August 5, 2008

Freud: The ego and the Id

Filed under: CMM4106 Psycho & Cinema,ECU MInT — steve @ 12:54 am

Follows are sections of ‘highlighted’ text from the reading of the week 1 text: Freud’s “The Ego and the Id” (1923) – comments in italics (unless attributed to Freud) are the comments of the writer of this blog…

Consciousness and unconsciousness

The division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premiss of psycho-analysis … in a different way: psycho-analysis cannot situate the essence of the psychical in consciousness, but is obliged to regard consciousness as a quality of the psychical, which may be present in addition to other qualities or may be absent. (Freud, 1923, p. 440)

In the preceding quote, Freud argues that as psycho-analysis is about identifying the division between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind it is through that psycho-analytical work that psychology has determined that consciousness is just an aspect of the psychical rather than consciousness being the psychical. It is this premiss that is explored and expounded upon in this work.

“an idea that is conscious now is no longer a moment later, although it can become so again … In the interval the idea was … latent … capable of becoming conscious at any time” (Freud, 1923, p. 440).

This determination that an idea can move freely in and out of consciousness, i.e., latent, for Freud, though his psycho-analytical work, indicated that there were not simply two states of mind; the conscious and unconscious, but rather three states else repressed memories would not be trapped in the unconscious mind, as the following quotes explain:

We have found … that very powerful mental processes or ideas exist … which can produce all the effects in mental life that ordinary ideas do … though they themselves do not become conscious … the reason why such ideas cannot become conscious is that a certain force opposes them … in the technique of psycho-analysis a means has been found by which the opposing force can be removed and the ideas in question made conscious … The state in which the ideas existed before being made conscious is called by us repression … the force which instituted the repression and maintains it is perceived as resistance during the work of analysis. (Freud, 1923, p. 441)

we have two kinds of unconscious – the one which is latent but capable of becoming conscious, and the one which is repressed and which is not, in itself without more ado, capable of becoming conscious … The latent, which is unconscious only descriptively, not in the dynamic sense, we call preconscious, we restrict the term unconscious to the dynamically unconscious repressed. (Freud, 1923, p. 441)

“now we have three terms, conscious (Cs.), preconscious (Pcs.), and unconscious (Ucs.)” (Freud, 1923, p. 441).

Furthermore, as the conscious mind is the aspect of the psychical that perceives the outside world in the form of sensations and feelings, all sensations and feeling originated from Cs. as the following describes (the concept of feelings being able to move freely between the unconscious and conscious mind whereas ideas are not is explored in the next section):

“consciousness is the surface of the mental apparatus; that is, we have ascribed it as a function to a system which is spatially the first one reached from the external world”  (Freud, 1923, p. 445).

“All perceptions which are received from without (sense-perceptions) and from within – what we call sensations and feelings – are Cs. from the start” (Freud, 1923, p. 445).

The ego and the id

We have formed the idea that in each individual there is a coherent organization of mental processes; and we call this his ego. It is to this ego that consciousness is attached; the ego controls the approaches to motility … it is the mental agency which supervises all its own constituent processes, and which goes to sleep ay night, though even then it exercises the censorship of dreams. From this ego proceed the repressions, too, by means of which it is sought to exclude certain trends in the mind not merely from consciousness but also from other forms of effectiveness and activity. In analysis these trends which have been shut out stand in opposition to the ego, and the analysis is faced with the task of removing the resistances which the ego displays against concerning itself with the repressed. (Freud, 1923, p. 443)

This introduction to the what has been called the ego, to which consciousness is attached, describes how the ego is responsible for our conscious actions. Though it does sleep, it also has control of our dreams (it is not, therefore, necessarily ’unconscious’ in that state). The ego is also responsible for the repression of memories which then, in turn, work as an opposition to the ego – it is the psycho-analysist’s task to remove any resistance that the ego has employed to keep those memories repressed.

Mnemic residues and word-presentations

 …the real difference between a Ucs. and a Pcs. idea (thought) consists in this: that the former is carried out on some material which remains unknown whereas the latter (the Pcs.) is in addition brought into connection with word-presentations … “How does a thing become preconscious?’ … the answer would be: ‘Through becoming connected with the word-presentations corresponding to it.’ (Freud, 1923, p. 445)

 …these word-presentations are residues of memories; they were at one time perceptions, and like all mnemic residues they can become conscious again … only something which has once been a Cs. perception can become conscious, and that anything arising from within (apart from feelings) that seeks to become conscious must try to transform itself into external perceptions: this becomes possible by means of memory traces” (Freud, 1923, pp. 445-446).

