The Legacy of Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

29.04.2020 |

Episode #10 of the course The theories of Sigmund Freud by Dr. Daniel McGrath


“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” ―Sigmund Freud

Welcome to the final lesson of the course! In this last lesson, we are going to complete the course by examining Freud’s legacy, as well as the criticisms of his theories.

Post-Freud. Sigmund Freud passed away in 1939, but his influence carried on after his death. While the field of psychoanalysis did continue after Freud, it became quite fragmented. Neo-Freudians such as Jung and Adler advocated for their own forms of psychoanalysis, with both moving even further away from Freud’s version. That said, there were certainly those who continued promoting Freudian psychoanalysis, including his daughter Anna. Today, psychoanalysis is no longer the dominant form of talk therapy. Outside of a few places in Europe and South America, psychoanalysis has largely been replaced by more scientifically supported talk therapies. Let’s look at how psychology now differs from psychoanalysis.

Psychology vs Psychoanalysis. Modern psychology is quite different from psychoanalysis. Licensed clinical/counseling psychologists and social workers are trained in various forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, client-centered therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and mindfulness. Furthermore, psychiatrists (but not psychologists) also prescribe medications for numerous disorders. The most notable difference between these therapies and psychoanalysis is the heavy reliance on science and that they are evidence based. In contrast, the principles of psychoanalysis have not received the same kind of empirical support.

Criticisms of Freud. Freud’s theories and psychoanalysis have been the subject of substantial criticism in the decades since his death. There are a number of reasons; here are a few of the most notable:

Emphasis on Sexual Themes. Modern psychotherapies do not focus exclusively on sexual causes stemming from childhood as being the source of mental health issues. Even early on, Freud’s associates such as Jung raised their concerns over his heavy emphasis on sexual causes of hysteria and neuroses. In reality, there are many other factors contributing to mental illness.

Lack of Scientific Validity. Freud acknowledged his respect for the scientific method early in his career and believed that psychoanalysis could be scientifically supported. However, studying the effectiveness of psychoanalysis objectively is difficult. Freud was quite rigid in his thinking and would usually reject any alterations to his theories. In addition, how he collected information on the effectiveness of his therapy (i.e., case studies of a very narrow group of patients) does not meet the standards of the scientific approach.

Assumptions of Female Sexuality. Many of Freud’s ideas about female sexuality are quite misogynistic. Karen Horney was among the first to note this and was heavily critical of Freud’s assumptions about women. For instance, concepts such as penis envy or that women have underdeveloped Superegos compared to men have been discredited.

Contributions of Freud. The relevance of Freud’s philosophies have certainly diminished in modern psychology; however, his influence on the history of the field looms large. Let’s look at the most noteworthy contributions.

Talk Therapy. Prior to Freud, little focus was directed toward using talk therapy to treat mental illness. Even though the effectiveness of psychoanalysis is heavily disputed, his work sparked a new interest in talk therapy. Freud gave a lecture on psychoanalysis at Clark University in Massachusetts in 1909, which made headlines throughout the United States. Afterward, public interest in Freud increased significantly, as did subsequent academic work investigating the potential of psychotherapies in the decades that followed.

Focus on Development. Freud was among the first theorists to highlight the importance of childhood development on later mental health and well-being. In doing so, psychology later began to focus more on the developmental stages of childhood.

The Unconscious. Freud was not the first to introduce the concept of the unconscious, but he discussed it in a way that had never been seen before. We now know that some cognitive processes are below our conscious awareness and contribute to our understanding of why we do the things we do.

Today’s task: In the first lesson, I asked you to think about your own perceptions of Freud. Over the past ten days, has anything changed? Did the material in this course strengthen or weaken your initial beliefs?

Congratulations! You have reached the end of this Highbrow course on Sigmund Freud. I hoped that you enjoyed it and learned something new.


Recommended book

Freud by Jonathan Lear


Another course by Dr. Daniel McGrath

Introduction to personality psychology: The Big 5 traits


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