Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a neurologist who developed an approach to human behavior known as psychoanalysis. Freud was a man of enormous learning and huge capacities and talents. His writings, which fill up about 30 volumes, cover all aspects of human experience, culture, and history.
The creation of psychoanalysis offered at once a theory of the human psyche, a therapy for the relief of its ills, and a method for the interpretation of culture and society. Despite repeated criticisms and qualifications of Freud's work, its influence remained powerful well after his death and in fields far removed from psychology as it is narrowly defined.
Sigmund Freud was trained as a physician and was drawn to neurology and psychiatry, but he was always more interested in theory than in practice. After starting his work with neurotic patients, he came to believe that many mental disorders are the product of unconscious conflicts. Freud suggested that humans are born with sexual and aggressive instincts, but starting early on in life, they must repress such desires, driving them away from conscious awareness. Some repressed desires do not disappear but unconsciously haunt our behavior and thoughts. Dreams, slips of the tongue, and neuroses are, Freud argued, distorted reflections of repressed desires that originate in childhood. Psychoanalytic practice aimed to uncover such hidden mental processes. Thus, dreams are the disguised expression of wish fulfillments. Like neurotic symptoms, they are the effects of compromises in the psyche between desires and prohibitions in conflict with their realization. Slips of the tongue and similar everyday errors, Freud claimed, had symptomatic and thus interpretable importance.
But unlike dreams, they need not betray a repressed infantile wish, yet they can arise from more immediate hostile, jealous, or egoistic causes. Another kind of everyday behavior Freud analyzed was humor. Seemingly innocent phenomena like puns are as open to interpretation as more obviously tendentious, obscene, or hostile jokes. The powerful and joyful response often produced by successful humor, Freud contended, owes its power to the release of unconscious impulses, aggressive as well as sexual.
Freud did not invent the idea of the conscious versus unconscious mind, but he certainly was responsible for making it popular. The conscious mind is what you are aware of at any particular moment, your present perceptions, memories, thoughts, fantasies, and feelings. Working closely with the conscious mind is what Freud called the preconscious, what we might today call available memory: anything that can easily be made conscious, the memories you are not at the moment thinking about but can readily bring to mind. No one has a problem with these two layers of consciousness. Freud suggested that these are the smallest.
The largest part by far is the unconscious. It includes all the things that are not easily available to awareness, including many things that have their origins there, such as our drives or instincts, and things that are put there because we cannot bear to look at them, such as the memories and emotions associated with trauma. According to Freud, the source of our motivations is unconscious, whether they be simple desires for food or sex, neurotic compulsions, or the motives of an artist or scientist. And yet, we are often driven to deny or resist becoming conscious of these motives, and they are often available to us only in disguised form.
Our personality contains three structures: id, ego, and superego. The id is defined in terms of the most primitive urges for gratification in the infant, urges dominated by the desire for pleasure. Ruled by no laws of logic, indifferent to the demands of expediency, unconstrained by the resistance of external reality, the id is ruled by what Freud called the primary process directly expressing somatically generated instincts. Through the inevitable experience of frustration the infant learns to adapt itself to the reality. The secondary process that results leads to the growth of the ego, which follows what Freud called the reality principle in contradistinction to the pleasure principle dominating the id. Here the need to delay gratification in the service of self-preservation is slowly learned in an effort to thwart the anxiety produced by unfulfilled desires. What Freud termed defense mechanisms are developed by the ego to deal with such conflicts. Repression is the most fundamental, but Freud also posited an entire repertoire of others, including reaction formation, isolation, undoing, denial, displacement, and rationalization.
The last structure to appear within the personality is the superego, developed from the internalization of society's moral commands through identification with parental dictates. The superego gains its punishing force by borrowing certain aggressive elements in the id, which are turned inward against the ego and produce feelings of guilt. These three structures are involved in the constant internal struggle, where innate instincts are always at war with society and reality. The best that can be hoped for is a temporary truce. Freud devoted much attention to the development of sexuality in the individual. He described how this development is prone to troubling maladjustments if its various early stages are unsuccessfully negotiated. Confusion about sexual aims or objects can occur at any particular moment, caused either by an actual trauma or the blockage of a powerful urge. If this fixation is allowed to express itself directly at a later age, the result is what was then generally called a perversion. If, however, some part of the psyche prohibits such overt expression, then, Freud contended, the repressed and censored impulse produce neurotic symptoms. Neurotics repeat the desired act in repressed form, without conscious memory of its origin or the ability to confront and work it through in the present.
Focusing on the prevalence of human guilt and the impossibility of achieving unalloyed happiness, Freud contended that no social solution of the discontents of mankind is possible. The best to be hoped for is a life in which the repressive burdens of society are in rough balance with the realization of instinctual gratification and the sublimated love for mankind. But reconciliation of nature and culture is impossible, for the price of any civilization is the guilt produced by the necessary thwarting of man's instinctual drives.
Freud's writings are among the most ambitious attempts in history to present a comprehensive interpretation of religion. The topics Freud dealt with include, first of all, a developmental theory of religion, for humanity as a whole and for each individual. Freud also attempted to explain the functions and consequences of religion, for both society and the individual. Freud's theoretical explanation for the origin and existence of religion is based on certain presumed universal psychological experiences and processes: the universal experience of helplessness, the tendency for compensation through fantasy, and the experience of early relations with protective figures. Every individual is psychologically prepared by these universal experiences to accept religious ideas that are obviously culturally transmitted. The question about the world of spirits is, Does this world exist "out there" and if it does not where is it? The psychological answer given by psychoanalysis, is that it exists within, in our own mental apparatus and our own mental abilities to fantasize and project. The world of spirits, the supernatural world unseen and somehow felt in religious experience, is a projection of the internal world. Psychoanalytic theory explains both the origin of supernaturalist ideas and their specific contents.
Freud's theory does not suggest that the individual creates his religion on his own, out of nothing, but that childhood experiences within the family prepare the individual for the cultural system of religion. Belief in omnipotent gods is a psychic reproduction of the universal state of helplessness in infancy. Like an idealized father, God is the projection of childish wishes for an omnipotent protector. If children can outgrow their dependence, he concluded with cautious optimism, then humanity may also hope to leave behind its prevalent and immature fantasies.