Phalluses and Fallacies: A Brief History of Freud
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian Neurologist (or ‘Brain-Science-Man’) who rose to prominence within the scientific community around the beginning of the 20th century. He’s best known as the person who founded the discipline of Psychoanalysis, and is one of the most recognisable figures in all of Psychology.
He was also one of the strangest, most neurotic, downright insane scientists ever to have their ideas popularised en masse.
This post is about who Freud was, what his ideas were, and the ways in which many of them turned out to be wrong.
While studying at the University of Vienna, a young Freud became fascinated with research into the use of hypnosis to treat mental disorders, particularly ‘women’s hysteria’ (emotional disturbances that doctors used to believe were caused by an inflammation of the uterus, but in actuality were probably closer to what we would now call ‘sexual dysfunction’). He believed that all human behaviour was governed by unconscious, deeply repressed animal instincts and thoughts, and that the best way to examine these behaviours was to question someone under hypnosis.
The main problem with the idea of ‘repressed’ ideas and feelings is that it’s very hard to prove that they’re there. After all, if they do exist, they exist only in your unconscious mind.
Which you’re not conscious of.
In practical terms, it’s quite hard to differentiate between something that is not there because your brain is secretly forcing you to believe it isn’t there, and something that actually, genuinely, isn’t there.
It should be said that there does exist plenty of scientific (read: falsifiable) evidence that our conscious thought processes and decisons are actually affected by non-conscious memories and mental processes, particularly in the case of traumatic events, e.g. if you were abandoned by your parents as a young child, you might have difficulty in forming trust-based relationships as you grow older. This is very different to Freud’s theories, which held that any and all psychological disorders could be traced back to some kind of problem from your childhood that you simply weren’t aware of, for…reasons.
One of the most well-known applications of this of this idea is the the Oedipus Complex, which originates from Freud’s 1909 case study Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy. The case study documents his attempts to cure a 5-year-old boy, referred to as ‘Little Hans’, of two phobias; his father, and horses.
Presumably, also, his father, on horses. Though that’s not explicitly mentioned.
Freud eventually came to the conclusion that the boy’s fear of being bitten by a white horse was caused by a fear of his father. According to the case study, the face of a horse that the boy described resembled his father’s glasses and moustache. This led Freud to claim that the boy’s fear was in part due to his burgeoning ‘infantile sexuality’, and to what he called ‘castration anxiety’ or, ‘Kastrationsangst‘ (don’t Germans have a lovely way with words?).
The cause of this, Freud believed, was that the boy had just gained a new sister, and upon seeing that she did not have a penis, presumed his father had cut it off, and began to fear for his own. He also believed that his father had done this because he viewed Hans and the infant as sexual competitors for Hans’ mother.
So, to sum up: The little boy was afraid of his father because he wanted to have sex with his mother and didn’t want him to cut off his penis like he had done to his sister, only not really. Because this was all too scary and traumatic to deal with, Hans repressed the memories and became afraid of horses that resembled his father.
This is the story that Freud pieced together from interviews with the boy, and from letters written to him by the child’s father, about his behaviour. If this all sounds a little far-fetched and unscientific, then it might be worth remembering that afterwards, he said “Hans had to be told many things that he could not say himself” and that he also “had to be presented with thoughts, which he had, so far, shown no signs of possessing”. And then you can keep on thinking that.
To our cosmopolitan modern eyes, Sigmund Freud’s ideas were very strange, and may even appear somewhat laughable. So then, why should we bother to learn about him?
Well, Freud’s early studies focused mainly on women from the aristocratic classes of Austria, and the eventual popularity of his ideas amoung the cultural elite meant that word of his work, regardless of it’s respectability, soon spread on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s thanks to this popularity that people still talk about the id, ego, superego, or the libido, as well as being ‘orally fixated’, or ‘anally retentive’.
He’s also at least partially responsible for all of modern advertising. Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, was an American businessman who became fascinated by his uncle’s theories of repressed desires. Bernays eventually used these ideas to become a pioneer in both propaganda and public relations, championing activities like focus groups in order to better understand the secret needs of consumers. He’s the reason cars are advertised as symbols of power, particularly to men, and the reason Apple tries to make you think of buying an iPad as a ‘lifestyle choice’, rather than a work aid.
Whatever the correctitude of his work (and it is severely lacking in correctitude), Freud still had a profound effect on the history of Europe and the United States, and understanding him and his life is essential to understand some aspects of our culture today.
Thanks for reading, and don’t be afraid of horses.