Taking its cue from psychology, the twentieth century has put its emphasis on the role of the unconscious in human thought and action, on the non-rationality of much human behavior. Foremost among the thinkers responsible for this emphasis was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a physician trained in Vienna in the rationalist medical tradition of the late nineteenth century.
His interest was early drawn to mental illness, where he found cases in which patients exhibited symptoms of very real organic disturbances for which no obvious organic causes could be found. Under psychoanalysis, as Freud’s therapy came to be called, the patient was urged to pour out what could be remembered about earliest childhood; after many such treatments, the analyst could make the patient aware of what was so disturbing.
From his clinical experience Freud worked out a system of psychology that has greatly influenced basic conceptions of human relations. Freud started with the concept of a set of drives with which each person is born. These drives, which arise in the unconscious, are expressions of the id. These drives try to find satisfaction and pleasure, to express themselves in action.
Infants are uninhibited; that is, their drives well up into action from the id without restraint from the conscious mind. But as infants grow, as their minds are formed, they become conscious that some of what they want to do is objectionable to those closest to them—to parent or friend or brother or sister—on whom they are dependent. Therefore they begin to repress these drives.
With dawning consciousness of the world outside, the child develops another part of the psyche, which Freud at first called the censor and later divided into two phases, which he called the ego and the superego. The ego is a person’s private censor, the awareness that in accordance with the “reality principle,” certain drives from the id simply cannot succeed. The superego is conscience; it is a person’s response as a member of a social system in which certain actions are considered proper and others are not. The drives of the id and most dictates of the superego are a great reservoir of which a person is not normally aware—that is, the unconscious.
In a mentally healthy person, enough of the drives of the id succeed to provide a sense of contentment and security. But even the healthiest individuals repress many drives from their ids by a process Freud called sublimation, or substituting for a repressed drive a new and socially approved outlet of expression.
Thus a drive toward forbidden sexual relations might be sublimated into poetry, music, war, or athletics. In the neurotic person, however, the drives are driven down into the unconscious without a suitable outlet and continue to fester in the id, trying to find some outlet. They display themselves in neuroses and phobias. Neurotic individuals are maladjusted; some are psychotic, living in an utterly unreal private world.
Freud’s therapy rested on the long, slow process of psychoanalysis, in which the patient day after day reached back to memories of earliest childhood for concrete details, and the listening analyst picked from this “stream of consciousness” the significant details that pointed to the hidden repression that was expressing itself in neurotic behavior. Freud gave special importance to the patient’s dreams, in which the unconscious wells up out of control or is only partly controlled by the ego. Once the patient became aware of what had gone wrong with a hitherto unconscious part of life, he or she might then adjust to society and lead a normal existence.
What was important in all this to political and cultural theory lay in the wider implications of Freud’s work, particularly his concept of the role of unconscious drives. Ordinary reflective thinking was, for the Freudian, a very small part of existence. Much even of what is considered to be the exercise of reason was, according to the Freudian, rationalization—that is, thinking dictated not by an awareness of the reality principle but by the desires of the id. For the Freudian, truth cannot be distilled into a few simple rules of conduct that all people, being reasonable and good, can use as guides to individual and collective happiness. The Freudian is at bottom a pessimist who does not believe in human perfectibility.
The Austrian Alfred Adler (1870-1937) rejected Freud’s emphasis on sex and coined the familiar phrase “inferiority complex” to explain human compensations for perceived inadequacies. The Swiss Carl Gustav Jung (1875– 1961) attempted to expand the horizons of psychology by studying the evidence of the past in literature, mythology, and religious faith. His studies convinced him that there was a “collective unconscious,” a reservoir of the entire human experience that is reflected symbolically in archetypes such as myths concerning the prophets and heroes that appear and reappear in art, literature, legend, and religion.
Such views of the non-rational origins of human action have deeply influenced daily life, from the relatively mundane, as in advertising, to the highly significant, as in the organization of political systems, the gratification of economic wants, and the satisfaction of human desires. The Freudian influence on imaginative writing has been especially great, as shown by stream-of-consciousness fiction.
It has also deeply affected philosophy and the arts generally. Freud reinforced the intellectual reaction against scientific materialism and against nineteenth-century bourgeois optimism, and he strengthened the revival of intuition and sensibility in a kind of neo-romantic and neo-Stoic protest against unbridled reason.
Freudian theories have no monopoly as explanation of human nature and behavior. The long debate of Plato and Aristotle, of the evolutionists and eugenicists of the nineteenth century, of social theorists in both democratic and totalitarian societies, continued: Did nature or nurture most influence the individual or groups of individuals?
Intelligence testing, efforts to make prisons more comfortable, experiments with open classrooms, and a variety of theories in education all attested to the continued struggle between those who felt that humanity could be improved by reshaping the environment and those who felt that only through genetic engineering could humanity be made stronger or more intelligent— and thus perhaps more “moral.”