The Ego and the Id in Sigmund Freud: A Philosophical Examination

The Ego and the Id in Sigmund Freud: A Philosophical Examination

The Freudian Models of the Human Mind

In the Freudian postulation, there is a fundamental focus on the human mind. This as aforementioned is enshrined in his course to understand the human personality which is an enigma. Consequently, he sought to view the human mind from three perspectives or rather he observed the activities of the mind to project three structures. These structures include, the Id, the Ego and the Superego in which the two psychic forces Eros and Thanatos flow.

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These constitute the tripartite model of the mind according to Freud:

“there are three major structures of the mind: Id, Ego and Superego. Roughly speaking, the Id is the seat of biologically based drives, the Ego is the mechanism for adapting to reality, and the Superego is analogous to the conscience”.

These structures operate in the three regions of the mind namely “the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious”, hence the topographic model of the mind. These models constitute the Freudian models of human mind. As we dwell on these models, we shall expose clearly their overall organization and dependence.

2.1 The Tripartite Model.

In the ancient Greek period, Plato in the Republic described the soul (which he observed as the principle of life and movement) as having three parts. These he called reason, spirit and appetite (desiring part). “He derived this from the common experience of internal confusion and conflict that all humans share”. Elucidating further, Plato asserts awareness of a goal or value as the act of Reason, a drive towards action as the spirit (this is neutral at first but responds to the direction of the reason) and a desire for the things of the body as the appetites.

In the light of this, Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalysis, sought to explain how the unconscious mind operates by proposing that it has a particular structure. He proposed that the mind or soul (self) is divided into three parts: the Ego, the Superego, and the Id. The Id could be likened to the desiring part (appetites) but without so much implication of suppressed deviant sexuality, the spirited part is slightly the Ego and the reasoning part the Super-Ego. This exposition suggests the tripartite model of human mind in Freud.

The Freudian tripartite model therefore consists of the Id, the Ego and the Superego. They are the structures of the human mind. “These structures mediate between the drives (Eros and Thanatos) and behaviour; drives do not lead directly to behaviour”.

2.1.1 The Id.                                                                      

The term ‘das Es’ (the Id), is traced back to Nietzsche running through Ernst Schweninger then George Groddeck who was an immediate source of Freud. The Id therefore (Latin, “it” in English, “Es” in the original German) represented primary process thinking – our most primitive need gratification type thoughts. The Id, Freud stated, constitutes part of one’s unconscious mind. It is organized around primitive instinctual urges of sexuality, aggression and the desire for instant gratification or release.

Hence, its “energy is invested either in action on an object that would satisfy an instinct or in images of an object that would give partial satisfaction”. The energy is so mobile that it is easily discharged or transferred from object to object or image to image.

Freudian knowledge about the Id came from his study of dreams with the background of unconscious elements. In dreams for instance, the desires of the Id appear in either obvious or a disguised fashion. In a more empirical manifestation, the activities of the Id are appreciated with infants who are yet to develop the ego and the superego unlike the adults who have an ego and superego in addition to the id. Infants for instance “may satisfy their oral-hunger drive directly by sucking a nipple and receiving milk or partially and indirectly by imagining a bottle of milk”. Freud calls this hallucinatory wish fulfilment primary process thought.  “Thought processes represent the displacement of mental energy which are effect somewhere in the interior of the apparatus as this energy proceeds on its way towards action.”

In the Id therefore, the so-called primary process prevails; there is no synthesis of ideas, affects are liable to displacement, opposites are not mutually exclusive and may even coincide and condensation occurs as a matter of course.

However, the id operates throughout ones life as observed in night time dreams, daydreams, imagination, and impulsive, selfish, and pleasure-loving behaviour. But it seems to be more obvious among infants. It is the “spoiled child of the personality”.

  • The Ego

The explication so far suggests that in the beginning, there is id which is armed with primary-process thought. This primary-process thought is observed obviously among infants as detailed above but the case changes as the child develops the ego. Hence, he or she observes the difference between images and reality, between the self and the outer world. He or she “discovers that thinking something does not make it so”. This inability of the id to always produce the desired goal or object, points clearly to the development of the ego.

The Ego stands in between the Id and the Superego to balance our primitive needs and our moral beliefs and taboos. “Ego” means “I” in Latin; the original German word Freud applied was “Ich”. “Freud hence stated that the Ego consists of our conscious sense of self and world”. A highly structured set of unconscious defences that are central in defining both individual differences in character or personality, the symptoms and inhibitions that define the neuroses, and ultimately serving as the executive branch of the mind which leads to action. The ego, as the mind’s avenue to the real world, is therefore developed because it is needed for physical and psychological survival. “It aids in survival because it possesses secondary-process thought”. Secondary-process thought is rational hence “the ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains passions”. It is more organised, integrated and logical with such intellectual activities like perception, logical thought, problem solving, and memory. Relying on experience, a healthy Ego provides the ability to adapt to reality and interact with the outside world. But then, “the ego is not sharply separated from the Id; its lower portion merges into it”.

