Modern Psychoanalysis

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Id and I

The Id and I
“You must not expect me to tell you much that is new about the id, except its name. It is the obscure inaccessible part of our personality; the little we know about it we have learnt from the study of dream-work and the formation of neurotic symptoms… and can only be described as being all that the ego is not. We can come nearer to the id with images, and call it a chaos, a cauldron of seething excitement.”
Thus, Sigmund Freud (1933, pp. 106-107) described “das Es,” known to us as the Id,” but more literally meaning “the It.”

Freud considered the very nature of the Id to be shrouded in mystery, and originally part of the earliest stages of our development as individuals:
“If we look back at the developmental history of the individual and of his psychical apparatus, we shall be able to make an important distinction in the id. Originally, of course, everything was id; the ego was developed out of the id by the continual influence of the external world.” (1940b, ¶4.12b).
Therefore, it is not surprising that he thought it particularly amenable to “dream-work.” In one of Dr. Freud’s earliest writings (to his friend Fliess, in 1898), he opined that:
“Biologically, dream life seems to me to derive entirely from the residues of the prehistoric period of life (between the ages of one and three) – the same period which is the source of the unconscious and alone contains the etiology of all the psychoneurosis, the period normally characterized by an amnesia analogous to hysterical amnesia.” (Masson, 1985, p.302).
Of course, the id is merely a conception, or a model, for psychical functioning – it does not necessarily correspond to an actual structure in the brain – but, as such, it is still one of the most useful models available for viewing the unconscious.

Modern analysts frequently refer to the id energies as “primary process” energies. As Margolis puts it:
“…analysis by its very nature commands the deployment of capacities in the analyst that incorporate… primary process energies. In many ways, the analyst, resonating to the complex play of spoken and unspoken cues, transmits therapeutic reactions ‘through his hair and finger tips.’ The capacity to function on that level is an indispensable component of the analyst’s emotional inventory. Failing this, nothing moves. (1994, p. 253).
In fact, Margolis also quotes Freud (1994, p. 241) as describing “scientific creativity as ‘the succession of daringly playful fantasy and relentlessly realistic criticism’… in other words, an interplay of primary and secondary process.”

Professor Freud understood the Id to be a mainly unconscious mechanism:
“The laws of logic – above all, the law of contradiction – do not hold for processes in the id. Contradictory impulses exist side by side without neutralizing each other or drawing apart… and we are astonished to find in it an exception to the philosophers’ assertion that space and time are necessary forms to our mental acts.” (1933, pp. 106-107).
Though Freud saw the Id as a significant piece of mental development, we might infer that he was suspicious of it since it does not readily respond to our conscious control. He made it clear that:
“The id cannot be afraid, as the ego can; it is not an organization, and cannot estimate situations of danger; (Freud, 1936, ch. 8); and that “No such purpose as… protecting itself from dangers by means of anxiety can be attributed to the id. That is the business of the ego…” (Freud, 1949, p.17).
Freud additionally emphasized the Id as being isolated or “cut off” from the world:
“The core of our being, then, is formed by the obscure id, which has no direct relations with the external world and is accessible even to our own knowledge only through the medium of another agency of the mind… The id, which is cut off from the external world, has its own world of perception…” (Freud, 1940, p.195).
One also wonders whether Freud was really comfortable with the “illogic” of the Id in light of his statement “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden.” (1991, p. 112). Roughly translated – “Where It was, there I shall be,” or “Where Id was, Ego shall be;” this statement might indicate a civilized aversion to the primitive Id.

Speaking for myself, many of the difficulties people experience seem to revolve around or have their origins in the civilized superego, rather than in the id; though the solutions may lie with the latter.

Dr. Hyman Spotnitz describes how important the Id is to curing the patient:
“…what he has to do is talk from the unconscious… What he has to do is say what occurs to him. He has to tell you what he doesn’t know. He has to talk from his id… The unconscious has to be verbalized all the way by the patient. The patient doesn’t have to understand the unconscious. What matters is that it is put into words. The analyst doesn’t even have to understand it. The patient just has to say it. The analyst’s work is getting the patient to say it.” (Meadow, 1999, p. 16, emphasis added).


Freud, S. (1933). New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. (trans. W. J. H. Sprott). New York. W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Freud, S. (1936). The problem of anxiety. (Original work published 1923). New York. W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Freud, S. (1940). An Outline of Psychoanalysis. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII.
Freud, S. (1940b). An Outline of Psychoanalysis. Hogarth Press, (1979).

Freud, S. (1949). An Outline of Psychoanalysis. (trans. James Strachey). New York. W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Freud, S. (1991). "The Dissection of the Psychical Personality," Lecture 31 in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, (1932, trans. James Strachey). London & New York. Penguin Books.

Margolis, B. (1994). Research in Modern Psychoanalysis. (Modern Psychoanalysis, Vol. 19, No. 2).

Masson, J. (1985, ed. and trans.). The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press. (Freud’s letter to Fliess, March 10, 1898, quoted here).

Meadow, P. (1999). The Clinical Practice of Modern Psychoanalysis: An Interview with Hyman Spotnitz. (Meadow/Spotnitz, CMPS/Modern Psychoanalysis, Vol. 24, No. 1)

© 2007, James G. Fennessy, M.A., J.D.
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