Sigmund Freud is widely recognized as the father of psychology in the collective consciousness. He pioneered a treatment system known as “psychoanalysis” and completely reshaped the modern conception of the mind, unconscious impulses, and brain development. He developed a distinct model of personality ruled by repressed emotional forces and developed specific techniques to bring these forces to the surface and resolve them. However, Freud’s greatest contribution to psychology was approaching it as a scientific discipline. Although his theories and methodology have been subject to heavy criticism ever since their invention, Freud remains an icon both with the general public and within academic circles.
Freud lived in a society reverberating from the shock of the Industrial Revolution, and that had a significant impact on his work. Science, culture, and philosophy saw radical changes in the late nineteenth century as the economy transformed from an agrarian to industrial. Having previously been at the mercy of nature, people began harnessing its power and finally controlling it. A sudden yearning to look deeper within became more prevalent as individualism, and the alienation of modern life took hold. Freud decided to study the phenomenon of female hysteria and recognized an additional two layers of the mind in addition to the general state of awareness: preconsciousness and unconsciousness. Preconscious thoughts must be recalled; for example, questioning someone about what they ate for lunch yesterday would involve recalling preconscious ideas. The unconscious level involves thoughts that are unorganized, biological, and timeless. They are driven solely by pleasures and desires, and so frequently transgress societal norms. His explanations of distinct levels of subconsciousness and developmental phases transformed the world’s view of behavior.
Freud studied individual neuroses and how childhood events affect personality development. Rather than accepting a clinical opinion, he would dive into his patients’ minds to find a remedy. After examining many patients, he concluded that some events are never forgotten by the brain. A potentially problematic recollection would not fade away but rather burrow into the person’s speech. These events can only be accessed when the consciousness removes its barriers, which can be done under hypnosis or during psychoanalysis. He let patients share whatever came into their minds using a technique known as ‘free association’ and discovered that neuroses were formed by traumatic and abusive childhood experiences. Adaptation strategies established in childhood would persist into adulthood even if they did not adequately cope with adult life situations. Therefore, an individual’s thought patterns and behavior are based on subconscious emotional motivations and neuroses are relievable through the release of repressed emotions. The idea that human behaviors are determined by subconscious emotional forces and psychoanalytical methodology was the basis of Freud’s further theories about the Oedipus Complex, dreams, hysteria, and the dynamic model of personality.
Freud also suggested that the brain may be segmented and that individual brain functions can be delineated and separated. His conception of the mind was primitive, as he dedicated most of his work to the ego, id, and super-ego. According to his personality theory, the basis of human nature is the mysterious “id” that wants the fulfillment of antisocial tendencies and operates at a subconscious level. Freud proposed a “super-ego,” an agent that has unconsciously internalized society’s rules, to manage the animalistic urges of the id. The ego is the conscious part of the human mind that constantly has to mediate between the super-ego and the id to choose the realistic, optimal path. Therefore, Freud imagined that human cognitive and behavioral patterns are a continuous battle between biological impulses and culturally instilled values.
Freud’s psychoanalytic theory had early critics and is still subject to admonishment today. It is undeniable that his views have impacted Western culture far beyond academia. Freud has become a cultural touchstone, and his ideas have influenced numerous works of literature, art, science, and even how people relate to themselves daily. Regardless, Freud’s methodology and conclusions have recently been heavily challenged; some of his theories have been deemed harmful—and even dangerous—for specific individuals. Points of criticism are his over-reliance on case studies, lack of empirical evidence, and emphasis on internal rather than external events (Gaude, 2021). His theories also mostly ignore the social aspect of human personality and mostly describe “antisocial,” “death-seeking” urges. Freud is recognized for revolutionizing psychology but his theories have been challenged.
Furthermore, while Freud’s ideas are intriguing and have a certain practical appeal, there is little empirical evidence to support or controvert them due to their lack of falsifiability (Gaude, 2021). For instance, no scientific experiment can be designed to conclusively prove that boys lust after their mothers or that girls suffer from penis envy. There is no objective proof of the existence of subconscious emotional motivations or their influence on the human psyche. While his theories have become well-known among the general public, Freud has mostly fallen out of scholarly favor, and no therapist treats him as a trustworthy source.
Despite these issues, Freud remains a relevant figure because he was the first to postulate that humans are not the complete masters of their minds. He demonstrated that forces outside of individual conscious awareness control human experience, thinking, and action—forces that might eventually be accessed and understood through the therapeutic process he termed “psychoanalysis.” Freud’s argument that the unconscious mind drives human behavior in his collection of essays Frontiers of Consciousness is as relevant today as it was then. Few today would deny the existence of the unconscious mind.
Furthermore, Freud’s view on defense mechanisms is still considered valid and utilized by psychologists. Humans regularly use specific defenses to mask their subconscious urges such as denial, suppression, projection, intellectualization, or rationalization. Similarly, Freud’s ideas on transference and catharsis are still widely accepted today. While Freudian dream interpretation is no longer believed in, certain dreams are driven by conscious and subconscious desires and fears. Ultimately, Freud’s contributions to modernity are more about the general attitude toward psychology he cultivated rather than concrete therapeutic methods or theories. His primary thesis statement as to what patients should gain out of therapy still holds for psychologists and patients today: “know thyself.”
The relevance of Sigmund Freud’s views in modern society is still a subject of debate. Some believe that psychoanalysis was replaced by innovations in cognitive psychology, biopsychology, and neuroscience. However, his approach to mental illness as a treatable condition through conversation rather than a moral transgression was revolutionary. Freud was the one who defined the role of a psychologist as someone who suspends judgment and listens to patients to help and guide them. While he has attracted severe criticism for most of his theories, most academics recognize Freud’s contributions and immense influence on the profession of psychology.
Gaude, U. (2021). The Relevance of Freud in the Modern World. Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research, 15(8), 1-3.