Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was an Austrian psychologist who founded the school of psychoanalysis and pioneered the study of the unconscious self. Freud, himself, was not a philosopher, but his views would have a profound impact upon psychology and the social sciences.
Freud viewed the self as a multi-tiered entity consisting of both the conscious and unconscious realms. Consciousness refers to the mental thoughts of which we are aware. Unconsciousness, on the other hand, refers to the mental processes of which we are usually not aware. The study of the conscious self was nothing new, but it was Freud’s treatment of the unconscious that made him famous. According to Freud, our unconscious self is the dominating influence in our lives including how we act and think. It contains all of our basic and primal instincts including sexuality, aggressiveness, and our bent toward self-destruction and death. These primal desires always seek instant gratification or release. According to Freud, these primal instincts need to be channeled in an appropriate way or neurotic behavior will ensue. Our conscious self, on the other hand, operates according to the “reality principle” and tries to control our unconscious self. The aim of our conscious self is to help us act rationally and appropriately so that we can function practically and in harmony with our social environment.
According to Freud, the unconscious self reveals itself in three main ways. First it shows itself in slips of the tongue or what has come to be known as “Freudian slips.” These occur when you unexpectedly say what you really thought instead of what you intended to say. For example, you tell someone “I thought you did an awful job on your project” when you intended to say “I thought you did an awesome job.” Second, the unconscious self also reveals itself in dreams. Third, the clearest expressions of the unconscious, according to Freud, occur when a person evidences neurotic behavior such as continually washing one’s hands or being chronically depressed.
Freud is known for stressing the importance of sexuality and infancy to mental health. One theory he had was that young boys have sexual desires for their mother, but the father represses that desire and the boy recoils for fear of being castrated by his father. For Freud, such suppression of infantile sexual desires is the root of neurotic behavior in adults.