Study Guide

Psychoanalysis Timeline

How It All Went Down

1895: Freud and Breuer's Studies on Hysteria

Freud's Studies on Hysteria are the product of Freud's work alongside Breuer with "hysterical" psychiatric patients. No, not laugh-out-loud funny patients. "Hysterical" people = women diagnosed with hysteria, an officially recognized illness of nearly epidemic proportions in certain social circles at the time.

This diagnosis was mostly a pile of sexist baloney.

But the book itself wasn't. Freud and Breuer's book was organized as a series of case studies. And it set an important precedent, because it showcased how psychoanalytic theory worked.

Freud argued that hysterics "suffer from reminiscences." By this he meant that these poor girls were laid low by unprocessed—in Freud's language, repressed—memories of past traumas, especially traumas involving sexual abuse.

Hysterics' "symptoms," which ranged from tics to really obvious wackiness, were bodily manifestations of these repressed memories. (Remember Keira Knightley's jutting-out chin in A Dangerous Method? That's a textbook symptom.)

Studies on Hysteria tried to show, then, the healing potential of the new treatment methods that Freud and Breuer had developed. These methods were famously called "the talking cure" by one of their patients, Anna O.

And "talking," here, was meant to go both ways. In this therapy model, the analyst does not just listen to you passively spill your guts. She works toward an interpretation of you and your troubles.

This interpretation aims to piece together a coherent life story for the patient, and thereby to help her work through the repressed traumas. If all of this sounds familiar, that's because the whole culture of talk therapy is Freud's invention. Even if it's practiced very differently today.

Breuer, we think, is talk therapy's unsung hero.

1899: Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams

It is difficult to over-estimate the impact that this book had on the world, especially the world of European intellectuals. Imagine the philosophical equivalent of a summer blockbuster, and then multiply that by a million, and you may be getting close…

Most people in Freud's day thought that dreams were insignificant. Or that they only sent physiological signals, representing the sleeping mind's response to changes undergone by the sleeping body. Simple, right?

Wrong. Freud overturned these assumptions in a single bound. That is, with a single book. Dr. F returned to classical and medieval theories of dream interpretation, and assigned dreams a privileged place in psychic life.

And hippies around the world rejoiced. Just kidding.

The Interpretation of Dreams developed a theory of the labor involved in the production of dreams, which Freud called "dream-work." This dream-work (which is a lot more fun than it sounds) transforms unconscious wishes into the seemingly nonsensical images that appear in dreams. Like pigs flying and teeth falling out of your mouth and stuff.

Freud thought that these images actually yield crucial and potentially therapeutic insight into the dreamer's psyche… If only they could be analyzed by an expert interpreter like Freud himself. (Again: genius business model, really. Maybe Freud was secretly an economist.)

The dream interpreter would know how to distinguish between a dream's surface images and dialogue (its "manifest") and what its true significance was (its "latent content"). Now, if this style of reading-between-the-(dream)-lines sounds a lot like a literary theory to you, well. Lots and lots of scholars would agree with you.

The Interpretation of Dreams has been a central point of reference for literary critics inspired by psychoanalysis. Freud's methods of dream interpretation are just so easy to transfer into the literary interpretation.

We have all kinds of terms in literature for when a surface-level something represents something deeper, metaphor and metonymy. So people found analogues for these things in Freud's dream interpretations.

And lit critics have relied on the distinction between manifest and latent meaning in their discussions of literary texts for a long while now. You know, the whole "quick read, surface meaning"/"complex hidden meaning" dichotomy.

Freud, you old dog. You really knew how to teach us lit critics some new tricks.

1905: Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

Arguably the most scandalous of Freud's texts, Three Essays laid out the relations between child development and adult sexuality. Freud would continue to refine these saucy ideas throughout the rest of his career.

Now, to a culture that had inherited from Romanticism a tendency to idealize children as innocent and unspoiled—if not angelic—Freud's account of childhood sexuality was shocking. This account removed children once and for all from the realm of untouchable cherubs and cutie pies and brought 'em emphatically down to earth.

