Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

(Return to index)

Commentary on

"The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis."
Sigmund Freud (1910)

Raymond E. Fancher, York University

© 1998 Raymond E. Fancher
All rights reserved.

Freud's lectures at Clark University occurred at almost exactly the mid­point of his long and prolific career. By then Freud had already developed most of the truly foundational ideas of psychoanalysis in a series of major publications, which he attempted briefly to abstract in his five lectures. Still, some important details and elaborations of the basic theory remained to be worked out, and Freud devoted much of the rest of his career to this project. This commentary will begin by describing Freud's background and then specifying the major works he had completed prior to the lectures in 1909; it will conclude with a brief summary of the major developments in his work and thought during the remainder of his career.

Freud's Early Life

Sigmund Freud was born on 6 May 1856 in the town of Freiburg in the Austro­Hungarian Empire (now called Prîbor and part of the Czech Republic). In 1860 his father, a Jewish wool merchant of modest means, moved the family to Vienna, where Freud remained until the final year of his long life. The family constellation was unusual in that Freud's father was much older than his mother, and in a previous marriage had had two sons who were roughly the same age as Freud's mother. One of these half­brothers had a son - Freud's nephew - who was older than Freud himself. Freud was the first of his mother's eight children, and so grew up as the oldest - and most favored - child within his immediate family household. Some have speculated that this unusual situation may have particularly sensitized Freud to family dynamics such as those he later emphasized in formulating the Oedipus Complex.

Be that as it may, young Freud became a brilliant and ambitious student, standing at or near the top of his class at school with particular interests in history and literature. A chance hearing of a lecture on nature during his final year of secondary school turned his attention toward science, and led to his almost impulsive enrollment in the University of Vienna's medical school in 1873. There, after a brief but intense involvement in the "act psychology" promoted by his philosophy professor Franz Brentano (1838-1917), his imagination was captured by the new, "mechanistic physiology" promoted by his physiology teacher, Ernst Brücke (1819-1892). According to this view, all physiological processes, no matter how complex, had to be accounted for "mechanistically" in terms of ordinary physical and chemical laws. Freud worked enthusiastically and productively in Brücke's laboratory for six years, publishing several papers on neuroanatomy, and hoping eventually to pursue a career as a research physiologist rather than as a practicing physician. In the early 1880s, however, he reluctantly concluded that an academic research career would not be possible for an impecunious Jew in anti-Semitic Vienna. He would have to practice medicine after all, and so he went to the General Hospital for clinical training.

There, Freud's prior neurophysiological interests naturally led him to the psychiatry clinic directed by the famous brain anatomist Theodore Meynert (1833-1893). Under Meynert's direction, Freud became unusually adept at diagnosing organic brain disorders, particularly the effects of localized injuries. He now developed ambitions of specializing in this field, and as Meynert's best student he won a fellowship enabling him to travel to Paris and study with the great French neurologist Jean Charcot (1825-1893) for six months beginning in November of 1885. Charcot had made his reputation by studying "orthodox" neurological conditions such as polio and multiple sclerosis, but when Freud encountered him he happened to be deep into the study of hysteria. As Freud relates in the first of his Clark lectures, hysterical symptoms often resemble in some ways the effects of localized brain injuries, but occur in the absence of such injuries. Most physicians of the time dismissed hysteria as malingering and did not take it seriously, but Charcot believed it was a real condition caused by generalized (as opposed to localized) weakness of the nervous system, and closely related to the susceptibility to hypnosis. As Freud suggests at the beginning of his second lecture, Charcot's specific theory proved to be incorrect. But with his great prestige he helped elevate the previously "disreputable" subjects of hysteria and hypnosis to scientific respectability, and introduced Freud to their serious and systematic study. This proved crucial to Freud after he returned to Vienna and tried to establish himself in private practice.

Studies on Hysteria

Given a choice, Freud would have specialized exclusively in "ordinary" neurological diseases and brain injuries, and in fact he wrote some very well received works on aphasia and infantile cerebral palsy. He found he could not attract enough patients of this type to make a living, however, and somewhat reluctantly, began accepting patients with hysterical symtoms. At first, his therapeutic armamentarium for such cases was sparse, consisting mainly of "hydrotherapy" (the prescription of warm or cold baths) and "electrotherapy" (mild electrical stimulations of the afflicted body parts). These worked very imperfectly, and much more because of the power of suggestion than any inherent physical effects. Then Freud tried direct hypnosis, where patients were simply hypnotized and told that their symptoms would disappear. This was an improvement, but still far from perfect. Finally Freud remembered a case that had been described to him many years earlier, before his fellowship with Charcot, by his older friend Josef Breuer (1842-1925).