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The ego evaluates the present situation, recalls relevant decisions and events in the past, weighs various factors in the present and future, and predicts the consequences of various actions. This process involves the delay of energy discharge hence Freud described it as “an experimental action carried out with small amount of energy, in the same way as a general shifts small figures about on a map before setting his large bodies of troops in motion”. The ego is therefore, the director of decision making and “custodian of morality” but then its decision is aided by the feeling of anxiety which points to the fact that certain action would be threatening.

Freud believed the energy used to run the ego (such as to dissolve reality, moral and neurotic anxiety) is derived from the Id hence the presences of primary-process thought. As it acquires more and more energy, it gains experience using the secondary-process thought during development. This makes it stronger and differentiated. However, the secondary-process thought of the ego does not replace the primary-process thought of the id. Rather, it simply adds another level of thought, and throughout life we use a mixture of the two though the secondary-process thought becomes more dominant. The explications of the Ego in Freud are not complete without such reality like defense mechanism especially as observed in Anna Freud. It is obvious that constant threats and dangers from the id and the environment arouse anxiety. When this tries to overwhelm the ego, it finds a way of getting rid of it hence, defense mechanism. There are fives main defense mechanism: repression, reaction-formation, projection, regression and fixation.

  1. Repression (denying or forgetting the danger) is preventing a threatening thought from emerging into awareness. Consequently, if anxiety- arousing thought cannot surface, we do not experience anxiety. The ego adopts this as a problem-solving skill. However, much dependence on it results in a repressed personality and loss of contact with reality as in hysteria.
  2. The ego in reaction formation masks an unacceptable emotion by focusing on its opposite but often in an exaggerated manner. Hence, one’s desired love for the other is experienced as hatred (acting the opposite from the way one feels).
  3. Projection is the attribution of anxiety-arousing thoughts to people and objects in the external world, rather than to the self. This is because it is easier for the ego to handle objective, external dangers than internal dangers. Projection is interpreted thus; “I want to wound him” is changed to “He wants to wound me” (attributing one’s unacceptable impulses to others).
  4. The ego in regression reverts to an earlier level of development. When the anxiety of the present is much to handle, one retreats to simpler times, when there were fewer controls hence people tend to act in a childish manner like playing practical jokes.
  5. As a problem-solving skill, the ego involves fixation as a halt to one component of personality development where the libido is tied to an earlier period of development and does not allow the child to proceed fully to the next stage or level. For the fact that it abhors growth, a child that perceives harsh moment in trying to learn how to walk may remain at his former stage of sitting. Hence, fixation is likely present in the face of barriers.

There are other psychological processes as defense mechanism like “sublimation of an unacceptable desire to a more socially accepted activity, identification with the aggressor (usually a boy’s father), and displacement of drives”.

As a matter of fact, defense mechanism is crucial element to deal with our high anxiety but then if much energy is tied up in it, personality may not develop normally. This is because the person distorts reality and deceives himself. This “suggests that the typical situations in which the ego has recourse to the mechanism of denial are those associated with ideas of castration and with loss of love-object.”

The Ego manifests itself in the following functional ways as described in this analogy:

The ego’s relation to the id might be compared with that of a rider to his horse. The horse supplied the locomotive energy, while the rider has the privilege of deciding on the goal and of guiding the powerful animal’s movement. But only too often there arises between the ego and the id the not precisely ideal situation of the rider being obliged to guide the horse along the path by which it is itself wants to go.

Hence, it serves three “tyrannical masters”: id, superego, and external world. As the mediator between the id and the external world,

the ego is fighting on two fronts: it has to defend its existence against an external world which threatens it with annihilation as well as against an internal world that makes excessive demands. It adopts the same methods of defence against both, but its defence against the internal enemy is particularly inadequate. As a result of having originally been identical with this latter enemy and of having lived with it since on the most intimate terms, it has great difficulty in escaping from the internal dangers. They persist as threats, even if they can be temporarily held down.

  • The Superego

The Superego (“Über-Ich” in the original German, roughly “over-I” or “super-I” in English) is the last to develop and arises when children resolve their Oedipus complex and develop identification with their parents. Hence,

the origin of the Super-Ego is traceable to two highly important factors, one of a biological and the other of a historical nature: namely, the lengthy duration in man of his childhood helplessness and dependence, and the fact of his Oedipus complex ….

It represents our conscience and counteracts the Id with a primitive and unconscious sense of morality. This primitive morality is to be distinguished from an ethical sense, which is an egoic property. This is because ethics requires eligibility for deliberation on matters of fairness or justice.

