The Work and Theories of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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.

Freud's Life

In order to understand his legacy, it is important to begin with a look at his life. 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 theories came from.

He was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1856 as the oldest of eight children. He went on to earn a medical degree and began practice as a doctor in Vienna, Austria. It was while treating patients that he developed his famous theories of the id, ego, and superego, the libido, the life and death instincts, and psychoanalysis.

Key Theories

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.

Psychoanalysis sought to bring unconscious information into conscious awareness in order to bring about catharsis. This catharsis was an emotional release that could bring about relief from psychological distress. 

Research has found that psychoanalysis can be an effective treatment for a number of mental health conditions. The self-examination that is involved in the therapy process can help people achieve long-term growth and improvement.

Freud's Patients

Freud based his ideas on his case studies of patients or other individuals who he corresponded with other doctors and psychiatrists about. These patients helped shape his theories and many have become well known in their own right. Some of these individuals included

Anna O 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

Outside of the field of psychology, Freud also wrote and theorized about a broad range of subjects. He also wrote about and developed theories related to topics including sex, dreams, religion, women, and culture.

Views on Women

Both during his life and after, Freud was criticized for his views of women, femininity, and female sexuality. One of his most famous critics was another psychologist named Karen Horney, who rejected his view that women suffered from "penis envy." She instead argued that men experience "womb envy" and are left with feelings of inferiority because they are unable to bear children.

Views on Religion

Freud was born and raised Jewish but described himself as an atheist in adulthood. "The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life," he wrote of religion.

He continued to have a keen interest in the topics of religion and spirituality and wrote a number of books focused on the subject. 

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 public awareness that we oftentimes forget that they have their origins in his psychoanalytic tradition.

Contributions and Influence

In 1999, Time Magazine referred to Freud as one of the most important thinkers of the last century. Another article dubbed him "history's most debunked doctor."

Despite the debates and controversy over the value of his theories, Freud had a significant and lasting influence on the field of psychology.

Perhaps Freud's most important contribution to the field of psychology was the development of talk therapy as an approach to treating mental health problems. In addition to serving as the basis for psychoanalysis, talk therapy is part of many psychotherapeutic interventions designed to help people overcome psychological distress and behavioral problems. 

A Word From Verywell

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."

Was this page helpful?
7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Shedler J. The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapyAm Psychol. 2010;65(2):98-109. doi:10.1037/a0018378

  2. Bogousslavsky J, Dieguez S. Sigmund Freud and hysteria: The etiology of psychoanalysis. In: Bogousslavsky J, ed. Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience. S Karger (Eds). 2014;35:109-125. doi:10.1159/000360244

  3. Grubin D. Young Dr. FreudPublic Broadcasting Service.

  4. Freud S. Civilization and Its Discontents. Norton; 1961.

  5. Gay, P. TIME 100 The Century's Greatest Minds: SIGMUND FREUD: Psychoanalyst. TIME.

  6. Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and Society. Newsweek: Freud in Our Midst.

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