Freud Advances the Psychoanalytic Method

In his 1904 work The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud erected the third and final theoretical pillar of the future psychoanalytic movement by analyzing parapraxes: things we say, write, or do that are contrary to our conscious intentions.

Summary of Event

Sigmund Freud claimed that parapraxes—actions, words, and ideas that emerge contrary to conscious intentions and that seem absurd, embarrassing, or self-defeating—betray the existence of a dynamic, independent unconscious life where infantile, inadmissible impulses from the id (the unconscious) rebel against the stifling censorship of the superego, the internalized conscience inculcated in people as children. The outcome of this lifelong struggle, Freud believed, was the creation of an internal compromise in which shameful, primitive parts of the self are concealed in symbolic forms. These disguises allow us to remain comfortably unaware of our impulses while providing clues that can unveil our hidden desires through conversations with a skilled cointerpreter, the analyst. Psychoanalytic method
Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The (Freud)
[kw]Freud Advances the Psychoanalytic Method (1904)
[kw]Psychoanalytic Method, Freud Advances the (1904)
Psychoanalytic method
Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The (Freud)
[g]Austria;1904: Freud Advances the Psychoanalytic Method[00890]
[c]Psychology and psychiatry;1904: Freud Advances the Psychoanalytic Method[00890]
[c]Publishing and journalism;1904: Freud Advances the Psychoanalytic Method[00890]
Freud, Sigmund
Charcot, Jean-Martin
Breuer, Josef
Jones, Ernest
Jung, Carl

Freud gradually developed the psychoanalytic movement. He was an intensely inquisitive thinker with wide-ranging interests, and he frequently revised his ideas. Until his mid-forties, he was profoundly influenced by a series of famous mentors, and he slowly synthesized what he had learned from them. As often happens, it was his disciples, not he, who became dogmatic. His pursuit of his broad interests meant that Freud spent eight years (from 1873 to 1881) rather than five studying to become a doctor. During the last four of those years, he trained as a neurologist with the renowned Ernst Brücke, conducting research that anticipated modern views of neurons (nerve cells). From that time onward, Freud would follow many paths to find cures for the mental illnesses that we today call neuroses and personality disorders. (He never claimed to be able to treat psychotics.) As a resident at the Vienna General Hospital (1881-1886), Freud experimented with psychoactive drugs to alleviate depression. He found that cocaine relieved many symptoms of depression but was horrified when several of his patients became addicted and one died of an overdose.

After his studies with Jean-Martin Charcot, who was well known for his interest in hypnosis, Freud opened a private practice in Vienna. At the same time, he researched hysteria with Josef Breuer; their collaboration lasted from 1886 to 1895. Freud published several papers on hysteria, which was first known as a “conversion disorder” and later came to be understood as the manifestation of inner conflicts. These conflicts, it was believed, were too deeply buried or too painful to be expressed in words, and so they took the form of physical symptoms such as rashes, convulsions, temporary blindness, or localized paralysis. Late nineteenth century views on hysteria, it is now known, were distorted, because most of the patients observed were wards of the state in public hospitals, usually indigent women who were often displayed to visitors on tours and secretly rewarded for interesting, spectacular displays of pathology. In recent years, the diagnostic category of hysteria has disappeared from standard psychiatric desk-reference works. Nevertheless, similar problems still occur, especially in victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Freud hoped he had discovered an effective nonpharmacological treatment for hysteria when he watched the celebrated hypnotist Hippolyte Bernheim Bernheim, Hippolyte at work in Nancy, France, for several weeks during the summer of 1889. He realized that some forms of mental activity are performed unconsciously and began incorporating hypnotism in his own practice. When he discovered that the improvements it produced were not lasting, however, he became disillusioned, and he slowly replaced hypnosis Hypnosis with the “talking cure,” in which patients engaged in free association. Free association Freud learned that such explorations often uncovered repressed sexuality and infantile thinking at the root of emotional problems. His hesitant development of psychoanalysis can be traced in his letters to a close friend, the Berlin doctor Wilhelm Fliess, from 1887 to 1902.

Sigmund Freud.

(Library of Congress)

During the period 1897-1900, Freud undertook intensive self-analysis from which many of his examples of dreams and parapraxes emerge; he would spend half an hour each day analyzing himself for the rest of his life. At the same time, he prepared his masterpiece, Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), Interpretation of Dreams, The (Freud) published in November, 1899, but postdated 1900. In it, he concluded that the unconscious mental life revealed in dreams contained rich symbolic clues—inscribed in both personal and collective languages—to childhood experiences and to repressed feelings.

