The Basis and Basics of Freuds Theory

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Because Freud's writing filled 24 volumes produced over a 50-year career (Strachey & Freud, 1964), his work is impossible to thoroughly describe in one chapter. Nonetheless, there are three main principles to Freud's thought that underlie the many particular concepts and case studies comprising the bulk of his writing. If you grasp these three principles, you will have a good foundation from which to apply Freudian thought to ecological issues:

1. Much of our behavior is a result of unconscious motivations.

2. Conflict is universal, chronic, and inevitable.

3. In order to function effectively, we split off our awareness of unwanted thoughts, feelings, and wishes, and use defenses to disguise and contain them.

We will examine each of these principles, explaining what Freud meant by them as well as how he came to believe them. In order to properly comprehend Freud's theory, however, we must first understand something about the Zeitgeist (the implicit values and beliefs at work in a culture during a particular period of time) that nurtured his ideas.

Freud helped formulate our modernist worldview, ushered in by the Enlightenment, a worldview that assumes both the environment and human behavior are determined by material, physical events. In the latter half of the 19th century, Europe's increasingly materialist culture was supported by an industrial revolution in full gear. Freud learned from his brilliant and world-famous mentors, Ernst Brucke and Hermann Helmholtz, that mental life is the result of activity of the central nervous system, and that all psychological events should be understood as physical energy that circulates through the brain and nerves. Such a view seems obvious now, but in the late 1900s it was a progressive idea, which contradicted the then more popular notion that psychological events emanate from some vital force, such as a soul. Instead, Freud was an utter materialist: All of our psychological life can be understood as a product of physical forces. To buttress this newfound materialism, Freud and his teachers enthusiastically embraced the newly published work of Charles Darwin. Natural selection dispensed with any need for God, a soul, or for any other spiritual/religious entity or explanation. A new worldview emerged in which the entire universe became a set of physical elements.

This burgeoning materialism fed the industrial revolution as people came to believe that the primary goal of human beings is to convert natural resources to products and profit. As industrialism and capitalism fed each other, the older ecological worldview faded, a worldview shared by most preindustrial cultures, and included a picture of humans as a small part of a spiritualized nature who should pay respect to their natural environments.

Freud was caught up in the new openness and vitality of enlightenment thinking, but he also worked in a sexually repressive society that forbade his patients, mostly women, opportunities for expressing their sexual desires. Impressed by the bizarre symptoms that he treated in his patients, Freud came to believe that psychological functioning is a creative outcome of the interplay between physical, instinctually based drives and the social, cultural, and moral pressures to tame, channel, subdue, or repress them. He came to see sexual instincts in particular, which Freud called Eros, fundamental in shaping the personality of the adult. For Freud, Eros included not only sexual desire, but also drives for physical pleasure, pleasure from eating, and touching. Freud also watched, with horror, the unfolding of World War I in Europe, and concluded that the horrific killing he witnessed could only be explained by an unconscious, inborn, irrational need for destruction, which he called Thanatos. The fact that three of his sons fought in the war only increased his dismay.

Unconscious Motivations

How does the unconscious help us understand our ecological predicament? From the Freudian perspective, our planet is populated by a species systematically destroying its own habitat. Although they think of themselves as intelligent and rational, the creatures, driven by Eros, are destroying themselves through overconsumption and overpopulation. Rushing through existence in order to procure more and more appetitive satisfaction, the animals instead enjoy less and less. Filled with Thanotos, they unconsciously destroy their environment, at the same time building weapons of mass destruction that threaten to destroy the whole of their species. From a Freudian perspective, environmental destruction is the result of instinctual urges that drive human behavior.

Thus, the strong unconscious drives of Eros (sexual pleasure and reproduction) and Thanatos (aggression, violence, and destruction) rule our actions, despite our most sophisticated attempts to deny and conceal them. Becoming aware of our environmental problems does not mean that we can easily stop ourselves from ruining our habitat, and it should be no surprise that we continue to proceed even while we become conscious of our environmental crises. Because behavior results from deeply buried instinctual drives, it is not easy to change. Freud might say, if he were alive today, that our environmental predicament is inevitable.

Like an iceberg that has 80% of its mass below the surface, the human psyche, Freud believed, is predominantly unconscious and unobservable. Freud posited that if we became aware of our unconscious sexual and aggressive motivations, we would be greatly disturbed. Instead, our psyches expend energy to keep impulses below the surface so that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we behave for rational or moral reasons, when in fact much of our behavior is driven by subversive needs, wishes, fears, and impulses that are quite selfish and unacknowledged.

The view that human behavior is primarily unconscious is supported by recent work in cognitive neuroscience (T. D. Wilson, 2002). For example, Gazzaniga (1998; Gazzaniga et al., 2002) demonstrated that we behave, and then we explain why we did what we did. A behavior like throwing something in the trash occurs unconsciously and automatically, like a reflex. If someone asks why you threw it out, rather than recycled it, you would invent a reason (e.g., "Oh, the trash can was more convenient."). Our conscious brain interprets and explains our unconscious actions.

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