The superego therefore, is composed of two parts: the conscience and the ego ideal. In general, the conscience is negative and the ego ideal is positive.

The conscience is composed of the parents’ prohibitions, their “Thou shalt nots”. It is a primitive or child-based knowledge of right and wrong, maintaining taboos specific to a child’s internalization of parental culture.

Just as the parent has punished the child for his transgressions, so does the conscience punish the person with feelings of guilt. Hence, “the tension between the demands of conscience and the actual performances of the ego is experienced as a sense of guilt.”

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In a similar development, the term ego ideal refers to standards of conducts towards which the child strives. Hence, just as the child has been rewarded for certain behaviour by her parents, she is rewarded by the ego with feelings of self-esteem and pride. “These are echoes of early years when a parent said “Good girl!” to the young child”.

Consequent upon this development, Freud asserts that Superego is the moral agent that links both our conscious and unconscious minds.

It stands in opposition to the desires of the Id and the ego by doing away with both the pleasure principle and the reality principle and watches over both the behaviour and the thought of the ego. In relation to the id, it (superego) does not distinguish between the subject and the real. But the “conflicts between the ego and the ideal will reflect the contrast between what is real and what is psychical, between the external world and the internal world”.

The “chief elements in the Super-Ego include religion, morality and a social sense”, hence it is responsible for societal order. Freud noted that if the ego represents “the power of the present” and the id represents the “organic past”, then the superego represents the “cultural past.” It rewards, punishes, and makes demands.

  • The Topographic Models

Experience has shown that a psychical element like an idea is not as a rule conscious for a protracted length of time. Instead, it is transitory and as such an idea that is conscious now is no longer so after a while although it can become so again under certain conditions.

Consequently, the study of the mental workings or the structure of the mind consists in the repressive forces (conscious elements) and repressed (unconscious elements). Exposition of this, spells out the topography model of the mind in Freud. This is perceived as regions in which different composites of man is being manifested, although not all the aspects are perceived. Hence, everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody (Mark Twain).

Freud in a metaphoric sense therefore, portrayed the “parts” of mind to have spatial relations to each other as in his earlier writings. This is also in relation to the structural notions of the id, the ego, and the superego. But then the map of the mind according to Freud, displays three topographic regions: the unconscious, preconscious and conscious. “The unconscious is largely unknown territory; the preconscious and especially the conscious have familiar terrains.”

2.2.1 The Unconscious.

The conception of the unconscious by Freud was most significant contribution in modern thought.

During the 19th century the dominant trend in western thought was positivism, the claim that people could accumulate real knowledge about themselves and their world, and exercise rational control over both. Freud, however, suggested that these claims were in fact delusion; that we are not entirely aware of what we even think, and often act for reasons that have nothing to do with our conscious thoughts.

The concept of the unconscious therefore became groundbreaking in that Freud proposed that awareness existed in layers and there were thoughts occurring “below surface”. Dreams which he called the “royal road to the unconscious” provide the best examples of our unconscious life.

Crucial to the operation of this concept is “repression”. According to Freud,

people often experience thoughts and feelings that are so painful that they cannot bear them. Such thoughts and feelings and associated memories could not be banished from the mind but could be banished from the consciousness thus, they constitute the unconscious. This act of repression itself is non-conscious act (in other words, it does not occur through people willing away certain thoughts or feelings).

Such forces or factors responsible for the repression we perceive as resistance.

The unconscious therefore;

refers primarily to thoughts and feelings that are repressed and therefore unknown. This material is incapable of breaking into consciousness without certain changes or interventions, such as an increase in the drive, a weakening of ego defenses, or the guidance of a therapist.

  • The Preconscious.

The preconscious is a layer between conscious and unconscious regions. Although repressed, it could be accessed with a little effort hence, it is capable of becoming conscious because it is not actively barred from consciousness. “It is presumably a great deal closer to the conscious than is the unconscious”.

The process of the preconscious becoming conscious lies in the formation of mental images or linking up with language. This points out that the preconscious coincides with what is latent and capable of becoming conscious.

As Freud rightly suggested,

the real difference between the unconscious and preconscious consists in this: that the former is carried out on some material which remains unknown, whereas the latter( the preconscious) is in addition brought into connection with word-presentation.

  • The Conscious.

‘Being conscious’ is in the first instance a descriptive term which rests on the perception of what is of immediate and certain character. Hence, consciousness is the surface of the mental apparatus which is spatially the first one reached from the external world. Therefore, consciousness is visible on the perception of what is immediate and synonymous with what a person is aware of at moment.

Freud used a metaphor to describe the relationship between the unconscious, and the preconscious and conscious:

Let us therefore compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like separate individuals. Adjoining this entrance hall there is a second, narrower, room—a kind of drawing-room—in which consciousness, too, resides. But on the threshold between these two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing-room if they displease him.

