The Amateur Academic’s Intro to the Essential Freud

For the last century, psychiatry and psychoanalysis has helped countless individuals regain their mental footing in our crisis-fueled society. The famed Austrian psychotherapist Sigmund Freud is often credited with wholly revolutionizing the practice of Western psychology, and in many respects this is true. While Freud’s ideas and breakthroughs have done much to advance our understanding of the human psyche, they are often based on his own rather narrow worldview and belief system. This should be kept in mind before embarking upon a serious study of the psychoanalyst’s life and works.

That said, having a basic understanding of Freud’s work can be great for students and amateur academics from all walks of life who want to familiarize themselves with one of the most brilliant psychiatric minds of the 20th century. Not only did Freud offer tremendous insight into the inner-workings of our psyche, but he also succeeded at crafting a tried and true method of psychoanalysis that was specially suited for the ensuing mental trials and tribulations of the late-industrial era. Familiarizing yourself with Freud’s major contributions to the field of psychology is an essential part of learning about the ideas that shaped our understanding of mental health for the last 100 years.

An Overview of Sigmund Freud’s Essential Works and Ideas

Before setting off on an exciting journey through the complexities and wonders of Freudian psychoanalysis, one should obtain more than just a passing familiarity with the Austrian psychotherapist’s essential works and ideas. Many of these works have entered the canon of 20th century psychoanalytic theory, making them required reading for professionals and college students across fields as disparate as Comparative Literature and Public Relations. Below is a glossary of selected works by Sigmund Freud that we all should take some time to get to know:

  • The Interpretation of Dreams: Published in 1899, this seminal work by Freud is also his most renowned, and perhaps the most pivotal explication of human dreams in Western history. In this book, Freud attempts to tie the production of dreams to our unconscious mind, which acts as a filter for the various stimuli we absorb and/or repress while we are awake. While most of the examples used in the book are dated and focus almost exclusively on how our dreams are inherently tied to sexual “wish fulfillment” (e.g. the Oedipus Complex), The Interpretation of Dreams is an excellent prototypical record of how our dreams first began to be understood from a scientific perspective.
  • Totem and Taboo: This 1913 work by Freud is also one of his first interdisciplinary studies into how psychology could be applied to the fields of anthropology, archaeology and religion. In Totem and Taboo, Freud takes on an authoritative voice when it comes to presenting correlations between primitive psychology and human psychology in the modern world, going so far as to (somewhat insensitively) subtitle the work: “Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics.” Despite the claims by many in the field of anthropology that Freud’s theories are far too brash and narrow sighted to be taken seriously, famed French anthropologist René Girard staunchly supports Freud’s anthropological claims in his own book on the topic, Violence and the Sacred.
  • The Ego and the Id: Going beyond the abstract study of dreams and primitive psychology, Freud more or less successfully lays out a comprehensive analysis of the human psyche in this foundational text, published in 1923. The Ego and the Id represents the culmination of Freud’s research in categorizing the human psyche by presenting the “ego” (or the “self”) as brought into being by the conflict between our pleasure seeking “id” and the restraints placed upon our actions by the “super-ego,” or conscience.
  • Beyond the Pleasure Principle: One of the more positive aspects of Freud’s methodology was that he was never afraid to go back and rework old ideas that may have been called into question or disproven, either by himself or his contemporaries. This text, published in 1920, marks a departure from Freud’s theory that most human action is derived from the pursuit of pleasure (the pleasure principle), and that many human drives are also related to “Thanatos” or the hope for death.
  • Civilization and Its Discontents: In 1929, Freud published this work under the title The Uneasiness of Culture, which was an attempt grapple with the age-old tensions between the progress of civilization and the psychic fragility of the individual. Inspired by the horrors witnessed in Europe during World War I, Civilization and Its Discontents was a monumental attempt by Freud to explain how the human psyche adapts to the stresses and social requirements of existing in modern civilization. Moreover, the work is celebrated as one of the psychoanalyst’s most groundbreaking studies.
  • A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis: This work, published in 1920, is a collection of several lectures on psychoanalysis given by Freud in Vienna and carefully explicates his various psychoanalytical theories in a lecture hall setting. Freud prefaces his first lecture with the words, “I am obliged to proceed as though you knew nothing about this subject, and stood in need of preliminary instruction,” which should not fool you into thinking it is an easy read. Despite the text’s role as an “introduction” to psychoanalysis, the content is particularly heavy and requires more than just a passing exposure to Freud’s theories before jumping in.

While the several texts outlined above should serve as an excellent introduction to Freud and his theories on psychology, one should always temper their readings with an understanding of the various criticisms of Freud’s work over the last century. When it came to explaining the female psyche, many of Freud’s ideas were seriously misinformed at best, and downright chauvinistic at worst. Moreover, Freud’s legendary cocaine habit managed to cast a dark shadow over the psychoanalyst’s reputation and work. He spent much of his early career as a proponent of cocaine for medical use before experiencing the negative effects of the drug himself at the turn of the 20th century.

Despite the many flaws one finds in Freud’s theories and in his personal life, the fact that he almost single-handedly revolutionized the practice of Western psychotherapy cannot be ignored. It is important that everyone consider Freud’s ideas for what they are—as theories and not fact—and should always be viewed with a critical lens. This aside, the essential works of Sigmund Freud are a boon for students of across various academic fields, as well as for amateur academics who are searching for some valuable insight into the workings of the human psyche.

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