Breuer was a highly respected Viennese physician who had supported Freud financially as well as morally when he was a struggling medical student. Breuer sometimes had confided about his own practice, including the case of Bertha Pappenheim (1859­1936), a remarkable young woman with severe hysterical symptoms. Breuer did not normally accept hysterical patients, but the Pappenheims were family friends and he agreed to do what he could for Bertha. Over a period of several months, he and Bertha together developed the basic, cathartic method of treatment that Freud sketched out in the first of his Clark lectures. Under hypnosis, Bertha would recall previously forgotten but emotionally charged experiences related to the onset of her symptoms. Upon remembering them and expressing the previously pent­up emotions associated with them - a process Breuer and Freud later called abreaction - the symptoms disappeared. The treatment seemed effective, and Pappenheim went on to have a distinguished career as a social worker and activist for feminist causes. Towards the end of the treatment, however, she had begun to express a strong and irrational emotional attachment to Breuer - a manifestation of what Freud would later call "transference." Breuer (and his wife) found this very upsetting, and never again could he be persuaded to treat a hysterical patient. The cathartic method was forgotten and not used again until Freud, launched upon his own practice several years later, remembered being told about it and decided to try it out for himself.

When he did so, he found it better than anything else available, and treated a number of patients with some success. In 1893 he persuaded the reluctant Breuer to collaborate in writing a short, "preliminary communication" describing the technique and containing the famous summarizing statement that Freud repeated in the first Clark lecture: namely, that "hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences." Two years later the authors elaborated substantially on the treatment method and its theory in a book entitled Studies on Hysteria (Studien über Hysterie). This contained five detailed case studies including that of Bertha Pappenheim (disguised under the name, "Anna O."), and four of Freud's early patients.

At the time Studies on Hysteria was published, Freud still confronted two important problems - one practical and the other theoretical. The practical issue arose because not all hysterical patients could be hypnotized, so a more widely applicable technique was necessary for accessing their unconscious pathogenic ideas. The theoretical question was why those ideas had become unconscious in the first place. Freud's second lecture summarized his interlinked efforts to solve those two problems - efforts that he made without the collaboration of Breuer and that are seen by many scholars as marking the real beginning of Freudian "psychoanalysis." These efforts culminated in the invention of free association: Patients in the normal waking state (but still reclining with eyes closed on the hypnotic subject's couch) were instructed to let their minds wander freely to any and all thoughts aroused by their symptoms, no matter how ridiculous­seeming or anxiety­arousing. Although simple in principle, this procedure was difficult in practice because the patients inevitably experienced what Freud called resistance - a blocking, editing or censoring of their accounts that could be overcome only with great persistence and encouragement from the therapist. Freud now became convinced that pathogenic ideas became unconscious because there was something fundamentally anxiety­arousing about them, so much so that they were actively repressed from consciousness and the symptoms appeared in their stead. Unconsciously, the patients seemed to have made a decision that it was better to suffer the pain of the symptom than that of thinking the thought. The symptom therefore represented a defense against the conscious acknowledgement of the thought.

At the same time he was advancing his understanding of hysteria in these ways, Freud was also working energetically on an even more ambitious theoretical project. He hoped to integrate his new insights about hysteria with his earlier knowledge of neurology, in constructing a comprehensive theoretical model of the mind. The main result was 100 pages of draft manuscript composed in late 1895, that Freud himself never published but that he sent to his best friend and confidant Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928), a physician in Berlin. The work, along with a treasure trove of other draft manuscripts and letters sent to Fliess, came to light only after Freud's death. Although the manuscript was untitled and privately referred to by Freud as his "Psychology for Neurologists," his English translators called it the Project for a Scientific Psychology. Employing the mechanistic neurological terminology Freud had learned from Brücke and Meynert, this extraordinary work presented his first systematic theory of how unconscious and instinctually-driven processes presumably underlie most psychological activity in general. Here Freud for the first time seriously considered the subject of dreams. His neurologically oriented theory predicted that dreams should show some structural properties similar to hysterical symptoms, and also - momentously - that they should often represent the symbolic gratification of conflict­laden wishes. Here was a hypothesis that Freud could put to a psychological test by subjecting the content of dreams to free association. When he did so dream analysis turned out to be - as he put it in his third lecture - the via regia ("royal road") to the unconscious.

