You Are At: AllSands Home > Science > Sigmund Freud's theories
For the first half of the 20th century, the world embraced the work of Sigmund Freud and held it up as the new truth and the new way. People found examples of what Freud said everywhere, and reduced every action in any life to Freudian terms. The second half of the 20th century was spent dispelling all the myths of Freud, systemically tearing them down and disproving them with empircal evidence and basic questioning. Modern psychology makes little use of any work Freud did, and only acknowledges him as someone who got the field going by asking the first set of interesting questions about the human mind. We may think this means that Freud and his theories have left our lives, but we're quite mistaken. They have moved out of the academic and professional sphere and taken up what appears to be permanent residence in pop culture and everyday speech.

Take a minute a think about the last time you heard any of these terms: castration, Oedipus complex, Electra complex, fetish, sadomasochism, id, ego, superego. Likely, you didn't hear them from a mental health professional, except in jest. You probably encountered them on tv, in articles and fiction that you read, and in conversation with others. We all have a vague sense of what they mean, and what we think Freud was all about, but for the purposes of much needed clarification, here are some basic definitions of Freudian concepts and terms so that you know what they originally meant and can compare it to what people often think they mean.

The most misrepresented Freudian term of all is not really a Freudian term to begin with: PHALLUS. Before its possible to understand what Freud originally meant by any of his other theories, an important distinction must be made between a phallus or a phallic object and a penis. Many people think that when Freud discussed the phallus, he was speaking of the penis, and when he discussed the penis he was speaking of the phallus, because the two were the same. Instead, Freud took the word phallus, which means "penis" or "representation of the penis" (according to the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed. 1994, Dell) and redefined the term to mean a symbol of power. Freud believed that small children were very caught up in trying to understand why girls don't have penises and boys do, and the penis becomes a first symbol for power and also for lack. Aside from this first phallic object, an actual penis, Freud used the term phallus to mean any symbol or representation of power, in physical reality or in the mind. Though there may have been and may still be men who believe that their penis is a phallus in the sense Freud used the word, they are fundamentally wrong. Freud believed the phallus -- or power structure -- was an imaginary object that no one ever really had except fleetingly. Freud did not believe, in general, that women were worse off because they had no penis (he refers to the vagina as an equally worthy, though much more difficult to see, genital structure) or that they spent their time desiring one. Women were after the symbolic PHALLUS, or power, the same as men, and none of them ever suceeding in acquiring it.

The question of why no one ever has complete power leads nicely into Freud's concept and use of CASTRATION. Freud himself uses the term to mean two seperate things that are related. When speaking of children learning about gender differences, Freud theorizes that when a young boy sees a young girl or even an adult woman and finds no penis on her, it occurs to him that perhaps she used to have one and it was cut off. Even if someone sits the child down and rationally explains to him that girls and boys are different, and he doesn't need to be afraid that his mother or sister had her penis cut off, the explanation occurs after the fear, which occurs immediately upon noticing the lack of the object. Although a young girl does not have the same immediate fear of losing something she has when she notices the existence of the penis, she also recognizes the possibility that since she does not have one and a male does, he could lose it. She proceeds to extrapolate that she could lose other extensions of her body, or perhaps even wonders if she did once have one and has lost it. In his discussions of children's reflections on gender difference, Freud writes of them considering the concept of actual, physical castration.

Freud held that normal development out of childhood involved this period of considering physical castration and differences between people in general. He believed that in order to recognize differences between oneself and others, starting with ones own gender and the opposite gender, a person had to accept the possibility of difference created by a lack of an object on someone's part. After dealing with the physical concept of castration as such, Freud appropriates the term to mean something more symbolic. When children learn about gender difference and accept castration, they accept that they are different than everything else in the world and not in control of it. Adults continually recognize, forget, and rerecognize that they are different than the world and cannot control it. This lack of control, or power, is a lack of the PHALLUS and the reality of CASTRATION. Often, when Freud speaks of someone feeling castrated, he means that they have realized that they are without the symbolic phallus, and without power in their lives. Few people, aside from small children, actually spend their time worrying about real physical castration.

The concept of the acceptance of CASTRATION leading to the recognition of difference between genders, and self and other, leads us to the question: What happens to a child who never accepts the possibility of castration (loss)? The answer is that the person gets "stuck" at an earlier phase of psychosexual development (generally anal or oral) and their lack of belief in castration and gender difference manifests through "perversions." Some of the most commonly thrown around terms are sadomasochism and fetishism (Freud also considered homosexuality a perversion, but for slightly different reasons that tie in to his complex analysis of what causes mysogyny) which are often misunderstood and misdefined by the communities that have grown up around them.

SADOMASOCHISM is a normal part of the phase of psychosexual development just before children put together gender difference and are on their way toward puberty. The anal phase of development, as the name suggests, is tied up with potty training and later issues of retention and rejection. In learning to micturate and excrete only when and where doing so is socially acceptable, a young child is faced with the immense responsibility of learning to control his or her anal sphincter. In doing so, the child works hard to retain exretia when he or she is supposed to, and to push it out or away also at the appropriate time. The child and parents are proud of all accomplishments and depressed by all failures in the process, and the child comes to place immense important on this rejection and retention. So much so, that the child's delight with successfully holding on and letting go manifests in the child's entire life, rather than only in regards to potty training. Emotionally speaking, the child will cling to a person or a toy, then push them away, then cling to them again, and repeat the process maddeningly. The child may alternate between loving animals, pets, siblings and wanting to torture them or send them away. All children go through this phase, but in general they put most trappings of it behind them and move on to the last phase of sexual development. An adult sadomasochist remains in this phase, and plays games with self and lovers in which identity is confused (for the sadomasochist does not accept different genders, or different people entirely), and retention and rejection are enacted either emotionally or physically on the self or the sexual partner. According to Freud, the physical acts of violence are not what give the sadomasochist pleasure -- it is the emotional content underlying the enactment that gives the sexual pleasure.

