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Sigmund Freud

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Were you thinking of your father's penis?
Why should I tolerate a perfect stranger at the bedside of my mind? […] I’ve no intention to dream the drab middle-class dreams of an Austrian crank with a shabby umbrella …. The Freudian racket looks to me as much of a farce as the jumbo thingum of polished wood with a polished hole in the middle which doesn’t represent anything except the gaping face of the Philistine who is told it is a great sculpture produced by the greatest living caveman.
—Vladimir Nabokov, from a 1968 interview with Nicholas Garnham, as reprinted in Strong Opinions.[1]
Siggy says "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Either that or a big old symbolic penis.
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Sigmund "Siggy" Freud (1856–1939, b. Sigismund Schlomo Freud) was a horny old man that got off to the sexual repressions of collective society 19th- and 20th-century physician and neurologist who is widely credited with (and criticized for) popularizing the concept of the unconscious—the idea that human beings are not always aware of their own motivations—although he did not invent the idea.


Freud is often grouped with Nietzsche and Marx as one of the great thinkers of the 19th century as in Paul Ricoeur's Freud and Philosophy, in which he is characterized as one of the "masters of suspicion".[2] Like Marx, his ideas were a product of the culture in which he lived, and were an attempt to come up with a scientific view of human behavior (in Marx's case, of the behavior of groups, in Freud's case, individuals).

The "discovery" of the unconscious is often mis-attributed to Freud.[3] In fact, ideas about the unconscious were not uncommon in Freud's time. Pseudoscientific hypnosis therapies were a popular practice of the day. On the scientific front, early psychologists such as William JamesWikipedia and Hermann Ebbinghaus attempted to describe unconscious processes. Freud offered a new characterization of the mind by positing the unconscious as central to mental processes, developing the three-part model (id, ego, superego), and describing unconscious processes such as defense mechanisms.

As a neurologist, Freud observed that certain people suffering from "hysteria" had physical symptoms that did not correspond to known neurologic pathways. He also noticed that an exploration of the person's motivations via talk often cured them. He went on to develop the basis for psychiatry before the era of psychopharmacology. His ideas were not entirely new, but he systemized them in a way that was equally revolutionary and controversial.

Freud helped to popularize talk therapy, which is central to psychotherapy in general. The mountains of research done on Freud's brand of talk therapy as well as all the various other types of talk therapy, however, has shown that there is nothing special in Freud's specific techniques but that talk therapy in general and the therapist-patient connection improves mental health. The expertise and experience of the therapist often matters more than the type of therapy offered.[4] Despite pop culture portrayals of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and not Freudian analysis is the most popular form of therapy today. Nevertheless, Freud's work was an important step forward in decriminalizing mental illness, as asylums in the 19th century tended to be far more interested in containing the "undesirables" of society rather than therapeutic solutions.[note 1]

Freud also defined cerebral palsy and was the first to research it in detail, correctly proposing that it could be caused by abnormal fetal development.[5]

Freud's theories[edit]

Freud suggested that mental illness and neurotic behavior originated in unpleasant or traumatic events early in childhood that were suppressed or repressed from the conscious mind. He theorized that the unconscious mind communicated repressed thoughts and emotions by means of symbolism. The term Freudian slip refers to an error in speech that expresses one's true or unconscious feelings.

Through his experience with the life histories of many patients, Freud came to believe that the primal drive behind sexual behavior was a powerful influence on unconscious behavior because of the way society forces the developing child to hide sexual feelings and repress sexual behavior. Freud divided the development of sexuality in the child into three phases, the oral, the anal and the genital. He believed neurotic behavior often reflected a regression to earlier stages of development. There is great irony in the fact that Freud was a prolific smoker of cigars (an oral fixation on a penis substitute), and died of throat cancer that was most likely caused by this habit though that was not known in Freud's time. That said, the phrase "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" is often (perhaps apocryphally) attributed to Freud.


Freud's theories and practices were controversial for many different reasons, some of them nonsense and some of them legitimate.

Scientific objections[edit]

Many of Freud's theories, particularly those that rest on sub- or unconscious motivation, are now discredited as untestable, or nonfalsifiable, and/or lacking in explanatory or predictive value. The clinical psychology community has long warned that psychoanalytic techniques may easily be used by an unscrupulous, or self-deluded, practitioner to enforce the therapist's views, preoccupations, or agenda on a patient.

