September 2014


Written by Ralph Blumenau

The id, ego and super-ego are the three parts of the psychic apparatus defined in Sigmund Freud's structural model of the psyche; they are the three theoretical constructs in terms of whose activity and interaction our mental life is described. According to this model of the psyche, the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the super-ego plays the critical and moralizing role; and the ego is the organized, realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego. The super-ego can stop one from doing certain things that one's id may want to do.

Although the model is structural and makes reference to an apparatus, the id, ego and super-ego are purely symbolic concepts about the mind and do not correspond to actual (somatic) structures of the brain such as the kind dealt with by neuroscience. The concepts themselves arose at a late stage in the development of Freud's thought as the "structural model" (which succeeded his "economic model" and "topographical model") and was first discussed in his 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle and was formalized and elaborated upon three years later in his The Ego and the Id. Freud's proposal was influenced by the ambiguity of the term "unconscious" and its many conflicting uses.

The id (Latin for "it") is the unorganized part of the personality structure that contains a human's basic, instinctual drives. The id is the only component of personality that is present from birth.[4] It is the source of our bodily needs, wants, desires, and impulses, particularly our sexual and aggressive drives. The id contains the libido, which is the primary source of instinctual force that is unresponsive to the demands of reality.[5] The id acts according to the "pleasure principle"—the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse[6]—defined as, seeking to avoid pain or unpleasure (not ‘displeasure') aroused by increases in instinctual tension.[7] If the mind was solely guided by the id, individuals would find it difficult to wait patiently at a restaurant, while feeling hungry, and would most likely grab food from neighbouring tables.[8]

According to Freud the id is unconscious by definition:

"It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the Dreamwork and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call t a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations. ... It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle."[9]

In the id,

"contrary impulses exist side by side, without cancelling each other out. ... There is nothing in the id that could be compared with negation ... nothing in the id which corresponds to the idea of time."[10]

Developmentally, the id precedes the ego; i.e., the psychic apparatus begins, at birth, as an undifferentiated id, part of which then develops into a structured ego. Thus, the id:

"contains everything that is inherited, that is present at birth, is laid down in the constitution—above all, therefore, the instincts, which originate from the somatic organization, and which find a first psychical expression here (in the id) in forms unknown to us."[11] Wikipedia: Id, ego and super-ego

In his Critique of Pure Reason, (1781) Immanuel Kant significantly extended the range of a priori truths (prior to experience). He held that we bring to bear on the world not only our senses, nor only those a priori truths which unfold from definitions. The way in which our minds operate on the world is dictated by the way our minds are constituted, and this constitution is also a priori, that is it does not derive from experience, though, like the unfolding of definitions, it will subsequently be applied to experience. In other words we are born with a mind that can re-interpret light waves into images and objects. (refer diagram)

Forty years earlier, David Hume had demonstrated that we have no evidence to be certain that there is such a thing as a cause: all we can know is that very often, or even always within our finite experience, A is followed by B. Similarly, he showed that when we talk about space and time we are merely expressing our repeated experiences of physical and temporal distance. He then added that of course we cannot in real life do without the notions of cause, space or time; we constantly show that we have a belief in causes etc., but he insisted that they were only beliefs, and that we have no philosophical reason for knowing that they really existed.

Kant now asked himself why ‘we cannot do without ‘these notions. Hume had suggested it was because they were useful and that without them we just couldn't live; but he was clear that the entertaining of such notions lacked philosophical rigour and was therefore was a kind of intellectual laziness. Kant was sure that there was a great deal more to it than that. He held that thinking in terms of causes was not a philosophical aberration, but arises out of the very essence of the way the human mind is constituted, the essence of the way it is compelled to reason. When the mind looks at the world, it has no choice but to view it with the ideas that are built into the mind. This looking Kant called: Anschauungen. The German noun means ‘views,' and the technical translation into English, ‘intuitions,' does not in its everyday sense capture the meaning at all, although it does come from the Latin; intueri, meaning to look upon. Leibniz had called these ideas ‘tools' of the understanding; Kant called them Concepts and Categories, and they too are a priori: that is to say they come before any experience and they shape the experiences we subsequently have. Therefore we can say that the images we see are formed through a process of synthesis, made possible by the apparatus of our mind.

