Freud Versus Wundt

In the year 1879, Wilhelm Wundt founded the first psychological laboratory at Leipzig, Germany. Psychology grew out of two well-established fields, philosophy and experimental physiology, and so the early efforts of the fledgling science dealt with such objective issues as measuring the speed of the nerve impulse and searching for specific locations of the brain that controlled various organic functions.

At about this time, Freud was viewing his medical training with some skepticism and beginning to study human beings from a different direction—the treatment of people suffering from disorders that could not be traced to physical causes. Academic Wundtian psychology had little to say about such matters, and Freud and his followers were understandably loath to wait. Their patients needed immediate help, and their own thirst for knowledge demanded satisfaction. Thus they organized their research in ways more suitable to the study of psychopathology. They dealt with the whole person (symptoms, child- hood causes, thoughts, wishes, dreams, and so forth), rather than with physiological details. They evolved techniques to help their suffering patients, and theories to explain the origin and dynamics of the psycho- logical disorders that they confronted. They disdained the psychological laboratory in favor of natural observation in the clinical setting, provoking a controversy that persists today (as we have seen). And they even extended their findings to people in general, arguing that the intensive searchlight provided by psychotherapy illuminated universal truths:

The source of our findings [i.e., sick people] does not seem to me to deprive them of their value.… If we throw a crystal to the floor, it breaks; but not into haphazard pieces. It comes apart along its lines of cleavage into fragments whose boundaries, though they were invisible, were predetermined by the crystal’s structure. Mental patients are split and broken structures of this same kind. Even we cannot withhold from them something of the reverential awe which peoples of the past felt for the insane. They have turned away from external reality, but for that very reason they know more about internal, psychical reality and can reveal a number of things to us that would otherwise be inaccessible to us.… Pathology has always done us the service of making discernible by isolation and exaggeration conditions which would remain concealed in a normal state. (Freud, 1933/1965b, pp. 59, 121; 1926/1969b, p. 14.)

The perspective of history explains the emphasis of early personality theories on psychopathology. It also accounts for their complexity, since a theory that deals with the totality of human behavior will be more involved than one that concentrates on specific details. It was not until some years later that psychologists raised the question of approaching personality theory through the study of healthy and well- adjusted individuals, or tried to extend the applications of academic laboratory research to such issues as psychopathology and dreams.

The Unconscious Before Freud

A common misconception is that Freud invented such ideas as the unconscious and dream analysis out of a clear sky, filling in what had been a complete void in our knowledge. Not even a genius operates in a vacuum; he or she draws on the work of those who have gone before. The quest to understand the basic nature of human beings is as old as time, and many of Freud’s theories existed in some form well before he appeared on the scene.

The idea of unconscious determinants of behavior was clearly in evidence some 100 years prior to Freud (Ellenberger, 1970). Hypnotism was used to gain access to the unknown mind as early as 1784, starting with such pioneers as Franz Anton Mesmer and James Braid and continuing with Jean-Martin Charcot, with whom Freud studied briefly. Certain German philosophers of the early nineteenth century, notably Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert, Carl Gustav Carus, and Arthur Schopenhauer, anticipated many of Freud’s theories. Von Schubert developed a tripartite theory somewhat similar to the Freudian id, ego, and superego, as well as concepts much like narcissism and the death instinct. Carus argued that the key to knowledge of conscious life lay in the realm of the unconscious. Schopenhauer’s statement, “The Will’s opposition to let what is repellent to it come to the knowledge of the intellect is the spot through which insanity can break through the spirit,” closely parallels Freud’s later ideas of the id (Will), ego (intellect), and repression.

Toward the latter half of the 19th century, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche discussed the self- deceiving and self-destructive nature of human beings, the active inhibition of threatening thoughts, and the need to unmask unconscious materials so as to remove self-deceptions. Nietzsche was also the first to use the term id, and is regarded by some as the true founder of modern psychology. A noted French contemporary of Freud’s, Pierre Janet, theorized that traumatic events caused ideas to become fixed in the subconscious (a word that he coined) and to be replaced by neurotic symptoms. And Gustav Theodor Fechner, the “father of experimental psychology” and Wundt’s immediate predecessor, recognized the possibility of unconscious perception and supplied Freud with such principles as mental energy and pleasure–unpleasure. (Despite his reservations about academic psychology, Freud [1920/1961a, p. 2; 1900/1965a, p. 574] was quite complimentary about Fechner.)

Similarly, attempts to interpret the meaning of dreams can be traced back to medieval times (Ellenberger, 1970; Freud, 1900/1965a). Some ancient theories were quite farfetched, such as the belief that a person’s soul left the body and performed the actions of the dream. Others contained elements of truth, as with Plato’s claim that there are strong impulses within us that emerge more readily during sleep. According to Plato, these impulses include desires for “intercourse with a mother or anyone else,” and they emerge in our dreams “when the reasonable and humane part of us is asleep and its control relaxed, and our bestial nature … wakes and has its fling”—ideas which are remarkably similar to Freud’s concepts of Oedipal conflicts, the id, and the relaxing of the ego’s defenses during sleep.

By the nineteenth century, there was increasingly accurate knowledge about dreams. Von Schubert emphasized the symbolic nature of dream language, and observed that dream symbols may com- bine many concepts in a single picture (what Freud later called condensation). Karl Albert Scherner designated elongated objects (towers, the mouthpiece of a pipe) as symbols of the male genitals, and a slippery courtyard footpath as symbolic of the female genitals. Alfred Maury studied the effects of sensory stimulation on dreams, and drew attention to the role of forgotten memories in dream formation.

The Marquis Hervey de Saint-Denis, who developed the remarkable technique of learning to become aware that he was dreaming and then waking himself at will in order to make appropriate notes, published an extremely thorough study of his own dreams and anticipated the Freudian concepts of condensation and displacement. Yves Delage concluded that dreams originate from unfinished acts or thoughts, primarily those of the preceding day. And still other investigators were adding important theories and insights.

It should also be noted that Freud was by no means the first theorist to concentrate on sexuality, or to relate it to psychopathology. Schopenhauer argued that sexuality was the most important of all instincts, whereas Richard von Krafft-Ebing published his famous Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, coined the terms sadism and masochism, and even used the term libido 6 years prior to Freud in an 1889 article.

This brief sketch hardly does justice to a long and painstaking search for knowledge, and the interested reader will want to consult Ellenberger (1970) for additional information. It does support the contention made previously that theorists do not work in isolation, but draw on the contributions of others. However, this in no way argues against Freud’s genius. He made many original and important contributions, and he is the first person identified as a psychologist to develop a theory of personality. Therefore, we will begin our investigation of personality theories with a study of his work.