- Unity and Synthesis in the Ego Ideal: Reading Freud’s Concept through Kant’s Philosophy
Although men are not normally aware of it, they must believe that they are something more than they are, in order to be capable of being what they are; they need to feel this something more above and around them . . .—Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
Throughout the transformations of his theories of mind, Freud consistently regarded the ego as the seat of mental organization and synthesis. In contrast to the chaotic id, the ego is a “coherent organization of mental processes” (Freud, 1923, p. 17), working reactively, on the one hand, by excluding unconscious impulses, and actively, on the other, by structuring and binding mental content and libidinal energy. Additionally, the ego’s organizational activity is directed not only towards the psyche itself, but also towards the environment or external world, facilitating judgments about and representations of that world.
In “On Narcissism: An Introduction” (1914), Freud suggests for the first time that the ego qua synthetic and synthesizing structure “cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed” (p. 77, emphasis added). That is, while Freud continues to regard the ego as the source of order and unity of mental contents, in 1914 he suggests that such order is not present at the beginning of life but must subsequently be developed. Thus, Freud attempts to provide a genetic account [End Page 353] of psychic order, a developmental story of how the ego comes to be the organizational locus of mental life.
What is unique to “On Narcissism” is this suggestion that such organization is not simply given but is the ego’s proper accomplishment; or rather the ego is that accomplishment. Insofar as it is developed, as Freud suggests, psychic order is something pursued, and therefore something potentially lost or perverted. “On Narcissism” represents Freud’s attempt to provide the grounds and conditions for the ego qua coherent organization, which is to say, the conditions for the basic unity and organization of human experience. More specifically, insofar as the ego is organized by means of the inclusion of certain mental contents and the exclusion of others, and insofar as this organization is not fixed once and for all but processual or dynamic, it seems that the ego operates in light of something like an ideal or standard of order in accordance with which its organizational discriminations are made.
Freud introduces two novel concepts in order to explicate the genesis of mental order and unity: primary narcissism and the ego ideal, that out of which the ego develops and that towards which the ego strives. While the latter will become more or less identified with the super ego and moral conscience in Freud’s later work, I suggest here that the ego ideal should instead be understood as the essential concept for accounting for the ego’s defining feature, namely, the tendency toward organization and internal unity, and that the voice of the superego is but a sub-feature of that organizational tendency. Put otherwise, the capacity for moral discrimination and evaluation is one expression of the more general cognitive capacity for discrimination, evaluation, and organization broadly speaking.
It is my claim that the ego ideal provides the ego its needed pattern or goal of unity and synthesis, that in light of which psychic order is pursued. I will further argue that the ego ideal—the projection of the satisfactions of primary narcissism as a goal—is that which initiates and enables the ego’s progressive growth and increasing complexity: in the words of Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel (1985), the ego ideal makes possible psychic investment in development as such (p. 30). The ego ideal thus provides the model in accordance with which the ego organizes [End Page 354] and orders, and further, it functions as the always-outstanding end of total order and completeness, ensuring that the ego’s order is not stagnant but dynamic and developing.
A broader implication of this reading of the ego ideal is that an ordered experience of self and world cannot be secured by ego and world alone; rather, the...