomatically: The Id says, ‘I want it now!!’; The Ego says, ‘No wait, please. Accept this substitute’ (sublimation); and the Superego judges either ‘Well done!’ or ‘You shouldn’t have done that. Now you will have to suffer guilt.’” (Landow, 1988). Through the concept of the preconscious mind, Freud introduced the possibility that the conscious and unconscious mind were indeed linked in sophisticated ways, each affecting the other in a process ultimately geared toward protection and defense against traumatic events. It is the conflict between doing what we want to do, doing what we need to do and doing what we feel is right and moral that leads to the development of individual defense mechanisms (Pagewise, 2002).

There are several different types of defense mechanisms that are appropriate at differing times depending on the issues being dealt with and the types of anxiety they might cause. Repression is considered the foundation of all other defense mechanisms and occurs in order to completely block unacceptable impulses out of the individual’s conscious state. “Repression is the foundation from which all other defense mechanisms work; the goal of every defense mechanism is to repress, or push threatening impulses out of awareness” (Pagewise, 2002). A child who has experienced early abuse in their life might use repression to completely block out all memory that the abuser was even a part of their life, much less what was done to them. One of the pitfalls of repression, though, is that a person may develop a phobia bringing related fears into the open without ever having recalled the originating causes for that fear (Clark, 2004). It is an unconscious reaction to a traumatic event or threatening feelings (Just, n.d.). Denial is somewhat similar to repression in that the mind works to ignore a situation, threatening impulse or other unpleasant idea, but in this case, there is some conscious understanding of what has taken place. “As a defense mechanism, denial becomes more difficult to maintain as one matures. Its use requires much energy and the mind looks at other possibilities of defense” (Clark, 2004).

Rationalization “simply involves making excuses to defend the behavior, or defend how you might feel about it” (Clark, 2004). Displacement allows an individual to transfer negative feelings to a less threatening target as a means of relieving tension. Suppression involves consciously not thinking about an event because the individual realizes that they will bring up sad or unpleasant feelings (Just, n.d.). Projection is a form of unconscious defense mechanism that allows an individual to transfer unacceptable traits onto others while reaction formation involves turning unacceptable wishes into acceptable behaviors. “This defense goes a step further than projection to the point of not even acknowledging unwanted impulses or thoughts and convincing yourself you are not one of ‘them’ who do engage in those patterns” (Clark, 2004). Finally, sublimation has been identified as the driving force behind human aggression. This involves redirecting a threatening or forbidden desire into a socially acceptable behavior. “This is similar to displacement but operates on an unconscious level” (Just, n.d.).

Within the complex development of the individual as they develop first the ego, then the super-ego as well as all or some of the defense mechanisms listed above, Freud suggests the very foundations of civilization and organizing factions such as religions are laid. In his attempts to explain the ‘oceanic’ feeling of limitless connection felt with the rest of humanity described by a friend of his, which perhaps provides the basis of religious persuasion, he explores the development of the ego as it changes from the infant to the adult. According to Freud, the ego of the infant makes few distinctions between what is the infant and what is the other, external object.

By constantly making adjustments to its understanding of the internal as it begins to distinguish those aspects of itself that are internal against those aspects that are external objects, the individual begins to narrow his field, deriving a sense of himself through the definition of what is not himself. However, he may also retain some aspect of that greater connection felt when an infant, thereby explaining, logically, this ‘oceanic’ feeling of a limitlessness and a bond with the universe (Freud, ). While he cannot fully appreciate this feeling himself, he indicates that it is the infant’s need for protection that leads him to identify this universal feeling with the concept of an all-mighty and invisible Father watching out for his children below. “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks” (Freud, 1930: 22). In order to deal with it, we need other means of distracting ourselves from these miseries, such as finding a purpose for being in existence.

In addition to the oceanic feeling of connection, Freud indicates that the question regarding the purpose of human life, a question that continues to be asked throughout the ages, is only seen to be answered satisfactorily to those individuals who believe in religion, by religion. However, a look into the ways in which men live their lives suggests a different answer. Examining the way in which people live their lives, the answer seems obvious, people seek happiness. “As we see, what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle. This principle dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the start” (Freud, 1930: 23). Although we strive to feel pleasure in all things, Freud points out that the human being is incapable of feeling anything more than contentment in the absence of any strife. On the other hand, there are many aspects of life that are, by their nature, capable of inflicting pain or discomfort, including biological forces upon the human body, the external world in general and the actions of other men in particular. To ensure a life full of happiness, Freud suggests people use several different means of fulfilling the pleasure principle while attempting to ignore reality. The pleasure principle refers to the demand felt by all humans to take care of needs immediately. “Just picture the hungry infant, screaming itself blue. It doesn’t ‘know’ what it wants in any adult sense; it just knows that it wants it and it wants it now” (Boeree, 2006).

