A Middlesex University resource by Andrew Roberts. Click for referencing (citation) advice
home page for social
science Science Time Line 1900
Mental Health Time Line 1900
home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site mental health and learning

Sigmund Freud on personality and society

The scientific study of unreason

Many theories of human nature and society make
reason a central and powerful element. Freud believed that he had discovered a scientific route to a source of human conduct that underlies, and overrides, reason.

Freud was the founder of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is a technique of listening to people who have relaxed their guard on what they reveal (to themselves or others) of the contents of their minds.

On the basis of what he heard from his patients, using this technique, Freud claimed that central processes of our thinking are unconscious. A consequence of this is that reason cannot be relied on. When we give a reason for something we do, we are probably making it up - because the true reason is unconscious!

Oedipus: The hidden drama of life and death

If Freud's basic theories are true, we need to rethink all social theories with reason as a central component. To be scientific, all human conduct needs to be interpreted in terms of a hidden drama that Freud discovered in the human unconscious.

To explain this drama he used Greek mythology. For example, he called a vital part of it the "Oedipus Complex" after a character in Greek myth who (unknowingly) killed his father and had sex with his mother.

Personality and gender

According to Freud, the "performance" of this drama in our childhood, constructs our character.

It is not our genitals that give us male or female personalities, nor is it simply the socialisation of our society. Neither nature nor nurture are responsible for our gender personalities.

Our gender personalities are formed by the roles we play in the drama with respect to our mother (or her equivalent) and her lover (conventionally, our father).

Freud, therefore saw a distinction between male and female (personalities) as having a central effect on the content of our minds. He disagreed with those theorists (e.g. Plato, Wollstonecraft, Taylor and Mill) who had argued that, in almost everything except physical organs and ability to bear and breast feed children, men and women are essentially the same.

Final Outline of Psychoanalysis

A great deal has been written about Freud's theories, but, as with all authors, you will gain most from reading and interpreting his work for yourself.

Just before he died, Freud wrote an outline of his theories. Few authors have been so neat or so considerate! The outline is a usefull point for you to begin excavating his work

Each of the following questions is linked to the relevant part of these extracts. Read the extracts with the questions in mind, writing down your answers as you go.

Questions to excavate (dig out or uncover) the contents of Freud's An Outline of Psychoanalysis
Explain what Freud is saying about psychoanalysis, and about mind and brain. (read paragraphs 1 to 1.2)

What is the difference between mind and brain? Notice that Freud uses the word psychical for things to do with the mind (mental events) and the word physical to do with the body (which includes the brain). Do not confuse the two terms.

Why is a listening method (psychoanalysis) the way to study the mind?

Explain what the id and ego are and what the relationship is between them. (read paragraphs 1.3 to 1.7)
Explain what Freud means by "sex". How does his meaning differ from what he calls the "prevailing view" (read paragraphs 3.1 to 3.3)
How does the story of how the personality of little boys is formed (the Oedipus Complex) relate to a Greek Myth? (read paragraphs 7.8 onwards)
Explain how the trauma of the boy's mental conflict with his father is resolved. Why is it necessary for the boy's development? How does this relate to repression and to the unconscious?
Tell the story of how the personality of little girls is formed (the Electra Complex) (read paragraphs 7.17 onwards)
Explain what the Super-ego is (read paragraphs 9.2 onwards)

Freud and society

Freud's work is much more than an analysis of individual psychology. It is also an analysis of society.

  1. In his theory of personality itself, he provides a theory of why we obey society (a theory of authority)

  2. In his sociological works he analyses society in a way parallel to his analysis of individuals


Many, although not all, social theorists would argue that authority and power are the basic reasons for our obeying society. When Max Weber, for example, writes:

" the state is a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence. If the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be. When and why do men obey? Upon what inner justifications and upon what external means does this domination rest?"

he is making a distinction between the outward constraints of force and the inner constraint of the voice within us that says we ought to obey. People we feel have the right to command us are said to have authority.

In modern society we tend to believe that our obediance is rational. We obey people because we have faith in their competence, because they know what they are talking about, because we have worked out that it is in our interest to do so - or whatever.

Freud's explanation of authority challenges this idea of rational obedience. Consider this student's interpretation of Freud's argument in An Outline of Psychoanalysis:

" Both males and females take their mother as their first love-object, bringing them into mental conflict with the father. The unconscious resolution of this conflict creates the super-ego through the internalization of the father's authority. Events that Freud relates as actual happenings can also be interpreted symbolically. For example, a threat of castration may not actually be made to a boy, it may symbolise the father's power. Similarly, penis-envy for girls, may symbolise envy of male power more than her brother's wee-wee. The symbols are part of accepting authority and this unconscious, internalised parental authority is the irrational basis of society, according to Freud. "

It follows from Freud's argument that our reasons for obeying authority are not any rational reasons that we may give, but irrational reasons rooted in our unconscious and related to our childhood perception of parental authority and the drama of the psychological sexual conflict involved.

Analysing society

For Freud, the drama of the Oedipus Complex, revealed in psychoanalysis, explains why we accept authority. In this case, the authority of our father, but the issue is generalised to all authority. Freud argued this in his sociological writings, where he recounted a parallel anthropological myth of the slaying of the primal father and his resurrection in religious sacrament.

Compare Freud to other social theorists

Plato just state and just soul


Mill Freud on John Stuart Mill




© Andrew Roberts 14.4.2002

Citation suggestion


My referencing suggestion for this page is a bibliography entry:

Roberts, A. 14.4.2002 Sigmund Freud on personality and society

With intext references to "(Roberts, A. 14.4.2002)"

See ABC Referencing for general advice.

Study links outside this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Picture introduction to this site
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

Citation: see referencing suggestion

For the medical background to Freud's work, click on the picture below of Blanche Wittman's famous faint:

see Blanche Wittman faint
(or feint?)


analysing society



ego question

Electra question

excavating Freud

hidden drama

id question

mind brain question

Oedipus: hidden drama, question


sex question


super-ego question


Extracts from works

Interpretation of Dreams

Totem and Taboo

An Outline of Psychoanalysis