Sigmund Freud: The World of the Unconscious


Sigmund Freud: The World of the Unconscious


1.        What was Freud’s scientific quest?

2.        According to Freud, what forces drive human behavior?

3.        How did he believe that neuroses develop in our behavior?

4.        How did Freud believe that we could probe the unconscious?

5.        What is “the id” and what does it want?

6.        Why did we develop “the superego”?

7.        What is the result of the constant struggle between the id and the superego?

8.        How did World War One prove for Freud the validity of his theories?

9.        How was Freud’s theory of human nature different from Nietzsche’s?


(excerpted from An Intellectual History of Modern Europe by Marvin Perry, Houghton Mifflin, 1992, pp. 311- 320)


Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) asserted in scientific language that reason is not the mainspring of human activity. Like the philosophes of the Enlightenment, Freud identified civilization with reason and regarded science as the avenue to knowledge. But in contrast to the philosophes, Freud asserted the massive power and influence of non-rational human drives. Where Marx argued that economic considerations determine how we think and act, Freud argued that our conscious thoughts, which we believe are freely arrived at, are, in truth, determined by hidden forces, namely unconscious impulses. Nietzsche had glorified these irrational impulses, but Freud recognized the irrational’s potential danger, sought to comprehend it scientifically, and, finally, hoped to regulate it in the interests of civilization.


Freud said that the essential task of psychoanalysis was ‘to struggle with the demon’ of irrationality in a ‘sober way’ and make the unconscious ‘a comprehensible object of science’.  He believed in research conducted according to scientific methods, not in revelation, intuition or divination.


The Unconscious


Freud held that people are not fundamentally rational; human behavior is governed primarily by powerful inner impulses that are hidden from consciousness. These primitive drives, strivings, and thoughts constitute the greater part of the content of the mind; they influence our behavior often without our awareness so that we may not understand the real reason for our actions. We may think that a particular action is motivated by friendship, duty, honor or faith, but in reality and unknown to the conscious mind, a wish for power or self-punishment might be the true determinant of our actions. Freud considered not just the external acts of a person but also the inner psychic reality that underlies human behavior.


Freud did not discover the unconscious. Romantic poets had sought the wellspring of creativity in a layer of mind below consciousness. The Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, among others, had all penetrated the hidden and tangled world of the passions and marveled at its elemental power. Freud’s great achievement was to explore the unconscious methodically and systematically with the tools and temperament of a scientist.


Freud specialized in the treatment of nervous disorders. He encouraged patients to speak to him about their troubles. These investigations led him to conclude that childhood fears and experiences, often sexual in nature, accounted for ‘neuroses’: disorders in thinking, feeling, and behavior that interfere with everyday acts of personal and social life. Neuroses can take several forms: hysteria, depression, obsession, anxiety, etc. Freud believed that neuroses arise from the repression of painful and threatening childhood emotions and experiences; these thoughts and feelings have been banished from conscious memory into the realm of the unconscious. To treat neuroses, it was necessary to look behind overt symptoms and bring to the surface emotionally charged experiences and fears resulting from childhood traumas that lay buried in the unconscious, interacting with our most primitive impulses.


Freud probed the unconscious by urging his patients to say whatever came to their minds. This procedure, called free association, rests on the premise that spontaneous and uninhibited talk reveals a person’s underlying preoccupations, his or her inner world. These demons are at the root of the person’s emotional distress. A second avenue to the unconscious is the analysis of dreams. Dreams, said Freud, reveal an individual’s secret wishes, often socially unacceptable desires and frightening memories. Too painful to bear, we lock them up in the deepest dungeons of the unconscious; these repressed thoughts and feelings constitute the greater part of the unconscious. But even caged, the demons remain active, continuing to haunt us and generate conflicts. Our distress is real, even excruciating, but we do not know its source. Because these memories and feelings find an outlet in dreams, said Freud, the interpretation of dreams is the path par excellence to knowledge of the subconscious.


Freud held that the ‘id’, the subconscious seat of the instincts, is a ‘cauldron full of seething excitations’ that constantly demand gratification. The id is ‘untamed passion’: primitive, infantile, asocial and illogical. It knows no values, no morality; it has no awareness of good and evil. It is a restless and tormented force that perpetually strives for the gratification of its needs in accordance with the pleasure principle and without regard for others. When the id is denied an outlet for its instinctual energy, people become frustrated, angry and unhappy. Gratifying the id is our highest pleasure. But the full gratification of instinctual demands is detrimental to civilized life. So the price that we pay for a civilized world is the frustration of our deepest desires.


Conflict Between Civilization and Human Nature


Freud postulated a harrowing conflict between the restless strivings of out instinctual nature and the requirements of civilization. Civilization, for Freud, demands the renunciation of instinctual gratification and the mastery of animal instincts, a thesis he developed in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Human beings derive their highest pleasure from sexual fulfillment, said Freud, but unrestrained sexuality drains off psychic energy needed for the creative artistic and intellectual life. Hence society, through the family, the priest, the teacher and the police, imposes rules and restrictions on our animal nature. These rules, duties and expectations are internalized; they become our conscience, or what Freud calls the superego. Freud posits an immensely painful and irremediable conflict between the id and the superego, for our instincts, unable to tolerate confinement in the unconscious, resist the regulations that the superego imposes on them. The very institutions and rules that preserve civilization are also the source of our discontent: society saddles us with expectations and rules that human nature finds enormously difficult to fulfill.


The human belong is caught in a tragic bind. Society’s demand for the denial of full instinctual gratification causes terrible frustration; equally distressing, the violation of society’s rules under the pressure of instinctual needs evokes terrible feelings of guilt. Either way people suffer; civilized life simply entails too much pain for people. It seems that the price we pay for civilization is neurosis.


Civilization imposes great sacrifices not only on human sexuality but also on our aggressiveness. According to Freud, people are not good by nature as the philosophes had taught; on the contrary, we have an aggressive desire to dominate others. Our first inclination is not to love our neighbor but to


‘satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.’ (Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 62)


During World War One, Freud said,


“ What is happening in this conflict... the cruelties and injustices for which the most civilized nations are responsible [proves], that the primitive savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished... [but] lie in wait for opportunities of becoming active once more.” (quoted in J.N. Isbister, Freud: An Introduction to his Life and Work, p.203)


For Freud, “the inclination to aggression is an original self-substituting disposition in man... that... constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization.”  Civilization attempts


“to combine single human individuals and after that families, then races, peoples and nations into one great unity.... But man’s natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and of all against each, opposes this program of civilization.” (Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 69)


For Freud, an unalterable core of human nature is ineluctably in opposition to civilized life. To this extent everyone is potentially an enemy of mankind.


Freud did not celebrate the irrational in human nature, as Nietzsche did, but he did respect it. He sought truth based on a highly scientific analysis of human nature. He believed that reason was the best road to social improvement. He lambasted religion as an expression of a child-like inability to break away from a demanding father. Even so, his gloomy vision of human nature hearkened back to the Christian conception of original sin. He saw evil as rooted in human nature rather than as a product of a faulty environment. Education could not eradicate evil, nor could the abolition of public property.


Freud believed that the definition of human nature as rational and good seemed hopelessly naive, yet he wanted reason to prevail. Man’s best hope was to counteract the forces of the Id with the Ego.


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