A Brief Outline of Psychoanalysis

Freudian Theory

Freud's psychoanalytic theory, coming as it did at the turn of the century, provided a radically new approach to the analysis and treatment of "abnormal" adult behavior. Earlier views tended to ignore behavior and look for a physiological explanation of "abnormality". The novelty of Freud's approach was in recognizing that neurotic behavior is not random or meaningless but goal-directed. Thus, by looking for the purpose behind so-called "abnormal" behavioral patterns, the analyst was given a method for understanding behavior as meaningful and informative, without denying its physiological aspects.

The Pre-Oedipal Stage

Freud claimed that all human beings are born with certain instincts, i.e. with a natural tendency to satisfy their biologically determined needs for food, shelter and warmth. The satisfaction of these needs is both practical and a source of pleasure which Freud refers to as "sexual". Thus, when the infant, sucking at its mother's breast discovers the pleasure inherent in this activity, the first glimmers of sexuality are awakened. The child discovers an erotogenic zone which may be reactivated later in life through thumbsucking or kissing. Through this intimate interaction with the mother, upon whom the child is dependent, a sexual drive emerges. As this drive is separated out from its original function as a purely biological instinct, it achieves a relative autonomy.

During the early stages of childhood development, other erotogenic zones emerge. The oral stage, associated with the drive to "incorporate" objects through the mouth, is followed by the anal stage during which the anus becomes an erotogenic zone as the child takes pleasure in defecation. This pleasure is characterized by Freud as "sadistic" because the child is understood to be taking delight in expulsion and destruction. The anal stage is also associated with the desire for retention and possessive control (as in "granting or withholding" the fæces).

The next stage the child enters is the phallic stage when the sexual drive is focused on the genitals. (Freud refers to this stage as "phallic" rather than "genital" because, he claims, only the male organ is recognized as significant.)

The child in this state is described by Freud as "anarchic, sadistic, aggressive, self-involved and remorselessly pleasure-seeking"-wholly within the grip of the pleasure principle. It is also ungendered. That is to say, even though it is riddled with sexual drives, it draws no distinction between the gender categories masculine and feminine.

The Oedipus Complex: Gendering the Subject

At the center of Freud's theory of childhood development is the Oedipus Complex. According to Freud, a boy's close relation to his mother, as the primary love-object, leads to a desire for complete union with her. A girl, on the other hand, who is similarly attached to the mother and thus caught up in a "homosexual" desire, directs her libido (love, sexual energy broadly construed) toward her father (for reasons which we'll consider shortly). This produces a triadic relationship regardless of one's sex, with the parent of the same sex cast in the role of a rival for the affections of the parent of the opposite sex.

The boy will eventually abandon his incestuous desire for his mother out of fear of being castrated by his father. (This fear arises when the boy comes to realize that females are "castrated" and imagines that this may be his fate if he does not subordinate his desire for the mother.) Thus, the boy represses his incestuous desire, adjusts to the reality principle, and waits for the day when he will be the patriarch. In this way the boy identifies with his father and the symbolic role of manhood.

The girl's route through the Oedipal stage is far more problematic in Freud's view. "Realizing" that she is castrated and thus inferior, the girl turns away from her similarly castrated mother and attempts to "seduce" her father. When this fails, she returns to the mother and identifies with her feminine role. However, she still envies the penis that she will never have; so she unconsciously substitutes a desire to have her father's baby. (How she goes about giving up this desire is not made clear. Since she is already "castrated", fear of castration will not do the job.)

Needless to say, Freud's theory shows little insight into femininity and the experience of women. His claim that female sexuality is a "dark continent" says as much.

The Unconscious

As we say, the unconscious is that part of the mind that lies outside the somewhat vague and porous boundaries of consciousness, and is constructed in part by the repression of that which is too painful to remain in consciousness. (Not everything in the unconscious is repressed. However, repression is the ego's primary defense against disruption.) Freud distinguishes repression from sublimation - the rechanneling of drives toward a socially acceptable end.

The unconscious also contains what Freud calls laws of transformation. These are the principles that govern the process of repression and sublimation. In general we can say that the unconscious serves the theoretical function of making the relation between childhood experience and adult behavior intelligible.

Ego, Id and Super-Ego

According to Freud, the ego is an aspect of the subject that emerges from the id-the biological, inherited, unconscious source of sexual drives, instincts, and irrational impulses. The ego develops out of the id's interaction with the external world. It is produced from the non-biological (social and familial) forces brought to bear on one's biological development and functions as an intermediary between the demands of the id and the external world.

Thus, the ego can be thought of as a variable aspect of the subject constructed as a system of beliefs that organize one's dealings with the internal and external demands of life according to certain laws referred to by Freud as secondary process. It reconciles the biological, instinctual demands and drives (both unifying and destructive in nature) of the id (governed by primary process) with the socially determined constraints of the super-ego (internalized rules placing limits on the subject's satisfactions and pleasures) and the demands of reality.

The healthy, mature ego translates the demands of both the id and the super-ego into terms which allow admission of them without destruction. Thus, constructive acceptance and transformation of the demands made by both the id and the super-ego are techniques of the ego and essential elements of mental health.

Psychoanalytic therapy involves reliving repressed fantasies and fears both in feeling and in thought. This process involves a transference, i.e. a projection of the attitudes and emotions, originally directed towards the parents, onto the analyst. This is necessary for successful treatment. Access to these repressed fears is gained often through dream interpretation, where the manifest content in dreams is understood as a symbolic expression of the hidden or latent content. (Internal censorship demands that the wish be transformed, leading to a disguised or symbolic representation.) The sources of dream content results from

Dreams are "guardians of sleep", i.e. wish fulfillments that arise in response to inner conflicts and tensions whose function is to allow the subject to continue sleeping. Dream-Work is the production of dreams during sleep-the translation of demands arising from the unconscious into symbolic objects of the preconscious and eventually the conscious mind of the subject. Dream Interpretation is the decoding of the symbols (manifest content) and the recovery of their latent content, i.e. the unconscious and, hence, hidden tensions and conflicts that give rise to the dreams in the first place.

Objections to Freud's Theory

Some of the objections typically raised in response to Freudian theory are:

  1. Freud's hypotheses are neither verifiable nor falsifiable. It is not clear what would count as evidence sufficient to confirm or refute theoretical claims.
  2. The theory is based on an inadequate conceptualization of the experience of women.
  3. The theory overemphasizes the role of sexuality in human psychological development and experience.


1. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, 153-4. [Return]

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© T. R. Quigley, 1998

Revised 16 FEB 98