“We think of mnemic residues as being contained in systems which are directly adjacent to the system Pcpt.-Cs., so that the cathexes of those residues can readily extend from within on to the elements of the latter system … a hallucination, which is not distinguishable from a perception, can arise when the cathexis does not merely spread over from the memory-trace on the Pcpt. element, but passes over it entirely. (Freud, 1923, p. 446)

Verbal residues are derived primarily from auditory perceptions, so that the system Pcs. has, as it were, a special sensory source. The visual components of word-presentations are secondary, acquired through reading, and may to begin with be left on one side; so may the motor images of words, which, except with deaf-mutes, play the part of auxiliary indications. In essence a word is after all the mnemic residue of a word that has been heard. (Freud, 1923, p. 446)

We must not be led … to forget the importance of optical mnemic residues, when they are of things, or to deny that it is possible for the thought-processes to become conscious through a reversion to visual residues, and that in many people this seems to be the favoured method. (Freud, 1923, p. 446)

… how we make something that is repressed (pre)conscious would be answered as follows. It is done by supplying the Pcs. intermediate links through the work of analysis. Consciousness remains where it is, therefore: but, on the other hand, the Ucs. does not rise into the Cs. (Freud, 1923, p. 447)

Very simplistically, the above quotes from  Freud describes how memories (mnemic residues) can be brought into consciousness via word associations – in fact, in order for them to do so, to be brought into consciousness, the memories must be acted upon in some way; primarily though auditory presentations and secondarily through optical presentations (and one could assume that olfactory stimulation too would cause such presentations?) . Also included in the above is an explanation as to how an hallucination may appear to be real by the memory bypassing the perception element (Pcpt.) of the consciousness (Cs.) thereby appearing directly in the ego’s consciousness as if perceived from the external world.

Perceptions: sensations and feelings

“whereas the relation of external perceptions to the ego is quite perspicuous, that of internal perceptions to the ego requires special investigation” (Freud, 1923, p. 447).

Internal perceptions yield sensations of processes arising in the most diverse and certainly also in the deepest strata of the mental apparatus. Very little is known about these sensations and feelings; those belonging to the pleasure-unpleasure series may still be regarded as the best examples of them. They are more primordial, more elementary, than perceptions arising externally and they can come about even when consciousness is clouded. (Freud, 1923, p. 447)

Sensations of a pleasurable nature have not anything inherently impelling about them, whereas unpleasurable ones have it in the highest degree … we interpret unpleasure as implying a heightening and pleasure a lowering of energic cathexis. Let us call what becomes conscious as pleasure and unpleasure a quantitative and qualitative ‘something’ in the course of mental events. (Freud, 1923, p. 447)

… this something behaves like a repressed impulse. It can exert driving force without the ego noticing the compulsion. Not until there is resistance to the compulsion … does the ‘something’ at once become conscious as unpleasure … It remains true, therefore, that sensations and feelings, too, only become conscious through reaching the system Pcpt.; if the way forward is barred, they do not come into being as sensations, although the ‘something’ that corresponds to them in the course of excitation is the same as if they did … whereas with Ucs. ideas connecting links must be be created before they can be brought into the Cs., with feelings, which are themselves transmitted directly, this does not occur. In other words; the distinction between Cs. and Pcs. has no meaning where feelings are concerned; the Pcs. here drops out – and feelings are either conscious or unconscious. Even when they are attached to word-presentations, their becoming conscious is not due to that circumstance, but they become so directly. (Freud, 1923, pp. 447-448)

The part played by word presentations now becomes perfectly clear. By their interposition internal thought-processes are made into perceptions. It is like a demonstration of the theorem that all knowledge has its origin in external perception. When a hypercathexis of the process of thinking takes place, thoughts are actually perceived – as if they came from without – and are consequently held true. (Freud, 1923, p. 448)

The main thing to note from the above is that feelings and sensations react differently to ideas. Feelings may move from the unconscious directly to the conscious level, thus bypassing the preconscious stage, whereas ideas must be brought into the preconscious level through the actions of associations. Though both must pass through the perception system (Pcpt.) in order for them to become conscious; repressed feelings, nevertheless, are perceived by the Cs. as being unpleasent while repressed memories still require an association to bring them to the Cs. level.

