Freud's Centaur Model of Human Nature:
An Existentialist Critique
According to Erikson (1950), Freud presents us with a centaur model of human nature:
The id Freud considered to be the oldest province of the mind, both in individual terms--for he held the young baby to be "all id"--and in phylogenetic terms, for the id is the deposition in us of the whole of evolutionary history. The id is everything that is left of our organization of the responses of the amoeba and of the impulses of the ape, of the blind spasms of our intra-uterine existence, and of the needs of our postnatal days--everything which would make us "mere creatures." The name "id," of course, designates the assumption that the "ego" finds itself attached to this impersonal, this bestial layer like the centaur to his equestrian underpinnings: only that the ego considers such a combination a danger and an imposition, whereas the centaur makes the most of it (p.192).
While agreeing with Erikson's characterization, Guntrip (1971) regards the theory as "astonishing and unrealistic, in its assumption that human nature is made up, by evolutionary `layering,' of an ineradicable dualism of two mutually hostile elements" (p.50). He takes the seeming plausibility of the centaur model as evidence both of "how far back in history human beings have suffered from split-ego conditions" (p.51) and of "how tremendous has been the struggle to disentangle the two elements in Freud's original thought, the physiological and biological impersonal-process theory of id-drives and superego controls, and the personal object-relational thinking that has always been struggling to break free and move on to a new and more adequate conceptualization of human beings in their personal life" (pp. 51-2).
Freud's centaur model is certainly "astonishing and unrealistic " in its conception of human nature as divided between a human ego/superego harnessed to a bestial id and in its misconception of human destructiveness and evil as manifestations of the beast in man. For, ironically, the beasts are never really beastly, only humans are. Humanity's (and Freud's) indictment of the beasts is a classic case of projection.
Yet Freud's very dualism, his depiction of the human being as a fundamentally divided self, accounts for the power and the enduring validity of the psychoanalytic vision of the human condition. For Freud's (1923, 1931) depiction of human beings as caught between the forces of culture (ego/superego) and of nature (id) approximates an existentialist understanding that while fundamentally "de-natured" as free subjects through our possession of reason, morality and symbolic self-consciousness unknown in other species, we are at the same time immersed in nature by our physical existence as objects and our biological being as animals destined to die--but unlike other animals in possession of minds that know this.
In suggesting that this dualism is not existential, that is, not an intrinsic feature of what it is to be human, but results instead from an historical fall into "split-ego conditions," Guntrip echoes Heidegger's fateful mistake in historicizing the subject/object split. In so positing a human condition prior to or beyond this split—that is, beyond “the fall of man” into dualism—these thinkers embrace a romanticism that led, in Heidegger’s case, to Nazism. In Guntrip’s case it led to a kind of therapeutic romanticism in which the omnipotent therapist could, through heroic measures, redeem even the most broken, schizoid and schizophrenic patients, much as Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead. In reality, the subject-object split represents no historical fall at all: it is existential, a characteristic of human consciousness as such, a contradiction at the core of human being-in-the-world, a kind of “brokenness” that is a part of what it is to be a human being in all times, all places, all cultures. As fashionable as it is in philosophical circles to dismiss such dualism as fallacy it is, on the contrary, simply true--as both Kierkegaard and Sartre fully understood. We are beings caught between the infinite and the finite, possibility and necessity, culture and nature, the ideal and the material, mind (psyche, soul and spirit) and body, being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Freud's centaur model approximates this existential (not historical) split and this is its truth and its strength. As Ernest Becker (1973) might put it, we are spiritual beings who have to shit and to die--and we know it.
Here we see a fundamental division within existential philosophy itself, between those who, following Heidegger (1927), view existentialism as a critique of and an attempt to transcend both subject/object and mind/body dualism, and those who, following Kierkegaard and Sartre, find in such dualism the key to an existentialist understanding of the human predicament. For existentialists of the latter school, where Freud went wrong was not in conceiving humans as divided beings, but in his misconception of the nature and origin of human passions. Misconceiving them as biologically grounded drives he obscured their true nature as responses to the crucifying contradictions (subject/object, mind/body) of the human condition. Human passions arise not from the animal element of human nature, but from the fact that human beings are not merely animals or objects, and not merely minds or free subjects either, but always both.
