Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

After considering a basic overview, Freud's theory of personality is approached using a narrative through its three parts and several sections and subsections. This is followed by a tentative review. There are images from 1909, 1922 and 1938.

Freud (1922)

Freud, 1922, 66 years old

A key overview way to understand Freudian psychology is that almost all of it is based around the displeasure/ pleasure dichotomy, that is a displeasure is generated and needs to be released back to pleasure (and these are fundamentally sexual). The exception to this is the death or destruction instinct. Secondly, it attempts to locate much of the working of the mind and its interrelationship with the body to a relatively few number of basic instincts, which connect us to an evolutionary past, and, as with lower forms of life, repeat in a stereotypical and conservative way.

A starting point is the Id (meaning "it") which is the unconscious area of all inherited instincts.

The unconscious itself is the area of what is repressed or is unable to become conscious. This is to be contrasted with the preconscious or material at the back of one's mind. However, the id generates basic wants.

Id operation obeys the pleasure principle. When there is too much psychic energy built up into painful tension, the Id discharges it to a more comfortable level. It does this through the primary process by generating a mental image of an object which is pleasurable on the lines of wish fulfilment to hopefully discharge tension. Mental images only go so far, and can produce hallucinations and fantasies, and so complete fulfilment needs enagement with the real world of objects.

The ego is the personality's decision making area that juggles and integrates the demands of the id, the superego, and the external world.

Ego operation obeys the reality principle which works against the Id to stop the discharge of tension while a real object to supply satisfaction is sought. Its method is the secondary process of realistic thinking employing higher intellectual functions. There needs to be a plan and a reality testing through acting out the plan to achieve the real object and allow discharge of the tension.

Massachusetts September 1909: A.A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi, Sigmund Freud, Stanley Hall, C. G. Jung

Freud - (bottom left) (1909)

One pressure on the personality is the demands of the social world beyond, that moral world imposed by parents by rewards and punishments from early life. These demands are internalised into the superego and it seeks perfection obeying the conscience and the ego-ideal. Conscience leads to guilt when these moral standards are not met and the ego-ideal leads to pride when they are met. So these are the structural basics of Freudian psychology.

Dynamic areas within the structures include the different levels of instinct. An instinct's purpose is always to take the person back - regression - to a previous state; it is inherited from that state and works on each person. As a whole this is where a bodily condition or excitation/ need (called instinct source) gets a psychological representation or wish. The wish is needed because it makes each person act. An instinct aim is wanting to satisfy the bodily need. The necessity of this need - its intensity - is the instinct impetus. The instinct object can be that variety of real world ways to satisfy the original need and impetus.

Life instincts are basic and fundamental, acting around self survival and species continuity. They concern hunger, thirst, and sex and all deal with pyschological energy. Sexual energy specifically is called libido (Jung widened this term, but other energy can be called non-libidinous). People also have death or destructive instincts around a wish to die concerning the later transformed in understanding aggressive drive. At one time Freud considered this death wish to be outputted as sadism, coming from a basic sexual instinct, but after the First World War he increasingly accepted another basic instinct from the far past of evolution based on people going back to inorganic nature and therefore self destruction. So people harmed themselves: masochism took over from sadism in primacy.

Cathexis is to do with how much libido or energy goes into an an object to satisfy a need. However, anticathexis is often needed to stop getting a real world satisfaction via the cathected object to satisfy a need. The ego (with its reality principle) or the demands of the superego inhibits the id. A most obvious example is not raping the object, a real woman, that would satisfy the feeling of sexual attraction.

The id can pour out desires which the ego finds overbearing. This is where anxiety kicks in. Reality anxiety comes from threats and dangers from the social environment. Neurotic anxiety comes about because of the internal threat that the Id and its wants overcome restraints leading to punishment. In moral anxiety the id's output threatens the conscience of the individual.

So at times an instinct is blocked by not achieving the object of desire. So then comes displacement, a starting point for developmental matters, to substitute objects and behaviour becomes variable. So despite the breadth of behaviour, a few basic instincts (especially sex) lie behind behaviour. For Freud, even the growth of civilisation was from sexual desire displaced into  accepted activities. Sublimation is when basic desires become higher cultural achievement.

When the pressure is really on the ego, and objects are not substituted, there have to be psychological defence mechanisms. Repression is when dangerously anxious material is forced into the unconscious. Projection is when something dangerously anxious in oneself is thrown out to become an attribute of the world against the self. Reaction means reversing around the definition of an anxiety so that it seems no longer to be personally caused.

