Psychoanalysis - The Birth of the Ego

Excerpted from

Secrets of the Soul; A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis


Because they aimed at formulating universal laws and moral principles. Enlightenment thinkers never tried to develop a psychology that could explain the particularities of an individual's life. Instead, taking Newton's corpuscular theory as their model, they sought to isolate the elementary building blocks of mind in general, aspiring to become the "analysts of the souk as physicists and chemists were the analysts of the inorganic world. By contrast, twentieth-century modernity was oriented toward inferiority and subjectivity from the first. Rejecting the idea that the mind was made up of associated ideas built our of elementary sensations, modernist thinkers in philosophy and the social sciences, like modernist artists and writers, sought to evoke deep structures of inferiority that could be accessed only from within.

In the years before World War I, psychoanalysis was already beginning to serve as a guidepost to this modernist reorientation toward subjectivity, even among intellectuals who rejected it. Epitomizing the shift from the rational individual of the Enlightenment to the singularity and contingency of modern personal experience, Freudianism suggested that a dynamic and individual unconscious lay beyond the preconscious structures of experience, myth, and collective representations that modernist thinkers described. In addition, psychoanalysis had a uniquely mass appeal. Like electricity, film, and the automobile-the characteristic innovations of the second industrial revolution-the Freudian unconscious symbolized the freedom of individuals from the confines of space and time. Nonetheless, until the 1920s, psychoanalysis did not have a real alternative to the Enlightenment notion of the rational individual. Indeed, psychoanalysis had no worked out conception of individual psychology at all.

It took a series of convulsive schisms in the years immediately following the Clark lectures to produce such a conception. In part, these schisms revolved around Freud's place in the analytic movement, and whether there was room within the movement for alternatives to his views. But the schisms also had an important intellectual content: what was the proper attitude to take toward the ego or "I", the sire of subjectivity, the arena of personal experience, and the only means of gaining access to the interior world? As a consequence of the schisms, the question of the ego or 'I' moved to the center of analysis, paving the way for an engagement with the threefold promise of modernity, including, now, the third promise: democracy.

For Freud's first critic, the Viennese doctor Alfred Adler, the ego or "I" was the whole of psychology, his primary concerns were status, social comparison, and competition. Against Freud's emphasis on sexuality, Adler stressed the importance of aggression, the desire to enhance ones place in the world. In his view, the ego was haunted less by sexual wishes than by the anxiety of being displaced by a rival or humiliated by a putative equal. A social democrat and a feminist, Adler insisted on the social roots of the ego's aggressivity, resentment, and insecurity. Assuming that individuals had an innate sense of dignity and self-respect, he posited that the "neuroses" arose from some insult or affront, including the affront of poverty or discrimination. Like the many American thinkers who welcomed his teachings, he viewed modernity as the unfolding of a long-term process of democratization, and he wanted to assimilate psychoanalysis to reformism, social-democratic politics, and a results-oriented psychotherapy.

For Carl Jung in Zurich, by contrast, the ego was nothing. He despised its petty hurts, its "oversensitivity" it's prickliness, its obsession with its standing in the world, all traits for whose tolerance he eventually blamed the Jewish character of psychoanalysis. A man of aristocratic temperament, Jung believed that a valid life was one lived in the shadowed valleys of what he came to call the collective unconscious, the great cosmic formations that harbor the archetypes-transhistorical structures such as the Great Mother, the Anima, and the Shadow. Viewing modernity through the prism of loss and decline, he sought to halt its impoverishment of meaning by restoring contact with the sacred. Accordingly, he aimed to assimilate psychoanalysis to myth and religion, although not to any organized religion of his time.

Freud rejected both approaches. Like Adler, Freud took the aggressivities, hurts, and resentments of the ego seriously, but he did not equate what he sometimes called the egos "secondary revisions" or "rationalizations" with the whole of the psyche. Like Jung, Freud believed that the ego resided in the shadows of a vast realm available only to obscure introspection, but he called that realm the id, not the cosmos. Whereas Adler critically affirmed the egos strivings, and Jung contemptuously dismissed its weakness, Freud sympathetically grasped its vulnerability, which he traced to the infants dependence on a primal object. In contrast to animals, which are born with predetermined instincts that lead them to the objects they need, humans depend for their survival on the care of other humans throughout a prolonged period. Because of this lengthy period of biological helplessness, according to Freud, "the value of the object which can alone protect [the infant] is enormously enhanced' Unlike both of his critics, then, Freud placed an intensely personal need for "objects" at the center of his conception of the ego.

Tags: Mental Health

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