When neurotic intellectuals enter therapy, sessions must often begin with a clarification of the glossary - “when you say ego, do you mean the Freudian ego, or the Vedantic ego?” By the end of this short exploration we might be able to try this question ourselves, assuming of course that we still think the ego exists, and is a something with which we can and should be tinkering in the first place.1
We may start out with in an innocent belief that there is such a thing, a substance, or just think that it is merely a linguistic placeholder for first-person consciousness. If we look further we pretty soon fall into a dizzy confusion around the metaphysico-phenomenologo-semiotic episto-poeticality of the idea. To undertake a thorough foray into this byzantine intellectual zone would require multiple PhDs and a very healthy sense of reality, neither of which most of us have. For this little intellectual trip a stiff drink will do.
Contemporary laypeople often use the word “ego” in a negative way, to refer to a (usually over-inflated) self-image. Ego trip. Egotistical. Etc. This is a long way from where our tour of the idea starts – as any tour of almost any idea should – in Greece. “Ego” after all is a Latin word meaning "I", equivalent to the Greek "Εγώ" meaning "I".
Aristotle’s De Anima was the first descriptive structuring of personhood, which he broke down into different divisions: the vegetative soul (not referring to some schoolchildren), the sensitive soul (not referring to poets), and the rational soul. All living things have a vegetative soul. All animals have a sensitive soul, and humans alone have a rational soul and spend centuries overanalysing it.
Reading Aristotle is like visiting a small town in the Free State. Life is very simple and beautiful. But one can’t stay there forever. One must move on to Plotinus (204/5–270 CE), the Neo-Platonist, referring to self and self-ness as philosophical terms for the first time. To the untrained eye his writing appears to be the free flow of consciousness of someone on LSD and is more or less incomprehensible. Let’s move along without delay.
At this breakneck pace we soon arrive in the 4th century CE. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the next to discover some interesting things about the “I”. He figured out, for example, that the self includes faculties like memory, intellect and will. Augustine also had the important insights not only that the rational soul is a kind of glue that unites the different aspects of being, but also that it knows that it merely represents a whole that exceeds it. In the confessions he says: “My inner self was a house divided against itself.”2 Augustine recognised an excess (the dreaming self) that one cannot control, much to his consternation. 3 The “I” is not necessarily the only one in the house, and not entirely in command.
This idea of mastery is a continuous theme, and each subsequent thinker perceives greater internal division and lack of conscious control than the last. By the 21st Century we have a disintegrated, irrational, socially constructed and largely virtual commotion.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s touch for a nanosecond on Montaigne (1533 -1592), who secularises all the confessional discourse of Augustine, stripping away what he calls “the prejudice of custom” and examining "I'instabilite d'une privée fantaisie”.4 This is probably one of the first modern explorations of selfhood that explicitly allows for what one writer calls an antinarrative identity.5 This outlined the self in terms that lead to tolerance both of the self and of others.6 As Montaigne says, in rather a favourite postmodern quotation:
We are all patchwork, and so shapeless and diverse in composition that each bit, each moment, plays its own game. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others.7
Each aspect of consciousness is a lifetime’s reading. We are now going to leave out Descartes, Hume, Locke, James, Kant, Heidegger and Sartre, Althusser or Foucault, all of whom concerned themselves with questions of being and identity from different perspectives, whether metaphysical, ontological or political.8 But we do need one little taste of Nietzsche (1844-1900) though, who lashed out at any form of transcendentalism and set us up for 20th Century social constructivism:
Let it be permitted to designate by [the atomism of the soul] the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon: this belief ought to be expelled from science!9
Bringing science into it leads us directly to that giant of ego definition, with a very short eulogy. The außerordentlicher Professor Freud (1856-1939) gave us an entirely new vocabulary and way of thinking about ourselves, which he insisted was scientific. Of course we know that it a heap of metaphors in beautifully elaborate relations to one another, but that that does not prevent us, whether we are Adlerians or Jungian heretics, from being tainted/indebted, whether we acknowledge it consciously or not.10
Freud spent fifteen years working out the structural theory, so what is about to follow is necessarily an extreme reduction (ad absurdum) likely to infuriate genuine Freudians. Nevertheless.
The Freudian ego is the ‘thing’ that helps us to organise our thoughts and make sense of them and the world. It keeps us safe. The ego tries to fulfil the insatiable desires of our unconscious (id) in a way that will not end in destruction, venereal disease, arrest, and so on.
