Self and Systems of Meaning– Like a human body and water

When we first think about the dyad self and systems of meaning, we may think that systems of meaning come from groups of people in agreement while the self is individual. This gives the appearance that these two concepts are opposites, because collective and individual are opposites. However, in studying Durkheim, one can make the argument that the self is only made up by collective systems of meaning: individual qualities and reason only come from the collective, and collective reason is the one thing that distinguishes humans from their instincts. Freud’s social theory combines our original assumption about the polarity of the self and systems of meaning, and Durkheim’s complete union of the two concepts. In this blog we will consider how Freud’s social theory changes our understanding of the relationship between the self and systems of meaning.

To understand this dyad, and more particularly Freud’s self, we should first take a look at the ego and the libido, which are concepts that present a piece of Freud’s self that appear largely separate from systems of meanings. The ego and the libido appear separate from systems of meaning because both include parts that are instinctual.(436-437) This logic only holds, however, if we insist that systems of meaning can only be used in rational, logical ways. If we consider that systems of meaning can be used unconsciously, and in split-second conscious decisions, then we will come to understand that the ego-instincts do rely on a system of meaning. This becomes clear as we consider that the ego-instincts (self preserving instincts) learn from society. Freud writes, “The self-preservative instincts, and everything to do with them, are much easier to educate: they learn early to comply with necessity and to arrange their developments in accordance with the instructions of reality.”(442) The ego learns from systems of meaning. This complicates Durkheim’s idea that instincts are in opposition to personality or self. Through Freud’s lectures we can imagine unconscious mental processes that do make up the self. Thus, not all of the self is rational and logical. Although this describes an instinctual part of the self, the ego is not divorced from systems of meaning. Indeed, how can something learn without systems of meaning. Thus, I imagine the ego and the libido make up both conscious and unconscious instinctual parts of the self, but even in these split second decisions, a system of meaning may be called on.

The way to understand systems of meaning within the self in Freud’s lectures is through the idea of a complex. Freud defines complexes as “strongly emotional thoughts and interests… whose participation is not known at the moment– that is to say, is unconscious.”(133) A complex is a series of ideas which are connected together in the mind so that through random association, you can arrive at other ideas within the same complex.(132-135) A complex is important to Freud because he uses random association to arrive at ideas that are repressed from the consciousness. Although many of the connections in the complexes must be related to the systems of meaning created by collective human experience, many other connections must be specific to the experience lived by the individual. We know this because random association by the patient can lead to the repressed object, yet random association by the doctor would not lead to this same object.(137) For example, in order to treat the patient the doctor cannot use his own complexes; he must use the patient’s complex. Through the idea of complexes Freud presents a self which consists of systems of meaning that are individual rather than collective.

Although complexes are an example of systems of meaning within the self, the changing temporal relationship between the self and systems of meaning indicate that many systems of meaning are outside of the self. In lecture twenty one, Freud presents to us the development of sexuality in the self, beginning with a baby and ending at a grown-up. He admits that our definition of sexuality problematizes this goal, because in his time many people defined sexuality as something that leads to reproduction. Babies clearly do not participate in reproductive activities. Rather, Freud studied organ pleasure across different ages.(402) For the infant, the organ pleasure is autoerotic such as sucking on a nipple or on his thumb, pooping, and touching himself.(406) As sexuality (organ pleasure) develops in a person, it becomes increasingly socially mediated. Freud goes as far as to claim that at age three a child has a similar sexual attitude as an adult, except unlike an adult, he does not yet have the baseball-diamond hierarchy or the description of “normal” and “perverse” sexual behavior.(405) Many forms of behavior defined by society as “perverse” is not abnormal, which indicates that many people must struggle to repress sexual desires which are innate but not acceptable, in order to not be perverts. The difference in a young child’s organ pleasure, and an adults strictly reproduction-aimed sex reveals that the self can change as it learns society’s systems of meaning.

We have come to consider different forms of self and of systems of meaning, and a new relationship between the two. Parts of the self are conscious, parts are unconscious, parts are instinctual, and parts are rational. There are systems of meaning which are internal and individual as well as ones which are external and collective. The self consists of these internal, individual systems of meaning (complexes), which change over time as the self learns new things from the collective systems of meaning and as it has individual experiences. Like the relationship between a human body and water, the self uses systems of meanings, and different forms of systems of meanings exist both within the self and external to it.



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