Freudian Psychology of the Late Nineteenth Century

Freudian Psychology of the late nineteenth century:
Did it really relate to human emotions?

What is the human mind, and can it be explained within the confines of human development?  Ever since man first began to dream he has struggled with the notion of what was the human mind.  Scholars and profits of old distilled the ‘truth” about human existence and the path to inner peace.  But it is the ancient phrase of “know thy self,” which sums up one’s true ability to understanding the inner mind.  It is also a phrase which applies more today than it did in the late 19th century, when Sigmund Freud developed his theories.

The late 19th century was an interesting time of scientific exploration and understanding, as new and controversial theories on everything from human evolution to dream analyses flooded the intellectual world.  It was upon this backdrop that Sigmund Freud developed the notions of Ego and the Id, and changed the way people looked at themselves.  But it is important to remember that when one looks at the contributions made by Freud in those long past days, one remembers that people of the late 1800s early 1900s were only beginning to learn anything about the world let alone themselves.  Nor was it possible to fully explore such issues as emotional drives and sexual obsessions.  Fortunately the world of the 21st century is a greatly complex world, one of advanced scientific learning and self-realization, and we are closer to understanding the inner self.

Freudian theorists, and those who are closely related to them, seem out of place in today’s world.  The human mind is a complex creature that cannot be simply explained by one theory or another.  Did early Freudian theory truly hit upon the nature of psychosis, or were the times too simple for Freud and his contemporaries to fully examine the problems of the human mind?  This is the question that has been asked ever since Freud expounded his theories; are sexual desires the focal point of human emotions, or are there more factors at work here?  Unfortunately a question such as this could not possibly be fully explored or addressed in a paper of such limited scope.  However, we can hold an understanding of these theories by looking at Freud’s notions, and comparing them to the theories of three psychologist who followed him; Melanie Klein, Harry Stack Sullivan and Erik Erikson.

For Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), the fundamental basis for human thought and psychosis lie in the organization of the mind.  In his most famous theory the mind is broken into two “selves,” and it is the conflict between these “selves” which brings about psychosis.  Humans, Freud said, exist within a constant struggle between primitive instincts and jealousy.  The conflict begins at infancy, where the child is subjected to inner sexual desires towards his caretakers.  In Freud’s views, the child is jealous of its parents; the boy wants to possess the mother and thus hates the father; the girl wants to be desired by the father and thus hates the mother.

Freud’s theory of Ego Psychology became the foundation of modern psychological research, and is still widely used today.  But were Freud’s fundamental assumptions about human desires flawed, or did they only reflect the limited knowledge available at the time?  The basic foundations of Freud’s theories have to deal with childhood, or infant psychological development, and this has been the point most critics of Freud point to as being flawed.

Melanie Klein (1882 – 1960) was a contemporary of Freud.  Of Klein’s work, Mitchell and Black write, “Klein’s intent, which she continually reaffirmed throughout her long and productive career, was to merely validate and extend Freud’s hypotheses.”   Klein developed a theory that suggested that the source of infant psychosis is anxiety, arisen from an in-built death instinct, or ones “need to escape…this sense that one’s very existence is endangered.”   According to Klein, the child creates for itself an outside malevolence as a means of subjugating its primitive ego.  The infant, wanting to focus attention away from its own desires creates a “bad Breast” to which it can escape from.  Therefore the problems of it’s world are not of it’s own doing and can be escaped from.

Klein also noted that an infant’s world filled only with malevolence would be intolerable, and thereby the infant quickly creates a “good Breast,” quickly projecting loving impulses into the outside world.  Thus the infant has created a world of good and evil from which it will co-exists.  Critics, however, find a flaw in this line of thinking, which suggest that all adulthood problems can be traced back to infancy.

Like Freud, Harry Stack Sullivan (1892 – 1949), also believed that human psychosis rooted itself in childhood traumas.  But where Freud and Klein rooted their theories in childhood sexual desires, Sullivan developed a theory “in which anxiety is the key pathological factor in shaping the self and regulating interactions with others.”   Sullivan stated that these anxieties arose from needs or tendencies for the child to interact and socialize with people.  Integrating tendencies drew people together.  In the nursing interaction between a baby and its mother is the example Sullivan uses to make his point.  “In the baby is hungry and needs to feed.  In the Breast of the lactating mother are full of milk–she needs to nurse.  They are drawn together in a mutually gratifying integration.”

According to Sullivan, these needs for satisfaction create responses with others and thus draw people together.  And these tendencies do not cease after infancy, but continue throughout life.  In Sullivan’s mind, people are not born with ant-social, bestial impulses needing to be controlled (as Freud believed), but rather humans have evolved into social beings possessing a strong desire for interactions with others.  It is unfortunate that like Freud, Sullivan also sees the problems with human relationships linked to anxiety developed during infancy.  To quickly sum it up, anxiety is not developed by the child, but is “picked up” by the infant from the people around it.  Sullivan, like Freud, also based the original source of psychosis to childhood.  Although he did state that experiences encountered throughout adulthood contributed to these feelings of anxiety, their root was firmly based in infancy.

Erik Erikson (1902 – 1994) expounded the theory that humans experience many stages of social developments throughout their entire life.  His theory of psychosocial development sees the development of ones self connected to the social relationships established through life. Through a series of crises, the individual process through eight stages of personality structure beginning within the early years of life and continuing until the time of death.  In the early or childhood years of life (first, second, third through fifth, sixth through puberty), the individual struggles with a sense of faith in the environment, self control and an ability to initiate one’s own activities against a feeling of suspicion and fear, self-doubt and the sense of guilt and inadequacy.  How one integrates these feelings will affect what Erikson called the transitional (adolescence) years, where one begins to see oneself as either a unique and integrated person or finds confusion over who and what one really is.  Finally one advances into adulthood (early, middle and aging), where one is faced with the ability to make commitments and show concern for family verses one inability to form relationships and being concerned with one’s own well-being.  The end results Erikson says will be one’s sense of integrity and fulfillment, and the willingness to face death, or one’s dissatisfaction with life and despair over death.  For Erikson psychological development is a life long process, and at any time one can turn from a favorable to unfavorable path.

Freudian theory placed the blame for human psychosis on the constant struggle between the desire based drives of the Id and the social base drives of the Ego.  But to blame or expound the bases of all human psychology on drives developed at infancy fails to address the larger issues of adult experiences, especially as one considers that as living beings, we spend most of our 80 some-odd years living adult lives.  Both Sullivan and Erikson however show that adult experiences can affect a human’s development at any stage in life, and Erikson even realized that human development did not end at adolescence, but continued until the time of death.  We again return to the old saying of “know thy self.”  Human beings are complex evolving creatures, and if we would just take time to understand our selves, we could over come any obstacle, psychological or otherwise, that stands in our way.


  • Mitchell, Stephen and Black, Margaret.  Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought.  New York: Basic Books, 1995.
  • Kagen, Jerome and Segal, Julius. Psychology: An Introduction.  Fort Worth: HBJ College Publishers, 1992.
  • Feshbach, Seymour. Personality. Toronto: D.C. Health and Company, 1996.

Essay © 2002, 2003 John Rocco Roberto