Freud’s Key Concepts: Summary and History

Below is the introductory section of a Freud seminar I led as part of the MA Media Philosophy at Goldsmiths. It consists of a fairly short and concise outline of Freud’s key concepts, as well as a brief history of their corrections and re-workings throughout Freud’s oeuvre, and which I hope will prove helpful.



Difference of reception in Europe and Britain & America, continental/analytic; Freud-Nietzsche/Darwin; irony of neo-Darwinists ignoring Freud (& Nietzsche to lesser extent) insofar as both were attempting to think with Darwin, and Freud certainly never imagined they would be considered utterly incompatible, eg Richard Dawkins – although on its own merits sociobiology is now itself facing imminent extinction.

In UK & US, there is an (erroneous) sense of Freud as silly and sexually obsessed, in which everything is reducible to a phallic object, or at least a sexual symbol, and with all conscious thought patterns, normal and abnormal, asleep or awake, being disguised versions of sexual desire.

Despite this (the view being held, one assumes, only by those who have never actually read Freud), Freud permeates our thinking. The Freudian unconscious, for example, is now – paradoxically – self-evident, a simple fact beyond dispute for many who have not only never read Freud, but who also, and at the same time, disagree with him violently. So too, many people accept the notion of a psyche without question, while with equal ease dismissing that of the soul as absurd.

Vulgar Freudianism in Family Guy (blinded to omnipresent sexual drives (repression) which emerges everywhere through an unconscious genital symbolism: Washington monument; Senate; Pentagon), but also offers, as we will see, a more nuanced reading in relation to censorship-repression which substitutes the Ego Ideal for the FCC, repression marked by the trace of blackened areas, or the warning alarms of deafening air-horns, in particular those unconscious desires which, while not necessary sexual, are nonetheless forbidden expression by the given social order, best evidenced by Peter’s description of his favourite sexual act with Lois involving toothpaste, Episcopalians, parking-tickets, and whatever else.

One might also see such cartoons as a way to circumvent, and thus bring into consciousness, certain socially repressed expressions which, using “real” actors, that is, “real” flesh and blood bodies, could never be presented as such, as the montage taken from previous episodes demonstrates, not to mention human-canine sex and lovable old paedophiles.


To counter this vulgar nonreading, it is helpful to briefly explicate Freud’s core interventions, which involve the enlargement of everyday language into major interlinking theoretical concepts, which accords with a current widespread definition of philosophical invention. These driving concepts, all of which will probably be familiar, and which Freud constantly revises and changes throughout his life, are “unconscious,” “repression,” “sublimation,” “ego,” “drive, libido,” “pleasure principle,” “reality principle,” “life drive (Eros)” and “death drive (Thanatos)”. Finally, there is the “id,” and the “superego” or “ego Ideal.” First of all, however, one further thing is essential to an understanding of Freud. For Freud “sexuality” or the “sexual instinct” was explicitly, and from the first, enlarged far beyond its restriction to the “genital,” although even now this is a common error – basically anyone who suggests Freud is referring to sexual reproduction when he talks of the sex drive has not read any Freud. As Freud says, while sexual instincts became known through analysis of the drive towards sexual reproduction, psychoanalysis straight away was obliged to extend this ever more greatly. Sexual “drive” or “instinct, is quite simply that of an undetermined force or the push of an energetic charge, or cathexis, and which will later be subsumed first by the concept of the libido, and later by Eros. Notably, for Freud the drive is that which relates body and mind, functioning as translator between the somatic and the psychic. The drive, in short, is that which in Freud overcomes the traditional mind/body duality, with the bodily charge being re-presented as a psychic charge, and vice versa.

Along with this reworking of the instinct or drive, Freud described the notion of the “unconscious” (Ucs) as the “fundamental premise” of psychoanalysis; previously designating only that which is temporarily latent within consciousness (Cs) but available for recall at any time – what Freud will call the preconscious (Pcs) – Freud enlarges the concept of Ucs to designate that which is repressed from consciousness in a dynamic way. Hence, the psychical is no longer identical with consciousness, rather consciousness becomes only one quality of the psyche, and not necessarily even the most important one. This serves to exteriorise the liberal subject, to make the inside of the inside the outside – i.e., the decentring of the subject, an event Freud’s rates as of equal importance to Kant’s Copernican revolution (which displaced the conditions of experience from the object onto the subject), and the Darwinian revolution (which displaces the origin of existence away from that of a divine Creator).

