In his Civilization and Its Discontents, does Sigmund Freud set forth a position agreeing with cultural relativism or would he consider such a view essentially mistaken in its claims about human...

In his Civilization and Its Discontents, does Sigmund Freud set forth a position agreeing with cultural relativism or would he consider such a view essentially mistaken in its claims about human nature?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In his Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud sets forth views that are quite complex, and though they do take into account that specific cultural factors affect how humans develop psychologically, he cannot be considered a pure cultural relativist.

According to Freud, the human psyche is divided into three parts, an id, ego, and superego. For Freud, this division is an absolute part of human nature under the conditions of any form of society or civilization. Thus from a postmodernist perspective, we might say that Freud "essentializes" human nature, believing in a single universal, totalizing account of humanity.

He does, however, see the development of the individual as culturally dependent. We all begin at birth with an id, the part of the mind that contains the basic physical and primal drives such as hunger, aggression, sexual desire, and other forms of impulse towards gratification and pleasure. It is irrational and unconditioned by civilization.

The ego, for Freud, is the reality principle that mediates the impulses of both super-ego and id with a sense of rationality and feasibility. It is inherently practical. For Freud, this type of rational principle would take into account what is practical within a culture, but is not ultimately culturally determined.

The super-ego is the part of our mind that internalizes the values and norms of our culture, especially as they are handed down to us by our parents. People in different cultures internalize different sets of rules. For example, in many cultures, people internalize prohibitions against incest; the super-ego part of the brains in people in such cultures would consider incest "unnatural." In other cultures such as ancient Egypt, brother-sister marriages were common, and thus the super-ego of a person in ancient Egypt would internalize this as a norm rather than as something morally wrong. 

Thus we could say that Freud does accept some form of cultural relativism in so far as he would say that the values internalized by our super-egos vary with the cultures in which we were brought up, but on the other hand, he believes that his tripartite model of the psyche is not culturally determined but essential to all human nature.

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