Dream Interpretation and Self-analysis

The first dream Freud analyzed by this new method was one of his own, subsequently known as "The Dream of Irma's Injection." In the dream, Freud was at a gathering at which "Irma," one of his own patients in real life, fell ill after being given an injection of propyl (a ridiculous medical procedure) by one of his colleagues; then Freud vividly saw before him the formula for the chemically related substance trimethylamin, printed in heavy type. Like the content of so many dreams, this experience was disjointed, somewhat bizarre, and made no obvious sense. When Freud free associated to this directly experienced but nonsensical content of the dream, however, a series of unsuspected ideas emerged that did make sense. These included the recollection that his best friend Fliess (not the doctor from the dream) had been dangerously negligent in a real operation Freud had asked him to perform on Irma in real life. Freud also recalled a recent conversation with Fleiss in which they had speculated about the role of trimethylamin in the chemistry of the body's sexual processes. These recollections in turn led to a whole welter of conflict-laden thoughts and wishes regarding both Fliess and Irma - feelings of resentment and anger towards his best friend, and of a certain sexual attraction between himself and his patient, for example. Many of these thoughts were anxiety arousing and difficult to accept, but Freud felt forced to acknowledge that they were true, that they made sense, and that they therefore constituted the "real" motivation and meaning of his dream.

Freud soon became convinced that virtually any dream could be interpreted in much the same way, and moreover could be shown to have some remarkable similarities to hysterical symptoms. When the remembered dream experience, referred to by Freud as its manifest content, was subjected to free association in the same way that hysterical patients' symptoms were, a previously unconscious latent content was revealed. This latent content seemed to stand in many of the same relationships to the manifest content that unconscious pathogenic ideas stood to hysterical symptoms. In both instances the conscious products were psychologically "safer" - i.e., less anxiety arousing - than the original unconscious ideas that had to be recovered through free association. Further, individual symptoms and manifest dream images both seemed to represent several different unconscious ideas at once; e.g., a whole group of different pathogenic ideas often underlay a single hysterical symptom, just as a large number of complexly interrelated ideas had been associated with Freud's brief dream sequence of Irma's injection. Freud called this phenomenon overdetermination in the case of symptoms and condensation in the dreams.

A fluent recaller of his own dreams, Freud now he became his own best subject in psychoanalytical research. And after his father died in 1896, he also literally became his own patient. Even though the death had been expected for some time it precipitated a severe personal crisis in which Freud felt as if he had been "torn up by the roots." Attempting to cure himself by the method he had previously developed for his patients, he began systematically subjecting the manifest content of his dreams to free association. This was the famous self-analysis, regarded by many of Freud's followers as his greatest and most heroic accomplishment.

Following as best as he could his rule of allowing his associations to go where they would without censorship, Freud discerned within himself a number of consciously very uncomfortable ideas and memories. In particular, he detected a constellation of attitudes and impulses dating from childhood, when - he was forced to believe - he had wished for the exclusive possession of his mother as a source of sensual, "sexual" gratification, and for he removal or "death" of his father, whom he perceived as the main rival for that gratification. The words "sexual" and "death" have been enclosed in quotation marks here because they represent those concepts as understood by Freud as a young child, differing from his mature understanding of the terms. But Freud had no doubt that these childhood attitudes were the genuine precursors and originating points for the adult concepts. So here, within himself, was the original evidence for the Oedipus complex which he soon came to view as a nearly inevitable consequence of any child's development, and which he elaborated upon in his fourth lecture at Clark.

This self-knowledge helped Freud to solve a problem that had arisen in his understanding and treatment of hysteria. Previously, he had been increasingly impressed by the regularity with which his patients' associations had led to "memories" of a sexual nature, dating from childhood. Surprisingly often, these remembered scenes entailed sexual abuse, usually at the hands of a parent. Indeed, Freud in 1896 had published papers proclaiming a seduction theory of hysteria: namely, that childhood sexual abuse was a necessary precondition for the illness. Presumably the experiences had not been perceived as "sexual" by the immature children at the time of their occurrence, but after the onset of puberty their memories became disturbingly charged with new meaning and "sexualized after the fact," causing them to be repressed from normal consciousness. Thus they became pathogenic ideas.

This theory was not well received, as one eminent Viennese physician called it "a scientific fairy tale." And soon, Freud himself began to have doubts about it. He confessed to Fliess in late 1897 that in too many cases the uncovering of these "memories" failed to produce the expected symptom relief, and that in too many cases contrary evidence suggested they could not be literally true. Even in Freud's own family a sibling had developed hysterical symptoms, and if his theory were correct it would point to his own father as a child abuser. This just did not ring true.

