Ego (Ego Psychology) (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
The theories of the ego grouped under the rubric of "ego psychology" originated in Vienna before the Second World War and were developed in the United States by virtue of the migration of their chief proponents, namely Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris, and Rudolf Loewenstein. To these names must be added those of Paul Federn, of Hermann Nunberg, and of a good many other authors who helped give wide currency to conceptions of the ego that were destined to attract violent criticism, in France, from Jacques Lacan.
The substantival "das Ich" was so common in German (as was its equivalent in various other languages), that Freud, in the early part of his career, when he was actively searching for the new, paid it little mind. To begin with, Freud took the ego to be an indivisible unity, largely coextensive with the body, and therefore with consciousness. As Goethe had written, "To produce in oneself a new and better ego, thus to construct oneself as permanent, to live in oneself and create" ("Ein neues besseres Ich in uns erzeugen, uns so ewig bilden, in uns fortleben und schaffen").
In 1914, however, Freud would write that the ego may at times "play the ludicrous part of the clown in a circus" (1914d, p. 53). We may say, in other words, that from the historical point of view psychoanalysis did not undertake an investigation of the ego before the First World War: Psychoanalysis was the science of the unconscious, whereas for Freud the ego belonged to the realm of consciousness. The notion of the ego is very hard to circumscribe and it has a different meaning for each psychological theory, so here we shall confine ourselves to the psychoanalytic sense. The translation of the term into languages other than German further complicates the issue. The great confusion in English stems from the use of the Latin "ego" rather than the English "self" or "me." In French there is ambiguity too, between "le je" and "le Moi."
Freud believed that the ego developed like a skin over the unconscious (or, in his later accounts, over the id) and that it was not present from birth. The phenomenon of narcissistic cathexis led him to conclude that the ego was in part unconscious. The Unconscious/Preconscious/Conscious scheme thus came to seem inadequate, and Freud spent fifteen years working out a new subdivision of the mind into id, ego, and superegoagencies" that his followers treated as structures. This was an error, for structures are static, whereas agencies are dynamic.
The origin of the ego became an essential issue for psychoanalysis, and has been responsible in part for the latter growth of research into early childhood. Historically speaking, after Freud's death the notion of the ego eventually became the central preoccupation of psychoanalysis, to the detriment of the id. One reason for this was the increase of ego disturbances as compared with neurotic complaints, at least among analytic patients. Such disturbances were seen as the cause of perversions and other human behavioral problems. Certainly, the aphorism "Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach, in meiner Brust" ("Two souls reside, alas, in my breast") had long been familiar, but it had engaged no clinical application. Further research into the psychology of the ego was undertaken in Freud's wake, first by Anna Freudho indeed began during her father's life-timend then by Heinz Hartmann and Paul Federn.
According to Freud, the formation of the ego was a process that grew out of the bonds established with the mother or mother-substitute. Those bonds could in fact be looked upon as subject-object relationships, after the fashion of the English school. From its beginnings, the ego was the agency of the mind whose task it was to address the realities of life. Only thanks to the love and continual care of the mother or mother-substitute could adaptation to reality be achieved. Freud felt that this normally occurred during the third year of life, when the child's ego was ready to adapt itself also, beyond the family circle, to the outside world as represented by the kindergarten.
The ego's development did not stop at this point, however, but continued into adulthood, continually exposing the ego to innumerable dangers which orientated it in this way or that. Genetic factors surely played a major role, even if this could not as yet be proved. Anna Freud emphasized that its development in childhood shaped the most important portion of the ego. Only when this development was arrested or when it regressed was therapeutic intervention called for.
In summary, the ego may be described as that agency which protects the id and which must come to terms with the demands of the superego. It represents in large part the individual's social environment, although it is also strongly determined in its development by familial factors. A lack of love and acknowledgment during the first years of life may have two kinds of consequences: an autonomous ego may develop which is concerned only with itself, which is narcissistically cathected, and which is capable of achieving remarkable successes in reality without making genuine contact with other individuals or with society; alternatively, the ego may wither, failing either to fashion links with the outside world or to draw satisfaction from within. Between these two extremes every imaginable intermediate situationr "ego state"ay be met with. But such ego states also depend on an outside world with the capacity to transform the ego-ideal into an ideal ego which, as early as the third year of life, allies itself with the superego to form an agency of great power in the life of the individual.
