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Freud’s Way: Founding Psychoanalysis


Contribution to CFAR public seminar ‘Freud’s work during the 1890s’, held at UCL on Saturday 6th October 2018.

In this article, we will discuss a certain period of history that led to the formation of psychoanalysis. It was the last decade of the nineteenth century, the 1890s, which made the bible of Freudian psychoanalysis. Fifteen years after the “Caesar of Salpêtrière” (Charcot’s) Tuesday lectures in Paris, and the outcome of ten years of observation and experimentation with patients, and five years after Freud’s famous dream of Irma, The Interpretation of Dreams was published.

Freud’s way

Founding Psychoanalysis


The Interpretation of Dreams is the book of Freudian psychoanalysis. This book, written in the very last years of the nineteenth century and published in the first year of the twentieth, is Freud’s most ground-breaking book, as he himself referred to it later in life. This book is the result of all that formed Freud as a psychoanalyst; Freud’s sinthome. In this book, one can find Freud traversing between the professions of the medical doctor and neurologist a great deal. He has invented methods of listening, talking and (hopefully) curing which goes beyond hypnotherapy or any other cathartic method. He has devised his own method of therapy. The full account of Freudian psychoanalysis is found in this book. Later works of Freud were focused on developing and modifying what he had discussed there, but The Interpretation of Dreams is what Freud is known for, as the founder of psychoanalysis.

Here, we will discuss a certain period of history that led to the formation of this, the bible of psychoanalysis: it was the last decade of the nineteenth century, the 1890s, which made this book. Fifteen years after the “Caesar of Salpêtrière” (Charcot’s) Tuesday lectures in Paris, and the outcome of ten years of observation and experimentation with patients, and five years after Freud’s famous dream of Irma, The Interpretation of Dreams was published.

The story of Freud’s life before the 1890s


Freud was born to revolutionise the trend of thought about human suffering and discontent. He was born into a family of eight children – five sisters – with a father in trade and a mother whose golden child was her son, Sigmund. Before founding and inventing a school of theory and cure based on his works with “hysterical” women, he grew up within a network of women. Around him were his mother and five sisters – including Rosa, his favourite; his father’s friend’s wife and daughter – Eleonora and Gisela; and his Christian nanny, Monika, with whom he associated his first experience of physical affection and sensuality. (Roudinesco, 2016)

The experiences of immigration and exile were both early-life and much later in life experiences, for Freud. His initial inclinations towards philosophy and poetry, which he abandoned in favour of making a life within the medical profession, found a second chance to manifest themselves through his attitude to medical treatment, and in his writings. His doctoral thesis of 1881 clearly has a trace of philosophy and sociology. (Roudinesco, 2016)

The observation and given, empirical facts of the medical field were not enough for a researcher’s mind like Freud’s. Moreover, almost all of his biographers agree on the fact that his experimental, explorative spirit – from his research into cocaine between 1884 and 1887 to his experiments with hypnotherapy – and his love of research were indicative of his desire to seek fame through his own discoveries or inventions. It took him a few years to realise that the available scientific framework was keeping him from his true mission. The seeds of doubt were already planted in his curious mind by the mid-1880s when he took up his grant to study in Paris with Charcot.

In the 1880s, a decade prior to his arriving at becoming The Sigmund Freud of Psychoanalysis, he was studying medicine and neurology. More precisely, he was approaching a brick wall with the treatment of patients suffering from neuro-physical symptoms, mainly Aphasia, the inability to understand and formulate language. Besides being focused on the cure, he was determined to find out more about the aetiology of such an illness beyond an organic cause. This is a decade of intense reading, examination and translation in Freud’s professional life; for example, translating the twelfth volume of (British philosopher) John Stuart Mill’s work into German. (Roudinesco, 2016) During this period, one can see in Freud’s work that he was gradually distancing himself from medical physiology, to approach the psychic life. In the next decade, the 1890s, his elaboration on the works of Breuer and Pierre Janet, a French psychologist and the philosopher, diverted his way and brought him to theorise the idea that repressed memories of traumatic experiences in the past have something to do with the expression of hysterical symptoms. Meanwhile, his personal life was settled alongside Martha, and he became a father of a daughter, Matilde (named after Breuer’s wife), and a son, Jean Martin, whose name came from Freud’s Transference to Charcot of that time.

