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Sigmund Freud: A timeless genius or overrated?

By Rachel Segal
 Max Halberstadt via Wikimedia Commons
As the founder of psychoanalysis, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud has long been the poster boy for psychology. He’s remained one of the most influential figures in the field since the 1890s, even garnering his fair share of pop culture references (who among us hasn’t made a “Freudian slip”?) However, over time, opinions about Freud have changed, and his lasting impact and legacy have come up for debate. To some, he’s considered a genius for revolutionizing how we understand the human mind, while others criticize aspects of his approaches and theories, and call him overrated.


Below are three arguments why Freud’s significant contributions to the field of psychology warranted his reputation as a timeless genius and three others as to why he is overrated.


Freud is nothing short of a timeless genius


His psychoanalysis paved the way for modern psychology

Freud’s groundbreaking work in developing psychoanalysis laid the foundation for modern psychology. Throughout the early 19th century, pre-Freud, psychological treatment for people who suffered from mental illness didn’t really exist. Back then, those who suffered from mental illness were typically sent to prisons or asylums. Experts at that time resorted to hypnosis or dubious treatments that included static electricity or bloodletting, among others. Drugs were also used, but more to subdue patients rather than treat them. The overriding conclusion pre-Freud was that mental illness was a result of physical impairment to the brain.


His pioneering ideas sought to look deep into the human psyche and seek insights into the sources of people’s emotional conflicts. In so doing, he transformed people’s understanding of human behavior, especially with regard to treating mental disorders instead of just (mis)classifying them. Worth nothing is that nearly 20% of Americans experience mental illness. How different would their lives – and the lives of their families – look today without Freud’s impact?


Freud was the first to consider the unconscious

It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century when Freud introduced – and popularized – the brand-new approach about focusing on the human soul as part of understanding the driving force behind human behavior. He was the first one in his field to consider and explore the concept of the conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious. He pointed out that the majority of what we experience and act upon are based on forces – emotions, memories, impulses – that we aren’t really aware of. Freud opened humanity’s eyes to the radical idea that most of what drives us is buried deep in our psyche. Without Freud, we wouldn’t recognize concepts like defense mechanisms, the Oedipus complex, ego, repressed emotions, sexual desire, the importance of early childhood experiences or dream analysis and how they all explain the intricacies of the human psyche.


His ideas and influence extend far beyond psychology

Freud’s exploration into the complexities of motivation, his examination of human sexuality, as well as the inspiration behind the creative process, inspired many philosophers, scholars, and artists. Throughout the 20th century, his techniques of dream analysis and free association profoundly impacted the Surrealists, like Salvadore Dali, among others. They drew inspiration from Freud’s theories, embracing the subconscious, the dreamlike and free association in their artistic expressions.


Freud also wrote essays on famous artworks, including The Moses of Michelangelo, and even published an entire book on Leonardo da Vinci, exploring the artist’s childhood, sexuality and how they informed his art as an adult. Freud’s essays showed unparalleled analysis and observation, which explains why he posthumously won the Goethe Prize, Germany’s greatest literary prize, in 1930. His ability to clearly express ideas for people across the sciences and the arts is a testament to Freud’s unique ability to bridge the gap between intricate psychological concepts and the broader artistic community.


Freud Is Overrated


Limited Scientific Validity

In modern psychology, emphasis is placed on empirical research and evidence-based practices, and Freud’s work often falls short in meeting these criteria, especially with regard to his incomplete and subjective record taking and data collection. Sources have since emerged that criticize his standards and methods as lacking integrity, suggesting that he may have twisted facts in certain cases to suit his theories. It’s also been said that he have burned or destroyed many of papers and case notes over the years, so proof is elusive.


In addition, it’s known that Freud didn’t welcome criticism or discussion. For example, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was banished from professional circles after he dared to question Freud, who saw himself as the only authority on psychoanalysis, thereby limiting what could have led to expanded discussion and discoveries of other thought leaders of the time. These examples have led some professionals over the years to consider him overrated in terms of scientific validity.


His theories suffer from cultural and historical biases

Freud’s theories were developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they were influenced by the cultural and societal norms of his time. Critics argue that his ideas, particularly those related to sexuality, psychosexual stages of development, and gender – specifically the female identity – are outdated and reflect the biases of his era. His theories, like women’s “rape fantasy,” were developed during a time when societal attitudes towards sexuality – and femininity in general – were much more conservative (or downright sexist), which may have influenced his views on the subject. After all, back then, femininity only existed in direct relation to masculinity, and women were viewed as feeling morally inferior to men (hence, they suffered from “penis envy“), issues that Freud claimed could never be solved.


Limited Applicability

Some critics argue that Freud’s theories have limited applicability. This may be because Freud mostly looked at what was going on inside a person’s head and didn’t pay much attention to how external influences, like social circles, living circumstances or financial situations could be affecting his patients. Not to mention, he refused to treat people unless they could pay him, which meant by default that he was only servicing a certain, i.e., wealthy, portion of society, thus limiting his exposure to issues.


Freud’s focus on sexual explanations for psychological incidents has been seen as simplistic. For instance, Freud’s focus on the idea that dreams divulge the causes of people’s sexually repressed desires or sexual dysfunction has been criticized by some modern psychologists who argue that dreams can have a variety of meanings outside of repressed or dysfunctional sexuality.


The Bottom Line: Though it’s been almost a century since Freud introduced his ideas and methods, they still hold sway today.  Whether through Freudian slips, questions of motive, sexuality or the unconscious, today, Freud’s ideas are reflected in our day-to-day culture. They have shaped our humor, how we think and feel about suffering and healing and how we approach and try to solve human problems. While Freud undoubtedly made important contributions to psychology, critics argue that his work is overrated due to its limited scientific validity, cultural biases, and limited applicability in contemporary psychology. Where do you stand on Freud?

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