The Doctors of Soul: Sigmund Freud

The Doctors of Soul: Sigmund Freud

Freud, circa 1900

What can we say about the great Sigmund Freud that hasn’t already been said? Even though I disagree with him on many points, there is no doubt the man was one of history’s great minds. Without his paving the way for those who followed him, especially C.G. Jung, would we even be discussing depth psychology as we do today?

Instead of rehashing Freud’s biography, I will merely quote two pertinent paragraphs from the Wikipedia article about him:

Freud was born to Jewish Galician parents in the Moravian town of Příbor (German: Freiberg in Mähren), part of the Czech Republic, the first of their eight children. His father, Jacob Freud (1815–1896), a wool merchant, had two sons, Emanuel (1833–1914) and Philipp (1836–1911), from his first marriage. Jacob’s family were Hasidic Jews, and though Jacob himself had moved away from the tradition, he came to be known for his Torah study. He and Freud’s mother, Amalia (née Nathansohn), 20 years her husband’s junior and his third wife, were married by Rabbi Isaac Noah Mannheimer on 29 July 1855. They were struggling financially and living in a rented room, in a locksmith’s house at Schlossergasse 117 when their son Sigmund was born. He was born with a caul, which his mother saw as a positive omen for the boy’s future.

Freud entered the University of Vienna at age 17. He had planned to study law, but joined the medical faculty at the university, where his studies included philosophy under Franz Brentano, physiology under Ernst Brücke, and zoology under Darwinist professor Carl Claus. In 1876 Freud spent four weeks at Claus’s zoological research station in Trieste, dissecting hundreds of eels in an inconclusive search for their male reproductive organs. He graduated with an MD in 1881. 

I don’t wish to waste time going over what we already know Freud accomplished. I am most interested in learning how he influenced people like Jung, Hillman, and many others on the subjects of dreams and the unconscious. We know that Freud wrote a very famous book called Die Traumdeutung, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). It was this book that revolutionized psychological thinking. In it, Freud introduced his theory of the activities of the unconscious mind. Freud said that dream interpretation is the via regia, or “royal road” to the unconscious. Up until that time, there were three predominant dream theories being bandied about Europe: somaticist, romantic, and rationalist. In formulating his theory, Freud borrowed from all three. From the somaticist theory, he believed that dreams are indicative of physiological processes; Freud himself would concentrate almost exclusively on sexuality. From the Romantics, he borrowed the idea that dreams originate in a place separate from our everyday world, i.e. the nightworld, a mythological world. From the rationalist viewpoint, Freud took the idea that the dreamworld is to be equated with temporary psychosis, “a turning away from the real external world” (qtd. in Hillman 8). He believed the dayworld is a sane place, but not the nightworld. He also accepted the idea of the rationalists that events from the previous day initiate the dream. In essence, the dream is caused by external phenomena and not anything within the dreamer herself. Freud referred to these as Tagesreste, residues of the day. So, empirical experiences of the dayworld are the material causes of the dream. He does leave the door open for mythology, somewhat, even though it is in service to the physiological process of sleep, by saying “the formal, efficient, and final causes are the wishes of Eros working upon the psyche in the night to keep it sleeping” (qtd. in Hillman 10).

Freud’s “translation [of the dream] into the language of waking life” (ibid.), attempts to pull the dream from its home in the nightworld up into the light of reason and rationality.Yet, Freud can still assert that the final cause  “has nothing to do with the dayworld…it would be misleading to say that dreams are concerned with the tasks of life before us or seek to find a solution for the problems of our daily work” (ibid.). Freud believes the dream is the watchman over sleep. He views the nightworld as stricly psychopathological.

Freud has led himself into quite an imbroglio. He wants to say that the dream is at home with sleep, watching over it as a guardian. Conversely, he wants to interpret the dream and drag it screaming up into the daylight, to rescue it from the crazy, lunatic underworld. I always thought the via regia led one down to the unconscious so that one could become better acquainted with it. But I suppose I had it backwards. For Freud, “the aim of the therapeutic interpretation has been to take the via regia out of the nightworld” (Hillman 11). This methodology leads to all kinds of insane interpretations, kind of like the thousands of different interpretations of the Bible since the Reformation. One can really get in a pickle doing this. Freud did by searching for sexual reasons in his patients’ disturbances.  

One thing that Freud definitely accomplished, however. He got us talking about the unconscious. That is what revolutionized the twentieth century. Think of the way Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, used his uncle’s theories to brainwash American consumers into buying all sort of junk they didn’t need. They’re still doing it! But the fact that we now vaguely know general things about how the unconscious works can be attributed to Freud. For that, we must thank him.

Hillman’s take on dream interpretation is noteworthy, in light of Freud’s insistence that dreams be translated into ego-language. In examining dreams, “we must go over the bridge and let it fall behind us, and if it will not fall, then let it burn” (Hillman 13).

When researching Die Traumdeutung, Freud takes a cue from Gustav Fechner, who himself should be included in the annals of the Doctors of Souls. Even though Freud wants to claim the dream as being caused by dayworld experiences, he still believes that its home is in the nightworld. The following statement from Fechner brings him to the realization that the unconscious is topograhical:

If the scene of action of psychophysical activity were the same in sleeping and waking, dreams could, in my view, only be a prolongation at a lower degree of intensity of waking ideational life, and, moreover, would necessarily be of the same material and form. But the facts are quite otherwise (qtd. in Hillman 16).

This statement inspires Freud to say, “What is presented to us in these words is the idea of psychical locality” (Freud 969). This is a very important turn in the history of psychology, a watershed event. Freud begins his nekyia, his descent into the Underworld. Hillman writes,

This bold, this heroic move of Freud into unknown lands was made without cognizance of its consequences for psychology. While it opened new ground for psychological thinking, giving it the new dimension of depth, this depth was fixed into a fantasy of structural levels (Hillman 16).

Concerning these structural levels, Hillman is referring to how Freud subdivided the unconscious into Id, Ego, and Superego, providing it with a topography. He writes about it as a mythological land, influenced here by the Romantics.

In his own life, while working on Die Traumdeutung, Freud underwent a breakdown, which began his descent to the lower regions. As in all great accomplishments, especially those that change history, one is accompanied by pathologization. This is the way of the soul. C’est la vie. Freud gleaned truths from his own personal suffering. His insights came from phenomenologically examining his own dreams. This is akin to Jung’s breakdown, the account of which we now have in The Red Book. As Freud later, wrote, “Insight such as this falls to one’s lot but once in a lifetime” (qtd. in Hillman 21).

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Complete Works. Ed. Ivan Smith. 2000. ,>

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper, 1979.

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