In 1900, Freud coined the term “psychoanalyze” to characterize his analysis of the central core of the personality. His final step was to expand the theories concerned with the unintended acts of dream experiences to other areas of life: saying and writing things that are not intended, having accidents, and forgetting things one is supposed to do or objects that could help one do or remember such things (car keys, office keys, appointment books, shopping lists, telephone numbers, people’s names, and so forth). He concluded that there were few true accidents and that most parapraxes were unconsciously caused by repressed wishes.

Freud was named professor at the University of Vienna in 1902. His psychiatric practice expanded greatly, and he had no more financial worries. That fall, he founded a weekly discussion group with other psychiatrists, including Alfred Adler, who first posited the “inferiority complex.” Other prominent thinkers soon joined, such as Otto Rank (in 1906), Sandor Ferenczi (in 1908), and Hanns Sachs (in 1910). Carl Jung occasionally visited. The body grew into the Vienna Psycho-Analytical Society, Vienna Psycho-Analytical Society[Vienna Psychoanalytical Society] and its twenty-two members maintained a substantial library until the group was outlawed and the books destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. After paying a heavy ransom, Freud and his family were allowed to emigrate to England.


The actual text of Freud’s Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens (1904; The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1914) is diffuse and anecdotal; the work reads more like clinical notes than a reasoned argument. Its homey examples, however, many of which came from Freud’s own lived experience, introduced both analysts and the general public to a widely and readily applicable method. Freud’s previous sources of psychological insight had been more limited: Hysteria was much less common than neurosis, and it was less likely to be found outside institutions. Furthermore, dreams were remembered only infrequently by most clients, and many of their details remained mysterious and required intricate, speculative interpretations that were not always convincing to outsiders. The self-inflicted accidents of everyday life, such as embarrassingly obvious slips of the tongue, were much harder to dismiss as meaningless, and they were relevant to the experiences of both well-adjusted and unhappy people. Therefore, the study of these parapraxes provided a broad, plausible base for psychoanalysis. From the 1920’s on, many British psychotherapists visited Freud in Vienna to be analyzed, and through them the movement spread to the United States during the 1930’s. Only in the late twentieth century, however, did Freud’s wish that lay (non-M.D.) analysts be allowed to practice become fulfilled widely in the United States. Psychoanalytic method
Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The (Freud)

Further Reading

  • Beizer, Janet. Ventriloquized Bodies: Narratives of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century France. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. A beautifully written, carefully researched account of gender bias in early perceptions of hysteria. This bias resulted in unsound conclusions by Freud and other early analysts.
  • Bettleheim, Bruno. Freud and Man’s Soul. 1982. Reprint. New York: Vintage, 1984. Deliberate English mistranslations transform Freud from a homey, mystical philosopher into a science-oriented technologist.
  • Bucci, Wilma. Psychoanalysis and Cognitive Science: A Multiple Code Theory. New York: Guilford Press, 1997. Discusses Freud’s views of the many-stranded channels of perception that form our awareness of our world and ourselves.
  • Ellenberger, Henri F. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychology. New York: Basic Books, 1970. Corrects Ernest Jones’s biography on many points; explains Freud’s importance in the history of ideas; treats rival psychoanalytic schools.
  • Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Translated by Alan Tyson, edited by James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. More convenient to use than the standard edition.
  • Gossy, Mary S. Freudian Slips: Woman, Writing, the Foreign Tongue. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Relates such slips, including Freud’s own, to issues raised by the female body eluding patriarchal control.
  • Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. 3 vols. New York: Basic Books, 1953-1957. This definitive biography, by Freud’s lifelong associate, contains some errors based on Freud’s own statements.
  • Miller, Laurence. Freud’s Brain: Neuropsychodynamic Foundations of Psychoanalysis. New York: Guilford Press, 1991. Discusses hysteria, dreams, and parapraxes (slips) as the three pillars of psychoanalytic theory. See parts 4 and 5.
  • Neu, Jerome, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Freud. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. See chapters 5, on the unconscious, and 13, on Adolf Grünbaum’s attack on Freud’s theory of parapraxes.
  • Porter, Laurence M. The Interpretation of Dreams: Freud’s Theories Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Explains the importance of dream research in the development of psychoanalysis, and evaluates later challenges to Freud’s theories.

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