The Psychology of Communication


8.2 The Method of Sigmund Freud

The time is 1895 and the place is Vienna. More precisely, the time is 3.00 p.m. on Wednesday, 24 July 1895, and the place is the northeast corner of the terrace of the Bellevue Restaurant in Vienna. A young man sits there engrossed in thought. You may perhaps not recognize him immediately, for his hair has not yet become grayed and his frame has not yet become stooped by a troubled and tempestuous life. As you come closer, however, you may recognize the unmistakable, dark, penetrating eyes of the world's most famous therapist, Sigmund Freud.

The precise time and place are emphasized because this is one of the few cases in the history of science in which the birth of an idea can be so pinpointed. Freud took his biographer, Ernest Jones, to this spot and they chuckled over the possibility of erecting a marble tablet proclaiming "Here the secret of dreams was revealed to Doctor Sigmund Freud on 24 July 1895" [JONES, Pages 224-225]. What is that secret? The function of the dream is the fulfillment of a wish. Although we know the exact point in time and space when this thought first emerged, we can't trace upstream the flow of thoughts which preceded it. We can, however, guess at some of the conditions which created a congenial climate for such a thought.

We know that Freud had just developed at that time his method of free association (in which the clients are encouraged to say everything that enters their minds) and had often observed that his clients interspersed accounts of their dreams in their monologues while lying on the now-familiar couch. We know that Freud had previously worked with psychotics and had observed a strong element of wish fulfillment in their hallucinations. We know that Freud was at that time conducting the world's first and only self-psychoanalysis and had observed a tendency to wish fulfillment in his own dreams. We know, in summary, that his insight was based on observation of the spontaneous behavior of people in their everyday lives.

Surprisingly enough, this clinical method may be more objective than the experimental method. The initiative is taken by the patient, whereas in the latter the initiative is taken by the experimenter. Thus the behavior of the patient may be less likely to be influenced by the theoretical biases of the therapist than is the behavior of the subject by the experimenter. Despite rigorous controls to preserve objectivity, an experiment often provides more information about the experimenter than about the subject. Indeed, the very controls the experimenter uses expose his biases. The patient reveals his full personality - "warts and all" - but the subject reveals only that limited aspect of himself dictated by the experimental design. There is indeed a source of bias in the sample of clients who present themselves to therapists. However, with the recent humanistic interest in making well people better as well as sick people well, we may be able to reduce this built-in bias by applying this clinical approach to "normal" people.

Sigmund Freud celebrated the opening of the 20th century by publishing his book The Interpretation of Dreams in the year 1900 [FREUD]. It was the foundation stone for the theory of personality which he continued to develop until his death almost forty years later. He was at first a lonely figure. Not only did he not have any followers - he did not even have any readers. That first book sold only 600 copies in the first 8 years (and, one suspects, that many of those were bought to burn). But he persisted and gradually he built up not only a theory of personality but some support for it.

One of his early supporters was Carl Gustav Jung. He had been asked to review The Interpretation of Dreams for the staff members of the Psychiatry Clinic in Zurich where he worked. Impressed, he wrote to Freud, met him, and by 1910 was the first President of the new International Psychoanalytical Association. Another early supporter was Alfred Adler. He wrote a letter to his local newspaper, which had published a hostile review of The Interpretation of Dreams, defending Freud's ideas. Freud wrote to thank him, invited him to join a small group which met to discuss his theory, and Adler became a charter member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society. Both Jung and Adler, however, began to introduce deviations from the basic theory of Freud and split off from him to form their own variation on his basic theme - the analytic psychology of Jung and the individual psychology of Adler.