A Primer of Freudian Psychology by Calvin S. Hall

I’d recommend this short, 120-page book to anyone who wants a lucid introduction to Freud’s main ideas.

I’d recommend this short, 120-page book to anyone who wants a lucid introduction to Freud’s main ideas.

Primer of Freudian Psychology by Calvin S. Hall

The main thing I learnt from Calvin S. Hall’s lucid summary of Freudian theory is that Sigmund Freud is quite badly misrepresented. Mention Freud and most people think of the Oedipus complex, penis envy and the Freudian slip. The ‘ego’ has entered our language, too, although in a very different sense from that intended by Freud. After reading Calvin S. Hall’s 1955 primer, I can see that there’s a lot more to Freud than being neurotic, selfish and obsessed with your mother.

Freud describes the human personality in terms of three components: the id, ego and superego. The id represents primal urges like hunger and sexual desire, and is governed entirely by the ‘pleasure principle’. The superego is our sense of conscience or morality, reflecting the rules handed down by our parents or society. Between the two is the ego, trying to manage the inevitable conflicts between instincts and morality and to negotiate with the outside world to ensure survival – it operates on the ‘reality principle’.

Freud sees personality formation in dynamic terms, with energy flowing between the different areas of the brain. All energy, he says, originates in the id and its basic desires, but can be channeled into the ego and superego when it meets reality and its desires get frustrated. The urges from the id are called cathexes, and are countered by anti-cathexes from the ego and superego, and the essence of human personality lies in this continuous conflict between the id, ego and superego. The aim is to remove tension and anxiety, but this can take many forms: identification, displacement, sublimation, repression, projection, fixation, regression, etc.

Calvin S. Hall presents the whole thing very clearly, and it makes a lot of sense to me. Funnily enough, it’s the most well-known Freudian stuff that was the least convincing for me. But I could see a lot of truth in the basic conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, and the various distortions of character, both healthy and unhealthy, that ensue as the ego tries to manage this conflict. I’d recommend this short, 120-page book to anyone who wants a lucid introduction to Freud’s main ideas.

If you want to read more about classic works of psychology, try my articles on Jung’s The Undiscovered Self or on R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience.

This is an old book so I couldn’t find many other reviews, but you could check out this one by Book Review Guy, or these ones on Goodreads. And you can buy the book and read more reviews on Amazon.

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There are 13 comments

  1. Thanks for this recommendation, Andrew. I see it’s available at my local library. I’ll check it out. So much of our writing is the search for psychological truths and books like these are great overviews that we shouldn’t overlook.

    1. Ah, that’s good to hear, Corey – it’s quite an old book, so wasn’t sure if was reviewing something nobody would be able to read! Hope you enjoy it.

  2. Nice review, Andrew! I studied a little bit of Freud when I studied psychology at the university and I agree with you that the popular perception of him is quite different from the work he did. From your review, this looks like a nice introduction to Freud’s work. I will look for it. Thanks for the review.

    1. Hi Vishy
      Yes, it is a good introduction, although if you’ve already studied Freud I’m not sure it would add much for you. It’s quite a slim book and just covers his main ideas quite briefly and succinctly.

  3. YES! You are so right – Freud is dreadfully misrepresented these days, with all sorts of lazy labels taking the place of his carefully worded and profoundly insightful analyses. Given that he was the first in the field, you’d expect him to be surpassed by later thinkers, wouldn’t you? And yet no one gives early mathematicians or scientists quite such a hard time. And the feminists ought to have held hands and given thanks that he delineated the genders quite so definitively – he gave them huge amounts of theory they could then work with! As you can tell, I have a soft spot for Freud. If you ever fancy reading more of him, then go to the big case studies – the Wolfman, little Hans, Dora. They’re fascinating and very easy to read.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations, litlove. I would like to read more, so will go for the case studies. I wonder if Freud has suffered from being too popular in the early 20th century, so that later thinkers felt they had to define themselves in opposition to him. Then again, as you say, other fields have had their dominant figures, without giving them a hard time!

      Then there’s the fact that he’s entered so much into popular culture, with everybody talking about the ego and calling any misspoken words of any kind a “Freudian slip”… His ideas are talked about primarily by people who’ve never read his original works, so the misunderstandings are not surprising. Popularity can be both a blessing and a curse!

  4. I had to read Freud before prep school and I remember I found it interesting. Perhaps you’d like Bethelheim’s book about fairy tales. I thought it was fascinating.

    1. What’s prep school in France? In England you’d start prep school at about 8, which seems a little young for Freud 🙂

      Thanks for the recommendation! Yes, I think I’d enjoy The Uses of Enchantment. Looks fascinating.

      1. The «classes préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles» are years between A Level and Engineers/Business/Literary-political science schools. In a nutshell, you cram hard, take exams where they select the best students and get into an engineer or business or literary school, depending on the specialty you chose. In my case I had to take math, French, English, German, philosophy, economics.

        1. Ah yes, that’s a little different. A prep school in England is an expensive school for young kids to fast-track them for entry into an even more expensive school for slightly older kids. I don’t think Freud’s on the curriculum. I like the mix of subjects you studied – quite a broad range. It’s a shame that it was more focused on cramming for exams, though. That can really take the joy out of learning.

          1. I don’t think we have those schools for children.

            These two or three years of preparing for these exams are the funniest, that’s for sure.

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