Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation

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This work by Heinz Hartmann, some one hundred pages long, was presented to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1937, then published in book form in 1939. David Rapaport's English translation appeared in 1958. The ideas presented by Hartmann were already well known by then in the United States thanks to the German version, although in Europe, because of the Second World War, they gained wide currency only in the 1950s.

With these nine chapters, Hartmann extended Freudian psychoanalysis to the entire field of the psychology of consciousness, and in so doing brought aspects of modern ego psychology into that field for the first time. As his starting point, he took the idea that the ego was determined by its functions, thus avoiding the question of its essence. According to Hartmann, the ego had many conflict-free functions whose basic task was adaptation to the external world. The ego and the id had emerged originally from a common matrix; obliged to define the boundaries between them, they created a zone of conflict whose essential raison d'être was defense. Simultaneously, a conflict-free zone developed that was dedicated fundamentally to adaptation to the outside world, and which included the body.

In this way psychoanalytic research was opened up to somatic and social phenomena and to all scientific disciplines concerned with these areas: primarily, the study of behavior, academic psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Although adaptation has features in common with defense, it is a function of a completely different order. It is the part played by resistance, above all, which distinguishes the two. The hypothesis of a conflict-free ego implies an autonomous status for that agency within a psychoanalytical psychology of the ego on a par with other human sciences.

Ernst Federn

See also: Adaptation; Defense mechanisms; Ego; Ego autonomy; Ego (ego psychology); Ego psychology; Desexualization; Hartmann, Heinz; Internal/external reality; United States.

Source Citation

Hartmann, Heinz. (1958). Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation (David Rapaport, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published 1939)