In this lecture, Freud discusses the psychic structure of the human mind.
He tells his audience that psychoanalysis “began its work” by focusing on the content of mind that is most “foreign to the ego,” by which he means external symptoms of neurosis (71). (It is useful to think of the 'ego' as the conscious mind.) Much as the outside world is external to the ego, the repressed content of the unconscious is internally foreign to it. Freud describes how psychoanalysis began by investigating symptoms, to eventually discover the existence of the unconscious and then the nature of human instincts and sexuality. He believes humans face a conflict between their desires and the resistance to those desires, which is usually attributed to the ego.
Naturally, Freud turns next to a more direct examination of the ego itself. He considers that the ego (again, the conscious mind) works as both a subject and an object; it can think and reflect upon itself, splitting into two parts, the observer and the observed. In other words, it can observe and judge itself as "an object," much as we observe and judge other people. Unlike that example, however, the ego later rejoins into a single entity (73).
To illustrate this point, Freud considers how mental patients will often suffer symptoms that reflect an exaggerated form of the ego's ability to split into parts. He has treated many patients who suffer from delusions of being constantly observed, which suggests that their ego has merely split more forcefully than happens naturally in a normal human. For Freud, this frequent delusion only confirms that a "regular feature" of the ego is its separation into the "observing agency" (74). This agency sometimes functions as our conscience, and other times as an impartial observer of our instinctual desires. He insists, however, that the ego not be considered simply a conscience (which has a moral quality), but rather as a distinct entity that can sometimes take the role of conscience. He names this 'observing agency' the super-ego.
Freud then considers how the super-ego can cause neurosis by acting as a moral force. He poses melancholia as an example of mental illness in which the super-ego's force has been magnified. In patients with extreme melancholia, the super-ego causes severe guilt and humiliation through its harsh punitive nature. In cases like this, the super-ego essentially “represents the claims of morality” in an extreme form (76).
The example leads Freud into a consideration of morality and "conscience" as we traditionally use the term. First, he dismisses any claim of an inherent, God-given conscience in humans, indicating that too many humans lack a moral sense for him to truly believe that it comes naturally. Instead, he argues that a conscience is crafted by a person's parents. He notes how children lack any clear sense of morality in their early life, and are guided almost solely by pleasure-seeking impulses. Their morality derives from parents, who restrict the child's 'bad' or 'immoral' pleasure-seeking impulses through the threat of punishment or a withholding of love. Eventually, the child internalizes these external restraints, so that the super-ego replaces parental authority as the voice of decorum or morality.
Freud then sketches this process in greater detail, introducing the concept of "identification" to explain the “assimilation of one ego to another one” (78). The first ego imitates or behaves like the second ego, in the way a child will eventually imitate its parents until he or she has effectively internalized their sense of morality. Freud is careful to distinguish between identification and object-choice: in the case of the former, an ego wants to be like another ego, while in the latter case, an ego wants to possess or control an object. In other words, object-choice involves our desire to have something as our own, whereas identification is a more unconscious process whereby we become that other thing. The Oedipus complex illustrates how object-choice can become identification - a male child is initially attracted to his mother, but upon learning through experience that such an attraction is immoral, he unconsciously compensates by more intensely identifying with his parents. His desire to have the mother as his own is replaced by a partial transformation into the mother herself.
Freud then introduces a third role of the super-ego: the maintenance of the ego-ideal. The super-ego encourages us to strive for moral perfection, or the “higher side of human life” (83). As previously noted, these ideals of perfection are effectively inherited from parents, and function as repressions to work against unconscious impulses and desires. However, Freud has discovered through practice that patients are often entirely unaware of their resistances. The point is significant because it means that the ego and super-ego - those portions of the psyche which are responsible for resistance and repression - must be at least somewhat unconscious. The psyche is therefore complicated; it is not simply constructed of an unconscious that desires and an ego that restricts, but rather must involve less-delineated boundaries. Freud then pauses briefly to apologize for falling into such highly technical aspects of psychoanalysis, which presume some prior knowledge of the field on the part of his audience.
However, he proceeds into the question of whether ego and super-ego are themselves partly unconscious, or whether they merely produce unconscious effects. Freud argues for the former, provided he can present a more accurate definition of “unconscious.” Noting that the the meaning of "conscious" is clear, he proposes that "unconscious" merely describes a psychical process that we acknowledge without having any direct knowledge about it.
Freud next distinguishes between two types of unconscious. The first case involves elements that are usually latent, but which can be brought to the conscious mind with ease. The second case involves a much more difficult process, in which great effort is required to bring those elements forward to consciousness. To simplify matters, Freud assigns different terms to these forms of unconscious – preconscious and unconscious. The preconscious is unconscious by definition, but is not strictly unconscious. It involves elements which the conscious has easy access to, but is simply not accessing at the moment. In contrast, the unconscious has been hidden deep into our psyche, and is not easily accessible to the conscious.
However, a third aspect of unconscious must be considered - the “dynamic” mental region that remains completely foreign to the ego (90). Freud names this region the id, and then proposes that the structure of the human psyche is divided into three regions or provinces: super-ego, ego, and id.
Freud describes the id as a dark and inaccessible part of our psychic life, a repository of instinctual desires and energies that lacks any clear-cut will. Naturally, it lacks any sense of morality. It strives solely to pursue instinctual needs dominated by the pleasure principle. In the id, contradictory impulses can easily connect, time is not clearly demarcated, and repressed impulses can remain indefinitely. The id knows and contains nothing but “instinctual cathexes seeking discharge” (92). Only psychoanalytic therapy can bring these impulses to consciousness, thereby dissolving their energy and relieving the patient of psychic suffering.
