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social sciences

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Freud, Sigmund (1856-1939)  
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Sigmund Freud is the founder of psychoanalysis and the discoverer of the unconscious. With his epoch-making contributions he initiated a fundamental transformation in the self-understanding of Western men and women.

In his lifetime, Freud published 24 books and 123 articles containing some 90 specifically Freudian concepts that form the core of his theory. With this corpus and thanks to a carefully planned strategy for disseminating his ideas, Freud exerted a profound influence in all branches of the arts and humanities.

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As one of the most outstanding researchers and thinkers of the twentieth century, Freud has received critical attention from a wide range of perspectives. While many of his earlier critics focused on Freud's naturalistic conception of man and on his whole-hearted acceptance of the scientific worldview, contemporary analysis of his writings has convincingly exposed the patriarchal structures that underlie his most distinctive theories and the restrictions that heterosexual teleology imposes on his conception of sexuality.

Of late, a keener awareness of the complexity of the Freudian texts has led to a recognition that some of his basic insights can be turned against his own overall structuring principles, so that new theoretical spaces can be envisioned beyond the scope of what Freud himself was prepared to acknowledge.


Freud was born in the North Moravian city of Freiberg (present-day PYíbor, in the Czech Republic) on May 6, 1856 as the eldest child of his father's third marriage. In 1873, he entered the university in Vienna as a medical student, where he was influenced by Darwinian biology and the dominant positivism of his day.

In 1875 Freud did research in Trieste on male eels and began to develop his theory concerning the functioning of nervous cells. Between 1876 and 1882 Freud worked as researcher at the physiological laboratory of Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke, a foremost representative of the antivitalistic school founded by Hermann von Helmholz.

In 1882, Freud became engaged to Martha Bernays, whom he married in 1886. In spite of having entered clinical practice for financial reasons in Vienna, he continued to pursue neurological research.

Being interested in the organic manifestations of the nervous system, Freud travelled to Paris to study under Jean Charcot, the most eminent psychologist of his time, who had begun to treat apparently organic illnesses using verbal techniques.

Back in Vienna, Freud continued his medical studies, passed the qualifying examinations, and decided to earn his livelihood as a physician. In 1891, the Freuds moved to the now famous Berggasse apartment, where they lived with their six children and Martha's sister, Minna Bernays, and where they remained until their exile from Austria in 1938.

In 1902, Freud founded--along with Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Steckel, Max Kahane and Rudolf Reitler--the "Psychological Wednesday Society," the first circle in the history of Freudianism. The application of psychoanalysis to such fields as anthropology, literature, and history was discussed.

In 1907, Freud met the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung for the first time in Vienna. Seeking to avoid the perception that psychoanalysis was a "Jewish science," Freud for a while regarded his Gentile disciple and friend as his possible successor, as one who, like Joshua, was destined to explore the promised land of psychiatry, which Freud himself, like Moses, saw only from afar. When the Internationale Psychoanalytische Vereinigung was founded in 1910, Freud designated Jung as president for an indefinite period.

From 1910 onward, questions of theory and treatment, as well as personal differences, led to dissension within the nascent psychoanalytical movement. Shortly before the beginning of World War II, Freud denounced the disloyalty of Jung and Adler, and created, as a reaction, the "secret council," whose members--"the best and most trustworthy among our men"--would take charge of the further development of the movement.

To each of the five original members of this council (Sandor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Ernest Jones, Hanns Sachs, and Otto Rank), Freud gave an antique Greek intaglio, which each mounted in a gold ring. Despite his efforts, however, Freud could not prevent further dissidence, the most notable of which was that of Wilhelm Reich.

With the gradual transformation of psychoanalysis into a mass movement, individual dissidence gave way to large-scale schisms, against which Freud's interventions were finally of no avail.

Although not a practicing Jew or a Zionist, Freud remained throughout his life a member of the Jewish community. After the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, Freud was able to leave Vienna thanks to the intervention of the American ambassador in France and the aid of his faithful disciple Marie Bonaparte. Freud then settled in London, where he wrote his last work: Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion (The Man Moses and Monotheistic Religion).

After a malignant growth had been detected on his jaw and palate and after having undergone thirty-three operations since 1923, Freud died of cancer on September 23, 1939. His ashes repose at the crematorium of Golders Green in one of his favorite Grecian urns.

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Sigmund Freud in 1907.
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