 To this extent, consciousness is attached to the Ego which is believed to be responsible for coherent organisation of the mental processes while the Id absorbs unconsciousness.

Having gone thus far, the tripartite and topographic models of the mind in Freud is coterminous to each other since they flow into one another. Hence, the id, ego, and superego are related to the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious.

All the id resides in the unconscious and occupies a greater area which continually seeks its way into conscious (the ego). Hence, if the mind is like an iceberg, then the conscious is only the tip of the iceberg; most of the iceberg ( the unconscious) remains hidden. Both the ego and the superego span the three layers. For instance, the ego is unaware of the action of its defence mechanism.

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However, what is unconscious in the Id is conscious in the Ego hence the Ego is the manifestation of the Id but not all that is in the Id comes out in the Ego. The Ego is therefore that part of the Id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world via the medium of perception. This represents what may be called reason and common sense in contrast to the Id, which contains the passions.

  • The Dependent Relationships of the Ego.

The Ego is seen by Freud as a special agency that stands apart in form of the Super-Ego as in the case of a child-father relationship (father is always right and ought to be obeyed). Here the Ego is not yet mature but at point when it has grown stronger, it struggles to resist the influence of such identifications. Therefore the Super-Ego owes its special position in the Ego or in relation to it from this point. “As a child was once under a compulsion to obey its parents, so the Ego submits to the categorical imperative of its Super-Ego”. Even “the mature Ego still remains subject to its domination”.

The Ego in this relationship withdraws libido from the Id and transforms the object-cathexes of the Id into Ego-structure and then juxtaposes it with the external world. In this Freud tried to establish the fact that the Ego does not out rightly stand on its own but depends on the other parts of the mind (the Id and the superego).

In the very beginning of this relationship, Freud asserts that there are two paths through which the Id can penetrate into the Ego. The first is direct and the second is by the way of the Super-Ego. In the first as direct, “the Ego develops from perceiving instincts in order to control them” and equally inhibits from obeying them. At this point, the Ego is observed as the executive and the leader of the action hence, it displays its strength. This we had already illustrated.

In the second path, Freud has it that the Ego battles under the whim and caprices of three factors namely “the external world, the libido of the Id and the severity of the Super-Ego”. These factors possess three corresponding dangers perceived as anxiety in their relations. The Ego is vividly shown in its mediation of the external world and the Id. Here, it makes the Id ( as untamed derives) dance the tone of  the world (as tamed). At the same time, it makes the world fall to the wishes of the Id by means of its muscular activity as a poor creature. For Freud, there seems to be a kind of friction in the whole system in which the Ego is a victim. It is not a helper to the Id as in the first place but a slave. Hence, the weakness of the Ego is obvious.

In relation to the two classes of instincts Eros and Thanatos, the Ego grant the death instinct control over the libido or Eros through its works of identification and sublimation. In this venture, “it runs the risk of becoming the object of the same death instinct ( such as in the case of melancholia) thereby resulting to itself perishing”. But ordinarily, it (the Ego) desires to live and be loved hence, Freud states that “it fills itself with libido to an extent that it becomes a representative of Eros in order not to perish in its effort to control the demand of the id”]. But this does not mean that it will fully return to the level of the Id (Eros). Instead, it struggles against the libido, exposing it to the danger of maltreatment and death as in its work of sublimation. This results in the “diffusion of instincts (sexual and death instinct) and liberation of the aggressive instincts in the Super-Ego”. Hence the Super-Ego poses an attack which the Ego is afraid of as conscience.

Fear of the conscience therefore shrinks the Ego. The fear of conscience is liked to fear of death or castration depending on the personality involved. In the case of the melancholia (in considering the sense of guilt) for example, it is fear of death since it admits that the Ego gives itself up because it feels itself hated and persecuted by the Super-Ego. The dependent relationship of the Ego reflects the internal struggles that go on within each human being, and explain both the origin, nature and degree of anxiety that human condition generates.

Freud perceived man as largely “unconscious”. The Id is the primitive and unconscious primary urges with composition of two instincts Eros and Thanatos, believed to be driving humans. The Ego emerges when the Id is confronted with an outer world of reality. Hence, the Ego is largely conscious. It tries to strike a balance between the primitive needs (the Id) and our moral or ethical beliefs (the Super-Ego) in which its strength and weakness are observed. The Super-Ego is simple introverted parental authority. It ultimately takes the place of the Oedipus impulses which the Ego dreads as conscience, death or castration.

In the next chapter, we shall examine in a more philosophical way, these Freudian ideas of man and his life in the world.

The Ego and the Id in Sigmund Freud: A Philosophical Examination

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