On Freudian Psychosexual Development as a “Spiritual Successor” to Hegelian Phenomenology

An analysis of the domain of psychology today would indicate that very little of what would constitute scholarly, accepted theory lacks sound, empirical evidence that utilizes thorough, well-reasoned studies that fall well into laws of ethics and accepted scientific norms. It would quickly become hard to believe that the teachings of prolific psychological thinkers like Sigmund Freud would be able to intersect with much with philosophical theory at all, let alone that of the 19th century wave of German idealism spearheaded largely by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. However, when closely analyzed it can be reasonably asserted that although Freud almost undoubtedly did not read a minutia of Hegel, the two put forth some strikingly similar, yet (debatably) equally groundbreaking theories on how one, quite simply put, comes to be. Therefore, throughout this essay I will put forth an argument to position Freudian cognitive development as a “spiritual successor” of sorts to Hegelian phenomenological study. I intend to ultimately reach a palatable comparison of these two theories of cognitive development by explicating their parallel structure, taking note any concepts or ideas that Freud seems to take influence from or build off of in Hegelian philosophy. In service of this line of inquiry (as well as clarity in general) I will be using The Phenomenology of Spirit (referred to from now on as “The Phenomenology”) as a baseline in the presentation of my findings. This works especially well as, scholars on the topic have previously noted, The Phenomenology reads, at least to the properly conditioned mind, as a “coming of age” story — a narrative in which we (as the reader) observe the development of being and it’s understanding of the world around them. In this way of thinking it perfectly parallels the temporal nature of Freud’s five step process of cognitive development — although it may not agree with its distribution. My hope is that this unlikely reading that grounds Freudian psychosexual development in 19th century German idealism will be illusory to understanding the enduring qualities (or lack thereof) in both his and Hegel’s ideas.

In summary, the Hegelian dialectic as featured in The Phenomenology posits a system of absolute knowing by first explicating the development of human cognition in a way that effectively rescues the subject from perceived, unmediated nothingness and leads it down the road to objective being. This process of individual maturation parallels a much larger “organic unity” (Hegel 4) in which the events, ideas and occurrences that we call history live not in conflict but in co-dependence with each other in order to facilitate growth — both personal and collective — through what Hegel refers to as spirit. In conversation with Freudian psychology, it is somewhat agreed upon that in this moment, the subject (or consciousness), in its most immature form, maintains only a naïve approach to knowledge. In a Freud-Hegel comparison of his own, Purdue University’s Clark Butler uses the anecdote of a child’s initial perceptions of his mother (or, more specifically, the initial object of which the child gravitates to and gains “familiarity” with — the breast) to illustrate this point. For Hegel, perception begins only with the mere, surface-level notions of sensuous quality. This would orient the subject — grasping only the apparentness of the object through a level of perception constrained to that which is unmediated and presents itself as something of which we can say “this, here, now” — in a state that he refers to as “sensuous-certainty” (63). Freud, on the other hand, only begins to account for this base-level perception at the point it reaches the title of “partial object” (Butler 508). In revealing itself in different manners (whether it be via stimulus from different senses or through recognition of differing sensuous qualities at differing times), the infant begins to perceive ordinary, enduring factors in service of what Hegel refers to as “the stable image of unstable appearances.5” (509) As the subject begins to grasp more abstract concepts, this form of consciousness ultimately proves itself to be inadequate to its own self-conception. This will necessarily lead the subject to a new understanding of knowledge. This qualitative leap the child eventually experiences in order to properly perceive and identify their mother constitutes the transition from consciousness to self-consciousness — as it is self-consciousness that brings consciousness into conflict with the other. Freud, however, maintains some differing views on the presence of the self-conscious which must be highlighted before I go any further. Butler mentions the way in which Freud speaks to a narcissistic self-consciousness found within humans from birth, a “consciousness of failing to be in one’s life situation what one remembers and knows oneself in one’s innermost essence to be” (510) that predates the Hegelian-friendly social self-consciousness that we achieve later on. This concept is partly attributed to the idea that in this immature form of consciousness, one can “communicate” with themselves — the only being of which they can perceive, ultimately deriving from the perceived disparity of “total security” we experience in the prenatal state and the subsequent postnatal revelation of dependence on a deterministic world. This fundamentally rejects Hegel’s notion of “moving” from consciousness into self-consciousness, instead positing an “overlapping” of different forms of self-consciousness as the subject develops cognitively and personally. And while Hegel would likely deem the conscious in its most immature form unable to grapple with such abstract notions, let alone enough understanding to recognize but his own apparentness, it’s worth noting that these ideas would stand as some of Freud’s more enduring “revisions” to Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness.