Breuer and Charcot were, to Freud, the “subjects supposed to know”, before he moved past them in his formation of psychoanalysis, in the 1890s. Further to hypnosis, Breuer’s cathartic method was fundamental to the “talking cure” before Freud began his ten-year pen-friendship with Wilhelm Fliess. The correspondence with Fliess also addressed the development of Freud’s ideas as Freud sought consultation and consolation through his letters to Fliess. The title of “talking cure” itself, however, originally came from Bertha Pappenheim – Anna O – who was undergoing Breuer’s treatment in the early 1880s. The use of language in the Freudian method, rather than theatrical actions, was introduced later in the 1890s. It was Fliess, rather than Breuer, who became Freud’s friend and confidante, despite his strange ideas about women’s sexuality.

The question of sexuality was the big mystery of the 1890s, particularly for women, who seemed to have been more open to showing and discussing their psycho-somatic symptoms than men, back in those days. Freud himself was neurotic in his own body and suffered from many physical problems with non-organic causes. (Roudinesco, 2016)

Almost as soon as he and his family arrived at their new home in No. 19 Berggasse, Vienna – Freud’s home until he was exiled to London in 1938 – Freud began writing prolifically about his experiences of the past decade that had led to his ongoing changes of methodology in his approach to hysteria and neurosis. The 1890s were the ten years of construction that founded the Freudian method as we understand it today. Between his first article titled: “psychical treatment” in 1890 and The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, one can clearly see Freud’s complete falling-out with neurology and hypnosis in their failure to embrace an analysis of what is not immediately detectable in the human mind.

The cumulative compilation of Freud’s work up to 1900, under the title of The Interpretation of Dreams, has its roots in the night of the 24th to 25th July 1895, when Freud had the “Irma’s dream”. The dating of psychoanalysis’ conception to this night refers to Freud’s famous dream. This is, in fact, when Freud’s dream came true, through a dream.

Freud’s discovery during the 1890s


Coming back from Paris as a married man and a father, done with his experiments with cocaine and having doubts about hypnotherapy, Freud commences the last decade of the nineteenth century afresh, in his new home in Vienna. His fresh start was not only concerning family and professional life; his personal relationships with his mentors Charcot and Breuer had expired too. His fifteen-year friendship with Fliess was, according to Roudinesco, a favourable chance for the foundation of psychoanalysis. The ten years of correspondence between the two shows well how the nature of psychoanalysis goes beyond the teaching and learning of knowledge, regarding a particular technique or strategy of the profession. What is addressed to who, and how, makes the psychoanalytical discourse a very different form of so-called “cure”. The medium of language with all its specific properties was to be used in this method of discovering the psyche, beyond just expressing a suppressed feeling. Feelings – as affects – specify a different, particular meaning in the case of each different subject. Freud was making his way towards questioning the clinical method that entertained Hysteria only on a theatrical (active and visual) level. Therefore, one could say that Freud’s break-up with his respectful professors was the best thing that could have happened to him and psychoanalysis.

The trajectory of the founding of psychoanalysis started from hypnotherapy and the cathartic method, to go on to an assumption of real sexual abuse in early childhood, and then a possible fantasy of abuse, to, finally, the technique of free association, the theory of infantile neurosis, and Freud’s three essays on the theory of sexuality; a revolutionary view of human suffering and its roots.