Hans Eysenck wrote that what is new in Freud's theories is not true and what is true in Freud's theories is not new.[6]

Methodology and case studies[edit]

It's important to remember that Freud's writings on psychology consisted only of case studies and don't follow a strict application of the scientific method. Indeed, his earlier works came out at a time when modern statistics, research design, and psychometrics as we know it hadn't even reached its infancy. His ideas changed over time and he dropped or combined many of the concepts in his earlier work throughout his career.

Even Freud's case studies, however, are problematic. Later authors, by comparing his writing to personal correspondences and other records, have shown a number of them to be riddled with fabrications, distortions and outright fraud. For example, Freud touted his patient Sergei Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man," as a great success of psychoanalysis. Pankejeff sought treatment for depression in 1910 after his sister and father committed suicide. Freud fixated on a dream about wolves (hence the "Wolf Man" moniker) Pankejeff reported and spun a strange tale from this. Freud postulated that the symbolism of the dream indicated that Pankejeff had repressed a memory of seeing his parents having sex when he was a child (this is Freud, remember).[7] Freud declared Pankejeff "cured" and trumpeted the case as a prime example of the power of his therapy.

Pankejeff, however, noted later in life that the alleged memory was unlikely as children in his hometown slept in the nanny's room rather than with the parents. He claimed that he had gone back to see both Freud and his followers repeatedly even after he had been allegedly "cured" as his depression didn't actually let up. He also denounced Freudians for using his case as what he called "propaganda" for psychoanalysis.[8][9]

Repressed memory[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Repressed memory
See the main article on this topic: Confabulation

Repressed memory is now considered pseudoscientific. There is no special mechanism that "represses" memories and it's likely that many of the "repressed" memories Freudians claim to have discovered were actually just inadvertent inventions of the therapist or patient himself.

Dream interpretation[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Dream interpretation

Dream interpretation was an important "technique" in psychotherapy. However, after over a hundred years of research, there is still no scientific consensus on the meaning of dreams, or even if they mean anything at all! Dream interpretation is currently patent quackery.

The unconscious[edit]

Cognitive psychology[note 2] has affirmed Freud's belief that the bulk of mental processes are unconscious. However, modern psychologists generally regard his description of the workings of the unconscious mind as patent nonsense. So much so that some psychology literature uses the words "explicit" and "implicit" in place of "conscious" and "unconscious", and, less often, the word "unconscious" may be replaced by "non-conscious" in order to avoid association with Freudian theory.

In (very) brief, Freud viewed the unconscious as sort of a dumping ground for emotional trauma,[10] bad memories, and primal urges (the classic id). These things are forced into the unconscious through the mechanism of repression and are supposedly inaccessible by normal introspection. Hordes of pop and crank psychologists and New Agers have piled their own quackery on top of this idea, imbuing the unconscious with nigh-on mystical powers. In some cases, enterprising hucksters may shoehorn the ten percent myth into this, with claims of being able to "unlock your unconscious mind".

The unconscious in contemporary cognitive psychology is wildly different, bearing only some vague traces of Freudian notions. One can simply define the unconscious as any thought process that is not being paid attention to.[11] This includes a wide range of things, such as involuntary physiological processes controlled by the brain (that's why you can't forget to breathe), memories that are not being currently attended to, and implicit memory for well-practiced skills (such as walking). The notion in popular culture that the unconscious is somehow spooky, mystical, "locked away", or a repository for subversive thoughts is simply untrue. While the "deep mind" hypothesis may have some validity at times, it does not characterize all of the unconscious mind.

Critics notably attacked Freud's ideas about the unconscious as unfalsifiable and un-testable. The current definition of the unconscious allows for forming much better and more easily testable hypotheses. One example of a technique used to study unconscious visual processing is called continuous flash suppression, in which a normal picture is presented to one eye and a series of rapidly changing or flashing shapes is presented to the other. This can actually allow for unconscious visual processing to occur while the subject is unaware of having seen anything but flashing shapes.[12]

Falsification and Popper's criticism[edit]

