The theory of dreams “occupies a special place” in psychoanalysis for Freud because it marked a major turning point for the study of human psychology. Though he only grapples directly with dream interpretation in one lecture, its centrality is evident through the frequent references he makes to it in other lectures. Freud believes dreams tap into unconscious repressions, a process allows the analyst to understand the cause of a patient's mental illnesses. Of course, dreams can appear nonsensical to the patient, which confirms the importance of an analyst who can “transform the dream into a normal communication” that can be understood. This process - which involves recognizing the distinction between manifest content and latent content, and understanding the basic geography of the psyche - is at the core of psychoanalysis. Considering Freud's goal in this collection - to assure us of the importance of his signature science - it is obviously important that he stresses the value of its core component.
As arguably the most driving force of the psyche in Freud's view, wish-fulfillment is a central theme in this collection. Wish-fulfillment manifests most obviously in dreams and in repression. In terms of dream theory, an analyst must interpret the patient's dream to identify its latent cause, its determining agent: the unconscious impulse that is the “true creator of the dream.” Born in the id, these wishes have a psychic power that is granted a certain representation through dreams, even though they operate constantly, even in our waking lives. However, this discovery only prefaces a more important discovery: that our lives are built of wishes and desires that are either fulfilled or repressed by the ego, which can lead to psychic conditions. What Freud's theory of wish-fulfillment implies is that humans are not as in control of their lives and minds as we might like to believe. Because this is the case, the analyst and his science are crucial towards fashioning a healthy, functional life.
From the beginning, Freud acknowledges the claim that psychoanalysis works almost like a literary art rather than as a science. This claim is based in the way analysis uses symbols (in dreams and symptoms) to identify objective, medical conditions. Though he admits the challenge, Freud takes great pains to address this use of symbolism as an accurate scientific process. In particular, he stresses that symbols are mostly identified in conjunction with the patient himself. An analyst only interprets dreams based on his patient's past. Throughout the lectures, Freud notes how other elements often suggest other ways of understanding this symbolism: myth, the analyst's thoughts which could be transferred, or higher powers. However, he always addresses these possibilities in a scientific, dialectic fashion, again affirming that psychoanalysis is at its core a science and not an art.
Ego, Super-ego and Id
The Ego, Super-ego, and Id are the three key regions of the psychic personality. Throughout all of these lectures, Freud relies on an understanding of these regions to justify the process by which he reaches his conclusions. The ego, or conscious mind, is closest to external reality, and directly processes what we observe. However, because it can also observe itself, it has a tendency to split itself into two parts, the second of which Freud names the super-ego. This entity functions as a type of conscience, observing and often judging our behavior. In other words, in the same way that the ego processes what a person experiences, the super-ego processes the ego's functioning, often lambasting it. Perhaps the most powerful mental region is the id, which remains completely foreign to the ego. A dark and inaccessible part of our psychic life, the id holds our instinctual desires and energies, and is driven solely by the need for pleasure. However, because it lacks its own will, it relies on the ego for a discharge of its energies. The complexity of Freud's theories could easily be dismissed as creative speculation if he did not ground them in a sophisticated hypothesis that posited a complicated interaction between these usually-demarcated elements of the psyche. Because he establishes the theory early in the collection, he is able to move into other areas - like femininity or religion - while always framing them in the terms of psychoanalysis.
Sexuality and Aggression
One of Freud's most enduringly controversial theories is that humans are split between sexual and destructive impulses. Naming the sexual instincts Eros, Freud considers how we are instinctively driven to create life. This stands in counterpoint to another powerful desire to destroy life. Freud's discussion of the instincts shifted throughout his career (as he notes in this collection), particularly because of complicated practices like sadism and masochism – two forms of sexual deviance that illustrate the human drive towards aggression, and the way it can mix with sexual impulse. Ultimately, he believes that all drives are based in a fusion of “Eros and aggressiveness.” He eventually terms the latter as a death-instinct, an inherent drive for organic matter to pursue a previous state of inorganic existence. Though the claim is often simplified by critics, what Freud means to suggest is that our lives are driven by inherently contradictory forces that explain the extent of our natural complications.
Femininity is the topic of Freud's 33rd lecture, though he from the start acknowledges it a indefinable concept. The overarching point of the lecture is that even biological differences are imperfect distinctions if they do not consider the importance of the human psyche. Gender is defined as much by behavior as by biology, and behavior is based in childhood trauma which establishes a human's psychic makeup. Throughout the lecture, Freud attempts to determine how a woman is shaped by her childhood experiences to become a woman. Freud's ideas about femininity were both ground-breaking and controversial, and his statements concerning female sexuality, homosexuality, and feminine identity have been challenged by many later feminists and psychoanalysts.
The Scientific Method
If there is anything Freud praises unconditionally throughout the collection, is the scientific process, which includes discovering a hypothesis and then testing it against objective observations. The collection as a whole endeavors to prove that psychoanalysis operates along the principles of this method, even though its collected data (from a patient's psyche) is not tangible. Again and again, Freud counters attacks on psychoanalysis by stressing how the field constantly improves by questioning itself, as any legitimate science should. Similarly, he often notes how he has changed his theories over time, implicitly suggesting that the science is defined by its process, and not by his personality. In the final essay, Freud contrasts the scientific method with the religious worldview, both to discredit religion as a mere illusion designed for comfort, and to again remind us that his signature discoveries are greater than simple speculations, but are instead beholden to the process that has led to the greatest age of human progress.
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