It is important to note, on his behalf, that Freud did not believe that anyone ever completely outgrew the pregenital phases of development. He believed there was a bit of sadomasochist, a bit of rejection of castration in everyone, at times. Someone suffering from a "perversion," by Freud's definition, would be completely unable to receive any sort of sexual fufilment without acting out the perversion. Freud also did not necessarily believe that curing a perversion when it was found was the only way to have a happy life. Quite the opposite, in one case of repressed homosexuality, Freud whimsically noted that though still a neurotic and a pervert, his patient would probably have been a considerably happier person if he'd actually found himself someone to have a homosexual relationship with.

FETISHISM is one of the other commonly misunderstood "perverions" that Freud outlined in some detail in his Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his Childhood. A fetish is much easier to explain than sadomasochism. When a boy first realizes that his mother and other females do not have penises where he has his, rather than believing it is possible that they had them and lost them, the boy convinces himself that they have them, but they are located somewhere else on the body. He spends an immense amount of time looking for the physical penis, and at some point gives up on finding it, but transfers it to something a woman does have -- long hair, or pointed high heels, or any other object representing her power and her missing phallus for him. Without the presence of this object, the adult male cannot experience sexual release, it is an integral part of his psychological concept of the woman he is with, and without it, she is castrated in his eyes. Although a fetish is a more common perversion in males, it can occur in females as well, who as girls avoiding recognizing their own lack of a penis by substituting some other object for it in their mind (long braids, perhaps, or a necklace). Like sadomasochism, fetishism is a form of sexuality that does not recognize difference between genders, or difference, fundamentally, at all.

Many people are skeptical of Freud because he so often refers to childhood sexuality, and the concept meshes poorly with our beliefs about what children are like. In order to appreciate what Freud was trying to say about people and sexuality, as opposed to what it sounds like, here is a definition of Freudian sexuality beginning with the LIBIDO. Freud believed that the root of all desire and demand was to to attain pleasure, which he called sexual. Though this is added commentary, in reading Freud it often seems that what he refers to as "sexual fulfillment" could as easily be read as "intense" or "central" fulfillment, for both children and adults. Freud may have chosen to use the word sexual because the sexual drive is one of the strongest ones in human experience and relating what he spoke of to that drive may have emphasized how strong he believed our desires to be fufilled are. Freud believed all energy was sexual in this sense, and came out from the LIBIDO, or core of sexual drives, into the world seeking fufillment. It can be channeled and controlled in many ways, but the LIBIDO cannot run rampant (which ties in with castration), because if everyone always did exactly what it took to get exactly what they wanted, there would be no civilization. Freud did not want people to free up libidinal energies, quite the opposite, he believed that a healthy individual had their libido sublimated into many controlled subroutines that gave them some pleasure, while avoiding going after the things they really wanted which would have involved acts abhorrent to civilizations, such as incest, rape, murder, stealing, etc. A libido that has been civilized gives its owner all the drive and power to succeed and accomplish great things, but a wild libido that devotes most of its energy to getting exactly what it wants, unaltered by rules and reality, only ruins the owner's life.

The LIBIDO leads into the last Freudian term covered here: the OEDIPAL COMPLEX. Even if you haven't heard of the Oedipal Complex, you've heard that little boys like their mothers better than their fathers and little girls like their fathers better than their mothers, and sometime just before puberty, it switches and boys like their fathers and girls like their mothers. Anyone looking for this sort of behavior can find a million and one examples of it, whether or not it is actually true, and whether or not Freud's Oedipal Complex really explains it. Freud constructed a model of psychosexual development beginning with the birth of a boy and his attatchment to his mother, or mother-substitute. While he is a newborn, the mother's attention to it is nearly unbroken by any interruption: her identity and role in life consists of taking care of the infant and nothing else. She, after a fashion, lives for the child. As time progresses and he is less fragile, and the mother more used to his prescence, so she begins to spend more time with others, including and typically mostly, the father, or a father substitute. Once she is gone, her son understands what it means not to have her complete attention and immediately wants it back. He wants to be everything to her, and seeing what his father is to her -- her lover -- he wants to assume that role in addition to his previous role. Hence the condensation of the Oedipal complex that you will hear all the time: He wants to kill his father and marry his mother. Freud outlined a similar process for little girls, involving the father as the figure they desired to marry, but even he admitted the shortcoming of that theory, and later Freudian analysts considering the possibility that all children, male and female, want their mother's sole attention, and want to be their father, at least initially.

Though the Oedipal Complex is represented straightforwardly in pop culture, it has been taken out of its context of normalcy. Freud believed everyone went through the Oedipal Complex, and needed to, in order to resolve many childhood psychosexual issues and grow up at all. Freud did not think that a child who experienced a desire to murder his father and marry his mother was anything except exceptionally ordinary, and any child who avoided the Oedipal phase was doomed never to grow up. In addition to the initial complex, the Oedipal gives rise to a struggle which must be resolved within a family. A little boy, for example, expresses a desire to kill his father and take his father's place with his mother, and the father responds by saying, "No, she's mine, find your own." Eventually, the child associates himself with his father, and rather than attempting to take the mother-substitute his father has found, he goes out to find his own mother-substitute.

Hopefully, these definitions will give a little more insight into the complex philosophy and theory of Freud which has been abandoned by academics and reduced to misconstruction in pop culture. If you're curious and interested in further reading about these terms, here are some recommended texts actually written by Freud.

On the Interpretation of Dreams
The Wolfman Case Study
The Dora Case Study (Dora)
Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood
The Pleasure Princple
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Totem and Taboo