CriticaLink | Freud: On Narcissism | Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Born in a small town in the present-day Czech Republic, Freud grew up in Vienna, the city in which he lived until the last year of his life. He formulated his theories of how the human mind operates in the context of late nineteenth century science, to which the German-speaking researchers of his time had made significant contributions, as well as the strict culture of the fading Austrian-Hungarian Empire. An outstanding student throughout his academic training, Freud received a degree in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1881. Four years later he traveled to Paris to study with Jean Martin Charcot, who was famous for his treatment (and public display) of hysterical patients at the clinic of Salpetrière. The two years Freud spent with Charcot had a strong influence on his later approach to mental illness, and inspired his early interest in hypnosis as a form of therapy that tapped subconscious material.

The complex and ambiguous condition known as hysteria played in important role in Freud's early work on the theories that would found psychoanalysis. Along with fellow physician Josef Breuer, Freud published a set of case histories of hysterical women as Studies in Hysteria in 1895. This text introduced the idea of "talking cure," taking the term from Bertha Pappenheim, one of Breuer's patients discussed in the study under the pseudonym "Anna O". Freud's work with these distressed women inspired the ideas that led to the foundation of psychoanalysis as a theory of the mind and as a course of treatment. He continued to study hysteria, as in his "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria," published in 1905, which deals with the case of Ida Bauer, whom Freud calls "Dora". Freud's apparent mishandling of this case, and Dora's eventual refusal to continue her treatment, have been the focus of a number of important studies by feminists and historians of medicine.

In the 1900 Interpretation of Dreams, Freud brought his theory of the unconscious to a larger reading public and created an intellectual sensation that has continued to have a major influence on a wide range of fields, including literary criticism. Like those of Nietzsche and Marx, Freud's insights call into question the assumption that human beings are self-aware thinkers whose acts are the product of conscious, rational intentions--and that human history is the unfolding story of the triumph of reason. Literary theorists are particularly drawn to the emphasis Freud places on interpretation, following his understanding of the contents of the psyche as a system of signs that emerge in the speech, behavior, and dreams of the human subject.

Freud's understanding of the mental processes continued to develop throughout his life. The stages of his construction of the field of psychoanalysis can be charted through his many publications. Some of these miles stones include "On Narcissism, an Introduction," (1914), Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Culture and its Discontents (1930). In 1938, at the end of his life, he began to lay out a general presentation of his theories in Outline of Pschyoanalysis,, which he was unable to finish before his death in 1939.