Thus the earliest object relationships produce distinct character types: an ego strong in its narcissism but socially ill-adapted; an ego that is weak, and undeveloped in all respects; or an ego that is bound to a strong superego and thus able to assert itself in the world. This last type is represented by highly religious individuals and probably constitutes the commonest form of human life.
The psychoanalytic psychology of the ego was inaugurated in 1923 with the publication of Freud's major work The Ego and the Id (1923b). For Freud, the ego was intimately linked to the body, thus ensuring the basic unity of the human being. Assuming that everyone knew what the ego was, he offered no definition and confined himself to describing its functions. In 1929 Hermann Nunberg developed the notion of the ego's synthetic function. Whereas Freud thought that after an analysis synthesis occurred spontaneously, Nunberg showed that it was in fact the work of the ego, whose essential task was to bring together the various tendencies of the human individual and place them in the service of social life. Nunberg felt that the higher functions dependent on the ego, such as artistic and scientific activity, were in fact governed by it; Freud for his part thought they remained under the influence of the id, like a horseman on his mount.
In 1930, Anna Freud published a book dealing with other ego functions, notably the defenses. She argued that a set of human behaviors arose from the need to fend off danger, and that responsibility here fell to the ego. One of the most important defense mechanisms was identification with the aggressor as a way of conjuring away threats, but of course this ploy was not always successful. Repression, forgetting, and the splitting of the ego were other defensive tactics. The positive ego functions were synthesis and identification with the ideal ego.
After Freud's death, Heinz Hartmann expanded some ideas that he had presented earlier, proposing that the ego's most significant function was adaptation, made possible by virtue of the ego's two forms: on the one hand, the ego ruled by the instincts, and on the other, an ego free of conflict, which Hartmann called the self. For Hartmann the ego was entirely defined by its functions. He also held that a conflict-free ego was present from birth. Aberrant human behavior was in large measure the result of a failure to adapt to social conditions. This outcome occurred quite independently of the instincts, and it also had constitutional determinants. The "autonomous" ego could be overwhelmed by the aggressive instinct, which was the path to psychosis.
This account was defining for psychoanalytic ego psychology after the Second World War. It brought psychoanalysis back towards academic psychology, as also closer to individual psychology. It tended to make it more compatible with sociology and opened the way for it to become a natural science. It supplied the foundation for a psychoanalytic sociology that would trace the development of the social ego from infancy to old age, an approach pioneered in Erik Erikson's book Childhood and Society (1950). This conception of the ego also constituted a link to behavioral studies and relied on the observations of Jean Piaget, whose work on the development of intelligence in children buttresses the notion of an "autonomous ego." Finally, Hartmann's ego psychology led eventually to the psychology of the self developed by Heinz Kohut.
Hartmann's approach was in part the result of the transplantation of psychoanalysis to the English-speaking world. An accurate English translation of Ich would have been "self"; the use of the Latin "ego" turned Ichpsychologie into "ego psychologynto something both strange and foreign-sounding. And "self," meanwhile, was translated into German as the Selbst.
Paul Federn's approach here was very different to Hartmann's. Drawing on his experience of analyzing a schizophrenic artist as early as 1905, as well as on his observations of other mental patients, and of himself, Federn concluded that the ego was the feeling of "Ich bin Ich selbst,"I am I myself," the sense of self-identity in time in space. He thus posed the question not in terms of the function but rather in terms of the essence of the ego.
See also: Adaptation; Alterations of the ego; Cathectic energy; Ego; Ego autonomy; Ego boundaries; Ego feeling; Ego Functions; Ego interests; Ego psychology; Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation; Ego states; Egosyntonic; Federn, Paul; Hartmann, Heinz; Identity; Kris, Ernst; Loewenstein, Rudolf M; Psychosexual development; Self; Self psychology; Self-image; Self-representation; Stage (or phase); United States.
Erikson, Erik H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.z
Federn, Paul. (1926). Ego-psychology and the psychoses (E. Weiss, Ed.). New York: Basic Books, 1952.
Freud, Anna. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. (Cecil Baines, Trans.). London: Hogarth, 1937.
Freud, Sigmund. (1914d). On the history of the psychoanalytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.
. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
Nunberg, Hermann. (1930). The synthetic function of the ego. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 7.