Nineteenth Century Philosophy
What was Sigmund Freud’s oedipal theory?
The oedipal theory, or Freud’s idea of the Oedipus complex, was based on Freud’s instinct theory that there are enduring sexual desires in the human psyche, as well as opposition to their expression. Sexuality and its opposition take the form of libido versus ego, or self-preservation in early and middle life, and the form of Eros, or desiring life, versus Thanatos, or a wish to die, toward the end. (It’s interesting that Freud thought the wish to die was a human expression of a longing in all life to return to an inorganic state.)
The Oedipus complex results from a situation in which the child desires the mother as a result of prolonged human dependency on one caregiver. Male children fear that their fathers will punish them through castration. Female children transfer their original oedipal yearnings for their mothers to their fathers in an “Electra complex,” which is also accompanied by “penis envy.” This all occurs unconsciously in terms of active and passive principles that later come to be expressed and identified as male and female, respectively.
Because the primary process of the psyche tends toward a cathartic discharge of repressed energy, the pleasure principle is Freud’s main explanatory tool. He applied this principle to the way in which the emergence of unconscious material can account for humor and also everyday failures in function and memory. In psychoanalysis, both dreams and free association could be used to access unconscious conflicts and particularly oedipal fantasies.