Rethinking Freud’s Absolutist Theories In The Modern Age

Sigmund Freud's Monumental Contribution to Psychology

Sigmund Freud looms large in the history of psychology. The founding father of psychoanalysis, Freud revolutionized our understanding of the human mind through his models of the psyche, the unconscious, psychosexual development, and more.

Sigmund Freud, by Max Halberstadt
Sigmund Freud, by Max Halberstadt

In the early 20th century, Freud’s ideas about the unconscious, drives, and psychosexual development contradicted the prevailing views of human nature and the mind. They were seen as shocking and subversive at the time.

The mainstream scientific community was skeptical of Freud’s unproven theories and clinical methods. They viewed his ideas as too speculative. Cultural pessimisim Freud’s dark view of human nature at the mercy of primal drives clashed with the Victorian/Edwardian optimism of the era. It was found to be overly pessimistic. Sexual taboos like his emphasis on psychosexuality crossed moral boundaries of the early 1900s. His ideas were seen as scandalous.

His work utterly transformed psychology and psychotherapy. Yet today, many of Freud’s once-radical theories seem antiquated, absolutist, and at odds with modern psychology. In this post, we’ll explore Freud’s invaluable contributions but also the reasons we must view his work critically in the contemporary era.

Here are some of Freud's significant accomplishments :

Freud developed psychoanalysis. He pioneered the clinical method of psychoanalysis for investigating the unconscious mind and treating psychopathology through dialogue between patient and analyst. This became highly influential.

Dialogue between patient and analyst

He mapped the unconscious. Freud’s model of the psyche containing powerful drives operating in the unconscious mind was groundbreaking. It greatly expanded our understanding of the depth and complexity of the human mind.

Freud's ice-burg of mapping the unconscious

Identified defense mechanisms, Freud analyzed common psychological defenses like repression, denial, sublimation, and displacement that protect the conscious mind from threatening unconscious impulses and memories.

He emphasized childhood development,  He highlighted the decisive influence of early childhood experiences, relationships, and psychosexual development on adult personality. This remains influential.

Freud interpreted dreams, he wrote extensively about the symbolic meaning of dreams as a window into the unconscious desires and feelings of the dreamer. His work opened up new avenues of dream interpretation.

"Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious." Sigmund Freud

He influenced arts and culture – Freud’s ideas permeated into literature, visual arts, films, and popular culture. He inspired surrealism, psychoanalytic literary criticism, and themes of the subconscious in culture.

Late Night Dreams, 1923- Salvador Dali- Cubism
Late Night Dreams, 1923- Salvador Dali- Cubism

The surrealist painter Dali was fascinated by Freud's theories on dreams and the unconscious mind. Many of Dalí's dreamlike paintings explore surreal imagery and Freudian symbols.

Here are some more artists influenced by Freud’s unconscious culture.

Max Ernst, another surrealist painter.

Jackson Pollock utilized Freudian free association and surrealist automatic painting techniques to tap into his unconscious.

Paul Klee the Swiss painter incorporated dream states, childhood memories, and absurdity in his work related to Freudian themes.

David Lynch the filmmaker’s surreal movies like Mulholland Drive employ dream logic and Freudian symbolism.

So many more who Freud’s view of hidden desires, dreams, and the power of the unconscious left a lasting impression on. Surrealist and modernist artists seek to depict the workings of the subconscious mind in symbolic ways.

Freud normalized psychotherapy, he helped remove the social stigma around mental healthcare by scientifically studying the psyche. He made psychotherapy more acceptable and accessible.

Sigmund Freud’s theories, have always been quite controversial yet influential. They have also captured the public imagination and incrementally gained support, especially among the cultural elites. His ideas were seen as shocking yet irresistibly novel and self-reflective for the early 20th century. The controversies led both to resistance and growing intrigue towards his radical vision of human psychology.

Support from progressives. Most Progressive intellectuals found Freud’s model of the mind refreshing compared to the rigidity of 19th-century moralism. They saw promise in his ideas.

Doctors and psychiatrists slowly started adopting Freud’s methods in the treatment of hysteria, neurosis and other disorders. His approaches gained clinical relevance.

Visual representation of Freud's id, ego, and super-ego and the level of consciousness
Visual representation of Freud's id, ego, and super-ego and the level of consciousness

Concepts like the ego, superego, Oedipus complex, and more derive from his groundbreaking, if flawed, theories. For his time, Freud’s ideas were startlingly innovative.

Unlearning Sigmund Freud and Keeping the Beneficial

The Limits of Freud's Absolutist Approach

Modern psychology has moved well beyond Freud in many ways. The limitations of his absolutist theories and dated views are apparent today.

His biological emphasis on innate drives downplays social, cultural, and cognitive factors.

He minimized the effects of socialization, family dynamics, peer relationships, and other social factors that shape personality. Modern psychology sees these as crucial.