Both Leibniz and Kant knew that these tools of understanding are not present in a baby, but in their view they are genetically programmed to develop without having to rely on experience. The baby cannot play football because its leg muscles are not developed; but they are programmed to develop naturally as it matures. In the same way, the baby is not aware of tools of understanding, but they are also programmed to develop as the baby matures. Locke had said that the mind at birth is tabla rasa – a blank slate – and that there are no innate ideas. Leibniz and Kant differed from him in claiming that such developments are innate and not the result of experience, though experience and training may speed up and refine the development of these tools so that we can use them more effectively. So the world reaches us already mediated through these tools of understanding. And what follows from that is that we can have no direct knowledge of the world as it is before this mediation has happened. The world as it is before mediation is what Kant calls the noumenal world, or in a memorable phrase Das Ding an sich, which means: "The thing in itself," but whose sense would be more accurately caught by translating it as "the thing (or world) as it really is" (as distinct from how it appears to use). He calls the world as it appears to us (after mediation through our tools of understanding) the phenomenal world.

These tools of understanding, which I will be describing below, also have what Kant called a transcendental character. These are ideas which transcend or go beyond any one person's ideas and are shared by all human beings, not by any one self but by the transcendent self, and are not therefore merely individual constructs. The subjectivism necessarily involved in a situation where the objective nature of the noumenal world must be hidden from us is therefore a collective subjectivism. As such, it presents a kind of objectivity against which the subjectivity of an individual can be assessed. For example, in their developed state these collective views present a system of reasoning in the context of which we can say whether an individual is using reason properly or not. That part of Kant's teaching which deals with the nature of the ideas which all human beings share is therefore called: Transendental Idealism

Bertrand Russell explains Kant's theory with an analogy, which I'm expanding a little here. If all people were born with blue tinted spectacles that they could never take off, the unphilosophical person would assume that all the colours of the world have a bluish tinge. But philosophers, once they have realised (since we all wear them we might call them transcendental spectacles) are an irremovable part of our visual equipment and will come to understand that we cannot know what the colours of the world are really like because they can only reach us as mediated by our transcendental spectacles. The philosopher will know that he is receiving signals from outside: he will be aware that there is something ‘out there' which is sending the signals, but he will also know that the signals he is capable of receiving depend on the nature of our receiving apparatus. The apparatus may, by its very nature, distort the signals and indeed miss out a whole range of them. To those signals we cannot receive we are blind, and we can have no conception of them.

But will the philosopher really know that there is something sending the signals? Should Kant not rather have said that he will assume the existence of an external source of the signals? To understand the full significance of what Kant was saying requires us to consider the limitations imposed on us by our sense of reason. Our reason does not read off or deduce from the signals of the noumenal world what the world is like. The way our sense of reasoning interprets those signals constitutes the phenomenal world. This interpretation forms our ‘knowledge,' and because knowledge is interpretation, it is not so much something we have as something we do. We shape the phenomenal world with our tools of understanding. For example, because we cannot perceive the noumenal world directly, we cannot know whether it has an order or not. Therefore such sense as we have of the universe being orderly is not imposed by the universe on us, but is imposed by us on the universe.

Kant believed that by his insight he had brought about a ‘Copernican Revolution.' Copernicus had replaced the old idea that the earth was the centre of the universe: the sun was now its centre. This radically shifted the perspective of how we understand the world. Kant created a similar shift of perspective, from the idea that the world as we experience it is something that is given to our minds to the notion that it is determined by our mind. In the 19th century the Germans particularly took to this conception that the world is a product of the mind (and, later of the Will). More soberly, 20th century scientists and philosophers reinforced the notion that we can only understand the world through the conceptual apparatus, the tools of understanding that we have.

It is important to realise that, though the tools of understanding are not adequate to reveal to us the real nature of the ‘thing-in-itself,' they are extremely effective in our understanding of the world.

What then are the tools of understanding? Kant called some of them concepts and others categories, though he sometimes refers to concepts as categories. Both have the same characteristics of imposing order on our perceptions. There are first the concepts of Space and Time. Our minds are made in such a way that we have to order our perceptions in a spatial and temporal way; and they cannot imagine a world which has more than three dimensions or does not obey a temporal sequence. If, therefore, in the noumenal world more than three dimensions or some sort of non-sequential time did not exist, we would be incapable of not grasping that. When he comes to categories, these are an elaboration of Leibniz's ‘tools of understanding.' For Leibniz these had been the innate notions of being, substance, unity, identity, contradiction and cause. Kant divided categories into four groups, each of which he then subdivided into three further groups. The more effectively we use our reason, the more fully comprehensible the phenomenal world will be for us. Kant as a child of the Age of Reason trusted implicitly and explicitly that reason will give us a wholly reliable and coherent account of the phenomenal world and an increasingly perfect understanding of the laws of nature which govern the phenomenal world.

This article is an abridged version of an article by Ralph Blumenau that appeared in Philosophy Now entitled Kant and the Thing in itself.