Sigmund Freud

Structure and Development of the Psyche

At the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud’s model of the human psyche revolutionized the way that we studied the human mind. By developing a model in which the mind is divided into unique partitions, Freud was able to categorize human behavior in a way that had never been done before. In this model, later named psychoanalytic theory, Freud separated the mind into three distinct sections: the id, the ego, and the super-ego.


While the three parts of the mind are all necessary to properly function in society, they are not all created equally. The ego and the superego develop throughout a person’s lifetime, but the id is part of the psyche from birth. In his 1940 article “An Outline of Psychoanalysis," Sigmund Freud likens the id to a cauldron of seething excitement (Kline 126). In other words, the id a burning, singular passion within every being driving him to attain his instinctual desires. At the core of our being, the cauldron contains all that is inherited and fixed at birth. Paul Kline, in his book Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory, explains that the id responds only to the pleasure principle, thereby making its mental processes ones that are primary, unconscious, and immune to the laws of logic (126).Consequently, the id has no regard for the intelligibility or appropriateness of an act. Possible consequences do not register with the id, and they would be ignored even if they did. Living a life of pleasure with no regards for consequence may seem like a perfect life at first glance, but a closer look reveals that life according to the id is also a painful one. When a desire is left unsatisfied, a person experiences displeasure and anxiety; because the id is comprised of instinctual desires only, the unsatisfied person has no way to cope with his unpleasant experiences. Since the id drives a person to seek gratification no matter the cost, the id can also bring physical pain when it causes a person to commit a dangerous act in the hope of achieving satisfaction. When combined with the knowledge that every other person seeks gratification for his impulses with no thought for consequences, the unintelligibility of the acts of the id makes for a dangerous, tense life. A person could not last long in such a world, and so the ego is introduced as a way to counter the harum-scarum nature of the id.


Sigmund Freud’s work obviously did not stop with the development of his idea’s concerning the Id. In psychoanalysis, there exists a principle called the “reality principle,” which “which without giving up the intention of ultimately attaining pleasure…demands and enforces the postponement of satisfaction, the renunciation of manifold possibilities of it, and the temporary endurance of 'pain' on the long and circuitous road to pleasure" (Freud 5). This reality principle is the primary force behind the ego and acts as a sort of opposition to the id’s pleasure principle. This is the result of the human mind lacking the ability to always get what it wants. When a person experiences frustration, which is derived from the id, the ego kicks in, helping the brain cope with any problems it may experience in regards to obtaining what it wants.

As stated prior, the ego helps the mind cope with a variety of issues. The first type of demands in which the ego helps the mind with is those that can be defined as “external.”Since the ego itself “develops through interaction of a maturing infantile with external reality, particularly that portion of external reality that consists of significant other humans,(Buckley 98) ” it seems only natural that external demands be mentioned first. Some of the most basic instincts can be described via the ego. Self-preservation is one of the “demands” that is definitely worth mentioning, especially since it demonstrates our human ability to deal with circumstances that we would deem hazardous to our health. Other external demands, which can be described as sub-categories of self-preservation include flight, the ability to avoid unwanted interaction, as well as adaptation, which allows us to deal with external demands when we absolutely must deal with them. Other demands include our ability to retain knowledge of our past interactions and use this information to increase the chances to receive satisfaction.

On the other side of the spectrum, Freud describes humans as beings who must also deal with “internal” demands. These demands often deal with “biologically determined motives,” normally conveyed t o us through the prior discussed id (Buckley 98). As stated in A Companion to Continental Philosophy by Simon Critchley, these demands normally relate to “conscious activities [such] as deliberation and decision-making about how best to adapt to the environment (6).” Freud developed the idea that ego helps the human mind choose the most desirable results and even adjust decision making to capitalize on more favorable circumstances at a later point in time. In a sense, the ego also functions as a sort of guardian of the mind, enacting all sorts of defense mechanisms that we may hardly ever notice.

Whether we like it or not, our minds sometimes act on their own accord. These “strange feelings” you may experience every now and then may actually have a cause behind them. As mentioned prior, the ego enacts many defenses that “protect the individual from painful emotions, ideas, and drives" (Valliant 3). Over the course of his research, Freud discovered “seventeen distinct defenses" that helped explain why people act the way they do when exposed to harmful stimuli (Valliant 4). While distinct in their nature, each mechanism shared five similar properties. Acting as the way to manage “instinct and affect, these unconscious, discrete, and reversible means can be adaptive as well as pathological" (Valliant 4).
Some of the more recognizable defense include:

· Denial – “ignoring or refusing to acknowledge the reality of a threat”
· Rationalization – “excusing or explaining away a threat”
· Displacement – “taking out hostility on other individuals rather than directing it at the source”
· Repression – “keeping unacceptable thoughts, feeling, or actions from conscious awareness”
· Regression – “returning to an earlier stage of behavior as a way of coping with a threat”
· Sublimation – “converting repressed feeling into socially acceptable actions”
· Compensation – “making up for weakness by excelling in other areas" (Bastable 81)

Of course, there exist other human traits such as humor and altruism, which at first do not seem like defense mechanisms, but under certain circumstances, act as a channel for people to cope with problems of their own.
Due to the complexity of the human mind, each person’s ego is different. As a result, it is important for there to be a basic idea of how the ego itself is formed. For Freud, “the ego is formed in the encounter with the external world, in view of the survival of the individual and the species" (
Steuerman 59). It is also important to remember that the ego is directly intertwined with the prior mentioned id as well as the following mentioned super-ego.