Fundamentally, the ego separates out what is real from what is not. This critical capacity is known as Reality Testing.11 The ego also represents common sense and “reasonable” behaviour. There are a numbers of functions that enable this reasonableness – “Impulse control” is the ability to manage aggressive and/or libidinal wishes without letting loose the harpies. “Affect regulation” is the ability to modulate one’s own feelings without swallowing half a bottle of tranquilisers. “Judgment” is the capacity to think of better things to do than what one would really like to do. Two further ego functions are important. The first is “Object Relations”, which seems to be the one that most often goes on the blink (this refers to a capacity for good, mutually satisfying relationships). The other is the “Synthetic Function”. This last one is the capacity to unify other parts of the psyche. I may wish to poison my husband at times, but also have loving feelings towards him. The ability to synthesise these contradictory feelings is thanks to my healthy and mature ego.
Reality, for those who have not come to realise it yet, is quite stubbornly unyielding. But the unconscious, like a toddler having a tantrum in a supermarket, is more stubborn than reality.12 To mediate between these two impossibly insistent worlds (not to mention the superego, which hasn’t been discussed at all and is a truly unpleasant piece of work13), the ego needs to be quite sneaky. And no wonder the poor ego readily "breaks out in anxiety — realistic anxiety regarding the external world, moral anxiety regarding the super-ego, and neurotic anxiety regarding the strength of the passions in the id".14 It has to do its best to serve all three, and is constantly aware of the risks of upsetting someone.
Part of the ego’s less-conscious functioning includes defences against scary feelings. There is a formidable arsenal required. Freud gave us much of our vocabulary for psychological warfare – denial, displacement, projection, and rationalisation. His daughter invented a few more – undoing, suppression, dissociation, and introjections. These can be explored in numerous volumes and make for gruesome reading. Most of us have a default infantile arsenal of defences, as you have probably found in your intimate relationships. Note: These terms should be used for self-diagnosis only. I find that application of these insights to other people’s behaviour can elicit very strong language.
After Freud's death the idea of the ego became the central preoccupation of psychoanalysis and the basis for a burgeoning industry. What follows is a non-comprehensive list of selected psychoanalytic theorists, merely to stagger one.
Take a random pick. Different ego functions were foregrounded in different schools, which often enter into vicious and protracted disputes. Be sure not to confuse ego psychology and self psychology, for example, or either of these with “rea” psychoanalysis. Just be aware that the choice of which theorist to read is not arbitrary as it has a profound influence on one’s conceptualisation of one’s own being, just how messed up one is, and in what way.
Overall, the focus has shifted from serious illness (traditional neurotic complaints like rocking in a corner and being unable to brush one’s own teeth) to normative development (having relationship issues or behaving badly) and so the market size of people with “ego disturbances” is enormous. Since The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, everyone needs therapy, many Freudian concepts are part of everyday discourse, and a highly articulated normative ego is deeply socially established.15
What is striking about this list is that there are almost no African names on it. It represents the very epicentre of mostly central European (and largely Jewish) angst. And we are psychologically squashed by this oppressive list, this list that lays claim to Truth and science. What bred this particular neuroticism and why did it take hold here, and in Vienna particularly? Is it related in any way to the ability of this part of the world to breed a man who built his own subconscious, literally, as a concrete bunker, and locked one of his daughters up in it as a sex slave.16 What kind of peculiar twisted psychic mess have we discovered here?
Here is a little Chaos Psychology17 exercise. Take a random pick from the list and live as a subject of that theory for 1 week. Repeat the exercise using a different theorist. Keep a journal of how your sense of self and your understanding of your inner life take shape in each case. Then watch an episode of the Tellytubbies to detox.
Let’s abandon the sociology of psychoanalysis now too, before we are in a deeper bog than we can handle, and rather look at some radically alternative ways of thinking about the ego for a minute.
African philosophy is far less obsessed with the minutia of intrapsychic machinations. Collectivism is the prevailing model for assembling selves, and the ethical dimension of the “I” is emphasised. The idea is pervasive all over Sub-Saharan Africa, and has different names in different countries. The theory is known as Hunhu (in Shona) or Ubuntu (in Zulu and Xhosa). One wouldn’t think it was the predominant theory to see the nouveau post-colonial elite in their Jimmy Choos, celebrating their victories on (rigged) government tenders, but never mind that, the idea prevails, and the idea is that we exist in and through others. As Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee put it, "I am what I am because of who we all are"18. In this construction of selfhood, there is a strong emphasis on dignity, compassion, humaneness and respect for humanity of another. It sounds lovely, but somehow naive. Has this of transcendental essentialism ever prevented people from hacking each other’s limbs off with machetes? What else is available?
