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Freud and the Split Subject: The Nature of Self


Freud’s model of ‘self’ introduced a revolutionary approach to philosophical thinking established by the Enlightenment notions of subjectivity. While Enlightenment philosophers viewed the self as an essence with which one is born and is unchanged with time, Freud demonstrated a complex model of a split consciousness and how the concept of self undergoes stages of development through biological growth and socialization in childhood that ultimately forms personality and ‘self’. Although Freud’s theory has its flaws, it remains a better reflection of how subjectivity and ‘self’ from within human beings due to the consistent evidence that surroundings, experiences, and social norms strongly define and change a person over time rather than remaining static.

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Before Freud, the majority of philosophers such as Kant and Descartes viewed humans as having an essence which was identified as ‘soul’ or ‘self’. It constituted the core of the human and was considered the ‘subject’. Similar to that of agrammatic meaning, the self was seen as the subject of mental and physical actions, such as the thinker of thoughts, feeler of feelings, and experiencer of experiences. The essence of ‘self’ combined with the subject was seen as unitary and unchanged over time. People were born with this essence and it did not deviate (Watson 2).

Freud’s Personality and “Self”

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality suggested that the mind is broken down into three components of the id, ego, and the. The structural theory of personality places an emphasis on the role of unconscious psychological conflicts in shaping human behavior and personality. The process of interaction between the three components is dynamic and undergoes five distinct stages of psychosexual development. The id represents primitive and instinctual urges and instant gratification. The superego is considered to be the conscience or moral compass, encompassing social rules and morals. The ego is the rational and pragmatic part of the personality that is partly conscious and unconscious, regarded as the exemplification of ‘self’ and its primary role to balance the drives of the id and the superego. Freud argued that the three components are in constant conflict, with the adult personality and behavior are rooted in the psychosexual stages of development and internal struggles that occur during childhood (“Psychodynamic Perspectives on Personality”).

He suggested that the nature of the conflict between the three components changes over time, as an individual grows with the conflict occurring between the biological drives (id) and social/moral conscience (superego). The ability to resolve internal conflicts as a child determines the ability to function as an adults and forms one’s identity. Freud’s focus on the unconscious demonstrated a departure from previous efforts of philosophy to understand the nature of self, and even the fact it can be explored through rational analysis (Chafeee).


The philosophies of the Enlightment thinkers such as Kant and Descartes focused on self as a conscious. Kant introduced the idea that the self is a “transcendental unifying principle of consciousness” which is not an entity but rather a dynamic organizing principle that makes consciousness possible. However, it lacks personality, and although Kant does mention the ’empirical self’ (a version of ego) which includes some unique patterns of memories, personality, and emotion, there are questions on how the ‘transcendental self’ interacts with the ‘empirical self.’ Similarly, Descartes supported the nature of dualism that the mind is separate from the body, and the mind is in a separate reality of sort that controls both consciousness and identity from an ethereal position (Chafee). In both cases, the element of self is pre-established, unitary, and undivided over time, a single entity that defined identity and was unitary even in complex contexts of moral judgments, inner sensation, and sense-perceptions.

The genius of Freud in his revolutionary, controversial, but accepted modern-day theory is that he did not accept this concept of the existence of a single entity that could define self and identity. He argued that humans in nature are not static nor contain anything that remains identical over time, even at one moment in time humans are never unitary. Freud’s theory suggests that humans are a multiplicity of interacting systems and processes (Watson 2). Freud built upon the theories of George Mead who in 1913 theorized that humans develop a ‘self,’ which is part of personality in combination with self-image and self-awareness. This is done through social interaction with others that allows us to see ourselves through the perspective of others. Through this consciousness and conduct, human society is formed and people perceive themselves through perceptions of others that enforce the norms and values of the society where an individual lives (Korgen & White).

Freud’s theory, although with its flaws, remains much more realistic and cohesive than of previous enlightenment thinkers. Freud also agreed that socialization teaches and develops values that then influence the self. However, it is also argued that it was not the intention of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory to explain the concept of ‘self’ as he rarely used the term, and not in a technical manner (Watson 1). Nevertheless, applying his theory is helpful in the exploration of the subject. People are not born as authors, or with a specific religion or political affiliation, they become these. For most people, parents and family members, the primary interactions exert tremendous influence on whom people become as individuals. Parents from varying societies that have different values and norms, socialize and parent children in different ways that result in people having many different identities in terms of values, and the self (or ego) balances the id and superego in a different manner. People learn about the dominant norms of society through socialization and how to balance them with innate desires.

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Works Cited

Chafee, John. 3.8 The Self is Multilayered: Freud. Pearson, 2016. The Philosopher’s Way: Thinking Critically About Profound Ideas, 5th Edition. Web.

Korgen, Kathleen O., and Jonathan M. White. The Engaged Sociologist: Connecting the Classroom to the Community. SAGE Publications, 2014.

“Psychodynamic Perspectives on Personality.” Lumen Learning.

Watson, Alex. “Who Am I? The Self/Subject According to Psychoanalytic Theory.” SAGE Open, vol. 4, no. 3, 2014, pp. 1-14.

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