It is a known fact that human beings cannot exist without the presence of other human beings, at least to some extent, for companionship. Even when the social group is taken down to its most basic elements, that of the immediate family unit comprised of mother, father and child or children, there remains a need for association and a built-in mechanism to re-establish that association at any time it might begin to break down. This mechanism is identified by Freud in the emotion of guilt. “Since civilization obeys an internal erotic impulsion which causes human being to unite in a closely-knit group, it can only achieve this aim through an ever-increasing reinforcement of the sense of guilt. What began in relation to the father is completed in relation to the group” (Freud, 1930: 80).

In making this argument, Freud suggests that the sense of guilt is “the most important problem in the development of civilization” and that “the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt” (Freud, 1930: 81). This pervading sense of guilt, Freud asserts, is not always recognized as such because it sinks into the unconscious. “It appears as a sort of malaise, a dissatisfaction, for which people seek other motivations” (Freud, 1930: 83). Here, too, then, it is seen how religion becomes a crutch for humanity in its recognition of this guilt, renaming it sin, and its promise to release the individual from sin, or guilt, through proper behavior as it is defined through the church. However, in looking at the ways in which the community operates, Freud makes connections between the problems of the community and the problems of the individual.

In much the same way that he sees the individual developing first an ego then a super-ego, Freud sees a similar process occurring in society as it develops first an idea of itself and then a conscience, or self-awareness, that judges whether or not its doing a good job by the community members’ standards. “It can be asserted that the community, too, evolves a super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds” (Freud, 1930: 88). This super-ego, Freud says, is usually based on the ideas and reputations of great leaders of the community who distinguished themselves through a “great force of mind” or strongest expression.

Far from being hailed as wise ones during their lifetimes, Freud indicates most, if not all, of these great leaders of the past had not been recognized as such while alive and often died torturous deaths in support of their cause. However, these heroes can be defined in later times as men who stood up for their sense of ethics and morale. “The cultural super-ego has developed its ideals and set up its demands. Among the latter, those which deal with the relations of human beings to one another are comprised under the heading of ethics” (Freud, 1930: 89). With this relationship established, in which it can be seen that the individual’s development closely mirrors the development of a civilization, Freud is then able to ask the question if whether too rigid a control by the cultural super-ego might lead to societal neuroses comparable to those suffered by individuals. This turns out to be a prophetic question in hindsight.

Freud’s development of the psycho-analytic theory leads him to conclusions that have long-reaching effects not only on psychology, but also many other fields outside of the strict realm of psychiatry. Literary works began to take on new depth of character, or new modes of communication, such as Gertrude Stein’s free association exploration novel with the simple Freudian title “Id”. Literary criticism also took on new flavor as not only the characters, but the authors were examined for their mental state at the time of writing or for true to life motivations for actions taken. Film was equally affected as the viewing public demanded a more realistic, full-bodied and full-minded character regardless of the film genre.

Another field significantly affected by Freud’s theories was that of philosophy. As more and more understanding emerged regarding the ideas Freud brought forward, such as transference, libido and repression, as well as the involvement of dreams in revealing what this inner mind was thinking, philosophy began to take a closer look at such theories as Marxism and feminist ideas. Even the world of advertising was overhauled with the widespread acceptance of Freud’s ideas as commercials began to take on more subconscious imagery as a means of selling a product by appealing to a deeper level of being. With his observations regarding the true nature of religion, Freud managed to offset the balance of theology enough to spur new debate and discussion in that field. Finally, by making connections between the neuroses of individuals and the similarities between the individual mind and the community structure, he was able to suggest new directions for sociology.


Boeree, C. George. (2006). Personality Theories. Web.

Clark, Patricia. (2004). “An Introduction to the Defenses.” Back to School – The Psych Major. Web.

Freud, Sigmund. (1930). Civilization and its Discontents.

Just, Helen. “Freud: Defense Mechanisms.” St. Edwards University. (n.d.). Web.

Landow, George P. (1988). Victorian Web. Web.

Pagewise. (2002). “Freud’s Personality Theory.” Essortment. Web.

Reynolds, Cynthia (1999). “The dream according to Freud” Science Today. Web.

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