So, the concept of the Ucs is obtained via the theory of “repression,” insofar as the repressed serves as the “prototype” of the Ucs. The repressed is that which seeks discharge but is blocked from reaching the Cs or Pcs stages, a blockage which can cause neurosis or psychosis and which psychoanalysis seeks to safely remove through techniques such as dream interpretation and free association. Such techniques are possible because, while the repressed is blocked, this is not to say that its effects are not felt. Refused to consciousness, they nonetheless become conscious only in derivative forms, that is, if they are sufficiently displaced from the repressed representative through either distortion or intervening links they can then slip through  the censorship of consciousness. For this reason, dream interpretation & free association attempts to locate these distortions and derivatives, the latter through an automatic – hence unconscious of a sort – process aiming to outwit the censor. From this the analyst can then reconstitute a conscious translation.

Such derivatives of unconscious drives are not only produced by the process of repression, however, only to be revealed when consciousness is somehow tricked or absent, but they also emerge into the consciousness as sublimated forms. Sublimation, says Freud, is a process that consists in unconscious desire substituting for itself an “acceptable” aim, such as the transformation of unconscious desires into works of art. In this way, sublimation is the counter of repression, insofar as the process of sublimation offers a way out, a way of discharging unconscious impulses into the consciousness without having to resort to repression with its possibility of neurosis. Further, it is this interplay of sublimation and repression which provides the links between disgust & shame (as marks of repression) on the one hand, and aesthetic ideas and morality (as sublimations), in what is itself a very Nietzschean interpretation, and which places that which is most abhorred in an intimate relation with the highest of ideals.

The notion of the Ego follows on from this idea of the dynamic Ucs, insofar as Freud argues that there must be a buffer between the external world and the urges of the Ucs, one which controls and organises the relation between the two. The ego, however, is by no means identical with consciousness, as this controlling relation must function constantly, even while we sleep. Hence, consciousness is merely one part of the ego. While this second tripartite division – after Ucs, Pcs & Cs – will itself lose its distinctiveness by the time of “the Ego and the Id,” it nonetheless serves Freud for quite some time, and in this can clearly be seen the beginnings of the idea of the Ego Ideal.

Later, as the notion of the sexual drive is expanded to become the great reservoir of the libido, this in turn results in a further division of the ego into the object-ego and the narcissistic-ego, depending on whether this libidinal energy, Freud’s cathexis, is directed outwards or inwards. The child, suggests Freud, is originally an entirely narcissistic animal, only later is some of that libidinal energy invested in the narcissistic directed outwards onto an external love object. This transfer of libido, says Freud, offers a definition of love: libido formerly saved for oneself is directed to another, this expenditure resulting in an impoverishment or reduction of the love for oneself (narcissistic ego), which in turn explains the over-valuation or idealisation of its object in comparison to the self. Or, in other words, love. A state which for Freud is thus close to neurotic compulsion, which is also defined as stemming from a lack of self-value.

Finally, before we reach Freud’s final position regarding the opposition of the life and death drives, of Eros and Thanatos, there are two more concepts that need to be taken into account, the pleasure principle and the reality principle.

The pleasure principle is in fact better understood as an unpleasure principle; for Freud, pleasure and unpleasure describe the “quantity of excitement [or cathexis]” present in the mind at any given moment, with paradoxically pleasure being the decrease of excitement and unpleasure being the increase. So, in this sense pleasure is simply the relief from tension in the mind, and vice versa. Moreover, what matters to the intensity of either is not the overall quantity but only the degree of its increase or decrease over a given period of time. The pleasure principle is thus the mechanism of the psyche which seeks a release from the unpleasure generated by the contradictory impulses of the libido, ultimately seeking an oasis of calm devoid of all libidinal excitement. This in turn is a forerunner of what Freud will eventually identify as the death drive.

The reality principle, meanwhile, offers a clear forerunner of the Ego Ideal to come. Insofar as the chaotic & immoral pleasure principle, in seeking to withdraw from all cathexis, threatens the self-preservation of the organism, the influence of the ego’s drive to self-preservation – which, in a somewhat contradictory fashion, is also part of the sexual drive / libido – replaces the pleasure principle with the reality principle. Basically, the reality principle negotiates between the demands of the external world and the pleasure principle, attempting to maintain a balance between the drive towards self-preservation and the drive towards the quietude of the organism. It does this through the postponement of the satisfaction of libidinal desires, abandoning certain immediate possibilities and allowing the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step towards ultimate satisfaction.

