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2.24 Sigmund Freud
Freud (1856-1939) was not really a philosopher, but the founder of psychoanalysis, that is the work that the psychologist does on the patient to understand his problems, and of modern psychology, that is the discipline that studies the human mind, according to the criteria identified by Freud. His research, however, had obvious consequences also on the philosophical conception of man, of existence, of our thinking. In treating his thought we must not let ourselves be deceived by the interest that it can arouse: we should not forget that, in fact, we are talking about how he thought and not how psychology is structured today, even though there may be correspondence in something.
His fundamental discovery was that of the presence in each of us of two essential basic components, which then go on to globally constitute our self: the Es, also called Id, and the Super-Ego, also called Super-I.
Es in German (in Latin id) is the pronoun of third person of neutral gender, that is neither masculine nor feminine, used to refer it to things or animals: it corresponds to the English it; Freud’s choice indicates the intention to express with this term the instinctive, animal part which is in each of us; the Es is, according to Freud, that part of our ego where libido is based, that is the desire for pleasure, which includes every kind of pleasure, but whose essential background is sexual; this accentuation of sexuality in Freud is a merit and a defect of him: on the one hand it has laid bare the sexual origin of many of our behaviors, on the other hand it has instead been criticized, among other things, precisely because of the claim of bringing almost everything back to sexuality. A child, according to Freud, is born as Es and his libido begins to go through some phases. His sexual pleasure, in the first eighteen months, is in an oral phase, that is, he finds pleasure in using the mouth, for example sucking milk; between eighteen and thirty-six months he passes to an anal phase, that is, he finds interest and pleasure in the production of feces and can even consider them a gift made to his mother; between the ages of three and six he passes to the phallic phase, during which he falls in love with his mother and considers his father a rival, who could castrate him because of this (in the event that this feeling stops and he does not pass to successive phases, Freud speaks of castration complex). In this situation one can develop a sense of guilt, also called the Oedipus complex, from the ancient Greek story in which Oedipus marries, without knowing it, his mother. The same vicissitudes are attributed by Freud symmetrically to girls, for whom he speaks of the Electra complex; he says that in this case a penis envy and a rage towards the mother, held responsible for this lack in them, also develops in girls. According to Freud, this envy offers an explanation of many female behaviors and, in general, of the unconscious tendency of many women to consider themselves inferior to men. Subsequently, in the adult woman the child takes the place of the penis. In a second moment of the phallic phase, the male child learns to earn the love of the mother, trying to look as much as possible like the father, and likewise, symmetrically, the female child. At the phallic stage, a phase of latency follows, between the age of six and puberty, so called because in this period, according to Freud, the libido is latent, that is, hidden, dormant; in this phase the child develops his friendship with individuals of the same sex and focuses attention on his physical development (with the pleasure of experimenting, for example, school and athletics). Finally, from puberty to the rest of life, we live in the genital phase, because in it the libido concentrates again on the genital organs; it is characterized by an ever greater harmony and balance between all the psychological components, including a generative ability, able to not limit itself to physical functions only, but which becomes an ability to love with all one’s being and to engage in work; in this last phase the individual must resolve the conflicts and the fixations deriving from the previous phases because otherwise he will not have a balanced development. It may be the case, for example, when a person, due to some problem in his childhood, does not adequately develop these steps and remains in some respects still tied to the oral phase, that is too tied to pleasures that involve the mouth, such as eating, sucking, smoking, drinking alcohol, but also, more indirectly, being a victim, always wanting to talk or wanting to always make pungent jokes, be spoiled. Fixation in the anal phase can occur in the child who defecates in inappropriate places, or immediately before or after being placed on the potty; in the adult we will find a stubborn personality, loath to any authority. Fixation in the phallic phase can create adults unable to develop a relationship of authentic love with other people.
Freud’s theories are primarily masculine oriented and this has led to criticism from feminists. Freud had difficulty incorporating the desires of females into his theories and this led him to state that “psychology is unable to solve the enigma of femininity”.
From the moment the child comes into the world, he begins to build above the Es a whole set of rules, censures, prohibitions, commands, forbiddances, which come to form a second self superimposed on the Es, which Freud calls the Super-Ego, and which constitutes the seat of the moral sense, of values, of guilt, of authority, etc. Because of this mechanism, the original impulses of the Es are gradually set aside, hidden, removed from consciousness, and go on to form an accumulation over time, which is one with the Es, and which Freud calls unconscious. The unconscious, that each of us has, no matter how hard we try to know it, is never attainable, because that I, who should be in charge of reaching it, actually at the same time never fails to filter and censor it; even by trying to eliminate from our minds for a moment all censorships and prohibitions, by trying to see which impulses emerge from our unconscious, actually we can just reach the subconscious, that is a part of the self that is halfway, but at a very superficial level, just hidden from the Super-Ego; in other words, we can only know the first few centimeters that lie beneath this sea of our self, deep, by comparison, a some hundred kilometers.