Nonetheless, these two theories begin to reconvene as “desire,” Hegel’s first stage of the self-conscious, can be seen to parallel Freud’s first, oral phase of psychosexual development. During this time, the subject maintains intermediate cognitive abilities that recognize the other not an equal self but as a lesser, second-class being. This can be exemplified once more by using Butler’s mother/child analogy. The child, in recognition of the mother’s breast both as a living object he is faced with physically and as an object of dependence, attempts to assimilate that object of dependence to assert independence. As they attempt to do this, on the simplest level by quite literally “eating it up,” (511) the very same type of suppressive assimilation will continue to grow more sophisticated as they do, gaining traction as they become socialized through what Hegel refers to as the “life and death struggle” until being fully actualized as subject in conflict with another subject in the master/servant dialectic (of which the conditions will be outlined shortly). Here, it can be noted that the aggressive, active orientation of Freud’s oral sadistic sub-phase lines up with this life and death struggle perfectly in that the latter is characterized by an immature struggle to maintain identity when faced with alien conceptions of self (constituting equal). In conflict with this differing but equal individual, the subject experiences what Hegel posits as “aggression,” quite similar to what Freud quite intuitively re-designates as an “ambivalence” that resides in the original, narcissistic self-consciousness. This is because, as perceived by the subject (who previously had not perceived any self but his) as other, this individual constitutes an “alienation of one’s own self” (512). This leads to an immature, futile desire to destroy and subvert the other in service of the identity of the subject. In agreement with Hegel regarding this specific topic, Freud once remarked how the “”veritable prototypes of the relation of hate do not derive from the sexual life, but rather from the struggle of the self for its conversation and affirmation”8 (512)”. Therefore, this threat to ““certainty of self” (Hegel)” (512) ultimately falls unresolved as the subject begins (in progressing through the dialectic of consciousness) to recognize and understand that the individual (although the same concept applied to inanimate objects) has attained what Butler refers to as “integrity of a total object [person].” (512) Grappling now with the realization that assimilating or ingesting the other constitutes an unviable option, the subject will, in a theoretical refusal of death, settle on an individual for which they choose to serve.