Finally then, by the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle – written just before “The Ego and the Id” – Freud will come to propose two fundamental drives which permeate every level of existence, from the single cell to the most complex of social organisations. These are Eros, the life drive, and Thanatos, the death drive. Freud had long resisted the possibility of the death drive but, ultimately, after working with soldiers traumatised by the war and by way of the famous game of fort/da with its inexplicable compulsion to repeat traumatic experiences without the aim of mastery, he comes to recognise its possible independence from the pleasure principle, for which the latter nonetheless serves to point towards. The pleasure principle, as we know, seeks a quietude without cathexes, a quietude which is ultimately self-destructive. The unconscious compulsion to repeat traumatic experiences, however, is not seeking to decrease their cathexis, as would be the case with the pleasure principle. Here, Freud realises that there is much of the ego that is itself unconscious, from which arises the resistance to treatment, while the compulsion to repeat belongs to the unconscious repressed. After this, Freud completely abandons his topographical understanding of the mind as split between Ucs, Pcs and Cs, replacing it with the schema found in “The Ego and the Id.”

The compulsion to repeat is, for Freud, a hitherto inexplicable self-destructive unconscious drive in opposition to the pleasure principle which, as part of the life drive, is the drive towards a pleasurable relief from tension. From this, Freud finds himself in a position to finally define the notion of drive or instinct as the urge to return to an earlier state which the organism has been forced to abandon due to external influences. What then, is the earlier state to which thanatos drives towards? Simply, the earlier earlier state of being, prior to the formation of the organism, that is, towards the inorganic, of nonbeing, the complete disarray of the composition.  As Freud says, “the aim of all life is death,” a “looking backwards” towards the inorganic which therefore pre-existed the organic. Eros and Thanatos thus do battle: Thanatos seeking to achieve its aim of death (and thus regain its a priori inorganic state) as quickly as possible, while Eros seeks to constantly jerk back the death-drive to an earlier stage of being of the organism, and thus to defer death, prolonging the journey.

The drives then, are inherently conservative, not impulses towards development. This means that, in complete opposition to Kant, there can be no teleology, no drive towards perfection, and thus no Divine Plan, no God. This then leads Freud, in his final works, to consider the role of religion (“The Future of an Illusion”) and the illusion of historical teleology (“Civilization and Its Discontents”)

Example of “enlargement,” demonstrating the constant revision on the way to the attempt at systematicity apparently demanded by a “proper” science:

Fromsexuality” to “death drive”: First of all, as he writes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, this sexual instinct is extended, by way of the notion of cathexis (which is simply the energy invested in something by the drives), to the libido, which in turns splits the ego into the object ego and the narcissistic ego (depending on whether this investment in energy is turned outwards toward the material world, or inwards onto the self). Later, Freud extends this great reservoir of the libido, becoming a drive which functions even in individual cells on one hand, and at the level of the movement of history on the other. The sexual drive / object-libido is thereafter transformed yet again, becoming one part of Eros, or the “life drive” which for Freud is that which seeks to force together and hold together the various portions of living substance against the dissolution to the inorganic demanded by Thanatos or the death drive. The sexual drive/object-libido thus now refers only to that part of this drive of Eros that is directed towards – cathects – external objects.


Lastly, I want to gesture briefly towards a few points where the importance of Freud to Derrida’s notion of différance, and to deconstruction in general, is perhaps clearest, and which will later help to understand Stiegler’s own turn to Freud.

In fact, by way of the pleasure principle, Freud offers his own deconstruction of the binary Eros/Thanatos, which in turns mirrors the deconstruction of the mind/body duality by the drive, which will later greatly interest Derrida. The pleasure principle, on the side of life, seeks to decrease libidinal excitement. But Freud here makes a distinction between function and tendency: the tendency of the pleasure principle is to prolong life by deferring the satisfaction of the death drive; however, says Freud, its function is nonetheless concerned with “the most universal endeavour of all living substance,” that of returning to quiescence, the ultimate of which would be the quiescence of the inorganic world. The pleasure principle, in other words, deconstructs the life-death binary, undoing their metaphysical opposition and substituting inorganic matter as the highest aim and destiny of life itself. The ultimate orgasm, that intense pleasure that is the extinction of a highly-intensified excitation, is thus the extinction of life.

August Weismann, Ernst Haeckel, and “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”; and which, for Freud, recapitulates historicity.


Freud “The Ego and the Id” (1923) in Volume XIX of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), pp.12-66.

Episode of Family Guy, entitled “PTV.”


About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

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