At the beginning of the 1890s, almost done with the pre-psychoanalytical approach to hysterical attacks, Freud paid his respects to both of his mentors in a few papers he wrote between 1891 and 1893, as follows:


  • On Aphasia: A Critical Study (a short book is written with his friend Oskar Rie; dedicated to Breuer.)
  • Hypnosis


  • On the Theory of Hysterical Attacks (written with Breuer.)
  • A Case of Successful Treatment by Hypnosis


  • Charcot’s Tuesday Lectures
  • Some Points for a Comparative Study of Organic and Hysterical Motor Paralysis


The year 1894 is the turning point in Freud’s approach to Hysteria with regards to the patients’ symptomology being linked to repression. In this paper, “conversion” is considered here, as a defence. The hysterical so-called “abreaction” would be then a strategy to dissolve the conversion. His paper on this matter is called: The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence. (Freud, 1894) In spite of what he had achieved with his medical knowledge and with Charcot and Breuer, Freud still felt a lack of theories to explain the cause of the patient’s (at the time, mainly women’s) manifestations of illness. From the working-class women of Paris to the bourgeois women of Vienna (Roudinesco, 2016), the hysterical attacks with non-organic aetiology were present both in hospital wards and consulting rooms.

The 1890s also marks a change of scenery as well as interior design in the history of the treatment of the psyche. The therapist’s interventions in the treatment developed from dramatic acting: putting the patient in a state of trance and then bringing her back through theatrics – like a stage magician! – to the therapist becoming a listener to the words regarding the patient’s traumatic past experiences. This was Breuer’s cathartic method, used on Bertha who named it the “talking cure” treatment. (Freud & Breuer, 1888) This therapist was in some ways similar to a decidedly wishful gambler, who hopes to gain much from his bet through the law of chance. At this stage, Freud was a pushy Hypno-cathartic therapist in his consulting room. He used to put his hands on the patient’s forehead to extract the cause of their miseries, even after his invention of free association. Such gestures were, however, soon abandoned once a patient accused him of intervening with her train of thought (Elizabeth Von R.). (Kurzweil, 1998) The therapist’s physical acts were to evolve from the gaze and the touch – the theatre – into the act of listening, gradually even to disappear from the patient’s sight as the therapist was seated behind the couch – for, also, the patients were now talking on the “famous couch” of psychoanalysis. The inception of psychoanalysis, from Freud’s midsummer night’s dream to the idea of lying the patients down to free-associate, was to give this approach a signature: the couch.

In the first half of the 1890s, Freud’s master/mentor relationships were transferred; his teachers were transformed into his patients and their symptoms. How the patients dealt with and responded to their physical and mental disturbances became the main reason to question the type of therapeutic approach. Techniques learned from lectures and from clinical observations made during hospital rounds failed Dr Freud when trying them on his patients. Instead, the importance of the patient’s past experiences and of knowing their case history in great detail came to light; giving way to Freud’s theorising the aetiology of neurosis, and inventing and employing treatment techniques accordingly. Freud called Anna von Lieben his first teacher. (Appignanesi & Forrester,1992). She had found out about Freud through Breuer, her family doctor, and initially appointed Freud in 1887 to help with her facial neuralgia. Although Freud used hypnosis in her treatment at first, and wrote a paper about it, “Preliminary Communication”, jointly with Breuer in 1888, she was the first patient on whom he experimented with the rudimentary technique of free association. She was the first patient invited to recount forgotten memories of her traumatic past. However, it was Emmy von N. in 1889 who was the first main, fully detailed, clinical case history; Freud was still an authoritarian, suggestive doctor in those days. The case of Elizabeth von R., under Freud’s treatment in 1892-3, who suffered from chronic pain in her legs, was the first case to be analysed rather than hypnotised. In the clinical treatment of this case, Freud tried the “un-victimising” strategy, pushing Elizabeth to take responsibility for her active role in her erotic conflicts. Through this case, he theorised that an erotic conflict between her feminine position and her moral being was the cause of her hysterical pain. (Appignanesi & Forrester,1992)

In the same year, during his holiday on the Rax mountain in 1893, a woman called Katharina had a rather quick conversation with Freud, in which she revealed to him a vignette from her past. According to Freud, the anxiety and hysterical attacks she suffered from were linked to what she had witnessed when she was fourteen years old. (Appignanesi & Forrester,1992) Freud developed the first theory on the relationship between hysteria and sexuality over this “lunchtime” case. According to him, the first encounter – specifically, a traumatic one – with sexuality develops into the symptomatic development of hysteria. Hysterics are, therefore, suffering from reminiscences. Freud’s ideas regarding hysteric symptom formation of the 1890s originated from a holiday, in the high altitudes of the Alps.

