3.8 The Self Is Multilayered: Freud

Our explorations of the self have, until this point, focused almost exclusively on the conscious self. Of course, Kant’s idea of the self as a “transcendental unifying principle of consciousness” is certainly not “conscious” in the traditional sense. But neither is it hidden from reflective awareness, if we know where to look for it. This transcendental self (or ego) is not to be found as an entity in consciousness—it is the dynamic organizing principle that makes consciousness possible. One problem with this view of the self is that there is nothing personal about it.

As an abstract organizing principle, it appears to be difficult to distinguish one transcendental self from another. As a result, Kant identifies another self the empirical self (or ego), which includes all of those particular aspects of our selves that make us uniquely different people: bodies, memories, personalities, ways of thinking, emotional patterns, and so on. The obvious problem is that this model of consciousness leaves us with two selves, leading to some disquieting questions: How do these two selves relate to one another? Is one self more primary or fundamental than the other? Which self is our “true” self, our identity, our soul? Are we condemned to be metaphysical schizophrenics? Kant tries mightily to answer these troubling and enigmatic questions, but it’s a very difficult challenge.

Sigmund Freud’s* view of the self leads to an analogous dualistic view of the self, though the contours and content of his ideas are very different from Kant’s. Freud is not, strictly speaking, a philosopher, but his views on the nature of the self have had a far-reaching impact on philosophical thinking, as well as virtually every other discipline in the humanities and social sciences. Naturally, his most dominant influence has been in the fields of psychology and psychoanalysis. Freud’s view of the self was multitiered, divided among the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. He explains his psychological model in the following passage from his An Outline of Psychoanalysis.

It is by no means an exaggeration to assert that the concept of the unconscious forms the central core in Freud’s theory of the structure and dynamics of the human personality. And though the conscious self has an important role to play in our lives, it is the unconscious self that holds the greatest fascination for Freud, and which has the dominant influence in our personalities. Freud’s focus on the unconscious self marks a significant departure from previous efforts in philosophy to understand the nature of the self, and in so doing, it challenges the traditional philosophical assumption that the self can be explored and understood primarily through rational reflection and analysis.

According to Freud, these two levels of human functioning—the conscious and the unconscious—differ radically both in their content and in the rules and logic that govern them. The unconscious contains basic instinctual drives including sexuality, aggressiveness, and self-destruction; traumatic memories; unfulfilled wishes and childhood fantasies; thoughts and feelings that would be considered socially taboo. The unconscious level is characterized by the most primitive level of human motivation and human functioning. At this level, the most basic instinctual drives seek immediate gratification or discharge. Unheedful of the demands and restrictions of reality, the naked impulses at this level are governed solely by the “pleasure principle.”

Our unconscious self embodies a mode of operation that precedes the development of all other forms of our mental functioning. It includes throughout our lives the primitive rock-bottom activities, the primal strivings on which all human functioning is ultimately based. Our unconscious self operates at a prelogical and prerational level. And though it exists and influences us throughout our lives, it is not directly observable and its existence can only be inferred from such phenomena as neurotic symptoms, dreams, and “slips of the tongue.”

In contrast, the conscious self is governed by the “reality principle” (rather than the “pleasure principle”), and at this level of functioning, behavior and experience are organized in ways that are rational, practical, and appropriate to the social environment. Although the ultimate goals of the conscious self are the same as the unconscious self—the gratification of needs and the reduction of tensions to optimal levels—the means of achieving these goals are entirely different. Instead of seeking these goals by means that are direct, impulsive, and irrational, the conscious self usually takes into account the realistic demands of the situation, the consequences of various actions, and the overriding need to preserve the equilibrium of the entire psychodynamic system. To this end, the conscious self has the task of controlling the constant pressures of the unconscious self, as its primitive impulses continually seek for immediate discharge.

What do our dreams mean?

Rousseau’s painting suggests the symbolic import of the dream world. What have you learned about yourself by reflecting on your dreams?

