Saturday, April 19, 2008

Conflict as Central to Freud and Psychoanalysis 1



I have always been fascinated by the word "conflict" and the corresponding adjective which is doing the round these days, namely "conflicted."  One does not need to be too observant to see that the very nature of life in general seems to be that of conflict.  The WIKI defines conflict succinctly to my mind thus:

Conflict is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests. A conflict can be internal (within oneself) or external (between two or more individuals). Conflict as a concept can help explain many aspects of social life and social death such as social disagreement, conflicts of interests, and fight between individuals, groups, or organizations. In political terms, "conflict" can refer to wars, revolutions or other struggles, which may involve the use of force as in the term armed conflict. Without proper social arrangement or resolution, conflicts in social settings can result in stress or tensions among stakeholders.  (See this link Conflict )

Indeed, I think we can go further that the WIKI here by stating that conflict is evident not alone in organic nature itself but in inorganic life also.  It would seem to be patently obvious that even the way atoms and subatomic particles interact and react is essentially by way of conflict in the general sense of hitting off one another, of the stronger and more powerful particle winning out as it were.

As soon as a child is born he or she is aware of the presence of conflict in the world.  Sometimes (hopefully most times) it will have its needs met by the mother (possibly even the father) and at other times (hopefully not too frequently) it will not have its needs met.  When needs are not met the child becomes aware that things are not always good in life.  Bad things do happen - it will go hungry or frightened for some further time on its own. Then we all quickly notice the external conflicts in our family life as we grow older.  We hit off each other in not so good ways many times throughout the course of our living together.

However, in this post I wish to refer to internal conflict or what more pedantically or precisely can be called intrapersonal conflict - that is, conflict deep inside the person.  Now I return to talking about Freud and his understanding of the conflict within our very own psyche.  I wish here to return to the excellent book by Mitchell and Black and their exposition  of the nature and role of conflict to Freud's understanding of the psyche.  The following passage I believe gives us a deep understanding and grasp of the way Freud's thought was developing.  We can easily see how he went from the topographical model of mind (archaeological or layer model) to a more structural one in an attempt to get to grips with what he daily perceived to be the conflicts that existed not alone within the minds of his own patients but within himself also:

From his earliest differences with Breuer on the cause of repressed memories, Freud regarded conflict as the central clinical problem underlying all psychopathology.  His favorite metaphors for the mind (and the analytic process) were military.  One part of the mind was at war with another part of the mind, and the symptoms were a direct, although masked, consequence of this hidden, underlying struggle.  Freud's theoretical models of the psyche were all efforts to portray the patient's conflict, which was at the heart of analytic treatment.

By the early 1920s, the topographical model...was proving insufficient as a map of conflict.  Growing clinical experience and conceptual sophistication led Freud to theorize that the unconscious wishes and impulses are in conflict with the defences, not with the conscious and preconscious, and that the defences cannot possibly really be conscious or accessible to consciousness.  If I know I am keeping myself from knowing something, I must also know what it is that I am keeping myself from knowing.  Freud's patients not only did not know their own secrets, but they did not know that they had secrets.  Not just the impulses and wishes were unconscious, but the defenses seemed to be unconscious as well. (Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, Basic Books, 1995, 20)

In the next post I will speak a little more about conflict and move on to describe the Freudian structural approach to the nature of the psyche.


Yet another picture of one of the famous Burghers of Calais by Rodin which I took last year in Paris.

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