The third structure in the psyche is the superego, or the ego ideal. If the id is the proverbial devil on the ego’s shoulder, then the superego is the angel. In Freud’s terms, the superego is the internalized voice(s) of the person(s) we most respect, which is often our father. In his novel The Ego and the Id, Freud describes the purpose of the superego as thus:

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.’ (24)

Whereas the id has no regard for consequences, the superego judges every conscious action to determine whether or not it would meet the standards we have accepted as necessary parts of life. The superego takes on the role of our conscience, and is often seen as the complete opposite of the id. However, the two do have one thing in common, and that is the feeling of anxiety that is experienced when the ego does not act in the way the id or superego dictates. When the id is ignored, we experience displeasure because there is a discrepancy between what we desire and what we actually achieve. When the superego is ignored, the tension between the demands of the conscience and the actual performances of the ego comes across as a sense of guilt. As Freud explains, “social feelings rest on identifications with other people, on the basis of having the same ego ideal" (27). If the demands of the superego are not followed, then we feel guilty because we have betrayed the standards we have agreed to as members of a society.

Ctiticisms of the Psyche

Of the Id -

One reason the id draw critiques from philosophers is because it paints a rather pessimistic view of man. The idea that the human species is naturally rational and good is very appealing, but if Freud’s psychoanalysis is correct, man is anything but logical. Rather than using reason to determine the best possible choice of action, man follows his instinct to obtain what he desires regardless of the costs. Unfortunately, living moment-by-moment rarely brings the best possible results. Both the individual and society suffer from such reckless living, since the attempts to gratify desires are often dangerous to the individual and detrimental to the survival of society. Even when the ego develops and man learns to delay the gratification the id seeks, the id remains as unintelligible and selfish as ever, which indicates that rationality and benevolence are foreign to man.

Of the Ego -

In relation to the Ego, there exists a relatively small number of arguments against the Freudian model that is still popular today. Instead, other psychologists such as Heinz Hartmann seemed to merely critique the original idea of the ego, adding on to it to further develop Freud’s ideas. According to Hartmann, traits such as memory, coordination, language, and perception all functioned as separate entities away from the Freudian “drivers” such as aggression, frustration, and conflict. Hartmann believed that “the id and the ego develop simultaneously and function independently yet in synchrony…” stating “they evolve from an undifferentiated matrix with reciprocal influences on each other, emerging together as ‘products of differentiation" (Austrian 26). Hartmann also developed the idea of a “conflict-free” ego in which the ego itself was not necessarily consistent with Freud’s model where the mind is defined by conflict. Hartmann was also criticized for his ideas relevant to the ego’s willingness to conform to its environment.
It should be understood that these slight adjustments to Freud’s model are not in opposition when relating to the ego. Instead, they act as minor tweaks, acting as adjustments to the original theory to better help explain some conflict that exists from Freud. The idea that there is a conflict-free part of our mind, however, seems rather unlikely. Problem solving and adaption are what lead humans to engage in almost every activity they do today. To say that conflict could be completely removed from our minds seems rather illogical.

Of the Superego –

Contrary to the critiques of the id, the superego receives criticism because it is not natural to man. Whereas the id is present at birth and therefore represents man’s true desires, the superego develops over time based on what others deem important. In most cases, the superego is the internalized voice of a person’s father. Consequently, the superego, which is often seen as the conscience of the psyche, is not only unnatural to man, but it is not even comprised of his own beliefs.
Philosophers can critique psychoanalysis for its pessimistic view of man all they want, but Freud would argue that their problem with psychoanalysis is based on personal preferences rather than science. In his essay “The Question of a Weltanschauung,” Freud defends his model by saying, “But however much ado the philosophers may make, they cannot alter the situation. The benighted traveler may sing aloud in the dark to deny his own fears; but, for all that, he will not see an inch further beyond his nose" (Askay 190). In other words, just because philosophers wish the id and the superego do not exist because they deny man’s inherent rationality does not mean that they do not.

[[#_ftnref1|[1]]] Paul Kline. Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory (New York: Routledge, 1990). Pg 126.
[[#_ftnref2|[2]]] Kline, Pg 126.
[[#_ftnref3|[3]]] Sigmund Freud. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990). Pg 5.
[[#_ftnref4|[4]]] Peter Buckley. The Psychiatric Interview in Clinical Practice, Second Edition (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2006). Pg 98.
[[#_ftnref5|[5]]] Buckley, Pg. 98.
[[#_ftnref6|[6]]] Simon Critchley. A Companion to Continental Philosophy (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998). Pg. 6.
[[#_ftnref7|[7]]] George Vaillant. Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, 1992). Pg 3.
[[#_ftnref8|[8]]] Vaillant, Pg 4.
[[#_ftnref9|[9]]] Vaillant, Pg 4.
[[#_ftnref10|[10]]] Susan Bastable. Nurse As Educator: Principles of Teaching and Learning for Nursing Practice (Boston: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2007). Pg 71.
[[#_ftnref11|[11]]] Emilia Steuerman. of Reason: Habermas, Lyotard and Melanie Klein on Rationality (New York: Routledge, 1999). Pg 59.
[[#_ftnref12|[12]]] Sigmund Freud. The ego and the Id (London, UK: Createspace, 2010). Pg 24.
[[#_ftnref13|[13]]] Freud, Pg 27.
[[#_ftnref14|[14]]] Sonia Austrian. Developmental Theories Through the Life Cycle (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2008). Pg 26.
[[#_ftnref15|[15]]] Richard Askay. Apprehending the Inaccessible: Freudian Psychoanalysis and Existential Phenomenology (. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2006). Pg 190.