ACCORDING TO FREUD, humanity's very movement into civilized society (and the child's analogous instroduction to that society) require the repression of our primitive (but still very insistent) desires. Indeed, for this reason, he argues in Civilization and Its Discontents that all of civilized society is a substitute-formation, of sorts, for our atavistic instincts and drives. As he puts it in A Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (First Lecture), "we believe that civilization is to a large extent being constantly created anew, since each individual who makes a fresh entry into human society repeats this sacrifice of instinctual satisfaction for the benefit of the whole community" (15.23). What happens instead, as he goes on to explain, is that those "primitive impulses," of which the sexual impulse is the strongest, are sublimated or "diverted" towards other goals that are "socially higher and no longer sexual" (15.23). Our instincts and primitive impulses are thus repressed; however, Freud believed that the sexual impulse was so powerful that it continually threatened to "return" and thus disrupt our conscious functioning (hence the now-famous term, "the return of the repressed"). Freud also believed that there was a relation between the child's development and the development of the species. As he explains, "The prehistory into which the dream-work leads us back is of two kinds—on the one hand, into the individual's prehistory, his childhood, and on the other, in so far as each individual somehow recapitulates in an abbreviated form the entire development of the human race, into phylogenetic prehistory too" (Introductory Lectures 15.199). Such statements are what inspired C. G. Jung, who was originally an important member of Freud's Psycho-Analytic Association; Jung broke away in 1913 and formed his own brand of Jungian psychoanalysis, a form of psychoanalysis that was popular for a time in the forties, fifties, and sixties but has since fallen largely out of favor. One can see what must have inspired Jung when one reads in Freud that "symbolic connections, which the individual has never acquired by learning, may justly claim to be regarded as a phylogenetic heritage" (Introductory Lectures 15.199).

According to Freud, it is the insistent return of the repressed that can explain numerous phenomena that are normally overlooked: not only our dreams but also what has come to be called "Freudian slips" (what Freud himself called "parapraxes"). According to Freud, there is a "psychology of errors"; that slip of the tongue or that slip of the pen, "which have been put aside by the other sciences as being too unimportant" (Introductory Lectures 15.27), become for Freud the clues to the secret functioning of the unconscious. Indeed, he likens his endeavor to "a detective engaged in tracing a murder" (Introductory Lectures 15.27). The mentally unwell add to these clues numerous other obsessions and mental symptoms. (See the next module on repression.)

To make sense of this dynamic, Freud proposed a depth-model for the functioning of the mind, a model now so much a part of culture that it is difficult to appreciate just how transformative this new way of thinking about the subject really was for the development of civilization as a whole.note Freud's model was also important because it argued that the difference between the sane and the ill is only a matter of degree: "if you take up a theoretical point of view..., you may quite well say that we are all ill—if you look at the matter from a theoretical point of view and ignore this question of degree you can very well say that we are all ill, that is, neurotic—since the preconditions for the formation of symptoms can also be observed in normal people" (Introductory Lectures 16.358).

Freud began with the division, conscious/unconscious, to which he also sometimes added the term, "preconscious"; he soon turned, however, to a tripartite version of that depth model (it is worth noting that for a time psychoanalysis was referred to as "depth-psychology"):

The id is the great reservoir of the libido, from which the ego seeks to distinguish itself through various mechanisms of repression. Because of that repression, the id seeks alternative expression for those impulses that we consider evil or excessively sexual, impulses that we often felt as perfectly natural at an earlier or archaic stage and have since repressed. These repressed memories are often translated, according to Freud, into "screen-memories" that the ego is then able to remember: "the ego has the task of bringing the influence of the external world to bear upon the id and its tendencies, and endeavours to substitute the reality-principle for the pleasure-principle which reigns supreme in the id" ("Ego and the Id" 702).note Whereas the ego is oriented towards perceptions in the real world, the id is oriented towards internal instincts; whereas the ego is associated with reason and sanity, the id belongs to the passions. The ego, however, is never able fully to distinguish itself from the id, of which the ego is, in fact, a part, which is why in his pictorial representation of the mind Freud does not provide a hard separation between the ego and the id. (Click on right-hand image for a larger version of the image.) The superego arises as a resolution to the Oedipus complex and represents the internalization of one's father and his prohibitions—and therefore manifests itself as conscience and a sense of guilt.

Proper Citation of this Page

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Freud: On the Unconscious." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.







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