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The ‘i’ of Descartes and the ‘i’ of Freud

Autor:   •  November 21, 2018  •  Research Paper  •  1,644 Words (7 Pages)  •  371 Views

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The ‘I’ of Descartes and the ‘I’ of Freud


The field of philosophy has had numerous contributors over the centuries. Critical thinkers have existed for millennia, since the era of the Roman Empire all the way to the present. The most notable ones are, undeniably, those who have made critical breakthroughs in the field. Of these, perhaps few are more renowned than Rene Descartes and Sigmund Freud. Rene Descartes lived in the first half of the 17th century. He is considered by many subsequent philosophers as the founder of western philosophy in its modern incarnation (Tash & d'Heurle, 2013). Freud, on the other hand, came much later in the latter half of the 19th century. Despite the different eras, these two thinkers both had a fundamental impact on the fields of philosophy and psychoanalysis.  Particularly, they both put forward ideas and theories about the self and the identity, albeit from different viewpoints. While Freud analyzed identity and ego as a thing with distinct parts, Descartes took a more radical approach, viewing the ego in relation to the external world. His aim was to establish unassailable truths which could be used as a foundation for future theories on the subject. It is clear that despite the different eras, the ideas presented by these critical thinkers have a common underlying theme; the analysis of one’s identity.

The ‘I’ of Freud

Freud began expounding on his theory from 1910 and detailed it in a number of articles and books on the subject. His first attempt to examine the workings of the mind and the eventual formation of one’s identity led to his formulation of the iceberg metaphor (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985). In this theory, he offers three distinct divisions of the mind. The first he calls the conscious, which is the part of the mind that we are in control of and aware of. The second part he calls the preconscious. It contains those observations, experiences, and thoughts that are on the way to becoming conscious. The third he called the unconscious and further stated that it is almost completely inaccessible to conscious examination.

Freud’s first attempt, however, does not define the self explicitly. The reason for this is that in identifying these regions, he automatically assumes the existence of an independent and distinct individual upon whom the effects of the activities of these three regions occur (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985). In questioning the assumption of the existence of the individual, he theorized the existence of the identity, which he split into three parts, the ego, the id and the super-ego.

He defines the id as a purely unconscious part of an individual’s personality that is the driving force behind instinctual reactions. He asserts that it is the only part of the human psyche that is present at birth, claiming that children are dominated by the id. The id, according to Freud seeks the immediate fulfillment of all impulses, such as pleasure and pain avoidance. Its purpose is twofold. Firstly, it seeks to satisfy the individual by motivating the satisfaction of impulses, such as the need for food, sex, and safety according to the pleasure principle (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985). Second, it seeks to protect the mind from both internal and external harm, either by stimulating the fight-or-flight response present in all animals or by creating an instinctual tension which motivates the individual to leave mentally harmful situations (Freud & Strachey, 2001). Freud argues that the pleasure principle – the need to immediately and fully satisfy both psychological and biological needs – is the force behind the id.


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