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Fuchsman, K. (2001). What Does Freud Mean by the Oedipus Complex?. Free Associations, 9(1):82-118.

(2001). Free Associations, 9(1):82-118

What Does Freud Mean by the Oedipus Complex?

Kenneth Fuchsman

Is It Possible to ascertain what Freud means by the Oedipus complex? As Laplanche and Pontalis point out, ‘Freud himself nowhere gives any systematic account of the Oedipus complex’ (Laplanche & Pontalis, p. 283). ‘Freud's Oedipal concepts’ are not ‘unidimensional,’ according to Seymour Fisher and Roger Greenberg. Instead, ‘his Oedipal theory is actually a string of theories about a wide sweep of developmental issues’ (Fisher & Greenberg, pp. 160-161). The ‘Oedipus complex is elaborate and elusive,’ according to Jay Greenberg, ‘… it contains a large number of related but logically independent propositions’ (Greenberg, 1991, p. 6). Simon and Blass observe that ‘Freud's ideas on the Oedipus complex emerge gradually; they change, the terminology is changed, the scope of what is to be considered oedipal is constricted and expanded’ (Simon & Blass, 1991, p. 161). Given the variations and vicissitudes in Freud's conception of the Oedipus complex, the task of this paper will be to elucidate, wherever possible, what Freud meant by the Oedipus complex, to examine the various strands of this concept and to see where they fit together and where they do not.

Systematic thinking, as Freud well knew, was not his forte. For Freud, ‘an all embracing synthesis never has been the important issue’ (Hale, 1971, p. 190). In part this is because the ‘systematic working through of material is not possible for me; the fragmentary nature of my experience and the sporadic character of my insights do not permit it’ (Freud & Andreas-Salome, 1972, p. 95). ‘I work, step by step,’ he wrote Lou Andreas-Salome, ‘without the inner need for completion, continually under the pressure of the problem immediately on hand’ (p. 61). He admits to having ‘sacrificed everything — unity, completeness… — to the one consideration of accuracy’ (p. 63).

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