Another famous case history from Freud’s work before the Oedipal myth – Freud’s myth – is that of Lucy R. in 1892, on whom he did not use hypnotherapy. She was Fliess’s patient before Freud’s, as her symptom initially manifested as a nasal problem. At this stage, Freud, after listening to the patient’s account of her everyday life, suggested that Lucy was in love with her employer, the father of the children she cared for, who she loved. Freud’s suggestion set her mind free from the conflict between leaving or staying at her job. Sensing the smell of burnt pudding in her nose was, according to Freud, libidinal investment in her employer; the father of two children beloved to her. (Appignanesi & Forrester, 1992) But why not, for example, the desire to feather another woman’s nest? Where does this rather common fantasy come from? Why the olfactory hallucination of “burnt pudding” particularly, and in what context? Well, it was still very early days for yet psychoanalysis to be born as a method of research.

Birth of Psychoanalysis


In the second half of the 1890s – after Freud’s dream of 1895 – his theories were to develop in the twentieth century, while the roots of the formation of his research method were already planted by the late nineteenth century. In the second half of the 1890s, Freud conceptualised his seduction theory, the neurotic’s symptom formation: between 1895 and 1897, and between 1897 and 1899, the importance of dreams, to be taken into account in the consulting room. Moreover, his main work on the libidinal motive for both so-called neurotic symptoms and dreams was done at the same time, and he also developed his theory of “wish fulfilment” in the late 1890s. This period was Freud’s discovery of “repression”, based on his research into patients’ narratives. Initially, he believed that conflict is brought upon a hysterical patient when placed between their ego’s defence mechanism of repression, and the bitter reality of forbidden sex. Throughout this era, the theory that sexuality exists in childhood before puberty was to become a topic of controversial debates over Freud’s work; between the medical way of understanding of it back then, and the Freudian school of thought. Even Freud himself used to believe that it was the pre-mature awakening of sexuality in hysterical patients that was responsible for their symptomatic attacks. (Freud, 1896) An obvious shift from a medical mindset, with a biological way of understanding patients’ symptoms and experimenting with them, towards the concept of fantasy and, later, the unconscious, happens during the last gasps of the nineteenth century. Towards the end of the decade, Freud had already abandoned both the ideas of the memory of sexual abuse in childhood and the seductive theory. In 1896, he had suggested that the pre-condition for “repression” is a seduction fantasy, which attributes an active role to a hysteric in terms of her yearning to actively seduce the first significant other in her childhood. He went on to suggest that the way in which each subject remembers these seductive fantasies from early life can form the basis for distinguishing Hysteria from Obsessional Neurosis. The former remember such an event with unpleasant feelings, resulting in conflicts for her; while the latter remembers it with pleasurable sensation, hence reproaching himself over it. (Freud, 1896) In 1897, however, Freud pays close attention to the fantasy of seductiveness, rather than to the act of remembering it. The content of the “neurotic” symptoms – a term utilised in Freud’s work from this point on – now definitely had a sexual nature, starting from the early years of childhood. Although many believed that both Charcot and Breuer had connected the source of hysterical symptomology with something related to sexuality before Freud did, it was Freud who advanced a theory on the question of sexuality that went beyond genital dissatisfaction in adulthood. (Kurzweil, 1998) In the mid-1890s, the idea of “polymorphous perversity” in a child that manifests certain perverted impulses (such as voyeurism, exhibitionism and sado-masochism) paved a path to the formation of the theory of “infantile sexuality” and Freud’s myth of Oedipus Complex. (Freud, 1905)

