In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sigmund Freud

  • Introduction
  • Freud in Context
  • Overviews of Freud’s Work: Introductions and Readers
  • Pre-psychoanalytic Writing
  • Interpreting the Unconscious
  • Case Studies
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • The Metapsychology
  • The Second Topography
  • Art and Aesthetics
  • Psychoanalysis, Culture, Politics
  • Practicing Psychoanalysis
  • Corresponding with Freud
  • Commentary on Freud’s Archives
  • Feminism, Gender Studies, and Queer Theory
  • Structuralist and Post-structuralist Responses
  • Psychoanalysis and Politics
  • Freud in a Global Context
  • Freud and Literary Theory

Literary and Critical Theory Sigmund Freud
Benjamin Poore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0058


The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (b. 6 May 1856–d. 23 September 1939) was one of the most controversial and innovative thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Freud’s account of selfhood inaugurated an entirely novel and disruptive conception of what it means to be a person, as well as a radical mode of psychotherapeutic treatment that put speech, meaning, and the unconscious at its center. The body of work—clinical, intellectual, and artistic—that has emerged in response to his ideas is dizzying in its scope, and this article can only touch on the most salient commentaries and arguments. His own body of work—running to twenty-four volumes in the Standard Edition—that is at the center of this article is also vast and thus this bibliography is necessarily selective, identifying prominent works in areas of his thinking that have been organized conceptually and thematically. Sigmund Freud’s work inaugurated a number of key ideas and principles that have simply refused to go away, despite the vicissitudes of the “Freud Wars” of the 1980s and 1990s and the oft-proclaimed “death” of psychoanalysis. Freud’s influence and reach, described by W. H. Auden as “a whole climate of opinion/under whom we conduct our different lives,” is as culturally and intellectually pervasive as ever. Freud himself considered the discovery of unconscious mental life as being no less than Copernican in significance. Freud’s work is characterized by, and, for some, scandalous for, the primacy that it gives to human sexuality as that which undergirds all of human behavior and social life. Sexuality in the Freudian version, however, is not simply a set of demands that can simply be articulated and met leaving one whole and replete; rather, sexuality introduces a destabilizing, disturbing asymmetry into the equilibrium of the subject and social life, what Freud would come to call das Unbehagen, that is, the “uneasiness” or discontent in culture. It is what must be repressed for civilized life to go on existing, yet it is also that which cannot be contained by the better angels of our nature. The Oedipus complex is the most exemplary instance of this dynamic, a developmental structure Freud identified in literary sources in conjunction with his clinical work. Freud’s family romance is one that places the child in a developmental deadlock: the forbidden desire for the mother and the murderous resentment of the father can be resolved, and the threat of castration averted, only by identification with him; an identification necessarily and frustratingly incomplete, as to fully emulate the father would entail desiring that which identification is supposed to assuage: the mother herself. Freud’s positing of the existence of child sexuality and the formative function of ambivalent sexual feelings toward the mother and father is the most controversial yet utterly essential aspect of his thinking, notwithstanding his concept of the unconscious. The unconscious is the realm of thoughts, fantasies, and wishes that consist of difficult or indeed unacceptable content, and which are only tentatively permitted access to our conscious experience in altered, concealed, and compromised forms. In the state of sleep we are more readily able to perceive the functioning of these processes of representation and transformation; so too in the clinical process of free association, where the patient lies supine on the couch and, unprompted, constructs complex and digressive chains of thought that is it the analyst’s task to respond to and interpret. Thanks in part to Freud’s both cultivation and expulsion of various disciples, the name Freud and the practice of psychoanalysis have become nearly synonymous. Indeed, this attitude is so pervasive that many of those working across the institutional and intellectual legacies of psychoanalysis frequently imagine themselves “returning” to Freud’s original project or intention in some form or other. Disputes in the history of psychoanalysis center on the proper definition of key terms that Freud himself set out, or what should and should not be considered to be “proper” psychoanalytic clinical practice, something most intensely articulated in the so-called Controversial Discussions of the 1940s. The focus of this article on Freud as an individual writer is not intended to elide the distinct and vast contributions of analysts in traditions subsequent to Freud, whose work also contributes a great deal to literary and critical theory; by the same token, a cursory inclusion of a rich body of work would risk positioning such writers as merely supplementary.

Freud in Context

Freud’s work synthesizes, in sometimes inconsistent and discontinuous ways, a range of medical, psychological, and philosophical principles from the 19th century. Indeed, Freud would claim himself to be a “Darwin of the Mind.” Freud sees human beings as principally biological beings, motivated physical forces and processes as part of a struggle for survival and continuity, and he was very much a product of the medical and biological debates of his education and period, especially those raised by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin. The most comprehensive and far-reaching analysis of the origins and emergence of Freudianism is Makari 2008. Sulloway’s monograph explores many of the same connections, although in a more tendentious and hostile mode (Sulloway 1992). Freud’s work was profoundly shaped by his experiences working with Jean-Martin Charcot, the so-called father of modern neurology, at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. For a highly critical account of Charcot’s influence on Freud, see Dufresne 2003. Freud’s own translation of Charcot’s famous Tuesday lectures, complete with his own critical notes, are published in Volume 1 of the Standard Edition. The association of Freud’s insights with the philosophical work of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche also has a long history. The entry on Schopenhauer in Edwin Erwin’s The Freud Encyclopaedia offers a succinct overview on key points of contact in their writings (Erwin 2002). Paul Roazen comments extensively on Freud and Nietzsche in “Nietzsche and Freud: Two Voices from the Underground” (Roazen 1991). More recently, Paul-Laurent Assoun’s Freud and Nietzsche (Assoun 2000, originally published 1980) has been translated into English by Richard L. Collier Jr. and offers a richly textured exposition of the historical and theoretical connections between both writers. ffytche 2012 offers a complex account of Freud’s indebtedness to German romanticism and 19th-century psychology and philosophy in his formulation of the concept of the unconscious. Lear 2005 describes the contribution Freudian theory makes to specifically philosophical and metaphysical questioning in a provocative and comprehensive way, ideal for those approaching his thought from a background in critical theory or the humanities. Frosh 2005 and Yerushalmi 1991 both articulate the complex role Freud’s Jewishness played in the formation and reception of psychoanalysis, with Frosh examining the political and cultural destiny of “the Jewish science” throughout the 20th century.

