Ego and the Id, The

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Published in German in 1923, The Ego and the Id was the work in which Freud sought to summarize in the most explicit manner the far-reaching metapsychological revisions he made to his theory in the 1920s. The text begins by recalling the basic distinctions of the topographical theory: distinctions among the conscious, the preconscious (descriptively unconscious but susceptible of becoming conscious), and the dynamic unconscious (the repressed, which can become conscious only by penetrating the barrier of repression, for example, by means of the psychoanalytic method).

In this work Freud emphasized that the resistances of the ego, as encountered in the work of analysis, were themselves in part unconscious. So even if the conscious-unconscious opposition was still an essential point of reference, the unconscious could no longer be considered a psychic agency. Freud thus had to revisit the whole topographical system of his theory.

Freud concerns himself first with the characteristics of the ego, its relationships with the perception-consciousness system and with language, which underpin the possibility of material becoming conscious. Sense perceptions are immediately conscious; thought processes become conscious through their links with the auditory traces of verbal residues (or word presentations), which endow those processes with a perceptual dimension. Internal perceptions, more deeply seated and elemental than external ones, derive from the pleasure-unpleasure series of sensations and become conscious directly, without any recourse to words, by projecting themselves onto the surface of the body.

The crucial point in Freud's argument concerns feelings. Analytic experience reveals that feelings may occasionally become conscious solely because the ego refuses to discharge them. This idea leads to the paradoxical notion of "unconscious feelings" (notably, the feeling of guilt). The ego thus emerges as an agency derived essentially from the body: Linked to perception and to the body envelope, it is sometimes described as "a surface entity," but also as "the projection of a surface" (1923b, p. 26).

Freud's rejection of the unconscious as a system led him to include in the mental apparatus the id, which is far more extensive and less organized than just the repressed. He described the id as the great "reservoir" of the instincts, which originate in the somatic realm and express themselves there as dynamic impulses seeking discharge solely in accord with the dictates of the pleasure principle. The ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the influence of the external world: "For the ego, perception plays the part which in the id falls to instinct" (1923b, p. 25). Freud compares the relationship of the ego to the id to that of a rider to his mount: Often the rider's energy is insufficient for him to do more than lead the horse where it wants to go.

To his structural theory Freud also introduced a third agency, reflecting the fact that the "highest" mental activity, notably that of the moral conscience, may be unconscious. The superego (or ideal ego), as evoked several years earlier in On Narcissism: An Introduction (1914c), is the outcome of a differentiation within the ego; the formative mechanism is narcissistic identification with a lost object (1917e [1915], pp. 241, 249-251). Internalization of the object in the ego facilitates replacing the instinctual cathexis of the object with a change in the ego that renders it similar to the object and thus capable of pleasing the id and being narcissistically cathected. The establishment of the superego depends on a mechanism of this sort: Obliged to renounce the cathexes characteristic of the Oedipus complex, the child redirects them onto the ego while identifying with the parents, at once desired and feared. The postoedipal superego, though essentially paternal in character, forms on the basis of two identifications (maternal and paternal), combined in one way or another. These secondary identifications (secondary, that is, to the instinctual cathexes that they replace) continue to reinforce a set of primary object identifications whose point was "to be [like] the other" rather than to "have" the other.

This web of identifications, reflecting the child's long dependency on the parents, gives a permanent character to the infant's relation to primordial objects and the dual protective and punitive significance of that relation. By treating the superego as a mental agency that "dominates" the ego, Freud accentuated the idea that the superego is just as immune as the id to a complete appropriation by the ego.

The tension between the ego and the superego manifests itself as a sense of guilt. The largely unconscious nature of the superego sheds light on negative therapeutic reactions, which, according to Freud, express a need for punishment (an unconscious feeling of guilt) that is satisfied by illness and suffering.

The superego is the agency whereby the heritage of civilization, which individuals must reappropriate for themselves, is transmitted. Here Freud recalled the thesis of Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a) concerning the genesis of guilt and of the social bond created by the killing of the primal father, a thesis with profound implications for religion. The superego, projected and writ large, is the seed from which all religion springs.

The topography of psychic agencies thus outlined was inseparable from Freud's new conception of instinctual dualism. According to this conception, first set forth in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), Eros encompasses the instincts for self-preservative and sex (the conflict between them no longer being considered primary), whereas the death instincts express a primary self-destructiveness mediated by sadism, which redirects the death instincts outward in a partial fusion with erotic impulses. The essential characteristic of these two groups of instincts is their conservatism: The life instincts aim to preserve life by binding life with ever vaster wholes; the death instincts strive for a return to an inanimate state by unbinding and reducing tension to zero (the Nirvana principle).

Life presents itself as an unending struggle between the two kinds of instincts, always more or less blended or fused. But the process of identification, a consequence of the desexualization and transformation of cathexes into narcissistic libido, is accompanied by a diffusion that may ultimately result in the superego's becoming "a pure culture of the death instinct" (1923b, p. 53), as in melancholia. The same circumstances also enable the ego to sublimate the instincts, in conformity with the requirements of the ideal: The ego, with its "free" (narcissistic) energy, can transform love into hate (paranoia) or hate into love (homosexuality) (1923b, pp. 43-44).

In concluding The Ego and the Id, Freud attempts to sum up the "dependent relationships" of the ego, which has to serve three masters at the same time. As can be seen in the clinical aspects of the sense of guilt, the superego draws sustenance from the renunciations it requires, becoming more severe as aggression is displaced and turned against the ego. With respect to the id, the ego seeks to satisfy instinctual demands while simultaneously seeking to subject them to its will. And as for the external world, the ego is linked to it by being anchored in perception and by the workings of the reality principle, which constrains its use of judgment.

Three dangers and three types of anxiety are correlated with these three masters of the ego: moral anxiety (arising from conscience), neurotic anxiety (arising from instincts), and realistic anxiety (arising from the reality principle). Freud emphasized the fact that the fear of death, seemingly so real, in fact derives from "moral" anxiety, itself the result of castration anxiety and of loss of love.

The Ego and the Id is a difficult text, not least because it is extremely concise as a result of its synthesizing ambitions. Freud himself was less than satisfied with it. The work was a recapitulation of ideas advanced by Freud since the completion of his metapsychology, and more particularly since Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), but its implications would emerge only gradually with the appearance of later articles, most notably "The economic problem of masochism" (1924c), where Freud assessed the consequences of the repetition compulsion and the death instinct on the concept of the pleasure principle.

Jean-Luc Donnet

See also: Ego; Id; Superego; Topographical point of view.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1923b). Das Ich und das Es, Leipzig-Wien-Zürich, Internationaler psychoanalytischer Verlag; G.W., XIII, 237-289; The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.


Freud, Sigmund. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.