Freud returns to a consideration of the ego, which he proposes as a protective layer for the id, which cannot face the world directly. Instead, the id relies on the external reality provided by the ego, which faces the outside world and hence restricts the path of the pleasure principle. In other words, the ego intrudes on unfiltered desire by forcing on psychic life a sense of time, organization and morality demanded by the external world. Freud's rough comparison is that the ego stands for “reason and good sense,” while the id stands for “untamed passions” (95).
At the same time, however, the ego is a part of the id; the separation, as noted above, is not strictly drawn. Therefore, the ego is tasked with trying to fulfill the id's demands for instinctual satisfaction even as it is also tasked with repressing that id. Freud compares the id to a horse which the ego rides - the id is responsible for the “locomotive energy” of psychic life, while the ego merely decides the direction and goal of the animal's movement (96). The ego, therefore, faces the impossible task of "serving" the "contradictory desires" of "three severe masters": the id, the super-ego, and external reality. Inevitably, the ego suffers anxiety from this conflux of reality, morality, and unfiltered passion.
Freud then provides a basic diagram of the psyche. It is worth studying this diagram for a pictorial representation of these ideas. Following from the picture, Freud emphasizes that the super-ego has direct access to the id, meaning it is less connected to external reality than the ego is. Freud does warn that we not interpret the diagram too literally, again stressing that any boundaries in the psyche are artificial, since the mind's regions overlap differently depending on individual personality, periods of life, or illnesses.
He concludes by remarking that the goal of psychoanalytic treatment is ultimately to strengthen the ego so that it can best handle the competing desires of the psyche and external reality, separating itself somewhat from the super-ego's judgments to more healthily fulfill the powerful desires of the id.
Most of the material delivered in this lecture is derived from Freud’s earlier work, The Ego and the Id (1923), in which he first lays out his detailed theory of the psychic structure. Further, many of his seminal works review this material to various degrees of specificity.
At the opening of this new lecture, Freud notes that these theories in particular have drawn scorn from detractors, specifically because these theories propose that sexual instincts provide the basis for psychic life. One can easily find lay critics of Freud to this day who contemptuously consider him illicit or immoral. Perhaps because that claim of sexual instincts is so jarring, it has survived as a disproportionately large part of his legacy.
Freud quite sarcastically credits these detractors with the “brilliant objection” that human life is not entirely ruled by sexual impulse (71). His point is implicitly to criticize their prudishness, suggesting they use their criticism to deny any validity of psychoanalytic theory and practice. His counter-argument is given through the lecture itself: these detractors have paid little attention to the deeper, core aspects of psychoanalysis. What really defines a person is not the issues of sexual instinct, but rather the split between instinctual desires and the resistance presented by the ego. In other words, Freud believes his detractors have missed the forest for the trees, and thereby closed themselves off to potentially essential discoveries.
The lecture also provides an implicit attack on conventional religious morality, through its claim that morality is not inherent or God-given. This is in many ways a rebuttal to Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who attempted to show that humans have an inherent "categorical imperative" to act morally. Freud addresses this question of morality more scientifically, suggesting children learn about morality through parents, and then internalize those lessons. However, what is also somewhat challenging in this conception is that morality has a somewhat violent aspect for him. It is forced upon a child through a parent's punitive methods. In other words, while morality might be healthy and prudent for the sake of society, it is not natural or inherent to a human being.
This claim - that a child's super-ego is formed upon the basis of its parent's super-ego - is also partially a critique of the Marxist theory of economic determinism, which was hugely popular at the time. Marxism holds that the economic sphere is society's primary force, and that man's ideologies and intellects are shaped by it. However, Freud suggests that these ideologies are passed down unconsciously, through the process of super-ego identification. Thus, an explicitly economic determinism cannot fully explain human psychology or the basis of morality.
Freud again counters Kant through his theory of the id. Kant proposed that space and time exist in the human a priori, or inherently. He believed that man could experience nothing without conceptions of space and time. In contrast, Freud believes that the id - the most natural and prime aspect of the psyche - knows neither time nor space, and in fact is perfectly suited to contradictions.
Perhaps the most essential point Freud makes is that these elements of the psyche are not truly distinct from one another, but instead function together as parts of a whole. Even though they do not consciously communicate, the ego, super-ego, and id work together to achieve a delicate balance in the psyche. However, the balance is indeed delicate, and psychical disturbance largely derives from the antagonisms between the different functions.
This proposed understanding again serves as an argument for the importance of psychoanalytic therapy. The suffering mental patient, Freud believes, experiences anxiety and turmoil in his ego when it is unable to successfully integrate the desires of the id and the super-ego, while also adhering to the reality principle of the outside world. Hence, the therapist seeks to strengthen the patient’s ego, while weakening the hold of the super-ego and expanding the perceptual capacities of the mind. Freud ends this lecture with one of his most famous quotations, “Wo es war, soll ich warden,” or “Where id was, there ego shall be.” By this statement, he means that successfully healing a patient through psychoanalysis allows him to accommodate him unconscious urges and desires within a manner that is acceptable to both super-ego and reality principle. However, such healing first requires a doctor who is willing to study and understand the divisions that cause neurosis in the first place.