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Freud's couch: where it all started
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Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis — an approach to understanding human psychology and behaviour - during the 1890s. One can break down the approach into three core elements:

While Freud's original ideas of psychoanalysis were overwhelmingly pseudoscientific, they laid a groundwork for more empirically valid approaches, much like how alchemy laid a groundwork for chemistry.

The Oedipus complex[edit]

The central idea of Freud, which is maintained throughout more-or-less all subsequent psychoanalysts, is the idea of the unconscious mind, which contains desires and phobias in the form of irrational drives that the conscious mind is unaware of. Mental illnesses are generally described as being due to tension between the unconscious and conscious mind, and treatment is based on ways to reveal the contents of the unconscious to the conscious mind so that some equilibrium can be found.

Freud's notion of the Oedipus complex — named after Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex — was that between ages 3 and 6 all young children develop a sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite sex, which social pressures forbid them from acting on. This would then drive the children to try and behave more like the parent of the same sex while growing up, since said parent is seen as having been successful with the parent of the opposite sex. This seems to run contrary to the Westermarck effect, an instinctive aversion to sexual relations with someone you've grown up with. Steven Pinker wrote that "The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard. Obviously, it did not seem so to Freud, who wrote that as a boy he once had an erotic reaction to watching his mother dressing. But Freud had a wet-nurse, and may not have experienced the early intimacy that would have tipped off his perceptual system that Mrs. Freud was his mother."

The focus on the Oedipus complex has come to define the movement, however this makes up only a fraction of the vast theoretical framework in later psychoanalysis-related works, such as those by Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek. The psychoanalytic movement has become varied, commenting on areas such as art, culture and social criticism. This is in adjunct to a small group of psychotherapists who go back to Freudian theoretical frameworks. While Freud is still popularly viewed as the face of psychoanalysis, his theories in their original forms have not been current for over half a century.[1]

Often major misnomers occur when viewing modern psychoanalysis; this is due to sheer pace of theoretical and scientific research since Freud's tentative steps towards understanding the unconscious. Areas such as the philosophy of mind as well as linguistics have shifted emphasis towards psychoanalysis being used to understand recurring linguistic postulates and mythological repetitions across cultures; it has also increasingly been utilised for understanding the vectors of economic activity by businesses and social theorists of all types. Its everyday usage and recurring leitmotifs in marketing for example betray a constant affectation for psychoanalytic readings of situations, while at the same time looking to see where neuroscience can push boundaries.

Because the Anglo-sphere has adopted philosophical premises around Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege (commonly called the Analytic Tradition) theoretical works which stand outside traditional positivist enquiry are viewed with suspicion. However, it should be pointed out that while psychoanalysis is perhaps less rigorous, many of its adherents have much to offer scientific enquiry, particularly in areas that have been overlooked, or have taken a narrow and incomplete route to understanding them.


Psychoanalysis has largely fallen out of favor among the more empiricist crowds, although it is still popular in much of the world, both as an element of popular culture and as an actual form of therapy. The central problem with psychoanalysis is that the unconscious is functionally a complete black box, and any claims made about it are unfalsifiable.

In the United States it is considerably more in vogue among literary studies than in actual psychological practice, and is one of the many reasons why empirical fields such as the sciences often have trouble taking the humanities seriously. Karl Popper in particular singles out psychoanalysis as an example of a field of study that is unfalsifiable and thus counted as a pseudoscience.

Notable psychoanalysts[edit]

The movement's heroes and villains include:

  • Sigmund Freud: he started it all, inventing many of the principal concepts such as the Oedipus complex, dream interpretation, the unconscious, Freudian slip, eros and thanatos (sex and death drives), repression, and sublimation.
  • Carl Jung: the Swiss psychoanalyst was a close associate of Freud, and rather than his guru's sex-centric focus, he had a much more myth-centred viewpoint that bordered on mysticism, with concepts like the collective unconscious and animus/anima division. He is also responsible for the introvert/extravert dichotomy.
  • Alfred AdlerWikipedia: along with Freud involved in the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Pioneered the idea of the inferiority complex. His work concentrated on topics like birth order, child-rearing, and addiction; but he is infamous for condemning homosexuality as a disorder.[2]
  • Sandor FerencziWikipedia: Hungarian psychoanalyst, originally a close colleague of Freud, they disagreed because Ferenczi believed that analysts' reports of child abuse were genuine while Freud dismissed them as fantasies. He also disagreed with Freud's idea that the analyst should be merely a passive listener.
  • Otto GrossWikipedia: German psychoanalyst of anarchist political beliefs, the first to use Freudianism to advance free love and having lots of sex; and associated with radical artistic circles in Berlin around World War One. Now best known for being played by Vincent Cassel in the film A Dangerous MethodWikipedia.[3]
  • Wilhelm Reich: a particularly crazy figure, who claimed to have discovered a secret mysterious energy called orgone, and believed that sexual repression was a major cause of fascism and Nazism.[4]
  • Sabina SpielreinWikipedia: female psychoanalyst and lover of Jung, who has been played by Keira Knightley on film. She was originally a patient of Jung, who spanked her on the buttocks as a form of therapy, which she claimed to enjoy. She later became involved with the psychoanalytical circle in Vienna, which was the chief rival to Jung's Zurich.[5]
  • Anna FreudWikipedia: Freud's daughter followed him into the family business and became a pioneer of child psychology. She was psychoanalysed by her father for several years in her youth, and her first published work was on the relationship between daydreaming and masturbating.
  • Melanie KleinWikipedia: Austrian psychoanalyst best known for her work on child psychology, specifically object relations theory which focused on the mother-child relationship. She suffered depression as a young adult and was then analysed by Sandor Ferenczi.[6]
  • Jacques LacanWikipedia: French Freudian strongly associated with structuralism and postmodernism. Very influential on recent French thought despite his notorious difficulty; the alleged meaninglessness of his writings was one of the main targets of Alan Sokal.
  • Julia KristevaWikipedia: French literary theorist and feminist who trained as a psychoanalyst and was heavily influenced by Lacan.[7][8]
  • Slavoj Žižek: Marxist philosopher, controversialist, and movie star, who studied psychoanalysis in Paris.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. The Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud Toward a Psychodynamically Informed Psychological Science by Drew Westen, Psychological Bulletin November 1998 Vol. 124, No. 3, 333-371
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Alfred Adler.
  3. Otto Gross.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on The Mass Psychology of Fascism.
  5. Jung Love: Sabina Spielrein, a forgotten pioneer of psychoanalysis, The Telegraph, 2011
  6. Melanie Klein Biography, Gail Donaldson, American Psychological Association
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Julia Kristeva.
  8. Modules on Kristeva: psychosexual development, Purdue
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Slavoj Žižek.