According to Wikipedia, which is as close as I can get to intense religion, Nafs is the Muslim version of the ego. It is an Arabic word which occurs in the Qur’an and means ego, self, etc. Nafs can change, but in its raw form "is the lowest dimension of man's inward existence, his animal and satanic nature”.19
There are three principal stages of nafs on its road to refinement. The basest one is “the inciting nafs” that leads us to commit evil: “Verily (my italics) the nafs of man incites to evil" (Qur’an 12:53). A more refined nafs is “The pleasing nafs”. This one is kind and tolerant with people and has good manners, like Mary Poppins. The super-refined nafs, to which all should strive, is pure, and acts in full harmony with the will of Allah.
Thanks but no thanks. Even the neurotic Jewish ego is better than this. Where next?
Hindu and Vedantic traditions refer to the ego as “ahamkara”, which is a Sanskrit term. It refers to a state of identification or attachment. When one's mind is in a state of ahamkara, one is in a state of subjective illusion, where the mind has bound the concept of one's self with an external thing or phenomenon. It could be a tangible, concrete (material) thing or an intangible thing, such as a concept or idea (a strong attachment psychoanalytic theory, for example). The Hindu ego is involved in constructing and staying attached to the illusion. It seems very real to the person in that state, and objectivity and reality are obscured.
In another vastly different frame of reference of the Freudian model, Buddhist traditions view the Ego as “aggregates” of conscious energy. These aggregates are referred to as “skandhas”. They are phenomena that become objects of clinging (similar to attachment) for a sense of self. As one might expect, these skandhas are essentially empty. Very basically, the Buddha taught that "you" are not an integral, autonomous entity. The individual self is more correctly thought of as a by-product of the skandhas.20 QED: We shouldn’t take Buddhism too seriously or we risk getting wedged in a paradox.
Eastern models of the psyche are extremely complex and confusing to someone educated within a tradition of Judeo-Christian humanism. There are innumerable bits of strange types of psyche and unfamiliar states of being arranged in complicated relationships to one another, and many of them are defined as not even real in the first place. How does one begin to bring psychoanalysis into dialogue with all this? Could Freud, in his wildest dreams, have been a Buddhist?
Then there is the true science, which is telling me that creative engineering may help us unravel some of the brain mechanisms associated with one of our most fundamental questions.21 Research published in the journal Neuron identifies a brain region called the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) as being critical in controlling the feeling we have of being an entity localised at a particular position in space and for perceiving the world from this position and perspective. Could the location of the “I” be not far away? Studies of neurological patients reporting out-of-body experiences have provided some evidence that brain damage interfering with the integration of multisensory body information may lead to “pathological changes of the first-person perspective”. Anyone who has eaten too many dope cookies has probably experienced something of this nature. This region may be an exciting clue to figuring out subjective self-consciousness as a biological and evolutionary phenomenon.22
"Ego is so last century," says Joseph T. Coyle.23
In a similar spirit, Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., a neurobiologist at New York University, has argued that psychological constructs such as ego are not compatible with modern neuroscience. For him, it is just a matter of time before scientists are able to come up with much better ways of thinking about the self. He makes a case for an identification of the self with the brain in The Synaptic Self, where he argues that who we are in totality is represented in the brain as a complex pattern of synaptic connectivity. "We are our synapses," he declares.24
This doesn’t augur well for funding for the humanities, but luckily the self is still far from being nailed down or wired up. I have put myself through a fair deal of therapy and a few different religious models and all I am really sure of is that the paradigm produces its own subjects. If you see a Freudian therapist you will begin to perceive yourself in terms of your ego functions, try to resolve Oedipus, and be riddled with neuroses. If you become a Buddhist you will begin to disentangle yourself from all that is illusory and transient and sell your Ferrari.
After all this wouldn’t you advise people to be careful of where (if at all) to go shopping for conceptual structures of selfhood, and to be discerning about what is passively swallowed? Like all things, some can be harmful if consumed in excess. Melanie Klein, for example.25 Watch out for her. She is bad, pernicious news. Pretty soon she will have you self-mutilating. Buddhism is a great deal less depressing, if one really needs some kind of container at all. But where can I shop for a new ego when 90% of everything I see is Freud?