It is often claimed that Freudian psychoanalysis as a whole is unfalsifiable, taking a line from Karl Popper's criticism of Freud.[13] Popper argued this largely on the basis that psychoanalysts could easily deploy various defense mechanisms themselves and other psychoanalytic concepts to dismiss countervailing evidence. A number of Freud's ideas were unfalsifiable at least in practice if not in principle, such as some of his ideas about dream interpretation. However, Freud made many revisions to his ideas, so there is no unitary theory of psychoanalysis. Examining many of Freud's concepts in isolation also allows them to be falsified (and some of them have been), as described above. A number of Freud's critics have also criticized Popper by arguing that psychoanalytic concepts have been falsified.[14][15][16]

Hans Eysenck, an opponent of Freud, argues that Freud's theories are falsifiable and therefore a science, though an incorrect one.[17] Hans Eysenck has said that Freud set back psychiatry and psychology by "50 years or more"[18].

Moral and religious objections[edit]

From their inception, Freud's ideas disturbed the religious community, which was rather inevitable as he was an ardent atheist. He did, however, turn toward a sort of secular Judaism late in his life.[19] Freud himself regarded religion as neurotic and delusional—an attempt by the unconscious mind to deal with difficult problems and motivations.[20]

Modern and postmodern objections[edit]

Freud's ideas are steeped in the cognitive biases of 19th century Europe, especially in regard to gender roles. His ideas are seen by many modern critics as misogynist and homophobic. Social change as a result of 20th century civil rights movements have played a role in changing attitudes toward Freud. His ideas have been criticized by feminists such as Betty Friedan[21] and postmodernists such as Michel Foucault.[22] While it is true that Freud's writing is filled with what would be considered latent and overt bigotry today, he was liberal-minded for his time in some ways and in some cases it was Freud's followers who inflated the bigoted aspects of his work.[note 3] In any case, here is some of the nonsense he perpetuated:

  • Female hysteria
  • Penis envy. One of Freud's contemporaries, Karen Horney, criticized this by coining its counterpart, "womb envy."[23]
  • While Freud did not see homosexuality in and of itself to be a mental illness,[note 4] he did view it as a form of stunted sexual development. He also believed that homophobia led to sexual repression in gays, which caused a range of mental disorders, most notably paranoia or schizophrenia. The alleged connection was, of course, later found to be utter bullshit.[24][25][note 5] This is a rather succinct example of Freud's contradictory attitudes in that he was much more open-minded toward homosexuality than his contemporaries but was also responsible for the perpetuation of one of the most pernicious anti-gay myths.
  • Although it was Freud's contemporary Richard von Krafft-EbingWikipedia who coined the terms "sadism" and "masochism," Freud was also largely responsible for pathologizing BDSM practices. He believed them to be a form of arrested development as well, and connected to harsh punishment in childhood or outright child abuse.

Existential objections[edit]

Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading 20th century existentialist, repudiated the idea that there was any kind of "unconscious," arguing instead all mental activity was (at some level) conscious. With this in mind, Sartre tried to set up a school of "existential psychoanalysis."[26] While most of Freud's critics took issue with his characterization of the unconscious, they didn't deny its actual existence. There is such a broad consensus and wide range of research today[27] that rejecting the existence of the unconscious would be considered denialism probably on par with mental illness denial.

Psychoactive objections (or Freud the Cokehead)[edit]

Freud was known for his advocacy of cocaine to treat a wide variety of mental disorders and was also known for ingesting a good bit of the substance himself. Freud's seminal work on psychopharmacology, On Coca, bears the dubious distinction of being the only research paper whose title describes not only its subject matter but also the state the author was in while writing it.[citation NOT needed] He came under fire for heavily prescribing and promoting the drug during the 1880s and 1890s (about the same time Coca-Cola removed the drug from its recipe) until he discarded it as a psychiatric cure-all.[note 6] Ironically, the book The Seven-Percent Solution centers around Freud treating Sherlock Holmes for cocaine addiction.[note 7]

Freudianism today[edit]

Freud's theories about unconscious motivations have been subjected to many valid (and some spurious) criticisms, but continue to influence modern psychotherapy, albeit to a dramatically smaller degree than they did decades ago. Freudian theories currently occupy a marginal position in research psychology. A 2008 report by the American Psychoanalytic Association noted that Freudian ideas are now far more popular in literature and arts courses than psychology, calling the field's treatment of Freud "desiccated and dead." It claimed that Freud was generally taught simply for historical context.[28] Freudian ideas heavily influenced his nephew Edward Bernays, and consequently also had a profound and long lasting impact on the advertising and PR industries.[note 8]

