The Enigma of the Mind
By Gabriel Blanchard
All too casually we toss around terms like "unconscious," "complex," "neurotic," "anti-cathected sublimation" ...
Freud may seem like an odd inclusion on our list of authors for high school reading. Surely one can hardly get less classical, less traditional, than the anti-religious inventor of a brand-new scientific discipline that is best known for the idea of the Oedipus complex! But—while we need not introduce high schoolers to everything in Freud’s work, any more than we need give them free rein, with no further context, in the writings of Nietzsche—Freud is an essential element in understanding the modern intellectual world.
Freud was born in 1856, in what was then part of the Austrian Empire (today in the Czech Republic). An excellent student and a gifted linguist, he became a doctor after his family relocated to the capital of Vienna. By the late 1880s, he had begun experiments with hypnosis, free association, and discussion of symptoms that would eventually give rise to the apparatus of psychoanalysis (some of these techniques are still used by psychotherapists today). In 1908, a previously-informal group that had met at Freud’s home was reconstituted as the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society; from this point on, the group rapidly spread to other nations, including Canada, Germany, Russia,* and the United States. The Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute was founded in 1924, and Freud enjoyed a long period of professional success, before being forced into exile in England shortly after the Anschluss; he committed suicide there, a little more than a year later.**
His books are a somewhat odd mixture. Many have titles that seem designed to discourage the lay reader, like Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego or The Disposition to Obsessional Neurosis. Others sound almost like titles from some alternate universe’s Jane Austen: Totem and Taboo, Moses and Monotheism, Civilization and Its Discontents. We need not get into the weeds—which theme first occurred in what book and how his ideas developed over time—but can content ourselves with reviewing a few select ideas that proved especially influential.
A good place to start is the idea of the unconscious mind. Consciousness† is one of the salient qualities of minds, the unconscious mind is a paradox that one might easily reject as a nonsense phrase. Yet many of us have had the experience of reacting to something quite unexpectedly: a feeling of disappointment on receiving news we thought we wanted, an inexplicable pang of terror over a perfectly mundane stimulus, a sudden burst of joy at something we had already seen a thousand times. Freud attributed these sorts of experiences—and many others as well—to repressions, especially repressed memories. In his view, repression was a process by which memories, impulses, desires, and so forth that would cause a person anxiety were shoved into the unconscious mind, but not eliminated. He deduced this from the fact that dreams, compulsive behaviors, and other partly or largely involuntary actions on the part of his patients could often be shown, by careful questioning, to point to some desire or memory that would distress the patient, if it were a feature of their daily life or conscious memory.
Freud went further, developing a full account (as he considered it) of the parts and functions of the human mind. The most elementary and archaic, and the only one that was wholly unconscious, he called the id; the largely conscious rational self, he called the ego; and a third part, the superego, which was in between the partially self-aware level of the ego and that of the wholly unselfconscious id.‡ The id is nothing more than a ball of unreasoning desire: it feels wants and impulses and pursues them unthinkingly. The ego is born of the id’s inevitable clashes with reality. We are not always able to effect our desires, sometimes because our plans are badly made and sometimes because others prevent us; the ego, which Freud sometimes called the reality principle, attempts to align “I want X” with the real-world conditions for getting X.
The third part of the psyche, meanwhile, is born of still longer-term consequences than those implied by the ego, namely the moral standards imposed on individuals by society. It works like this. On seeing, say, a beautiful gold ring owned by someone else, the id might want it. In theory this ought to prompt the ego to start planning a theft. The ego might stop doing this of its own accord, if it discovers that the work involved in stealing or keeping the ring would be more aggravating to the id’s love of rest than just doing without the ring would be to its love of shiny things. However, this is only incidentally a “moral” choice; the ego as such is not interested in morals. It is the superego which steps in, while the ego is planning the theft or even before it has started, and tells it not to do so because stealing is wrong. The ego then has to choose between the idealism of the superego and the appetite of the id—and in fact (according to Freud), choosing between those two things is one of the principal tasks the ego has before it throughout daily life. The ego may frequently repress things, as well as employing a number of other techniques, like denial (which simply and bluntly contradicts facts, without reaching the “submersion” that repressing them does) or rationalization (more or less summarizable as deciding “that’s what I wanted anyway” about a given fact). All of these techniques distort reality, to a greater or lesser extent, in the service of making the mind more comfortable and thus keeping it in good working order.
This leads naturally into the notion of wish fulfillment, which Freud believed was the principal function of dreams. The idea was that, as a way to compensate for the dissatisfaction of many of our desires, the mind generates images, ideas, and sensations that give us some illusion of satisfaction. This was one of the main ways that unconscious desires revealed themselves; by being satisfied in dreaming (whatever symbolism they might be concealed under to protect the ignorance of the waking mind), they became detectible to the psychoanalyst, who could then work with the patient to bring the real, unconscious issue out into the light and resolve the anxiety for good. The Freudian slip is a similar example of the unconscious at work: intending to say one thing, one unintentionally says something else entirely. According to Freud, this may be unintentional in the sense that the ego did not intend it—but it is not a mere accident; it expresses a real desire or thought in the unconscious.
Wish fulfillment was also his account of religious belief, and remains a popular explanation of religion among atheists—indeed, insofar as Freud has a legacy outside the field of psychology, it is probably this. The view is particularly espoused among the small group of intellectuals who gained fame, in the first ten or fifteen years of this century, as the “New Atheists.” Then again, it is easy for religious persons to simply turn the accusation of wish fulfillment around upon the atheists; it is not hard to see how an all-powerful figure could theoretically offer both consolations, depending upon whether his other pertinent attribute were benevolence or refusal to tolerate moral evil. This double applicability, and others like it, have dogged a number of Freudian ideas since before his death, and the question of whether or to what extent psychology—or, on some accounts, the “soft” sciences generally—should be considered sciences properly so called continues to be debated.
*The Russian imperial government actually went so far as to officially sponsor the early exponents of psychoanalysis in their territory. When the Soviets replaced the Kerensky administration (which had itself come into being after the overthrow of the tsar), Freud’s ideas and techniques were denounced as incompatible with the beliefs of the Communist Party.
**Freud had been suffering from cancer of the jaw since the mid-1920s, probably caused and certainly exacerbated by his lifelong (adult) habit of smoking. The cancer had been declared inoperable, and had grown extremely painful in his final years.
†I.e., in this context, not simply “being awake” but the capacity for self-awareness.
‡These are all Latin names: id more or less translates to “it,” ego is the word for “I,” and superego literally means “over-I.”
To the best of his knowledge, Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He believes himself to live in Baltimore, MD, and to be a proud uncle to seven nephews.
Thank you for reading the Journal! If you enjoyed this piece, check out more from our series on the Author Bank, covering writers from Josephus to Michel de Montaigne to Hannah Arendt; you might also like our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our CEO and founder, Jeremy Tate.
Published on 5th June, 2023.