What is the evidence for this split-level, “two-self” model of functioning? Freud believes that evidence of a powerful unconscious self can be found in the content of our dreams, inadvertent “slips of tongue,” and techniques—such as free association—used by Freudian psychoanalysts in clinical treatment. However, the most compelling evidence for an unconscious self is to be found in pathological, neurotic behavior. From Freud’s standpoint, the neurotic symptom has three essential aspects: it is a sign that the balance of forces within the personality system is disturbed; it is a sign that infantile conflicts have been reactivated; and it is itself an attempt at a spontaneous cure, an attempt at adaptation, although the individual may be worse off with his or her neurotic adaptation than without it. For example, an individual who experienced traumatic frustration, conflict, and guilt centering on his toilet training may “adapt” to this potentially threatening situation by compulsively washing his hands several hundred times a day in an effort to assuage his guilt and resolve his emotionally charged conflicts. Although such an adaptation may forestall the disruption of his conscious level of functioning by the anxiety generated by his unconscious conflicts and painful emotions, from the standpoint of normal overall functioning, it could not be considered to be a particularly successful one.

People whose psychological defenses are defective will react to many situations simultaneously at two levels: an adult conscious level, and an infantile unconscious level. Any situation that resembles a traumatic emotional situation of early childhood will call out a repetition of the childhood response at the same time that it calls out the adult response. The adult response is likely to be direct and overt; the childhood response is likely to be covert and derivative. This mingling of different levels of experience may be accomplished without undue stress or trouble, as in the case with normal, well-adjusted behavior and experience. However, it may lead to an exaggerated reaction that is otherwise appropriate, to ambivalent feelings and ambiguous behavior, or to neurotic symptom formation. When this last reaction is the case, the specific form of the symptom will depend both on the person’s particular vulnerability and on the situation that disturbs his internal equilibrium. Because the unconscious self plays such an important role in our daily lives (according to Freud), why does it remain inaccessible to conscious awareness? Freud’s explanation for this is the psychological activity of “repression,” which serves as the theoretical keystone of defensive organizations in both normal and neurotic persons. Although it is thought to be related to the conscious “suppression,” repression is assumed to operate at unconscious levels, like most of the psychological defenses. Repression is used to help contain the potentially disruptive aspects of unconscious functioning, and as a consequence it is usually the main defense mechanism for maintaining the ego boundaries necessary for normal conscious functioning. If a deep and inclusive regression to unconscious levels does occur while a person is awake—a situation often referred to as “the return of the repressed”—the effects can be devastating.

The purpose of psychotherapy (the therapeutic method created by Freud) is to enable the patient to acknowledge the conflicts, emotions, and memories at the root cause of his or her disorder. By acknowledging and understanding the traumatized memories, emotions, and conflicts, most of which date back to infancy and early childhood, the individual not only attains a cathartic emotional release, but also is able to resolve basic emotional conflicts that have festered unconsciously and caused abnormal maladaptive behavior. As the individual begins to see the reason for the particular symptom or cluster of symptoms that has formed, these symptoms will (in theory) tend to lose their efficacy, as their success lay precisely in the fact that they were unconscious attempts to deal with the specific traumatic contents existing unconsciously. When they and their purpose are disclosed to the individual, they will tend to be discarded as maladaptive forms of behavior, and a normal resolution and adaptation to the repressed and unconscious material will be attained. However, the acknowledgment and affirmation of the patient is not simply an intellectual understanding. Instead, he or she must recall the original memories, with all of their emotional charge and trauma, and work through the emotions involved until he or she is able to adopt a new and more adaptive attitude both toward the past of childhood and a present and future adult life.

Freud’s topographical model of the mind divided it into systems on the basis of their relationship to consciousness: conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. Freud later developed a structural model of the mind that divided it according to mental functions: the id, the ego, and the superego. Freud emphasizes the fact that although the structural model has certain similarities with the earlier topographical model, the two are not the same. Although the id has virtually the same place as the unconscious in the sense of being the reservoir for the primal instinctual forces responsible for all human motivation, the ego and superego systems consist of aspects that are both conscious and unconscious in the psychoanalytic sense—in other words, they are inaccessible to consciousness except under unusual circumstances. Freud believed that the strength of the structural model was its ability to analyze situations of mental conflict in terms of which functions are allied with one another and which are in conflict (analogous to the conflicting elements in Plato’s division of the soul into Reason, Spirit, and Appetite).

