The Work and Theories of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud
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Psychology's most famous figure is also one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud's theories and work helped shape our views of childhood, personality, memory, sexuality, and therapy. Other major thinkers have contributed work that grew out of Freud's legacy, while others developed new theories in opposition to his ideas.

In 1999, Time Magazine referred to Freud as one of the most important thinkers of the last century. A 2006 Newsweek article called him "history's most debunked doctor." While Freud's theories have been the subject of considerable controversy and debate, his impact on psychology, therapy, and culture is undeniable.

As W.H. Auden wrote in his 1939 poem, In Memory of Sigmund Freud,

"if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion."

Freud's Life

Our exploration of his legacy begins with a look at his life and time. His experiences informed many of his theories, so learning more about his life and the times he lived in can lead to a deeper understanding of where his theory came from. Discover more about his life in this brief biography and timeline of his life, discover some of his most famous quotations, or take an in-depth photo tour of his life from birth to death.

Freud Theory: Major Ideas

Freud's theories were enormously influential, but subject to considerable criticism both now and during his own life. However, his ideas have become interwoven into the fabric of our culture, with terms such as "Freudian slip", "repression," and "denial" appearing regularly in everyday language.

One of his most enduring ideas is the concept of the unconscious mind, which is a reservoir of thoughts, memories, and emotions that lie outside the awareness of the conscious mind. He also proposed that personality was made up of three key elements, the id, the ego, and the superego. Some other important Freudian theories include his concepts of life and death instincts, the theory of psychosexual development, and the mechanisms of defense

Freud and Psychoanalysis

Freud's ideas had such a strong impact on psychology that an entire school of thought emerged from his work. While it was eventually replaced by behaviorism, psychoanalysis had a lasting impact on both psychology and psychotherapy.

Freud's Patients

Throughout Freud's career, a number of his patients helped shape his theories and became well-known in their own right. Anna O, for example, was never actually a patient of Freud's. She was, however, a patient of Freud's colleague Josef Breuer. The two men corresponded often about Anna O's symptoms, eventually publishing a book exploring her case, Studies on Hysteria. It was through their work and correspondence that the technique known as talk therapy emerged. 

Major Works by Freud

Freud's writings detail many of his major theories and ideas, including his personal favorite, The Interpretation of Dreams. "[It] contains...the most valuable of all the discoveries it has been my good fortune to make. Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime," he explained.

Some of his major books include:

  • The Interpretation of Dreams
  • The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
  • Totem and Taboo
  • Civilization and Its Discontents
  • The Future of an Illusion

Freud's Perspectives

Freud wrote and theorized about a broad range of subjects including sex, dreams, religion, women, and culture. Learn more about some of Freud’s perspectives and how these views influenced his own theories.

Psychologists Influenced by Freud

In addition to his grand and far-reaching theories of human psychology, he also left his mark on a number of individuals who went on to become some of psychology's greatest thinkers. Some of the eminent psychologists who were influenced by Sigmund Freud include:

While Freud's work is often dismissed today as non-scientific, there is no question that he had a tremendous influence not only on psychology but on the larger culture as well. Many of his ideas have become so steeped in the public awareness that we oftentimes forget that they have their origins in his psychoanalytic tradition.

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  2. Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and Society. Newsweek: Freud in Our Midst. Published March 27, 2006.

  3. Yale University CampusPress. In Memory of Sigmund Freud.

  4. Bogousslavsky J, Dieguez S. Sigmund Freud and Hysteria: The Etiology of Psychoanalysis. In: Bogousslavsky J, ed. Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience. Vol 35. S. KARGER AG; 2014:109-125. doi:10.1159/000360244

  5. Grubin D. Young Dr. FreudPublic Broadcasting Service. Published 2002.