According to Hegel, this choosing of life over death constitutes the final transition to the master/servant dialectic. Only within the master/slave dialectic will one be able to continue both personal development and that of history at large. Here, with respect to The Phenomenology, is where Hegel seems to almost withdraw, departing momentarily to set the table for conflict between two seasoned, opposing subjects. The reader is subsequently faced with one of the most historically puzzling transitions within The Phenomenology (which is, frankly, akin to identifying the “deadliest” functioning guillotine). Fittingly, Freud seems to utilize this “gap” along with and a multitude of intellectual liberties in asserting various ideas to further explicate the concept in a way Hegel would have surely never theorized. This would include his transition from the oral to the anal phase of psychosexual development. This phase finds the subject continuing to project the aggression associated with the life and death struggle through, as one might guess, “unrestrained defecation” (513) in defiance of the parental desires to conform to basic human practices like using the bathroom. It is here that Freud also situates things like temper tantrums, emotional outbursts and other types of infantile behavior. The phallic phase, in which the subject experiences the oedipal complex, also lands especially interesting here — both in recognition of the far-flung conclusion reached by Freud and of its peculiar congruence with the fundamental concepts of The Phenomenology. The subject (having achieved a conception of love through the security and care provided by the mother) has no choice when faced with the still-relatively unfamiliar, “competing” figure that constitutes the father but to retaliate with the same aggressive outbursts that have been observed since the advent of the oral sadistic phase. According to Hegel, however, unlike previous conflicts, this one is rooted in the subject’s inability to properly grapple with the institutional or epistemological implications of their surroundings rather than being unable to perceive the actuality or enduring qualities of the object. The child perceives the father as an immediate, human identity, but fails to understand place he occupies in society (or in their life together). Again, this understanding would seem to work for both thinkers. It isn’t until the child identifies with the father in the only way the still-immature, impulsive mind can — as a means of subordinating the object of desire (desire of which only Freud seems to posit here as fundamentally sexual), the mother — that the oedipal complex will be broken. In this moment, the child begins to properly grapple with the most immediate, elementary structure that is exposed to them — the family (and, eventually, those beyond it). In the Hegelian view, these Freudian assertions can be retrogressively accommodated by qualifying the actions of the child as mere manifestations of the very frustration they had experienced in their struggles to assert themselves as subject since the immature, short-sighted “identity crisis” of the oral sadistic sub-phase.

While the mere identification with the father is recognized by Freud as the beginning of the latency phase, it is with this identification that one begins to understand their greater orientation in the world (which only grows more nuanced with experience/knowledge). This new understanding, presented to the subject as a logical solution to the apparent impasse before them, represents the Hegelian notion of stoicism that is eventually actualized in skepticism. A more overt reunion of the two men’s ideas can be observed here as the subject, finally able to join in “proper” conflict with the other as a result of their ability to understand their situation and surroundings, experiences a fundamental change in the nature of the satisfaction that stems from interaction. The subject no longer acts aggressively or overzealously as the motivations for these actions are no longer rooted in a struggle for sole-identification or individuality in the absolute. They maintain a desire for the mother’s love as a result of the now-broken oedipal complex but have come to identify the father as a superior in the master/servant dialectic. It’s also noting here the ambiguity with which Hegel characterizes this conflict at this level of understanding. In what becomes at this stage an unmentioned pursuit of actualizing the master/servant dialectic with each and every individual we interact with (regardless of whether or not that interaction is good-natured, neutral or malicious), the subject is given the opportunity (through the role of servant) to grow both in identity and understanding of their orientation in society.. Therefore, this would relegate the subject to the life of a servant — which, according to Hegel, however, is precisely where the subject needs to be. Although fundamentally, the master requires only genuine assurance — justification that their way of being/thinking is correct/qualified — this ultimately yields them nothing in the interest of what Hegel posits as true growth. The servant, on the other hand, (rather than falling into what Hegel refers to as the “unhappy consciousness”(127)3 which I will explain momentarily) may show growth by acting according to their understanding of their place in the present environment and, eventually, the world at large.

We may begin here a conversation with the Freudian conception of the mind. In this state of development, the subject must repress the primal, pleasure seeking urges and energies concentrated in what Freud refers to as the id in order to reasonably and rationally think. The superego, concentrated on moral, ethical and social understanding, according to Freud, had not come about until the child’s identification with his father. Therefore, even at this point, the superego is limited to the foundations put forth by the child’s father. It is only once the subject has attained complete development of superego and the ego that maintains it that Freud believes one has reached the final, genital stage of psychosexual development — in which the repressed, sexual desires of the latency period are reactivated by puberty. In this way, it can be reasonably asserted that those whose ego slants unyieldingly toward the superego parallel Hegel’s conception of the unhappy consciousness I mentioned a moment ago. This results when one individual’s consciousness is projected directly into the other, resulting in the other being happily dominated or consumed entirely. In the same way that Hegel posits that people have the potential to become absorbed and possessed by the concepts presented to them through the master/slave dialectic, Freud highlights the possibility of one to be unreasonably dictated by the concepts of the superego.