Freud’s penetrating and systematic analysis of the complexity of the human mind had a far-reaching impact on modern understanding of our selves. However, from a philosophical perspective, there are significant problems with the models of the mind that he developed. Freud’s concept of the unconscious is of a “place”—a timeless, unknowable realm—or “entity” that exerts a profound and continual influence on our conscious thoughts, emotions, and behavior. But “where” exactly does this realm exist? “Who” exactly is this entity, and what is its relation to our conscious self? Doesn’t Freud’s model fragment the human mind into a collection of parts, multiple selves with enigmatic relationships to one another? Don’t we end up with two “I thinks,” one conscious and one unconscious?

Seen from another perspective, it’s one thing to say that someone is “unconscious” of the true purpose, motive, or intention of his or her behavior; it’s quite another to say that the behavior is “caused” by influences from “the unconscious.” According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre* in his book The Unconscious, Freud was not merely offering us an instructive model in terms of which conscious thought and behavior could be envisaged. Instead, he was making an existential claim, propounding a hypothesis, asserting that “the world includes an entity hitherto undiscovered,” a claim that is unwarranted and conceptually confused.

To put the same point into linguistic terms, the use of “unconscious” as an adjective or as an adverb is quite normal and acceptable in ordinary language. The problem for Freud is that he uses the concept of “unconscious” not only as an adverb and an adjective, but also as a noun. As MacIntyre explains it:

For where Freud uses “unconscious” and “unconsciously” he extends earlier uses of these words; but when he speaks of “the unconscious” he invents a new term for which he has to prescribe a meaning and a use.

This “picture of the mind” that Freud embraces by his use of “the unconscious” as a noun is that derived from Descartes, who considered the subject as a rational spiritual entity, an entity quite different and distinct from the physical substance of the body. It is this view of the mind that has been described by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle as “the ghost in the machine,” and by Jacques Maritain as “the angel in the machine.” The new twist that Freud gave it, according to MacIntyre, is that of transferring the notion of the separate substance of the mind from the rational consciousness of Descartes to the irrational unconscious. So although Freud rejects Descartes’s belief that we can attain rational self-knowledge in our ordinary consciousness, he nevertheless retains the basic Cartesian picture of the mind, emphasizing “the unconscious” rather than “the conscious” dimensions of it.

But Freud retains from the Cartesian picture the idea of the mind as something distinct and apart, a place or a realm which can be inhabited by such entities as ideas. Only he makes dominant not “the conscious” mind but “the unconscious.”

Freud’s idea of an existent, spatially located “unconscious” leads to other difficulties as well, including those associated with the Freudian concept of “repression.” Repression for Freud clearly refers to a datable event, an occurrence that actually happens when the memory of an experience is denied a place in consciousness and instead relegated to the unconscious. Yet by definition, repression is something of which we are unconscious, and as such is inaccessible to direct observation. As a consequence, we can only infer that something has been “repressed” from subsequent behavior and feelings: for example, neurotic behavior. But the claim that repression has occurred is logically dependent on the fact that certain alleged childhood experiences did in fact take place; yet simply to show that they did take place is not enough to show that repression occurred, and it is indeed difficult to see what would be enough proof. It would therefore appear that no direct empirical evidence can be brought directly to bear on the situation to either validate or falsify the theoretical notions of “repression” and “the unconscious.” And if such is the case, then it is indeed untenable to contend that repression is a datable event and that the unconscious is a place in which repressed events exist timelessly, exerting causal influence on our conscious functioning. Because such claims are in principle neither verifiable nor falsifiable, they are therefore empty. Hence any attempt to treat the unconscious as an actual existent realm containing actual repressed mental events, emotions, ideas, and so on will not only run into the traditional problems plaguing any such dualistic conception of human functioning, but also be hard put to produce any empirical evidence in its favor.

Reading Critically

Analyzing Freud’s Ideas About Mind