The Question of Freud

How are we to account for Freud the thinker alongside Freud the human being?

The place of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in relation to contemporary psychotherapy is, to say the least, interesting.

Freud and Josef Breuer (1842-1925) trained in medicine and became interested in the phenomena of the human mind. Together they developed psychoanalysis as a method for treating mental illness based on their studies of human behaviour. Though Breuer’s interest waned, others joined Freud in developing a psychological model of mental illness. In this way the psychological, as opposed to the medical, means of treating mental illness came to be called ‘psychotherapy’.

For Freud the events of our childhood continue to influence our behaviours as adults. For example, traumatic childhood experiences cause and may be used to understand anxiety in our adult lives. Though we may no longer be aware of these childhood events they may nevertheless be causing difficulties in our adult life. In such cases the role of the psychotherapist is to bring these events to our awareness. This will allow us to resolve the trauma and be released from the anxiety it is causing.

In this way Freud may be viewed as a practical-minded scientist who used all he had available to explore the operations of the human mind. To do this he collaborated with others to develop new theories and to improve contemporary practice. This ‘Good Freud’ shared his findings among the research community, while practicing his latest methods in order to help resolve the anxieties of his patients.

However, Freud’s behaviour has been described at various times and by various people as secretive, possessive, dishonest, sexist, patronising, and abusive. This ‘Bad Freud’ hid important developments from those he regarded as competitors. He withheld and ignored results that contradicted his own thinking. He took the ideas of others for himself. Worse still he regarded women as objects for his own use and he abused those who dared to disagree with him.

This leaves us both with a Freud who is a genius of modern science and a Freud who is a despicable cheat.

All of which may be so but is this any more than a historical debate? Well, certain aspects and techniques developed by Freud are still considered to be important and are still in use. Elements such as a client talking confidentially one-to-one to a therapist who listens attentively come directly from Freud. The idea that there are things about our lives of which we are unaware and which influence our present thoughts, feelings and behaviours is something explained and developed by Freud. The belief that these things may be brought to our awareness and in this way our issues may be resolved comes to us (at least in the West) from Freud.

Indeed Freud’s ideas have spread and grown, though not without much debate and disagreement.

Some analysts such as Melanie Klein (1882-1960) adopted Freud’s approach and developed his ideas, making them their own. Whereas others have rejected Freud’s ideas as false, misleading and damaging. So, in the time since Freud first set out his ideas there have been several schools of psychotherapy directly related to his thought and some significantly different. And importantly Freud’s ideas continue to be discussed and debated often using Freud’s own frames of reference.

For myself I find that Freud is neither all good nor all bad. Uncomfortable it may be but while I acknowledge Freud’s remarkable contribution to psychological understanding and therapeutic method, I cannot – indeed must not – excuse his inexcusable behaviours.