If the first half of the 1890s is distinguished by Freud’s gradual establishment as a respectful therapist-doctor in Vienna with the support and influence of Breuer, the second half is the start of a new friendship for Freud which marks the formation of Freudian psychoanalysis: his ten years with Fliess: an ENT specialist with rather bizarre ideas about the connection between a patient’s nasal septum and her genitalia. The theory of a patient’s role in seducing an adult during their childhood had resulted in a division between Breuer and Freud; however, Fliess seemed to be less conservative in terms of thinking outside the box! The two experimental men conducted a nasal surgery on Emma Eckstein (the first female psychoanalyst, for a short while), considered as a case of hysteria who had indulged in compulsive masturbation, resulting in painful menstruation, stomach-ache and later a phobia of shopping. Fliess conducted surgery on her nose resulting in a disastrous post-op infection and her permanent disfigurement. Her case was presented in “Project for Scientific Psychology”, written in 1895 and published after Freud’s death. (Freud, 1895) She was also the subject of another theoretical experiment: Freud’s seduction theory. In his letters to Fliess, Freud suggested that Emma wished to seduce her father, and her hysteria is as a result of such a wish. Emma’s case became significant in the history of psychoanalysis; Freud’s Irma dream has its source in his guilt over her nasal surgery by Fliess. Freud’s dream scene and his discovery of the importance of dreams in understanding the aetiology of hysteric symptoms owes its being to a clinical case with an incredibly unfortunate outcome. The patient to whom the great discovery of the late nineteenth century is indebted to was bedridden for her last nineteen years of life. After a hysterectomy, she returned to Freud to seek treatment in 1905 despite his part in the disastrous adventure with Fliess, at which time Freud refused to carry out treatment on her.

Freud’s interest in philosophy and his curiosity over the brain functions that cannot be pinpointed by medical science led him to wonder about and then to find out a “scientific” way of interpreting and explaining the psychic life of a human being. James Brown, in his book Freud and the Post-Freudian, indicates that while one can trace back some roots of the Freudian unconscious in philosophy and psychology, the Freudian unconscious is essentially different from pre-existing ideas on the human unconscious. While Freud was certainly influenced by the philosophical thinking of Edward Von Hartmann, Schopenhauer and Spinoza, as well as the psychological works of Herbart, Carl Gustav Carus and Flügel, the act of repression makes the Freudian idea of the unconscious a completely different concept, one that is miles away from being something merely intellectual. (Brown, 1961)

A shortlist of Freud’s writing before The Interpretation of Dreams – which he started in 1897 – is as follows:


  • Project for a Scientific Psychology
  • Obsessions and Phobias
  • How Anxiety Originates


  • Studies on Hysteria
  • Aetiology of Hysteria
  • L’hérédité dans l’étiologie des névroses (Published in French).


  • The Psychical Mechanism of Forgetfulness
  • Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses


  • A Premonitory Dream Fulfilled
  • Screen Memories


Freud’s guilt over Emma Eckstein’s nasal surgery carried out by Fliess found expression in his dream of the night of 24th July 1895. (Freud, 1900) His first encounter with the idea of analysing any material besides the patient’s past history – however, very much focused on searching for what he wanted to find in it – was followed by Jacob Koloman Freud’s death in 1896. The passing of Freud’s own father, whose presence in Freud’s personal life is associated with two main signifiers: wisdom and kindness (Roudinesco, 2016), left the father of psychoanalysis in a depressive mood. According to his biographers, Freud’s marital relationship and bedroom life was another factor accountable for such a mood around the same time. He tried self-analysis in 1897 but soon abandoned it with no success. In a letter to Fliess dated to the 15th of October 1897, he laid the first foundation stones of the Oedipus complex. The theory seems to originate from a “son Freud” whose attention was diverted from women’s hysteria towards male sexuality. Seeking a father figure or being one, the theory is easily traceable to Freud’s own life story.