Freud's self-analysis and postulation of the Oedipus complex pointed to a possible resolution. His discovery of traces of childhood sexuality in himself suggested that these might be universal, and that the traditional definition of "sexuality" should be revised. Instead of being a highly specific, genitally and heterosexually oriented instinct to copulate and reproduce, "sexuality" should be thought of as a highly general drive for sensual gratification of many different kinds, present in all individuals from infancy onwards. Under this new conception, an infant is born in a state of "polymorphous perversity," capable of "sexual" gratification via various autoerotic and non-reproductive activities such as those highlighted by Freud in his fourth lecture. By the time the child reaches the age of five or six, many of these pleasures arouse condemnation from parents and society, and thus cause such severe anxiety that the urges for them must be repressed into unconsciousness. They do not disappear, however, but remain in the unconscious waiting for opportunities to be expressed indirectly - not only in dreams but also, in some cases, as hysterical symptoms. Hysterical pathogenic ideas, like the disturbing latent content of many dreams, could be interpreted as disguised representations of childhood wishes rather than actual experiences.

With his increasing sense of the pervasiveness of unconscious motivation, and with free association available as a technique for revealing it, Freud turned his attention to diverse phenomena such as jokes and mistakes (or "slips"). As he argues in the third lecture, these psychic creations apparently are not random, but like symptoms or dreams they express by allusion wishful ideas that are too dangerous or embarrassing to be directly stated.

While treating his patients, Freud gradually came to place as much emphasis on the analysis of their dreams as on their symptoms. Dreams often provided more detailed and useful insight than symptoms did into the patients' underlying personality dynamics. And to his surprise, Freud discovered that frequently the latent content of his patients' dreams entailed unconscious fantasies about himself, and that those fantasies re­created many of the crucial Oedipal and other conflict­laden relationships the patients had had with important figures in their lives. Here was the phenomenon of transference, which Freud discussed in his fifth lecture (where the term was translated as "transfer") as one of the most important aspects of the relationship between patient and psychoanalyst.

Freud's Major Works

In essence, Freud's five lectures abstracted the contents of six important longer works he had published prior to 1909. Studies on Hysteria, published with Breuer in 1895, gave a complete account of the two men's pioneering work on hysteria. A detailed presentation of Freud's dream theory appeared in The Interpretation of Dreams, a long book published in late 1899 but dated 1900 by the publisher. This contains many interpretations of Freud's own dreams, and sheds incidental light on his self­analysis. It closes with a theoretical chapter drawing the implications of the dream theory for a general model of the mind which, although couched in completely psychological as opposed to neurological terms, is clearly the successor of the Project. Freud himself always regarded this as his single most important book. 1901 saw the first publication of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which Freud detailed the evidence in favor of unconsciously motivated mistakes or "Freudian slips." One of his most popular works, this originally appeared as a long article in a medical journal but was reprinted as a separate book in 1904, and subsequently expanded and revised in nine further editions over the next twenty years. The three other major publications all appeared in 1905: Freud's analysis of humor and wit in Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious; his broadened and revolutionary theory of the sexual drive in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality; and his account of the case that first showed him the importance of transference in a long paper entitled "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria."

All six of the above works, while necessarily more technical and detailed than the lectures that summarized them, were nonetheless addressed to a relatively broad audience of general physicians and intelligent laypeople, and so were very readable. Many of Freud's works that came after 1909 showed a rather different quality, occasioned by the emerging status of psychoanalysis as a movement. As was noted in the Introduction, the Clark lectures represented a watershed in Freud's career, marking the end of his years of "splendid isolation" and the beginnings of his leadership of an international organization. And even though some of his early followers like Jung and Adler soon broke with him to form rival psychodynamic schools of their own, a much greater number became positively attracted, joined the International Psycho-Analytical Association and became self­identified "Freudians." Inevitably, this group of followers became the intended audience for much of Freud's later work. Now that he could take for granted his readers' prior familiarity and basic sympathy with his views, his writing inevitably became more specialized and technical - and, it must be said, not nearly as enjoyable for the ordinary reader. (Two notable exceptions to this, intended as summaries of his theory for a general audience, were Introductory Lectures on Psycho­Analysis and An Outline of Psycho­Analysis, published respectively in 1916-17 and 1940.)

Among the more important of Freud's technical writings were a series of "Papers on Metapsychology" from the mid-1910s, exploring the fine points of repression and the unconscious. Other works concerned the precise nature of the instinctual drives. In the 1914 paper, "On Narcissism: An Introduction," for example, Freud postulated that the sexual energy or libido could be directed not only "outwards" towards external figures but also inwards towards the self. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), a controversial work that was not accepted by some of his otherwise staunchest supporters, Freud posited an ultimately destructive "death instinct" ("Thanatos") in perpetual conflict with a sexually­oriented life instict ("Eros").