The ‘id’

After this clarifying of the relations between external and internal perception and the superficial system Pcpt.-Cs., we can go on to work out our idea of the ego. It starts out, as we see, from the system Pcpt., which is its nucleus, and begins by embracing the Pcs., which is adjacent to the mnemic residues. But … the ego is also unconscious. (Freud, 1923, p. 448)

I propose to take into account by calling the entity which starts out from the system Pcpt. and begins by being Pcs. the ‘ego’, and by following Grodden in calling the other part of the mind, into which this entity extends and which behaves as though it were Ucs., the ‘id’. (Freud, 1923, p. 449)

We shall now look upon an individual as a psychical id, unknown and unconscious, upon whose surface rests the ego, developed from its nucleus the Pcpt. system … the ego does not completely envelop the id, but only does so to the extent to which the system Pcpt. forms its [the ego's] surface … The ego is not sharply separated from the id; its lower portion merges into it. (Freud, 1923, p. 449)

“But the repressed merges into the id as well, and is merely a part of it. The repressed is only cut off sharply from the ego by the resistances of repression; it can communicate with the ego through the id” (Freud, 1923, p. 449).

It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world through the medium of Pcpt.-Cs.; in a sense it is an extension of the surface-differentiation. Moreover, the ego seeks to bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavours to substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle which reigns unrestrictedly in the id. For the ego, perception plays the part which in the id falls to instinct. The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense, in contrast to the id, which contains the passions. (Freud, 1923, pp. 449-450).

The preceding discription of the ego and the id is illustrated in the diagram at the head of this post, which has been labled as “Freud’s portrayal of the structural relationships of the mental personality”. At this point, however, in reference to these quotations, Freud had not included the ‘Super-ego’ in his representation – this illustration reflects a later sketch he presented in a lecture in 1933, some ten years later.

By now, hopefully, we can begin to understand the function of the ego and perhaps its relationship to the id: the ego represents consciousness (but is also unconscious) and the window to the world for the id which is unconscious and the root of instinct, passion and desires.

The super-ego (ego ideal)


… it may be said that … transformation of an … object-choice into an alteration of the ego is also a method by which the ego can obtain control over the id and deepen its relations with it … When the ego assumes the features of the object, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the id as a love-object and is trying to make good the id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too – I am so like the object.’ (Freud, 1923, p. 454)

… we cannot avoid giving our attention for a moment longer to the ego’s object-identifications. If they obtain the upper hand and become too numerous, unduly powerful and incompatible with one another, a pathological outcome will not be far off. It may come to a disruption of the ego in consequence of the different identifications becoming cut off from one another by resistances; perhaps the secrets of the cases of what is described as ‘multiple personality’ is that the different identifications seize hold of consciousness in turn. (Freud, 1923, p. 454)

… the effects of the first identifications made in earliest childhood will be general and lasting … the origin of the ego ideal … behind it lies hidden an individual’s first and most important identification, his identification with the father in his own personal prehistory … it is a direct and immediate identification that takes place earlier than any object-cathexis. (Freud, 1923, pp. 454-455)

The notion of these object-identifications may be explained as follows: our personality, as a representation of our ego, is normally driven by desires (objects) which, in day to day life, we pursue in trying to achieve happiness and thus appease our inner self (the id). However, if we take on too many desires, that in turn compete with each other, then that can lead to internal conflict and turmoil. 

Freud devoted much more attention to object-identifications than is quoted here and it is from this point through to the development of the ‘Oedipus complex’ (below) where his writings can really start becoming difficult to follow and/or accept dependant on whether one wishes to believe that the formation of our being revolves around the penis and sexuality. However, the object/desire identification on its own does explain the relationship between the ego and the id, while the following, through further explanation, outlines the introduction of the super-ego, or ego ideal, into the mental personality mix, with the Oedipus complex as its precipitating moment:

Oedipus complex

… the case of a male child may be described as follows. At a very early age the little boy develops and object cathexis for his mother, which originally related to the mother’s breast and is the prototype of an object-choice on the anaclitic model; the boy deals with his father by identifying himself with him. For a time these two relationships proceed side by side, until the boy’s sexual wishes in regard to his mother become more intense and his father is perceived as an obstacle to them; from this the Oedipus complex originates. (Freud, 1923, p. 455)

Along with the demolition of the Oedipus complex, the boy’s object-cathexis of his mother must be given up. Its place may be filled by one of two things: either an identification with his mother or an intensification of the identification with his father. We are accustomed to regard the latter outcome as the more normal; it permits the affectionate relation to the mother to be in a measure retained. (Freud, 1923, pp. 455-456)