From the empirical observation of medical practice, to the intrigues of philosophy, to an autocratic way of listening to patients’ narratives (the basis of what we understand today as Freudian psychoanalysis); another new way to investigate the psyche was revealed to Freud with the help of “free association”, a new method invented by Freud in 1895. The fruit– or perhaps part and parcel– of “free association” is “Transference”: an element in the treatment, which Freud warned practitioners against interpreting as true love like that in real, everyday life. Since making this discovery, Freud started to think of setting out certain rules and regulations to handle Transference in the therapeutic relationship. However, Transference had been noticed earlier than the 1890s; in fact, in the early 1880s, with Breuer’s case of Anna O. As opposed to the erroneous interpretation of some post-Freudians, Transference was not meant to be induced in Freudian work, as a factor effective in treatment towards the direction of the treatment. Rather, it was accepted that it happens through the work; the analyst’s role was considered to be to handle it and make use of it as an ally in treatment. According to earlier works of Freud, Transference was described as what was transposed onto the analyst from the patient’s side: a mixture of libidinal excitement and painful experiences in early life. (Freud, 1895)

A Conclusion


As Freud was entering into the twentieth century, the first and most important handbook of psychoanalysis was in the process of getting published. Freud’s school of thought was already formed. He needed the next thirty-odd years to modify and develop them over time; with new patients’ narratives on sexuality, new social discourses and new political and institutional challenges brought upon the newly-founded Freudian school. Challenges that have not left the following generations of psychoanalysts, one after each other, ever since.

When one wishes to create something based upon a certain approach to an idea, it is necessary to design a perspective, a style and perhaps an infrastructure. Freud had it all in The Interpretation of Dreams. No matter how right or wrong, autocratic, stubborn or poetic he was in his journey up until the year 1900, it was continued by many other influential psychoanalytical figures of the twentieth century at the point his particular approach was faced with its limitations. Psychoanalysis itself went beyond Freud’s way.

The forbidden Freud does not only concern the laws of certain states; psychoanalysis as a method of research and treatment has been a target of ignorance and misinterpretation in so-called mental health. From “pop” psychoanalysis to “exclusive” psychoanalysis at the level of theory and practice, whatever it is that is referred to as psychoanalysis, it does not seem to be Freud’s hard and lifelong work.

When I visited No. 19 Berggasse in Vienna for the first time, strangely I did not have the feeling of being in the “Master” home. Rather, I wondered to myself what I would have become as a subject – a subject after undergoing analysis – if Freud had not moved there, to then break up with Breuer. It seems to have been a move to a new city which was carried out with great hope, passion and the ambition to create and found something. A family home in harmony with the culture he had grew up in, the school of psychoanalysis was to be formed within the circle of family members, connected by friendships. It is also heartbreaking to think of Freud leaving that safe corner after 47 years to go into exile; and yet, on to a productive last year of life. Although it is rather strange that the date of Freud’s death is coincidental with significant dates at the start and throughout my journey of analysis, it is certainly not the expiry date of Freudian psychoanalysis. After all, we do not believe in a start and end as such in psychoanalysis today. We work in a tradition, which was taken up from where Freud himself had sensed a need for further elaboration: he had run out of time and another fresh start was to come and continue discovering the great mystery of the human psyche. Saadi Shirazi, a Persian poet, once said: What is remembered is eternal; there is no end to a noble act of a man.



Appignanesi, L. & Forrester, J. (1992). Freud’s Women. Great Britain: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Brown, J.A.C. (1961). Freud and the Post-Freudians. Great Britain: Penguin Books

Freud, S. (1886-1899). Project for a Scientific Psychology. pp. 283-343. In: J. Strachey, ed.

The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol I. London: Vintage, 2001

Breuer, J. and Freud, S. (1893-1895). Studies on Hysteria. On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena. pp. 1-17. In: J. Strachey, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol II. London: Vintage, 2001

Freud, S. (1893-1899). The neuro-psychoses of defence. pp. 41-61. In: J. Strachey, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol III. London: Vintage, 2001

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. In: J. Strachey, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol IV. London: Vintage, 2001
Freud, S. (1905). A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Works. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. pp. 125-249. In: J. Strachey, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. VII. London: Vintage, 2001

Kurzweil, E. (1998). The Freudians: A Comparative Perspective. United States: Transaction Publishers

Roudinesco, E. (2016). Freud In His Time and Ours. Catherine Porter (Trans). The United States: Harvard

Paradise Lost © George Gerster, Yazd, 1977