As in, down to the dirt. Freud argued that the child was nothing if not dirty-minded. Dude even went so far as to call them "polymorphously perverse"; they seek pleasure, and don't give a binky about where this pleasure comes from or which body part it thrills.

May we reiterate the scandalous nature of this text, especially during Freud's era?

But while Dr. F's essays were ahead of their time in some ways, they were also kinda politically backwards. He describes various sexual thoughts and desires as "aberrations" in the Three Essays, which is viewed as pretty oppressive by today's enlightened standards.

What we call sexual preferences, he called diseases. But still, his book opened the way to a depathologizing—non-judgmental—approach to human sexuality. Even though Freud was still entrenched in the idea that lots of sexual pathologies existed, he also showed that these "pathologies" were, in fact, normal for all children.

1908: The First International Psychoanalytical Congress is held in Salzburg

The first step toward giving psychoanalysis an official, institutional framework was a baby step indeed.

This international meeting of practicing psychoanalysts was attended by just a few people in its inaugural year. But the meeting was important all the same. It marked the beginning of a process that would lead to the institutionalization of Freud's theories and practices worldwide. Then-devout disciple Carl Jung even called it the "First Congress for Freudian Psychology."

It's wild—to borrow a term that Freud would use in his essay on "Wild Analysis"—to think that just a few men seated around a table would then go on to influence so many minds. Minds across man disciplines and time periods, from midcentury clinicians to those of contemporary literary critics.

But there you have it. This happened. It really, really happened.

1910: The International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) is founded

Now Freud and Frenemies had really arrived.

See, at the First International Congress, Freud and his buddies resolved to found an official institutional home for psychoanalysis. This resolution became a reality (unlike pretty much all of our New Year's Resolutions) with the establishment of the IPA. The IPA's stated mission was to serve and protect Freudian theories and techniques.

Freud was—surprise, surprise—ambivalent about the transformation of his science into an official association. Ever the micro-manager, he worried about delegating, and about losing control of the discipline that he had founded in renegade fashion… first with Breuer among the hospitalized hysterics, and then analyzing his own dreams in the comfort of his Vienna home.

But Freud came to accept that this kind of change was inevitable. And good for everyone. Because it helped to establish the movement's permanence, and it enabled positive growth for his pet theory.

1915: Freud's "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death"

Written shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, this essay represents an important foray into political and cultural thinking.

Here, Freud applies psychoanalytic insights to the study of collective phenomena: current political events and the cultural mindsets that, Freud thought, give rise to massive catastrophes. Heavy stuff, you know?

In it, Dr. F argued that The Great War woke Europeans up from the sleep of complacency that they'd fallen into in the late 1800s-early 1900s. The war's harrowing violence definitively disproved theories of progress that believed humankind was all hunky-dory on an upward trend since the beginning of time.

And Freud believed WWI showed that the narrative of European "civilization" was, in a fundamental sense, a lie—or at least the product of out-of-touch fantasies. Why?

Well, Siggy saw a culture of death-denial at that time. As medicine advanced, death became increasingly divorced from life. And less talked about, too—more taboo. Promoting this culture was tantamount, Freud said, to "living psychologically beyond our means."

Haha, we like that phrase.

Anyway, Freud thought that meant death needed to be talked about, seen, and especially acknowledged as a key part of life if there was to be any hope for humankind. But there's a hitch here: "Our unconscious… does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal."

So we do wacky things like engage in world wars to remind ourselves of our own mortality.

Now this where analysis steps in: we can never eradicate our unconscious. But by becoming more aware of our own hostility and aggression, we can become better able to love, and less quick to fight.

Oh, and take note, Shmoopers. Even while tackling the high-stakes political problems of world wars, Freud gave pride of place to literature in this essay. There are moving pages in "Thoughts for the Times" dedicated to the possibilities afforded by reading fiction.

Freud thought fiction could fulfill a crucial therapeutic function by letting us experience death vicariously, through characters we'd grown to love. And this is why Freud is, despite his flaws, most definitely our homeboy.

