Sigmund Freud:Historical Context

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Historical Context

There were three major sources of influence on the psychoanalytic movement: previous assumptions about the unconscious, early notions about psychopathology, and evolutionary theory. Assumptions of the unconscious

As early as the eighteenth century, German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz developed the notion that there were degrees of consciousness ranging from completely unconscious to fully conscious. A century later, German philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart refined Leibnitz's concept of the unconscious by stating that only conscious ideas are perceived in awareness. Gustav Theodore Fechner, who preceded Freud but had contact with him in the later part of the nineteenth century, also speculated about the unconscious. Fechner conceived the classic illustration of an iceberg to visualize the contrast between the conscious and unconscious mind.

Discussion of the unconscious was very much a part of the European intellectual community during the 1880s when Freud was beginning his clinical practice. But the unconscious was not only of interest to professionals. It had become a fashionable topic of conversation among the educated public. A book entitled Philosophy of the Unconscious became so popular that it appeared in nine editions. In the 1870s, at least a half dozen other books published in Germany included the word "unconscious" in their titles.

So, although Freud is often credited with "discovering" the unconscious, his genius was more accurately stated as having taken the preexisting notions of the unconscious that were popular in his day and fashioning them into a coherent and tangible system. Early ideas about psychopathology

History is replete with examples of misconceptions about mental illness. In the Middle Ages people who were mentally ill were perceived as being possessed by the devil. It was believed that only severe punishment of these individuals could yield a cure. Those who would not publicly repent of their "sins" were often executed. Over time this view softened. By the eighteenth century, mental illness came to be viewed more as irrational behavior. Mentally ill persons were confined in institutions similar to jails. Although they were no longer put to death, they were offered no treatment.

In the early 1880s, a French physician by the name of Philippe Pinel recognized the need for treating those suffering from mental illness and began attempting to make sense of a patient's problems by listening to them. Under Pinel's direction, a number of patients previously thought to be hopelessly disturbed began to be cured. This concept of a "talking cure" began to spread rapidly throughout Europe and then to the United States.

During the nineteenth century, psychiatrists were divided into two camps, the somatic and the psychic. The somatic approach held that abnormal behavior had physical causes such as brain lesions, or understimulated or overly tight nerves. The psychic school subscribed to emotional or psychological explanations for abnormal behavior. In general, the somatic viewpoint dominated, supported by the ideas of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who ridiculed the view that emotional problems somehow led to mental illness.

The discipline of psychoanalysis developed as a revolt against the somatic orientation. It was against this backdrop that Freud later adopted his "talking therapy" techniques, which he used extensively with his neurotic patients. Evolutionary theory

Freud's thinking was greatly influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin. Freud read all of Darwin's works and made notations in the margins of each book. He regularly praised the works to colleagues and in his own publications. Some have claimed that Darwin's writings exerted more influence on Freud's thinking, and therefore on the development of psychoanalytic theory, than any other single source. As almost a confirmation of this, Freud insisted later in life that the study of Darwin's theory of evolution should be an essential part of the training program for psychoanalysts.

Darwin discussed several ideas that Freud later emphasized in psychoanalysis, including unconscious mental processes and conflicts, significance of dreams, hidden symbolism of certain behaviors, and importance of sexual arousal. On the whole, Darwin focused, as Freud did later, on the nonrational aspects of thought and behavior. Darwin's theories also affected Freud's ideas about childhood development and the notion that humans were driven by the biological forces of love and hunger. Rise of the sciences

The sciences also experienced a boom during Freud's first few decades in Vienna. In addition to Darwin's writings, most notably The Origin of Species, published between the years 1859 and 1880, there were numerous other avenues of innovation. Alfred Noble invented dynamite. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Vienna was eager to join the ranks of Europe's leading cities and showcased its latest innovations during the Vienna World's Fair in 1873, which Freud eagerly attended. Revolt against Jews

With Vienna's prosperity also came a growing prejudice against the newly arrived Jews of eastern Europe. And when the populist, anti-Semitic Karl Lueger was elected as the city's new mayor in 1897, Freud and his fellow liberal, middle-class Jews were revolted. World War I, 1914–1918

The First World War created a significant uproar in Europe as it was sparked by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia. The Austro-Hungarian attempt to punish the Serbs for the assassination instigated a series of threats and counter-threats by the European powers. Eventually almost all of Europe became involved in a war that lasted far longer than anyone had expected and resulted in the defeat of the Central Powers and the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

During this four-year period when the war was being waged, the psychoanalytic movement slowed its prewar growth but survived. During the war years, all international congresses were canceled, since half of the nations represented at the International Psychoanalytic Association's were at war with nations represented by the other half. Communications between members were restricted for the same reason. In 1918, with the war winding down, the fifth International Psychoanalytic Congress met in Budapest, Hungary, and attracted a number of government officials from Austria, Germany, and Hungary. This was a direct result of interest sparked by the application of psychoanalysis to war neuroses. World War II, 1939–1945

By the time World War II started, Freud was famous, and the psychoanalytic movement was well established. Internal conflict between Freud and key members of the Psychoanalytic Society had resulted in the resignation of several important figures, including Jung and Adler. The society had resettled by the beginning of the Second World War. The most significant event for Freud and the psychoanalytic movement during this time occurred in March 1938, when the German Nazis invaded Austria. The event forced Freud to flee to England and fragmented the Psychoanalytic Society for several years. It also marked a turning point for Freud as he began to recede into the background of the movement and allowed others, his daughter Anna in particular, to assume greater leadership over the direction the movement would take.