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Deri, S. (1990). Changing Concepts of the Ego in Psychoanalytic Theory. Psychoanal. Rev., 77(4):511-518.

(1990). Psychoanalytic Review, 77(4):511-518

Changing Concepts of the Ego in Psychoanalytic Theory

Susan Deri

After choosing my title for this paper, I was struck during my reading and reflecting more by the historical continuity rather than change in Freud's concept of the ego. I believe that nearly everything essential to an understanding of the concept of the ego is contained in Freud's Project for a Scientific Psychology, written in 1895. Here, the ego is characterized as an organ of biological adaptation. The Project also includes functional accounts of the development of hierarchical mental structuralization, the function of defenses, including that of signal anxiety, the difference between primary and secondary process functioning in terms of mobile and bound energy, and the introduction of the elements of time, delay, and detour in the discharge processes. These concepts are the crux of ego-theory. Even such supposedly modern ego-theory concepts as change of function are included in the Project.

The model situation on which the Project's theorizing is based is the infant-mother dyad, with particular emphasis on the structure and ego-forming role of frustration, that is, the presence of a drive with the absence of a drive-satisfying object. Thus, even in 1895, Freud saw our mental apparatus as originating in the earliest period of life. He accounted for secondary process, or ego-type mental functioning, as due to inevitable frustrations imposed from birth on, not solely from the environment, but also due to the very existence of the material structure of the nervous system. This system, by its own mechanistic nature, imposes limitations on direct discharge.

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