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One Hundred Years of Sigmund Freud

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 55 - August 2000

As 1999 transforms into the year 2000, it is a good time to look back on the contribution of Sigmund Freud to the field of psychology. It was 100 years ago that Freud's first major book appeared on the world scene The Interpretation of Dreams and a new and influential school of psychology was launched. (Actually, the first edition was dated 1900, despite the fact that it was published in 1899; Freud chose to date it in this fashion because he saw it as the launching of a new era.)

Since then, psychoanalysis has largely dominated the field of psychology and psychotherapy for most of the last century, probably reaching a peak in the period from the 1920s up to the 1970s with the rise of the humanistic movement. This is a convenient time to look back and evaluate the value of Freud's work.

He was certainly a master of powerful speculations which appealed to the imagination of the intellectuals and others. His case studies are seductive; they read like mystery stories, appealing to our sense of sharing in a process of secretive code-breaking. It is as though we are being introduced to a form of insider gnostic knowledge, which, of course, brings with it a sense of superiority. Some have criticized the entire movement as a kind of one-upmanship. Others debunk the Freudian for cultism, their lack of scientific rigor, verification and proof. Recently, new critics have accused Freud of fudging the data, exaggeration, over-optimism, and outright lies. All in the service of furthering his empire of psychoanalysis.

At the same time, it is difficult to deny his occasional words of wisdom, his insights into human behaviour, and the ambitious scope of his endeavour. He saw himself as a conquistador and had little fear of moving one step further than others into unknown territory. The problem is that the charts he constructed may not hold up to continued scrutiny. Still, as a pioneer, we must salute him.

The regular reader of Positive Health magazine may have noted my criticisms of Freud in these columns. My references to Freud have attracted responses from readers which are as follows – you often criticize Freud, yet at the same time your column is studded with quotes from him.

Not as paradoxical as it may seem. Freud originated the concept of 'the talking cure'. But that was a century ago. Now, as we enter the new millennium it is time to move beyond the old master of Vienna to develop more effective treatment methods. One of the problems in the field of psychology is that two powerful figures are Freudian fundamentalists who allow little new discourse. Visit your local bookshop; the psychology section is most likely overloaded with books on Freud and psychoanalysis. In my view, Freud should be studied not as the gospel truth, but as a useful background for the student of psychology. One needs at the least to be acquainted with the terminology which he introduced since it is so widely used in the field. But the important thing is to be sceptical, to think for oneself, and not be trapped in the Freudian mode.

Modern methods of psychotherapy focus more on the patient's needs. It is well documented that Freud himself was more interested in developing his theory and building up a supportive organization than in helping his patients. For him, they were mainly an adjunct to working out his constantly changing theories. (For an objective biography, see Ronald Clark Freud: The Man and The Cause; London, Granada. 1982.)

At the close of the previous century came Nietzsche's claim that 'God is dead' . The 1900s began with a spiritual vacuum; people needed something new to believe in. Large numbers of idealists replaced religion with a faith in communism. Belief in Karl Marx's theories became the new opium for the intellectuals. Freudianism, at this point, became the new salvation for disillusioned thinkers. And now, there is a growing disenchantment with psychoanalysis.

One can, in fact, find some structural similarities in Marx and Freud. Both were 19th century thinkers who built up new philosophic systems to explain the world. And each offered a remedy for life's ills – Marx on the social plane, Freud focusing more on the individual.

Neither Marxists nor Freudians tolerate dissidents. Communists jailed those who turned against them, while Freud condemned his former disciples who dared criticize his views as mentally ill (e.g., Otto Rank, W Reich, S Ferenczi and others). All had to strictly adhere to the party line or face expulsion and damnation.

About a decade ago, we witnessed the decline of Marxism and now the Freudian movement is nearly ready to be discredited.

Before we dismiss Freud completely, it is useful to remember that there are many nuggets of wisdom spread throughout his writings.

One need not swallow the entire superstructure in order to dig out a few gems. Freud showed himself in many instances to be a sophisticated and wise observer of human life. His well-known letter to the mother of a homosexual son, for example, is a document showing the basic humanity and fairness of the man. And there are many other examples of Freudian insight which, in isolated areas, give us reason to respect him. Freud speculated in a novel way about human behaviour, and in many cases his ideas hit the mark. In others, unfortunately, he chased his theories into blind alleys and left behind, at best, a mixed legacy. I think the best summing-up of Freud's position was made by Albert Einstein, who said "He had a sharp vision; no illusions lulled him to sleep except for an often exaggerated faith in his own ideas."


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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