Saturday, February 13, 2010

A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis / Sigmund Freud -- NY: Garden City Publishing, 1938

In the preface to the English edition of A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Ernest Jones wrote, "this is the book with which to begin a study of psycho-analysis." True enough. The General Introduction is composed of three sets of lectures (twenty-eight in all) given by Freud at the University of Vienna during two winter sessions (1915-1917). The first set of four lectures introduces the psychology of errors, the second set of eleven lectures introduces the significance and interpretation of dreams, and the third set of thirteen lectures introduces a general theory of neuroses.

Freud's presentation is highly accessible to the uninitiated, particularly his discussion of errors and dreams. He notes that these are phenomena with which we are directly acquainted, giving us a basis upon which we can make sense of his theory of the mind. Specifically, this includes the unconscious, the libido, the conflict between repressed desires and conscious desires, resistance, displacement, and dream-distortion. His analysis of errors (e.g., "Freudian slips"), is a condensed version of what can be found in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life and his analysis of dreams similarly is a condensation of his The Interpretation of Dreams.

The third set of lectures on entitled "General Theory of Neuroses" is more difficult, particularly the last four lectures. In the third set, Freud provides a more technical treatment of how neurotic symptoms are generated by abnormal cognitive development and consequent conflicts with in the patient's mind. Freud emphasises that his theory attempts to explain psychological disorders, but also suggests that the pathology of neuroses are present to a muted degree in normal, well-adjusted people.

Among the more interesting aspects of the General Introduction is Freud's recurring efforts to sympathetically recognize his critics, but to provide a defense of his theories nonetheless. Time and again, he presents a very clear and cogent self-criticism, demonstrating that he must have spent a good deal of time hearing and seriously considering his critics. His replies are often very good, but do not always prevail. As much as Freud would like for psychoanalysis to be understood as a science, his primary defense against criticism the that it isn't rests in its short history. Freud asserts that psychoanalysis will, in time, become more rigorously scientific with subsequent clinical discoveries, but at the time of his lectures, it remained much of an art.

Regardless of whether time has borne out his hopes, Freud's work brought psychology to a deeper and more sophisticate state. It profoundly affected how we understood ourselves and society during the 20th century and remains an important influence today. Reading A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis is perhaps the easiest way to receive from Freud himself, an overview of the most significant aspects of his theory. It will provide the reader with a better understanding of the history of psychology and is sure to stimulate valuable reflection on the workings of the mind.

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