Psychoanalysis was founded by Dr. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud revolutionised our thinking about the human mind, and was the first person to articulate the idea of the unconscious mind and its role in shaping how we behave. His thinking forms the starting point for all subsequent schools of thought within psychoanalysis.
Freud divided consciousness up into three levels: the Id, the Ego and the Superego. The Id was defined as the level of the mind that acts on innate impulse and instinct. Within the three levels of consciousness it is positioned as the lowest level and the most primal, driving our behaviour from below, demanding the gratification of desires, wants and needs.
Above the Id is the Ego, which is defined as the conscious mind. This is the self-aware aspect of our psyche which has to be realistic and to make conscious decisions. Freud said that we naively assume that our Egos – i.e. our conscious selves – are in full control of our own thoughts, when in fact our Egos are unwittingly being driven by the Id, and regulated by the Superego, the final level of consciousness.
The Superego is akin to the conscience, regulating our impulses and desires and dictating what is right and wrong. The Superego therefore stands in direct conflict with and tries to regulate the Id. It is often determined along moral and punitive lines i.e. you should do this, but you shouldn’t do that. The Superego is an often unconscious voice, which commands authority over how we behave.
The conflict that defines the relationship between Freud’s idea of the Id, the Ego and the Superego is indicative of his attitude towards the mind more generally, which he saw as being riven with internal conflict. This, in a way, encapsulates what was so revolutionary about his way of thinking, and why he is still heralded as one of the greatest modern thinkers and as the founding figure in modern psychology.
Freud was the first person to fully articulate and theorise the idea that human beings contain conflicting selves rather than one true self. He was also the first person to articulate, scientifically, the idea that our behaviour in adult life is shaped by our experiences in infancy and childhood: this will be the subject of the next post.