Though Freud (1911) knew the human trieb is not equivalent to animal instinkt, its aims and objects being acquired and environmentally influenced and not biologically fixed, he insisted it arises from a somatic source. And, for Freud, this source is not the brain, but a somatic zone of the body. In this way, Freud biologizes and naturalizes human passion, representing it as arising ultimately from biology rather than from human existence--that is, from our being as self-conscious, future-oriented creatures struggling with the existential anxiety arising from our awareness of both freedom and death. Beyond such existential anxiety, and the existential guilt arising from its evasion, lie the neurotic anxieties and guilt feelings with which psychoanalysts are more familiar.
As Lacan (1977) recognized (without disturbing his claim to represent a return to Freud by explicitly criticizing the master), Freud confused human desire with organic need. While we certainly share organic or biological needs with other animal species, this is not what psychoanalysis is about. It is about human desire which, as many philosophers have rightly understood, emerges from a sense of lack. The emergence of symbolic consciousness in the human child, a process in which the child begins to ex-ist (existere: to step or stand out), entails both self-consciousness and the dialectic of being and nothingness: the awareness of self entails recognition of what the self is not. "Man is the being by whom nothingness comes into the world," Sartre (1943) writes. Human consciousness is doubly nihilating he explains: in order to know this cup I must know (1) that I am not the cup and (2) that the cup is not the table upon which it rests. In thus separating or distinguishing subject and object, I "secrete a nothingness" between them--and I do the same thing in distinguishing object from object. In so bringing nothingness (gaps, lacks, cracks, splits, distinctions, differences, boundaries and limits) into the world, I encounter what Lacan describes as my manque-a-etre: my lack of being. And it is out of this lack that my desire emerges.
Just as Lacan never overtly criticizes Freud (while radically revising him), so he never acknowledges Sartre (while thoroughly assimilating and appropriating his insights). What Lacan valuably adds to Sartre is the recognition of the semiotic basis of the existential facts described in Sartre's phenomenological ontology. Human beings bring nothingness into the world because we are symboling beings and symbolization not only requires recognition of the difference between signifier (the arbitrary sign that stands for the thing) and signified (the mental concept of the thing), but also the difference between the signified (the concept of the thing) and the thing-in-itself (the so-called ding-an-sich existing in the Real beyond both conceptualization and signification). It is for these reasons that human consciousness is doubly nihilating, as Sartre claims. Furthermore, as symboling and time-binding beings we exist in perpetual dialogue with that which does not empirically exist: yesterday (which leaves traces but exists no longer) and tomorrow (which does not exist yet).
In these ways, our experience is pervaded by difference, absence, nothingness, gap and lack. It is the emergence of human consciousness into this field of negation that Kristeva describes as "abjection"--the opening up of a metaphoricial wound that, in health at least, bleeds perpetually, or of a loss which can, and must not ever, be finally mourned.
But to make the
point exclusively in this mournful way, making human consciousness all about
absence and loss, results in what I have called "melancholic existentialism"
(Carveth, 2004). Its insights need to be complemented with awareness that
the gap between subject and object makes possible not only the loss of the
object but of true communion with it as other. In this way,
nothingness opens us up to love, connection and jouissance, as much as
to loss and sorrow. The human passions, broadly categorized as sexuality
and aggression, that Freud misconceived as arising from biological sources in
reality emerge from the contradictions of human existence, the desire that
emerges from lack, and the longing, aggression and defensive strategies that
emerge in the face of the anxieties of freedom and of death.
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press.
Carveth, D. (2004). The melancholic existentialism of Ernest Becker. Can. J.
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Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and Society. Revised and enlarged edition. New York: W.W.
Freud, S. (1915). Instincts and their vidissitudes. S.E. 14.
-----. (1923). The Ego and the Id. S.E. 19.
-----. (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. S.E. 21.
Guntrip, H. (1971). Psychoanalytic Theory, Therapy and the Self. New York: Basic Books.
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H.E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1953.