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Sigmund Freud | Biography


Early Life

Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856, in the small town of Freiberg, Moravia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic). His father, Jakob, was a Jewish wool merchant and a widower; his mother, Amalie, was 20 years younger than Jacob. When Freud was four years old, his family moved to Vienna, Austria.

Freud was Amalie's first child and remained her favorite. Freud's father already had two grown sons and a grandson from an earlier marriage. The grandson, John, was Freud's close friend and his rival, a type of ambivalent relationship Freud would repeat throughout his life. As he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), "My emotional life has always insisted that I should have an intimate friend and a hated enemy."

Education and Marriage

At age 17 Freud graduated from Sperl Gymnasium (similar to high school in the United States). The next year he began studying medicine at the University of Vienna. He was more attracted to scientific research than to becoming a physician. He studied the gonads of eels, the human brain, and the medical uses of cocaine. His research often narrowly missed becoming significant. His early research papers on nerve cells were eclipsed by another scientist's monograph on neuron theory in 1891. He studied cocaine but just missed being the one to discover cocaine could be used as a surgical anesthetic. The cocaine research was a professional setback in other ways. Freud recommended cocaine to his friend, the Austrian neurophysiologist Ernst Fleischl von Marxow. After Fleischl's thumb was amputated because of an infection he acquired in the anatomy lab, he became addicted to morphine. Based on little more than a series of promotional articles published by a pharmaceutical company in Detroit, Freud attempted to wean Fleischl off morphine by administering cocaine. The experiment was a disastrous failure. Fleischl got worse instead of better. He swung between addictions to cocaine and morphine and ultimately died at age 45.

In 1885 Freud went to Paris to study with the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière Hospital. Charcot investigated hysteria, which he felt had physiological, organic causes in the deterioration of the brain. Hysteria was the name for a range of psychological disorders where mental stress manifests itself in symptoms such as amnesia, extreme emotions, or physical symptoms. The term has a controversial history, because for many years only women were diagnosed with hysteria. Charcot also used hypnotism on his patients, and this influenced Freud's ideas about the relationship between speech and symptoms like paralysis and obsessions.

When Freud returned from Paris he set up his own medical practice, specializing in nervous diseases, including neurosis and hysteria. With the money he earned he was able to marry Martha Bernays, to whom he had been engaged for four years. He and Martha had six children. Their youngest daughter, Anna, kept a close lifelong bond to her father and also became a psychoanalyst.

Early Career and Father's Death

After his time in Paris, Freud made a new friend, Wilhelm Fliess, an ear, nose, and throat specialist from Berlin. Fliess became Freud's "intimate friend and hated enemy," just as John (Freud's father's grandson) had been in Freud's childhood. No idea of Freud's was too wild to tell to Fliess. Fliess was also an adventurous thinker; he wrote about infantile sexuality and innate bisexuality before Freud and may well have influenced Freud's ideas on these topics. In 1900 Freud would break with Fliess, finding Fliess's ideas incompatible with his own.

Freud's first important psychological publication was Studies on Hysteria (1895) coauthored with Austrian physician Josef Breuer. Like Breuer, Freud thought the "talking cure" or "chimney sweeping"—the term used by Breuer and the patient referred to as Anna O.—could dislodge material from the unconscious. The talking cure, he felt, could make clear the hysterical patient's struggle between saying what they wanted and disguising what they wanted. Unlike Breuer, Freud believed the hidden, disguised wishes of hysterics were sexual wishes.

The five "hysterics" Breuer and Freud discuss in their book are all female. Freud did not want to limit his theory to women. He eventually examined unconscious wishes and conflicts in men as well, beginning with his own self-analysis. Initially Freud believed hysteria was related to traumatic events in childhood. Freud later changed his mind and decided his patients were telling him fantasies about their sexual attraction to adults in their lives. Making infantile sexuality a factor of everyone's mental life, not just those of abuse victims or neurotics, was decisive for psychoanalysis. It made its claims universal.

Freud's father died in 1896. "I now have a quite uprooted feeling," Freud wrote to Fliess. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud calls a father's death "the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life." After his father's death Freud embarked on a lengthy self-analysis, which included analyzing his own dreams. This analysis led to The Interpretation of Dreams. It claims dreams are the fulfillment of repressed, unconscious wishes. The Interpretation of Dreams was followed by The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904), a book in which Freud examined slips of the tongue, misreadings, and misunderstandings as expressions of unconscious desires.

Freud published another groundbreaking work in 1905: his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. This work spelled out Freud's ideas on infantile sexuality and how it developed from an infantile drive for oral pleasure into an adult focus on genital pleasure. Freud focused on the development of male heterosexuality. A key point in this development was the "Oedipus complex," in which the boy wants to have sex with his mother and murder his rivalrous father. The boy also fears castration, which he imagines is the punishment for his sexual desires. The Oedipal struggle is resolved when the boy suppresses his desire for the mother and internally accepts the father's command.

Success and Controversy

Freud began to attract disciples and supporters in the early 1900s. The Psychological Wednesday Circle formed in 1902 and met at Freud's offices. Later this group became the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and held international conferences. In 1909 Freud traveled to the United States at the invitation of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, along with Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875–1961), and Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi (1873–1933). Freud's lectures at Clark were published in 1910, introducing his ideas to an even wider audience. However, Freud's relationships with other psychoanalysts were stormy. From the start it seemed Freud could have no peers, only disciples or traitors, and he often broke with disciples who later became leaders in their own right.

Freud progressively refined and developed his approach to psychology. In The Interpretation of Dreams he laid out a system of interactions between the unconscious, the preconscious, and the conscious. Later he developed his theory of the ego, the id, and the superego. The id is all desire and impulse, in accordance with what Freud called the pleasure principle. The ego recognizes the need for delayed gratification. The superego is the internal representative of society's demands and parental rules. Still later Freud proposed a new drive—the death drive—in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).

Later Career and Death

Freud also wrote works theorizing about the foundations of society, culture, and religion. Among them are Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) and Moses and Monotheism (1939), in which he speculates Moses was originally an Egyptian who only later adopted a Jewish identity.

When Freud began writing Civilization and Its Discontents, he was already suffering from cancer of the jaw. He would undergo multiple operations and remain beleaguered by this illness for the rest of his life. In 1938, when the Nazis annexed Austria before World War II, Freud, his wife, and their youngest daughter, Anna, fled to London. He died on September 23, 1939, only weeks after the war began.

With its emphasis on strict fathers and sexually repressed neurotics, Freud's work has been criticized as limited by his cultural moment: Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Other readers strip Freud of these limiting cultural associations. Instead they see his work on repression as a struggle between civilizing, pro-social impulses and selfish, egotistical impulses. Freud's work has been influential outside psychology, leaving its traces in sociology, history, literary criticism, and art. The lasting appeal of his ideas may have to do with their power to explain people's contradictory, often irrational behaviors. Freud helped people see themselves and each other as multifaceted. Behind a fear might lie a wish; behind a joke, a barbed aggression; behind slavish obedience to an authority, an energy that might be turned to projects of liberation.

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