The unconscious emerges partly in dreams, because in sleep the surveillance of the Super-Ego is loosened, even if never completely; in this situation of semi-surveillance, the unconscious finds a way to express itself in the form of symbols, which form the contents of our dreams that we sometimes tell others; keeping in mind this fact, we can realize that we always dream, for the simple fact that our brain never stops expressing itself, thinking, in any way; when we believe we have not dreamed anything, it is only because upon awakening, for any reason, the Super-Ego, with all its rules and schemes, has intervened to set aside the dream before its residues could reach our consciousness; vice versa, we remember the dream if for some reason, at the moment of awakening, the Super-Ego has had some delay in putting its control into operation and therefore something has managed to pass up to the level of consciousness.
Another way in which our unconscious expresses itself through symbols is certain casual, involuntary behaviors, such as small errors, tics, forgetfulness, distractions, short casual gestures; to indicate these phenomena the expression Freudian slip, that is Freudian error, has become famous; for example, if one, who should say “six”, accidentally errs and instead says “sex”, according to Freud very probably did not mistake casually, but the error is a symptom of the repressed, censored unconscious that occasionally seeks to come to light and to express itself. To take other examples, keeping hands behind one’s back can be a symbol indicating that that person feels she has some thoughts or feelings to hide from others; the rearing that boys do with their mopeds or bicycles can express the sexual symbol of mounting or of domain, and so on.
A second component of the Es drives, identified by Freud, in addition to sexuality, is aggressiveness. It is a reserve of reactive energy, designed to guarantee survival; think, for example, of lions, which without their aggressiveness could not face the harsh conditions of the natural environment in which they live; but aggressiveness can also be triggered in inappropriate ways, for example due to disproportions between its size and the possibilities of unloading, or between the entity and elements that increase it and make it disproportionate, or, on the contrary, undersized. It could be said that, according to Freud, a behavior, if it is not determined by sexuality, is then provoked by the need to give space to agressiveness; even a daily and very simple gesture, like for example opening or closing a door, or tapping with the accelerator, can contain the satisfaction of winning the small resistance of the door, or of the road uphill, and therefore give a small vent to our aggressiveness. Two other components of our instincts, which oppose each other, are the instinct to life, to love (said by Freud eros, which in Greek means sexual love), which generates behaviors targeted, for example, at the joy of living, at esteem, and the instinct to death and destruction (called by Freud thanatos, which in Greek means death), which generates behaviors such as war, the pleasure of destroying and killing. In this view it is clear that for Freud man is never a harmonized being, but, on the contrary, he always has some imbalance, some conflict, which he expresses in various behaviors, including artistic productions and professional activities; they often fulfill the function of allowing the person a bit of balance, because they allow her a space in which to release her impulses. About this, Freud speaks of sublimation, that is, the camouflage of an instinct in the form of a more noble, constructive, socially accepted activity. This does not mean, of course, that through sublimation we can completely compensate for the psychological imbalances, by using simple substitutions.
One of the psychologist’s skills consists in interpreting the contents of a dream or a behavior, trying to understand what the unconscious is trying to manifest. A method sometimes practiced to achieve this goal can be that of hypnosis, through which one can try to make the patient relive a forgotten moment of his past, which may be at the origin of his psychological problem. In the patient’s relationship with the psychologist, the transference mechanism may occur. It consists in the transfer, the unconscious projecting of certain roles on the psychologist, by the patient, based on his inner conflicts that he needs to solve; the psychologist could also initially accept this attribution, since it could serve the patient as a tool for a path of liberation.
A problem caused by this set of things is that at first glance they are suggestive, fascinating, attractive and can even seem quite easy to understand and practice, with the result that anyone who has read a few psychology books could be tempted to improvise as a psychologist and decide how to interpret the symbols of dreams or behaviors, his and others. The result is equivalent to that of those who improvise a doctor, thinking of knowing how to interpret the symptoms of certain diseases; the damage caused by these presumptions can be incalculable, even irreparable, especially on people who have a fragile, vulnerable, easy to suggest character. Today Freud, after having been the father of psychology and having inspired its starting points, is in many ways overcome, precisely because of the excessive simplicity of his conceptions. Psychology today is inspired by a multitude of schools and theories and above all it strives to rely on elements as objective as possible (measurements, analyses, statistics), rather than on interpretative keys containing the claim to make everything understood starting from a few and simplistic criteria.
A philosophical consequence of Freud’s studies is that more and more the human being comes to appear as a determined being; as for Marx man was determined by economy, with Freud we add to be determined by the mechanisms of the psyche, by the oppositions of conscious and unconscious that inhabit and act in each of us. This is quite the opposite, therefore, to when we said that it is the I that puts itself, that creates his history and his becoming. We come to find ourselves thus, gradually, in a new context of ideas called structuralism: man is determined by the structures that are around him and within him, among which we will consider later also those of language. As, according to Nietzsche, God had died, for structuralism man died, understood as I, as subject, who is thus shattered, dispersed, in the midst of economic and psychological analyses. However, structuralists themselves are accused of idealizing structures, as if they were, metaphysically, the ultimate being of reality.