Freud universalized theories based on a limited sample of patients. Today we know cultural norms, values, and diversity profoundly impact psychology.

Freud’s methods and ethics have also come under criticism, such as his reliance on a small number of privileged Viennese patients, lack of controlled studies, and potential shaping of patients’ memories through leading questions. So the “evidence” for some of his theories was limited.

Cognitive factors. Freud focused on drives over rational thought, problem-solving, and conscious decision-making. Cognitive psychology studies the huge role of cognitive processes.

Freud traced most behavior to childhood. However, research shows trauma and life events throughout adulthood also reshape personalities in major ways.

His views on female sexuality and psychology seem profoundly sexist now

The biggest facet I would like individuals to unlearn is his misogynistic outlook. Freud described male development as active while female development is passive.

He portrayed women as subordinate, weaker, and less morally developed than men.

He ignored social and cultural factors. Freud attributed gender differences to biology while dismissing the enormous role of patriarchal social norms in shaping gender identities and relations at that time.

He overemphasized sexual motivations. Freud reduced many women’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions to their sexual reproductive role. Not a holistic view of women.

He generalized from the limited sample. He based many theories about “normal femininity” on a small sample of Victorian upper-class women only. He wrongly universalized their experiences.

Normalized sexual abuse. Freud considered stories of childhood sexual abuse to often be fantasies or unconscious desires. This normalized abuse and discredited women’s experiences.

Overall, Freud held many essentialist, biologically deterministic views about female nature, motivations and development that propagated harmful gender stereotypes. His absolutist claims lacked scientific rigor and served to reinforce patriarchal beliefs about women’s inferiority and subordinate role in society. His theories were undoubtedly steeped in the sexism of the time.

Freud rejected behavioral theories, but learning theory and habit formation are now known to strongly influence how we think, feel, and act.

Neuroscience. Freud lacked a modern understanding of brain biology, neurotransmitters, and neural pathways that determine much of mental functioning.

Human agency. Freud’s determinism downplayed people’s capacity and the power they have within them for self-awareness, growth, and conscious choice in shaping their lives.

In essence, by fixating on early biological drives, Freud discounted the many interconnected influences that make human psychology incredibly complex, flexible, and open to conscious intervention. His highly absolutist, reductive view does not match the nuanced understanding of the multitude of biological, social, and intrapersonal factors impacting human development.

Appreciating but Contextualizing Freud's Legacy

Sigmund Freud must be appreciated for his lasting contributions that created psychology as we know it today. Yet we must also view his ideas in their historical context, test them against modern research, and retain a critical, flexible mindset.

Freud’s genius inspired psychology’s foundation, but absolutist adherence to all his theories limits the field’s growth. By incorporating his insights while moving beyond outdated assumptions, we can envision a psychology both enriched by Freud and far more sophisticated than was possible in his era.

Publications that compare/contrast Freud's view with modern psychology

So a variety of scholarly books, academic journal articles, and reference materials directly compare Freud’s original theories to more recent developments in psychoanalysis, psychology, neuroscience, and related fields here are some of them.

Freud Versus the Neo-Freudians” – Academic journal article by Douglas Kirsner critically analyzing Freud alongside more recent psychoanalytic theories.

Freud and Modern Psychology: The Emotional Basis of Mental Illness” – Book by Glenn Alexander Meredith comparing Freud’s theories to cognitive, behavioral, and neuroscience approaches.

Freud’s Legacy in Question” – Book by Jerome Neu discusses criticisms and limitations of Freud from modern perspectives.

The Freud Encyclopedia: Theory, Therapy, and Culture” – Reference work by Edward Erwin reviewing Freud alongside modern developments in psychoanalysis and psychology.

Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc” – Book by Malcolm Macmillan analyzes which of Freud’s ideas have held up, and which have been discredited or modified.

Freud and the 20th Century” – Academic journal issue from Psychologist magazine with several authors exploring Freud’s legacy and relevance.

Whose Freud?: The Place of Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture” – Scholarly book with essays reexamining Freud’s cultural and scientific contributions.

Freud: Creator of the Modern Mind” – Biography by Paul Mattick Jr. places Freud in a historical context and examines his theories against current knowledge.

Freud should be appreciated for creating psychoanalysis and making great strides in destigmatizing mental healthcare. However, modern psychology has moved well beyond the absolutist, deterministic limitations of his early 20th-century theories.

Today, we recognize personality and development as the complex result of biological, social, cultural, cognitive, and psychological factors interacting, not just innate biological drives. Freud’s ideas inspired psychology but should not dogmatically define it.

By incorporating nuanced, evidence-based models of the mind, we can build positively on Freud’s foundations. We should neither dismiss nor uncritically accept all his speculations. With an attitude of qualified, flexible reexamination, Freud’s legacy remains an enormously influential springboard for advances in human understanding.

10 Replies to “Rethinking Freud’s Absolutist Theories In The Modern Age”

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