In 1923, concern over some technicalities in psychoanalytic terminology stimulated Freud to write The Ego and the Id. Previously he had used the terms "unconscious" and "preconscious" both as adjectives (e.g., to describe an "unconscious wish" or a "preconscious memory") and as nouns (postulating "the Unconscious" or "the Preconscious" as separate systems in the psyche). But Freud was troubled by the fact that several of the important processes he had attributed to the Preconscious system actually occurred unconsciously, and that certain repressed components of the Unconscious system were structured like preconscious material. Thus he now renamed "the Unconscious" as the id, and "the Preconscious" as the ego. Further, he had become increasingly aware of situations when conflicts between the instinctual drives and external reality are further complicated by moral demands. For example, sometimes one abstains from seeking a desired object, or feels guilty at the very thought of doing so, simply out of a feeling that it would be wrong. Freud reasoned that the source of this moral force in the psyche was acquired rather than innate, since very young children and some psychopathic adults lack it. It also seemed to be based on some kind of unconscious identification with authority figures from the developing child's society, and to have a certain amount of independent energy at its disposal to create feelings of guilt. Accordingly, Freud postulated the superego as a separate entity in his new conception of the psyche, the result of a childhood identification with the same-sexed parent in the Oedipal relationship. Psychology textbooks often begin their treatment of Freud and psychoanalysis by describing this famous id­ego­superego trichotomy; seldom do they acknowledge that this was actually a rather late development in Freud's theory, and more a response to technical details than to fundamental issues.

One of Freud's most controversial papers, "Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes" (1925), hypothesized differences in the typical male and female superego. Freud argued that the discovery of anatomical sex differences during childhood typically leads to "penis envy" in the little girl, and "castration anxiety" in the boy. Anxiety presumably constitutes a stronger motive than envy does to repress Oedipal wishes by identifying with the proscriptive aspects of the same­sexed parent; thus the boy develops a stronger superego, and consequent moral sense, than the girl. Freud presented this view only tentatively, and it dealt with a relatively technical detail of his theory. Like the death instinct it was rejected by some of Freud's closest followers, and he accepted their dissent with equanimity. Personally, Freud welcomed women as professionals in the psychoanalytic movement, and was relatively free of many of the typical male biases of his time. Yet perhaps understandably, he acquired a a public reputation of being unfriendly to women following publication of this paper.

Just prior to writing that paper, Freud had been diagnosed with mouth cancer - a consequence of many years of heavy cigar smoking. During the fourteen remaining years of his life he underwent a long series of painful and disfiguring operations. Although he confronted his situation stoically, the tone of his writing became increasingly philosophical and pessimistic. The Future of an Illusion (1927) interpreted all religious beliefs as illusions or wishful thinking based on childhood dependency, and Civilization and its Discontents (1930) speculated that the destructive aspects of Thanatos are likely to prevail in the long run over the positive and creative urges of Eros. And in a 1937 paper entitled "Analysis Terminable and Interminable," Freud concluded that no individual can ever undergo a complete psychoanalysis - that no matter how successfully "cured" one has been in the past there is no guarantee that some new conflict may arise and overwhelm the psyche's capacity for adaptive compromise solutions.

In 1938, the Nazi occupation of Vienna led Freud and his immediate family to flee to London for sanctuary. A year later at the age of 83, and just before the horrors of World War II seemed to justify his philosophical pessimism, he succumbed to his long illness. Despite the controversy surrounding much of his work, Freud's basic image of human beings as creatures in conflict - with aspects of themselves as well as with external circumstances - struck a responsive chord. His fundamental concepts of repression and the unconscious nature of much psychological activity have become commonplace. In the words of the poet W. H. Auden, by the end of his life Freud had become not just an important historical character, "but a whole climate of opinion/ Under whom we conduct our differing lives."

Suggested Reading

Freud was as skillful a writer as he was a lecturer, and the student who has been intrigued by his brief lectures deserves the pleasure of sampling Freud's more substantive writing. The vast majority of his works have been translated, edited and extensively documented by James Strachey in the 24 volumes of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth, 1953-1974). All of Freud's major individual works are available in various paperback volumes based on this Standard Edition. As suggested in the commentary, Freud's earlier works are generally more accessible as well as fundamental than his later ones, so students are advised to start with Studies on Hysteria, The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. For a detailed exposition of Freud's major works in the order in which they were written, see Raymond E. Fancher's Psychoanalytic Psychology: The Development of Freud's Thought (New York: Norton, 1973). For a complete and authoritative biography see Peter Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: Norton, 1988).