Ego ideal

The broad general outcome of the sexual phase dominated by the Oedipus complex may, therefore, be taken to be the forming of a precipitate in the ego, consisting of these two identifications in some way united with each other. This modification of the ego retains its special position; it confronts the other contents of the ego as an ego ideal or super-ego. (Freud, 1923, p. 457)

The super-ego is, however, not simply a residue of the earliest object choices of the id; it also represents an energetic reaction-formation against those choices. Its relation to the ego is not exhausted by the precept: ‘You ought to be like this (like your father).’ It also comprises the prohibition: ‘You may not be like this (like your father) – that is, you may not do all that he does; some things are his prerogative.’ This double aspect of the ego ideal derives from the fact that the ego ideal had the task of repressing the Oedipus complex; indeed, it is that revolutionary event that owes its existence … The super-ego retains the character of the father, while the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the domination of the super ego over the ego later on – in the form of conscience or perhaps of an unconscious sense of guilt. (Freud, 1923, pp. 457-458)

… now that we have embarked upon the analysis of the ego we can give an answer to all those whose moral sense has been shocked and who have complained that ther must be a higher nature in man: ‘Very true,’ we can say, ‘and here we have the higher nature, in his ego ideal or super-ego, the representative of our realtion to our parents. When we were little children we knew these higher natures, we admired them and reared them; and later we took them into ourselves.’ (Freud, 1923, p. 459)

The ego ideal is therefore the heir of the Oedipus complex, and thus it is also the expression of the most powerful impulses and most important libidinal vicissitudes of the id … Whereas the ego is essentially the representative of the external world, of reality, the super-ego stands in contrast to it as the representative of the internal world, of the id. Conflicts between the ego and the ideal will … ultimately reflect the contrast between what is real and what is psychical, between the external world and the internal world. (Freud, 1923, p. 459)

So, the super-ego can be likened to a ‘higher consciousness’ or the ‘moral centre’ of the human soul. While the ego is the representative of what is happening in the external world, the super-ego is the representative of what is happening in the internal world, namely the id.

Two classes of instincts

… the ego is especially under the influence of perception … perceptions may be said to have the same significance for the ego as instincts have for the id. At the same time the ego is subject to the influence of the instincts, too, like the id, of which it is, as we know, only a specially modified part. (Freud, 1923, p. 462)

… we have … two classes of instincts, one of which the sexual instincts of Eros, is by far the more conspicuous … It comprises not merely the uninhibited sexual instinct proper … but also the self preservative instinct, which must be assigned to the ego … The second class of instincts … we came to recognise sadism as its representative … On the basis of theoretical considerations, supported by biology, we put forward the hypothesis of a death instinct. (Freud, 1923, p. 462)

For the opposition between the two classes of instincts we may put the polarity of love and hate. There is no difficulty in finding the a representative in Eros; but we must be grateful that we can find a representative of the elusive death instinct in the instinct of destruction, to which hate points the way … clinical observation shows … that love is with unexpected regularity accompanied by hate. (Freud, 1923, p. 464)

“the erotic instincts appear to be altogether more plastic, more readily diverted and displaced than the destructive instincts” (Freud, 1923, p. 466).

We have here, according to Freud, two basic classes of instincts: Love as Eros and Hate as Death. This perhaps could be also related as positive and negative, ying and yang, for and against etc. It is the Death instinct, however, that gets special mention when it comes to the sense of guilt in some cases of neurosis as well as in the closing of the chapter:


… there are certain people who behave in a quite peculiar fashion during the work of analysis. When one speaks hopefully to them or express satisfaction with the progress of the treatment, they show signs of discontent and their condition invariably becomes worse … One becomes convinced, not only that such people cannot endure any praise or appreciation, but that they react inversely to the progress of the treatment … they get worse during the treatment instead of getting netter. They exhibit what is known as ‘negative therapeutic reaction’. (Freud, 1923, pp. 469-470)

… what may be called a ‘moral’ factor, a sense of guilt, which is finding its satisfaction in the illness and refuses to give up the punishment of suffering … But as far as the patient is concerned this sense of guilt is dumb; it does not tell him he is guilty; he does not feel guilty; he feels ill. This sense of guilt expresses itself only as a resistance to recovery which it is extremely difficult to overcome. (Freud, 1923, p. 470)