Freud believed that character was formed as early as five or six years old and these see the first number of crucial psychosexual stages. In the first year or oral stage the baby's mouth is an erogenous zone, because pleasure is obtained from sucking, eating and biting, but difficulties are resolved by spitting out. Freud believed that pleasure from smoking and drinking, and traits like gullibility, dependency, and sarcasm, are from that first year of living. The second year is the anal stage because the child is potty trained. Here the parents are involved, and the child must interact with them by obeying and delaying the pleasure of expulsion from this erogenous zone. To this Freud relates being stubborn, stingy, orderly and destructive. Then in the next three years the child experiences the phallic stage of the erogenous zone of the genitals. In the Oedipus complex, a boy has sexual desire for his mother and aggression at the father. In the equivalent Electra complex, the girl is becomes hostile to her mother and sexually attracted to her father. Because of the Oedipus and Electra complexes, there is the castration complex. The boy fears that his father will castrate him for loving his mother; the girl, on the other hand, has a variant of penis envy directed to castrating the male. Freud reckoned that having a baby compensates for the lack of a penis. So the phallic stage is where people develop their approaches to the opposite sex. Latency is the period up to puberty where matters quieten down until the genital stage. Now the narcissism of a pleasure seeking, pain minimising, infant gives way to the adult who is in the real world. That adult is formed according to these prior stages.

All through life we are surrounded by other people and what they do. The person struggles with internal forces checked in the immediate, real and social world. But part of the desire is to bring within what they are like. There is identification with the other, to become like them.

Freud reading his An Outline of Psycho-Analysis in July 1938

Freud (1938)

There is something clearly right about a set of desires and obsessions that can be partly met by some sort of mental engagement in imagery. This is, of course, the function of pornography. Everyone knows that pornography, and other fads, like dieting, or Internet chatting, can be obsessional. Yet this also involves more than mental images but real encounters (and "energy" seems to maintain even build, not die down). We also know that there are social constraints, moral constraints and the threat of punishment which may hold back certain practices. How many people give up illegal drug use because of these? Of course the real world is complex, moralities and social pressures change. Much of the basics of the Freudian approach towards certain desires (from instincts can be queried) and obsessions seems right and labels can be attached. Yet the claim that personality is effectively made in the first few years of life seems doubtful in the least, as is the claim that so much variety of life comes from a few basic instincts displaced. The complexes alone hardly form attitudes to sexuality; far more surely is how we get on or otherwise in living the more conscious and complex we become. During childhood things seem simple but become more unable to behave as they get older, it is adults who seem to be evermore complex in their traps and obsessions, unable to move on, unable to sort out what is unaceptable from acceptable either to other persons or society.

There must be doubt too about the unconscious. It must be ridiculous to think that women have penis envy to start with, never mind that babies are compensation for this (presumably because babies momentarily project outwards). We do have drives and desires, and as animals we of course inherit instincts; but what troubles people is not what they force into their unconscious and forget, which breaks out in other ways, but what is so traumatic that they cannot forget. Freud attached working labels to matters of desire and the real world, but it seems more speculation than science.

Yet a fundamental revision of Freudianism came from the later Freud himself. The goal of life for the death instinct isn't preservation or reproduction, but, along with many philosophical ideas of the time and before (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche), death. This instinct must, on Freud's own terms, be more fundamental than sexuality. However, it can be argued that life itself, and its knocks, seem more important than apparent ghosts in the machine. There are all sorts of analysts and quacks these days, even those whose version of going back is into past life regressions. They all can apply technical terms and put certifcates on the wall. We have genes and we must, as social African apes and their development, have instincts, but these may not amount to much, as obsessions of many kinds probably have many causes due to the tough nature of getting through life.

What we have here is mainly individualism and mainly biology and its impact on the mind. It is definitely Darwinian. There is little place for history, and no place for religion, despite the importance of the father figure and Christianity's use of the father as a figure of omnipotence. This is where Jung took up a different angle, whose view of the libido was broader than the biological.


Jones, E. (1964), Trilling, L., Marcus, S. (Eds.), The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, abridged version (see Jones, 1953-1957), London: Pelican.

Nordby, V. J., Hall, C. S. (1974), A Guide to Psychologists and Their Concepts, San Fransisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 42-52, from 44.

Refers to or uses:

Freud, S. (1953 - 1964), The Complete Psychological Works, London: Hogarth, 23 volumes.

Hall, C. S. (1954), A Primer of Freudian Psychology, New York: New American Library.

Jones, E. (1953 - 1957), The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, New York: Basic Books, 3 volumes.


Adrian Worsfold