Freud’s theories

The foundation of Freud’s contribution to modern psychology is his emphasis on the unconscious aspects of the human psyche. A brilliant creative genius, Freud provided convincing evidence, through his many carefully recorded case studies, that most of our actions are motivated by psychological forces over which we have very limited control. He demonstrated that, like the iceberg, the human mind is structured so that its great weight and density lie beneath the surface (below the level of consciusness). In “The Anatomy of the Mental Personality, Lecture XXI,” in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (New York: Nrothon, 1964), Freud discriminates between the levels of concious and unconcious mental activity:


The oldest and best meaning of the word “unconscious” is the descriptive one; we call “unconscious” any mental process the existence of which we are obligated to assume–because, for instance, we infer it in some way from its effects–but of which we are not directly aware… If we want to be more accurate, we should modify the statement by saying that we call a process “unconscious” when we have to assume that it was active at a certain time, although at that time we knew nothing about it. (99-100)

Freud further emphasizes the importance of the unconscious by pointing out that even the “most conscious processes are conscious for only a short period; quite soon they become latent, though they can easily become conscious again” (100). In view of this, Freud defines two kinds of unconscious:


one which is transformed into conscious material easily and under conditions which frequently arise, and another in the case of which such a transformation is difficult, can only come about with a considerable expenditure of energy, or may never occur at all… We call the unconscious which is only latent, and so can easily become conscious, the “preconscious,” and keep the name “unconscious” for the other. (101)
That most of the individual’s mental processes are unconscious is thus Freud’s first major premise. The second (which has been rejected by a great many professional psychologists, including some of Freud’s own disciplines–for example, Carl Gustav Jung and Alfred Adler) is that all human behaviour is motivated ultimately by what we would call sexuality. Freud designates the prime psychic force as libido, or sexual energy. His third major premise is that because of the powerful social taboos attached to certain sexual impulses, many of our desires and memories are repressed (that is, actively excluded from conscious awareness).


Starting from these three premises, we may examine several corollaries of Freudian theory. Principal among these is Freud’s assigment of the mental processes to three psychic zones: the id, the ego and the superego. An explanation of these zones may be illustrated with Freud’s own diagram:



The diagram reveals immediately the vast portion of the mental apparatus that is not conscious. Furthermore, it helps to clarify the relationship between ego, id and superego, as well as their collective realtionship to the conscious and the unconscious. We should note that the id is entirely unconscious and that only a small portion of the ego and the superego is conscious. With this diagram as a guide, we may define the nature and functions of the three psychic zones.

1. The id is the reservoir of libido, the primacy source of all psychic energy. It functions to fulfillthe primordial life principle, which Freud considers to be the pleasure principle. Without consciousness or semblance of rational order, the id is characterized by a tremendous and amorphous vitality. Speaking metaphorically, Freud explains this “obscure inaccessible part of our personality” as ” a chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement [with] no organization and no unified will, only an impulsion to obtain satisfaction for the instinctual needs, in accrodance with the pleasure principle” (103-4). He further stresses that the “laws of logic– above all, the law of contradiction — do not hold for the processes of the id. Contradictory impulses exist side by side without neutralizing each other or drawing apart. Naturally, the id knows no values, no good and evil, no morality” (104-5).

The id is, in short, the source of all our aggressions and desires. It is lawless, asocial, and amoral. Its function is to gratify our instincts for pleasure without regard for social conventions, legal ethics, or moral restraint. Unchecked, it would lead us to any lengths- to destruction and even self-destruction– to satisfy its impulses for pleasure. Safety for the self and for others does not lie within the province os the id; its concern is purely for instinctual gratification, heedless of consequence. For centuries before Freud, this force was recognised in human nature but often attributed to supernatural and external rather than to natural and internal forces: the id as defined by Freud is identical in many respects to the Devil as defined by theologians. Thus there is a certain psychological validity in the old saying that a rambunctious child (whose id has not yet been brought under control by ego and superego) is “full of the devil.” We may also see in young children (and neurotic adults) certain uncontrolled impulses toward pleasure that often lead to excessive self-indulgence and even to self-injury.

2. In view of the id’s dangerous potentialities, it is necessary that other psychic agencies protect the individual and society. The first of these regulating agencies, that which protects the individual, is the ego. This is the rational governing agent of the psyche. Though the ego lacks the strong vitality of the id, it regulates the instinctual drives of the id so that they may be released in nondestructive behavioral patterns. And though a large portion of the ego in unconscious, the ego nevertheless comprises what we ordinary think of as the conscious mind. As Freud points out, “In popular language, we may say that the ego stands for reason and circumspection, while the id stands for the untamed passions.” Whereas the id is governed solely by the pleasure principle, the ego is governed by the reality principle. Consequently, the ego serves as intermediary between the world within and the world without.

3. The other regulating agent, that which primarily functions to protect society, is the superego. Largely unconscious, the superego is the moral censoring agency, the repository of conscience and pride. It is, as Freud says in “The Anatomy of the Mental Personality,” the “representative of all moral restrictions, the advocate of the impulse toward erfection, in short it is as much as we have been able to apprehend psychologically of what people call the ‘higher’ things in human life” (95). Acting either directly or through the ego, the superego serves to repress or inhibit the drives of the id, to block off and thrust back into the unconscious those impulses toward pleasure that society regards as unacceptable, such as overt aggression, sexual passions, and the Oedipal instinct. Freud attributes the development of the superego to the parental influence that manifests itself in terms of punishment for what society considers to be bad behaviour and reward for what society considers good behaviour. An overactive superego creates an unconscious sense of guilt (hence the familiar term guilt complex and the popular misconcetion that Freud advocate the relaxing of all moral inhibitions and social restraints). Whereas the id is dominated by the pleasure principle and the ego by the reality principle, the superego is dominated by the morality principle. We might say that the id would make us devils, that the superego would have us behave as angels (or, worse, as creatures of absolute social conformity), and that it remains for the ego to keep us healthy human beings by maintaining a balance that Freud advocated– not a complete removal og inhibiting factors.

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