An interpretation of the normal, conscious sense of guilt … is based on the tension between the ego and the ego ideal and is the expression of a condemnation of the ego by its critical agency. The feelings of inferiority so well known in neurotics are presumably not far removed from it. (Freud, 1923, p. 471)

In certain forms of obsessional neurosis the sense of guilt is over-noisy but cannot justify itself to the ego … Analysis … shows that the super-ego is being influenced by processes that have remained unknown to the ego … Thus in this case the super-ego knew more than the ego about the unconscious id. (Freud, 1923, p. 471)

… the obsessional neurotic, in contrast to the malancholic [sic], never in fact takes the step of self-destruction; it is as though he were immune against the danger of suicide, and he is far better protected from it than the hysteric. (Freud, 1923, p. 473)

In melancholia the impression that the super-ego has obtained a hold upon consciousness is even stronger. But here the ego ventures no objection; it admits its guilt and submits to the punishment … in melancholia the object to which the super-ego’s wrath applies has been taken into the ego through identification. (Freud, 1923, p. 472)

If we turn to melancholia … we find that the excessively strong super-ego which has obtained a hold upon consciousness rages against the ego with merciless violence, as if it had taken possession of the whole sadism available in the person concerned … What is now holding sway in the super-ego is … a pure culture of the death instinct, and in fact it often enough succeeds in driving the ego into death. (Freud, 1923, p. 473)

Guilt, as a feeling or sensation, is a result of an internal struggle between the ego and the super-ego, that is the struggle between the ego and what it believes to be its ideal. Depending on the form of the neurosis, i.e., whether the ego is aware of the guilt or not, determines the affect the guilt has on the ego. Repressed guilt may evidence itself as a sickness whereas acknowledged guilt, as in the case of melancholia (extreme depression) can lead to the death of the ego through relentless torment from the ego-ideal.

Three masters

“it may be said of the id that it is totally non-moral, of the ego that it strives to be moral, and of the super-ego that it can be super-moral and then become as cruel as only the id can be” (Freud, 1923, p. 474).

Our ideas about the ego are beginning to clear, and its various relationships are gaining distinctness. We now see the ego in its strength and its weaknesses. It is entrusted with important functions. By virtue of its relationship to the perceptual system it gives mental processes an order in time and submits them to ‘reality-testing’. By interposing the processes of thinking, it secures a postponement of motor discharges and controls access to motility … the ego’s position is like the constitutional monarch … All the expectations of life that originate from without enrich the ego; the id, however, is its second external world, which strives to bring into subjection to itself. It withdraws libido from the id and transforms the object-cathexes of the id into ego-structures. With the aid of the super-ego, in a manner that is still obscure to us, it draws upon the experiences of past ages stored in the id.

There are two paths by which the contents of the id can penetrate into the ego. The one is direct, the other leads by way of the ego ideal; which of these two paths they take may, for some mental activities, be of decisive importance. The ego develops from perceiving instincts of controlling them, from obeying instincts to inhibiting them. In this achievement a large share is taken by the ego ideal, which indeed is partly a reaction-formation against the instinctual processes of the id. Psycho-analysis is an instrument to enable the ego to achieve a progressive conquest of the id.

From the other point of view, however, we see this same ego as a poor creature owing service to three masters and consequently menaced by three dangers: from the external world, from the libido of the id, and from the severity of the super-ego. Three kinds of anxiety correspond to these three dangers, since anxiety is the expression of a retreat from danger. (Freud, 1923, pp. 475-476)

Here we can finally see the realtionship between the ego, the super-ego and the id, and, in a fairly straight-forward manner, Freud explains the complex position that the ego resides in as it attempts to appease three masters; the external world, the id and the super-ego.


“fear of death is something that occurs between the ego and the super-ego” (Freud, 1923, p. 478).

“the fear of death makes its appearance under two conditions … namely, as a reaction to an external danger and as an internal process, as for instance in melancholia” (Freud, 1923, p. 478).

The fear of death in melancholia only admits of one explanation: that the ego gives itself up because it feels itself hated and persecuted by the super-ego, instead of loved. To the ego, therefore, living means the same as being loved – being loved by the super-ego, which here again appears as the representative of the id. (Freud, 1923, p. 478)

“The id, to which we finally come back, has no means of showing the ego love or hate” (Freud, 1923, p. 478).

As a final thought, Freud explains the ego’s need for love in order to live; the need for love from the super-ego as the representative of the id. In a poignant twist, Freud declares that the id is incapable of showing the ego that love!

Reference list

Freud, S. (1923). Psychic Personality Structure.

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