1919: Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle 

Freud's biographer, Peter Gay, has called this little text "a turning point in psychoanalytic theory."

"Love and life," Gay paraphrases, "now stand over against aggression and death." In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud introduced his "drive theory." Oh, that theory about super fast racecars, you ask?

Not exactly. But kind of, actually. That's the theory where Freud suggested that people's life-preserving instincts were always countered by destructive impulses so strong that they made up a veritable "death drive." It's basically a theory of why we do dumb, dangerous things a lot.

In formulating this controversial idea, Freud drew on his work with injured patients whose "traumatic neuroses" gave them recurring nightmares. These nightmares—and especially their recurrence—forced Freud to rethink his theory of dream interpretation. Because in The Interpretation of Dreams, he speculated that dreams are, first and foremost, about wish fulfillment.

But the nightmares of those wounded in the war showed Freud how powerful the "compulsion to repeat" traumas in life. This was true not only for the extra, extra traumatized, but also more generally in everyday psychic life.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a founding text for the clinical study of trauma and post-traumatic disorders. It's also an important point of reference for later theory. Rock on.

1930: Freud's Civilization and its Discontents

This book was another key attempt to extend psychoanalytic insights beyond the individual psyche. Even so, Civilization and its Discontents still has fascinating things to say about individual development.

In this work, Freud argues that a "super-ego" is formed at a certain stage in society, and at a certain, early stage in the individual's life. And what's the role of this "super-ego," you ask? To punish the individual for crimes that he may not have committed, of course.

Hang with us for a sec. So, our Patient X most likely did not commit the crimes that the superego keeps finding him guilty of. Why? Because the superego charges the ego with the worst offense of all: the murder of the primal father, way, way back when.

Freud's account of this murder in Civilization and its Discontents is compelling, if not fully convincing by today's standards. This isn't a work of rigorous history or sociology or any other hard social science. It's instead a work of speculative fiction—fantasy, even—that seeks all the same to shed light on real human suffering.

Basically, to break it down for you all: Freud wanted to help humankind to get over its massive guilt complex. It remains to be seen whether he has accomplished his mission. We're still feeling pretty guilty about that chocolate cake we ate for lunch over here in Shmooptown.

1936: Anna Freud's The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense

Ever heard of a defense mechanism? Then you've heard, indirectly, of Anna Freud. Though her name is nowhere near the household word that Sigmund's is. (Probably because she was a woman, and Dr. F's daughter, to boot.)

Anna's study of The Ego was written while her father was still alive. And it laid the foundation for what would later become "ego psychology." (This was, you may remember, the tradition that Lacan would attack for being all about conforming to societal norms.)

In addition to listing defense mechanisms, though, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense gave an indication of what would become Anna's mission: strengthening the ego so that it would be able to withstand the assaults made by reality. It was kind of like one of those Survival guidebooks for the ego.

So Anna thought that the true purpose of analysis was to help patients' egos bear what would otherwise be unbearable. In this way, she subtly took distance from her father, who never went so far as to advocate for one psychic "agency" over another.

And then the debate game was on. The tone was set for subsequent intellectual death matches between the followers of Anna Freud and the followers of Lacan.

It's worth remembering that Freud's very own daughter—who he charged with keeping his house in order after his death, and who he wanted to inherit the psychoanalytic establishment—didn't just agree with everything her daddy said.

She was kind of a rebel. Just in her own, quiet way.

1968: The May Paris Protests

First, student-led, worker-supported protests started erupting in Paris. Then across France. And then throughout the world. Members of the new social movements of the 1960s were demanding greater equality: higher wages, an end to class discrimination, and more.

These were excited times, Shmoopers. So the student strikes caused a chain-reaction of events that led to some epic protests in May of 1968. These protests all but brought France to a halt, leading then-President Charles De Gaulle to flee to Germany for safety.

The French authorities were freaked out, to say the least. Jacques Lacan, for his part, was undaunted. The events of 1968 actually galvanized Lacan to radicalize his theory, and provide intellectual inspiration to some of the committed revolutionaries of his day.