Sigmund Freud did not invent the concept of the human unconscious. That idea had been conceived in a variety of mythologies which preceded him by thousands of years. But he did offer a comprehensive theory of its form and function. Freud also gave humankind a tool for accessing unconscious motivations: psychoanalysis. With this tool, repressed Western societies were able to experience the alleviation of emotional suffering.
An Outline of Psycho-Analysis comes from the pen of Freud, through the translator, to us. Condensed in the space of 90 pages are the key features in Freud’s theory of mind. The Viennese doctor wrote this survey “for professionals, or intelligent laymen willing to pay close attention” (Freud, p. xxi). He begins with a Part One, describing how he views “the psychical apparatus;” involving his division of the unconscious into id, ego and super-ego. The remainder of Part One is parsed among chapters on the interactions of these structures in healthy and unhealthy psyches, along with an elucidation of the value of dream interpretation.
Part Two addresses the technique of psychoanalysis, exemplifying how an analyst is to view and work with a patient. Contained in this section are several ideas about personality that remain in use by mental health professionals today: repression, narcissism, sibling rivalry and so on. However, Freud also expresses the majority of his unsubstantiated analytical legends which say more about his personal psyche than that of the general human population. He discusses the Oedipal Complex, Castration Complex, Female Penis Envy and a number of other propositions which have not withstood psychological exploration over time. It is important to remember that, while many of the doctor’s individual conclusions are now seen as quaint or wrong-headed, Freud’s lasting contributions involve his development of a comprehensive theory regarding the unconscious and his creation of a method to access that unconscious. The reader is fortunate to have this primary document to exemplify a step in the historical development of an idea. Few progenitors of new disciplines get everything right at the beginning. Just look at how medical science has advanced from the theory of bodily humors and the practice of bleeding, to a profession that has cured various cancers. But these excuses aside, Freud’s parents must have been the Lord and Lady Macbeth of the Viennese Jewish community.
Part Three ends the book with “a survey of the increases in knowledge” credited to Freud’s profession, along with consideration of “paths” opened by psychology “for further advances” (Freud, p. 81). Admirably, Dr. Freud includes some self-criticism regarding the limits of understanding during his time. For example, he describes the operation of the unconscious as “a complicated set of simultaneous events” that are improperly described “successively,” thereby presenting these workings inaccurately (Freud, p. 94). The writing of this book commenced in 1938, when Freud was 82 years-old. Though technically it was never finished, a non-fiction reader will gain from it a complete understanding of the essentials of Freudian theory and psychoanalysis.
Freud, Sigmund. An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.