Working in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, he began his career as a neurologist before pioneering the discipline of psychoanalysis.
He proposed that people are motivated by unconscious desires and repressed memories, and their problems can be addressedby making those motivations conscious through talk therapy.
His influence towers above that of all other psychologists in the public eye. But was Sigmund Freud right about human nature? And were his methods scientific?
Order, order. Today on the stand we have… Dad?
Ahem, no, your honor. This is Doctor Sigmund Freud, one of the most innovative thinkers in the history of psychology.
An egomaniac who propagated pseudoscientific theories.
Well, which is it?
He tackled issues medicine refused to address.
Freud’s private practice treated women who suffered from what was called hysteria at the time, and their complaints hadn’t been taken seriously at all.
From the women with depression he treated initially, to World War I veterans with PTSD, Freud’s talking cure worked, and the visibility he gave his patients forced the medical establishment to acknowledge their psychological disorders were real.
He certainly didn’t help all his patients.
Freud was convinced that our behavior is shaped byunconscious urges and repressed memories. He invented baseless unconscious or irrational drivers behind the behavior of trauma survivors— and caused real harm.
He misrepresented some of his most famous case studies, claiming his treatment had cured patients when in fact they had gotten worse. Later therapists influenced by his theories coaxed their patients into “recovering” supposedly repressed memories of childhood abuse that never happened. Lives and families were torn apart.
You can’t blame Freud for later misapplications of his work— that would be projecting.
Plenty of his ideas were harmful without any misapplication. He viewed homosexuality as a developmental glitch. He coined the term penis envy— meaning women are haunted for life by their lack of penises.
Freud was a product of his era. Yes, some of the specifics were flawed, but he created a new space for future scientists to explore, investigate, and build upon. Modern therapy techniques that millions of people rely on came out of the work he started with psychoanalysis. And today everyone knows there’s an unconscious— that idea was popularized Freud.
Psychologists today only believe in a “cognitive unconscious,” the fact that you aren’t aware of everything going on at a given moment. Freud took this idea way too far, ascribing deep meaning to everything. He built his theories on scientific ideas that were outdated even in his own time, not just by today’s standards— for example, he thought individual psychology is derived from the biological inheritance of events in ancient history. And I mean ancient— like the Ice Age or the killing of Moses. Freud and his closest allies actually believed these prehistorical traumashad ongoing impacts on human psychology. He thought that the phase of cold indifference to sexuality during pubescence was literally an echo of the Ice Age. With fantastical beliefs like these, how can we take him seriously?
Any renowned thinker from centuries past has ideas that seem fantastical by today’s standards, but we can’t discount their influence on this basis. Freud was an innovator linking ideas across many fields. His concepts have become everyday terms that shape how we understand and talk about our own experiences. The Oedipus complex? Ego and id? Defense mechanisms? Death wishes? All Freud.
But Freud didn’t present himself as a social theorist— he insisted that his work was scientific.
Are you saying he… repressed inconvenient facts?
Freud’s theories were unfalsifiable.
Wait, so you’re saying he was right?
No, his ideas were framed so that there’s no way to empirically verify them. Freud didn’t even necessarily believe in the psychoanalysis he was peddling. He was pessimistic about the impact of therapy.
What! I think I need to lie down!
Many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas don’t hold up to modern science, and his clinical practices don’t meet today’s ethical standards. At the same time, he sparked a revolution in psychology and society, and created a vocabulary for discussing emotion.
Freud made his share of mistakes. But is a thinker responsible for how subsequent generations put their ideas to use? Do they deserve the blame, credit, or redemption when we put history on trial?