Many varying (mis)understandings of Freudian beliefs have provided meal tickets to pop psychologists for generations.[citation NOT needed]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]



  1. See Michel Foucault's Madness and CivilizationWikipedia for the classic treatment of this topic.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on cognitive psychology.
  3. See Peter Tatchell's Freud and the Liberation of Sexual Desire for a summary of some of his more progressive attitudes on this issue.
  4. Which actually put him well ahead of abnormal psychology at his time and into the future, as it wasn't until the 1960s and early 1970s that attitudes in the psychiatric and psychological community began to change and it was eventually de-pathologized and removed from the DSM.
  5. Freud's relation of projection and homosexuality, though, could be considered the earliest formulation of Haggard's Law.
  6. There's actually an entire book just on this: Freud and Cocaine: The Freudian Fallacy by E.M. Thornton.
  8. See The Century of the Self series by Adam Curtis, but beware of Curtis' tendency towards apophenia.


  1. The Meanest Things Vladimir Nabokov Said About Other Writers, Literary Hub, April 20, 2018.
  2. G.D. Robinson. Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion: A Brief Overview and Critique. Premise, Volume II, Number 8, September 27, 1995, page 12
  3. Not Freud's Discovery, Martin Gardner, New York Review of Books
  4. Horvath, Adam O. The Alliance. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 38(4), Win 2001, 365-372.
  5. A. Kavcic and D. B. Vodusek. A historical perspective on cerebral palsy as a disease and diagnosis. European Journal of Neurology 2005, 12: 582–58
  6. Erwin, Edward A Final Accounting: Philosophical and Empirical Issues in Freudian Psychology page 287
  7. Allen Esterson. Freud's Theories of Repression and Memory. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, vol. 2, no. 2, 2003
  8. Who Was the Wolf Man?
  9. As a Therapist, Freud Fell Short, Scholars Find, New York Times
  10. Leys, Ruth (2010). Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 18. ISBN 9780226477541. Retrieved 3 September 2019. "[...] Freud is a founding figure in the history of the conceptualization of trauma." 
  11. Compare: Matsumoto, David, ed (2009). "unconscious ideation". The Cambridge Dictionary of Psychology. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 560. ISBN 13 978-0-521-85470-2. Retrieved 3 September 2019. "unconscious ideation [:] Any thought process outside the awareness of the individual." 
  12. How Unconscious Mechanisms Affect Thought, Scientific American.
  13. Karl Popper. Science as Falsification. In Conjectures and Refutations, London: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1963, pp. 33-39
  14. Adolf Grunbaum. Popper's fundamental misdiagnosis of the scientific defects of Freudian psychoanalysis and of their bearing on the theory of demarcation. Psychoanalytic Psychology, Vol 25(4), Oct 2008, 574-589.
  15. Anthony A. Derksen. The Seven Strategies of the Sophisticated Pseudo-Scientist: A Look into Freud's Rhetorical Tool Box. Journal for General Philosophy of Science, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Dec., 2001), pp. 329-350
  16. Was Freud a Pseudoscientist?: Asking the Right Question, Frank Cioffi, Butterflies and Wheels
  17. Eysenck, Hans Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire Transaction Publishers page 14
  18. Eysenck, Hans, Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1986, p. 202.
  19. Defender of the Faith? New York Times
  20. Freud and Religion,
  21. The Feminine Mystique Chapter 5: The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud
  22. Joel Whitebook. Freud, Foucault, and the Dialogue with "Unreason." Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 29–66
  23. Karen Horney, Webster University
  24. Rossi et al. The problem of the relationship between homosexuality and schizophrenia. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, Volume 1, Number 4, 357-362
  25. Franklin S. Klaf and Charles A. Davis. Homosexuality and Paranoid Schizophrenia: A Survey of 150 Cases and Controls. Am J Psychiatry 116:1070-1075, June 1960
  26. Final lecture on Sartre, Ron McClamrock, SUNY Albany
  27. Just the tip of the iceberg: Luis M. Augusto. Unconscious Knowledge: A Survey. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, vol. 6, 2010.
  28. Freud Is Widely Taught at Universities, Except in the Psychology Department, The New York Times