Co-existence of Self and Systems of Meaning, from a Freudian View

We all have experience of wondering why we belong to a certain group, questioning ourselves and remaining silent if our thoughts are different from the mainstream ideologies, or deciding to “follow our heart” and disregard whatever people around us may say. An individual, as the single unit of human species, is a combination of oneself and the collective context he or she is put into. The historical context in which we emerge is the system of meaning, defining and regulating our social and personal behaviors. From Durkheim to Foucault, we have been engaging in the continuous discussion of self and systems of meaning since last quarter. Reading Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, we find ourselves in further complication of the relationship between self and systems of meaning.

Freud’s analysis of conscious and unconscious provides us with a micro perspective into the mind to examine this dyad relationship. I am going to reflect on the analogy of two rooms and the watchman, ego’s development from pleasure principle to reality principle, and psycho-analysis treatment as a reconciliation of the conscious and unconscious to better understand the dynamics of self and systems of meaning.

Sorry, You Are Displeasing Me, Go Over There

— Conscious, unconscious, and the watchman


“But the threshold between the two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing-room if they displease him…The impulses in the entrance hall of the unconscious are out of sight of the conscious, which is in the other room; to begin with they must remain unconscious…they are inadmissible to consciousness; we speak of them as repressed…It is the same watchman whom we get to know as resistance when we try to lift the repression by means of the analytic treatment (Lectures, 366).”

Freud makes the very vivid analogy of large “unconscious” entrance hall, narrower “conscious” drawing room and a watchman to elucidate resistance and repression. Watchman, as the agent existing in every human mind, exercise his censoring power to select those who are eligible for the conscious room, who should be damned to remain in the unconscious hall.

But what is his evaluation standard? In Freud’s cases, why did the lady who dreamt of love service mumble at some parts of her dream? Who tells her that it is inappropriate to say “those things” out loud? Have you ever have those moment when a voice in you condemns yourself for having improper thoughts and you get scared of having others know? Where does the voice come from? And what makes the “disagreeable” ideas disagreeable?

The standards come from the systems of meaning which society imposes on us. And what goes into the conscious is thus determined by the society.

When explaining sexual libido, Freud explicitly writes about the significance of the education we receive from society on us:

“it [confusing sexuality and reproduction] has its source in the fact that you yourselves were once children and, while you were children, came under the influence of education. For society must undertake as one of its most important educative tasks to tame and restrict the sexual instinct when it breaks out as un urge to reproduction, and to subject it to an individual will which is identical with the bidding of society (Lectures, 386)” 

It is the great undertaking for society to create systems of meaning as an explanation of the requirements for its people. We receive education ever since our memory starts, and through education of knowledge and reason, cultural tradition, and social construction, we are moulded into the shape that fits these systems of meaning, the shape of our conscious. The watchman is, therefore, a personification of the systems of meaning we accept and internalize as a part of our individuality. And the mental impulses that wander in the narrow drawing-room of conscious are well-suited for what society wants from us.

On the other hand, what thoughts are hidden in the unconscious, and why are they made unconscious? Following the same Freudian argument of education, they remain hidden because they are not supposed to be brought to the light of consciousness. They fail to meet the criteria for being conscious which conform to systems of meaning through education.

According to Freud, humans are biologically pre-determined to be naturally perverse from infantile time. Back at that time when we are babies, we do not understand anything about belonging to a society. There is no system of meaning in our infantile selves; however, when we enter the adulthood, systems of meaning are internalized with the help of education and have taken root inside the mind.

Potty Training Teaches Us to be Socially Qualified Individuals

— From “pleasure principle” to “reality principle”

potty training

Then, what exactly do systems of meaning teach us? How do we internalize the social portion of our individuality? To answer this, we are going to analyze his arguments on ego-development.

The pure self in an individual are always drawn to pleasure and runs away from unpleasure. “It seems as though our total mental activity is directed towards achieving pleasure and avoiding unpleasure—that it is automatically regulated by the pleasure principle (Lectures, 443).” As soon as we are given birth, the self tells us to follow pleasure principle in order to fulfill the libido. But as we receive education and develop within civilization, systems of meaning join “the self” to direct our behaviors and thoughts. Therefore, on the way of ego-development, under the influence of society, the instincts of our self learn to replace the pleasure principle by a modification of it.

“An ego thus educated has become ‘reasonable’; it no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also at bottom seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality, even though it is pleasure postponed and diminished (Lectures, 444).”

The ego is trained to be reasonable and to behave according to society’s standard. We stop wearing diapers because we have learned anus and bladder control. In a civilized society, the infantile pleasure of defecating is postponed until finding a bathroom. The education teaches us to consider real situation, to behave to laws and rules accordingly and to follow “reality principle.”

Freud says “The transition from the pleasure principle to the reality principle is one of the most important steps forward in the ego’s development.” Pleasure principle corresponds to the self, while reality principle is consistent with the systems of meaning. In the development of an individual, the transformation of a baby who knows nothing beyond itself to a rational, socially acceptable person is made possible by the trade-off between pleasure and reality, between self and systems of meaning.

From Talking to Shaking Hands

— What exactly does Psycho-analysis cure?

I always wonder how much “society” there is in me and how big a portion of me has nothing to do with the systems surrounding me. Through Freud’s lectures of the path to the formation of neurosis symptoms and psycho-analysis treatment for them, we gain a more coherent sense of how self and systems of meaning both manifest themselves in an individual.

When illustrating some misconceptions of pyscho-analysis, Freud argues that “an obstinate conflict is taking place in him [patient] between a libidinal impulse and sexual repression, between a sensual and an ascetic trend. This conflict would bot be solved by our helping one of these trends to victory over its opponent…Neither of these two alternative decisions could end the internal conflict; in either case one party to it would remain unsatisfied (538).” Symptoms are formed the conflict between libidinal impulse and repression, which is essentially the fight between the indulgence of “self” and abstinence of systems of meaning. Untamed self wants to pursue libidinal pleasure, but it is told that the wild thoughts are against what society deems appropriate and moral. Thus the thoughts are pushed back to unconscious hall by the watchman as “repression.”

However, for the majority of us, libidinal impulse and sexual repression can  co-exist within us; or we could put it in another way, self and society can friendly co-exist within individuals. How do they do that? Freud suggests that a victory of either party over the other would not result in a satisfying end because essential the problem is unsolved as there is always a party repressed. Then how do we achieve a peaceful state, a unified individual?

From the case studies of Anna O. and Elizabeth von R., both patient returned healthy after “replacing of what is unconscious by what is conscious, the translation of what is unconscious into what is conscious (Lectures, 541).” With guidance of the therapist, the patient verbalizes the tangled thoughts in the unconsciousness following free association. Putting something in language, the patient turns the unaware into known, or conscious, bringing the two parties onto the same ground. Language is essentially socially accepted, and by bringing out your unconscious, your self is moved to the same plane as the systems of meaning. After this transformation, the neurosis patient is capable of making a clear decision, which can be seen as a reconciliation between the unconscious and conscious, between the libidinal desires and sexual repression, and between the self and systems of meaning parts of an individual.

In the end, the dynamics of conscious and unconscious within the mind, and of self and systems of meaning within an individual would always reach an integration. On the micro level, an individual is a combination of conscious and unconscious; on larger level, an individual is a synthesis of both self and systems of meaning.


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