Monday, April 21, 2008

The Smooth Operation of the Mind Machine

My title today is deliberately mechanistic.  I agree somewhat with the psychologist Dr Helen Graham that Freud developed a theory of mind or personality "which is conceived like a machine." (Soul Medicine: Restoring The Spirit to Healing, Gill & Macmillan, 2001, 143).  In this respect the Id, the Ego and the Superego are component parts of the apparatus that goes to make up the mind.  However, it is important to point out that Freud never ever equated the mind with the brain.  I have already pointed out that each of these different parts or components or aspects of the mind are in perpetual conflict, literally at war, one with another. Martin and Barresi point out in their comprehensive history of the Soul/Self from the ancient Greeks and Hebrews right up to modern day philosophers and psychologists:  "As Plato had done before, Freud saw mental health or psychological well-being as the establishment of a harmonious relationship between the three elements that constitute the mind." (The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity, Columbia University Press 2006, 246)

On the occasions that I manage to teach some Freud to my senior students at school I explain Freud's structural model as being like a see-saw with The Id at one end and the Superego at the other with the Ego underneath as a fulcrum as it were.  This is probably an overly simplistic simile but it gets across the idea that the Ego is constantly trying to keep the other two aspects of the psyche in balance - this my senior students can get their heads around as it were.  However, I'm consciously aware always that similes are just that similes or verisimilitudes; metaphors are metaphors that never truly catch the real thing.  However, I'm not really as fully sure as Dr Helen Graham that Freud would have been a literalist about his own use of language; that he would have been a materialist or a mechanist in the strict understanding of those terms as Graham would have us believe.

Graham persists in using mechanistic verbs and nouns to describe Freud's structural model of the mind and proceeds to describe the Freudian mind machine thus:  It is

"made up of components, the Id, the Ego and the Superego, each driven and regulated by various forces whose integrity is maintained by mechanisms that defend it from breakdown - 'defence mechanisms.'  The whole system is fuelled by a basic energy or libido (literally to pour) that flows through the psyche and empowers or drives it... (op.cit., 143-144)

The reasonable and reasoning Ego tries to control the primordial Id which is seething with impulses, desires and instincts.  It seeks to defend conscious awareness from these primitive feelings by various means like repression, denial and projection.  At one and the same time the Ego tries also to meet the demands, remonstrations and criticisms of the Superego which has internalised the values and standards of society mediated through the parents.  The Ego, then, works away to attempt to mediate or to fine a balance between these opposing aspects of the person.  In this way it strives to unify the processes of the psyche.  Dr Graham adds that when the Ego fails in this task

...neurosis or disorder occurs.  The psychotherapist is rather like an engineer who can look into this complex psychic machinery and identify its problems through careful analysis of its workings and, in principle at least, set it working again.  Freud termed this process Psychoanalysis.  It was essentially a diagnostic technique, with the therapist trying to find out how the person ticks just as an engineer might with a machine...

Freud advocated a cleansing of the mind, or catharsis, by looking inwards with the aim of achieving that desirable ego state, a balance between the Id and the Superego...The dynamic aspect of Freudian psychotherapy, like that of Newtonian physics, consists in describing how the material objects interact with each other through forces essentially different from matter.  These forces, the most fundamental of which are the instinctual drives, notably the sexual drive or libido - have definite directions and can reinforce or inhibit each other. (op. cit., 144 - 145)

I have bolded and italicised the mechanistic nouns and verbs which Dr Graham uses to reinforce her contention that Freud was a reductionist, a materialist and a determinist or mechanist - call it by whichever apt term you wish.  I will admit that she is at least 80% correct in her contention.

Au-dessus j'ai mis en place une photographie de la Grande Roue a Paris.

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