I would try an integrative approach, but it doesn’t seem possible. The closest tactic would be to use competing models in different contexts. Hinduism is great for being on the beach, whereas in a boring meeting I need to restrain my hostile impulses with my Freudian ego. Going forward I will probably let “ism nonchalance” be my guide and won’t be afraid anymore to trash that worn-out idea that is just making me look and feel frumpy. Possibly try something post-structural. Even if I am psychologically pear-shaped I can possibly still go for something fun and fearless and balance out the heavy lower half with bold, bright ideas that give some shape and a stylish structure to the top half.
Coleman, P., Lewis, J.E., (2000) Representations of the self from the Renaissance to Romanticism, Cambridge University Press.
Freud, A. (1966). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. Revised edition. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.; (First edition 1936).
Freud, S. (1933) New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (Penguin Freud Library 2).
Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. Standard Edition, vol. 19.
Mitchell, S.A. & Black, M.J. (1995). Freud and beyond: A history of modern psychoanalytic thought. New York: Basic Books.
Lacan, (1953) Some reflections on the Ego.
Lacan, J. (1977). Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton.
Leader, D. and Groves, J. (2000). Introducing Lacan, Cambridge, UK: Icon Books.
Matthews, G.B. (1992) Thoughts ego in Augustine and Descartes. Cornell University Press.
M.T. Clark, "An Inquiry into Personhood," Review of Metaphysics, 46, 1, 1992,3-28.
M.T. Clarke, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, K.Wojtyla on Person and Ego, Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, August 1998. http://www.bu.edu/wcp/index.html. retrieved October 11 2011.
Marchi, D.M. (1994).Montaigne among the Moderns: Receptions of the Essais. Berghahn Books.
Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil . Project Gutenberg: The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (1909-1913). Friedrich Nietzsche Internet Archive, 2003. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/nietzsche/1886/beyond-good-evil/index.htm retrieved October 2011.
Screech. M.A. (Editor, translator, introduction) (1993). Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions”. In Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics).
Zalloua, Z. A. (2009). Montaigne after theory, theory after Montaigne. Seattle:
University of Washington Press. Chicago
“The Unhealthy Ego: What Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Our 'Self'?” ScienceDaily, Oct. 29, 2010.
“Ego psychology”. ScienceDaily, Apr. 27, 2011.
 Augustine, Confessions Book VIII.8, quoted in Matthews, G.B. Thought's ego in Augustine and Descartes, p. 95.
 The dreaming “I” would of course commit all kinds of unclean acts of which he strongly disapproved.
 Dudley M. Marchi, Montaigne among the moderns: receptions of the Essais, p. 146. Strange grammar not my own. Shouldn’t it read “une fantaisie privée”? Anyway, you get the picture: private fancies.
 Zalloua, Z., Montaigne after theory, theory after Montaigne p.93
 Michel de Montaigne, ‘Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions’. The complete essays of Montaigne, p. 244
 Not a line I plagiarised from a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus.
 Nietzsche, F. Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 1, Section 12.
 Our ids are committed Freudians
 You will probably have noticed that reality testing suffers distortion under various conditions. These could include intoxication or stress. The ego can sometimes be resuscitated by the question, “are you f*** mad?”
 This can be observed in the impulse aisle at Woolworths or read about in Freud, New Introductory Lectures p. 110
 Don’t tell it I said that.
 Freud, New Introductory Lectures p. 110-111
 Some of our parents are a study in the pre-therapeutic era, lacking one of these modern selves, and undefined by the psychological terminology so common to people under 50. They are characterised by a freedom to act out their “pathology” in innocence and simply use terms like “asshole” and “fuckwit” when necessary. Then they forgive one another and get on with it.
 Josef Fritzl. Case emerged April 2008. He kept her prisoner for 24 years.
 My own school.
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu. Caveat: I could not verify the quotation. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The trouble with quotations from the internet is they are not always reliably sourced.” (www.greatquotes.com)
 Wikipedia quoted source: Chittick, William (1983). The Sufi Path of Love. State University of New York Press. p. 12.
 ScienceDaily, Apr. 27, 2011.
 M.D., chair of psychiatry and neuroscience at Harvard School of Medicine/McLean Hospital.