  • Assoun, Paul-Laurent. Freud and Nietzsche. Translated by Richard H. Collier Jr. London: Continuum, 2000.

    Assoun identifies many of the thematic similarities in the work produced by both of these key figures, but he moves considerably further, exploring Freud’s own personal engagement with and understanding of Nietzsche, as well as the question whether Nietzsche might be conceived as precursor, antagonist, or inspiration to the Freudian project.

  • Borch-Jacobson, Mikkel, and Sonu Shamdasani. The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511979842

    A substantive and involved commentary on the implications and scope of Sulloway’s arguments, and its reception, in light of later historiographical research on Freud in his scientific and medical context.

  • Dufresne, Todd. “Suggestion and Fraud in the Age of Critical Freud Studies.” In Killing Freud: Twentieth Century Freud and the Death of Psychoanalysis. By Todd Dufresne, 16–29. London: Continuum, 2003.

    A highly critical account of Charcot’s influences on Freud, particularly exploring the classic attack on Freud’s work on hysteria as entailing a form of suggestion.

  • Erwin, Edward. “Schopenhauer.” In The Freud Encyclopaedia: Theory, Therapy, and Culture. Edited by Edward Erwin, 469–471. London: Routledge, 2002.

    Erwin examines in this brief entry the relationship of Freud’s writing to Schopenhauer. Freud explicitly admired the work of Schopenhauer, particularly his skepticism about the primacy of reason in determining our motivation and character and the consequent valuation of the “Will” as the driving force in human behavior.

  • ffytche, Matt. The Foundation of the Unconscious: Schelling, Freud, and the Birth of the Modern Psyche. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    This monograph describes the genesis of the concept of the unconscious in its specifically romantic and German context, particularly in the work of philosophers and psychologists of the 19th century, including Schelling, Fichte, Herder, and I. G. Carus. The author’s vision of Freud places his investment in 19th-century German romanticism at the center of the work.

  • Freud, Sigmund. “Preface and Footnotes to Charcot’s Tuesday Lectures (1892–1894).” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 1. Translated by James Strachey. By Sigmund Freud, 129–143. London: Vintage, 1999.

    Originally published 1966–1974 (London: Hogarth). Freud’s own perspective on the importance of Charcot’s work is evident in these lecture notes, from his days at the Salpêtrière. Freud also begins to signal here his own break with Charcot’s thinking in his postulation of the origins of hysterical symptomatology, beginning to argue for its nonorganic character.

  • Frosh, Stephen. Hate and the “Jewish Science”: Anti-Semitism, Nazism and Psychoanalysis. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230510074

    Frosh articulates the ways in which Freud’s work channels culturally Jewish modes of argument and interoperation, as well as exploring the political and culture complications of the association of Jewishness and psychoanalysis, in light of the events of the 20th century.

  • Lear, Jonathan. Freud. London: Routledge, 2005.

    Lear’s book not only offers an excellent overview of Freudian concepts, including the unconscious and neurosis, but also is valuable in recognizing the importance of Freud’s contribution to a range of philosophical questions (including death, freedom, and sexuality) and situates him in that tradition of questioning.

  • Makari, George. Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2008.

    Makari’s classic study describes the intellectual and scientific foment from which Freud’s ideas emerged. On the micro-level, we see his relationships with fellow scientists and analysts in the “Wednesday Club” and in cities such as Zurich and Vienna. On the macro-level, Makari sketches the different debates and disciplines that Freud managed to bring together in his development of a complex theory of mind.

  • Roazen, Paul. “Nietzsche and Freud: Two Voices from the Underground.” The Psychohistory Review 19.3 (Spring 1991): 327–349.

    A succinct exploration of key connections between Freud and Nietzsche’s thinking, exploring especially the emergence of civilized morality from the work of the repression of aggressive instincts; the prophetic character of both writers’ work; and a historical/archival discussion of Freud’s particular encounters with Nietzsche.

  • Sulloway, Frank. Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    The influence of 19th-century biologists and zoologists in Freud’s thinking is outlined extensively in Frank Sulloway’s monograph (originally published in 1979). Sulloway’s book offers rich material for historians of psychoanalysis and of 20th-century science, though it has been most enthusiastically taken up by those seeking to criticize Freud and psychoanalysis more generally as part of the “Freud Wars.”

  • Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

    This monograph was the first to offer a thorough exegesis of Freud’s intellectual development and theory with his Jewish identity at its center. The author bases his arguments through a sustained reading of Freud’s late book Moses and Monotheism.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.