According to Freud, proper moderation of both id and superego by the ego is beneficial to the subject to be able to function and progress through the steps of psychosexual development. This can be highlighted in the previously outlined transition from the phallic phase to the latency phase. While at this point Hegel is concerned merely with the conception of stoicism in order to begin actualizing the master/slave dialectic, Freud’s attention is placed squarely on the child’s identification with the father. For it is here, according to Freud, that the child begins to tap into the closest semblance of what Hegel refers to as “objective spirit” via superego. This is because, for Freud, this superego constitutes something that is built up with experience over time, the first being this realization of authority via the father. For Hegel, on the other hand, the objective spirit, containing all laws, morals and social customs, had long existed prior to the subject coming in contact with it. Objective spirit, as Hegel puts it, leaves the burden squarely upon the subject to tap into, ultimately dependent upon the level of understanding with which they grapple with it. While these two concepts are the same in that they house “worldly” conceptions of law, morality and social ethics, there lies a difference in the manner in which this these forces come to and act upon the subject. Thus begins the unyielding balancing act that Freud posits as the moderation of id and superego by the ego, acting on the basis of what Freud calls the “reality principle” which ultimately works to “satisfy the id’s desires in a manner that is realistic and socially appropriate” (Cherry). Butler, recognizing this nuanced difference, posits the difference as thus: “In Freudian terms, the individual represses his individual instinct, sublimating instinctual energy into socially acceptable channels. In Hegelian terms, the individual negates his subjective spirit, transcending it by identification with objective spirit.” But, again, it is only with a “fully formed and functioning” (Cherry) ego and superego, Freud asserts, that the subject may enter the final, genital phase of psychosexual development.

Here, it is important to once more point out the overt rigidity characteristic of Freudian psychology as opposed to Hegelian dialectics. In each of his psychosexual phases, Freud posits the possibility of “fixation,” or inability to progress from one to the next. For Hegel, on the other hand, this progression is both intuitive and everlasting in that the subject ultimately contributes to the actualization and building of spirit regardless of their “fixation.” Rather than living within what Freud describes as a “contradiction between [one’s] ideal self-identity and [their] natural impulses” (514), Hegel posits that one lives instead as a continuous amalgamation of history, subjectivity and spirit, regardless of action or decision. No matter how far-flung one might stand as an “outlier” to Freud, they will be wholeheartedly accepted by Hegel in that his individual experience continues the progression of spirit at large.

While Butler’s assertion of Freud and Hegel is correct in that they both hold that “ontogenesis repeats phylogenesis” with respect to the human species as a whole, this statement remains only partly true. Butler, however, does not mention the explicit nature in which Hegel goes onto explicitly draw this parallel from the subject to his greater species, ultimately culminating in what Hegel refers to simply as “modern society.”

In a way, as a man embarking on a philosophical project with a stated intention to render all other philosophical projects obsolete, ultimately achieving a state of absolute, scientific philosophy, Hegel would most likely take solace in his work being looked to as a root of such a profoundly highly-regarded piece of scholarship, let alone one that is so well accepted by the general public as well-reasoned “scientific” study. That is, only once he can get over the presupposition in the previous statement that indicates his phenomenological project was indeed flawed to some degree in the end. That said, despite the temporal gap between the prominence of these two thinkers, this analysis has successfully outlined the liberties that these men take to almost “round out” ideas the concepts of the other by what can be described as intellectual intuition. That said, Hegel offer a far more fluid, accommodating system — a “science” grounded in logic where “the good” is an end to life itself through the presence of spirit whereas Freud, on the other hand, decimates the concept of a “good” in general. However, it can be reasonably asserted that Freud’s turn to hard the hard, rigid empiricism and rejection of idealism was perhaps what garners him the enduring praise that Hegel often fails to receive.

Works Cited:

Butler, Clark. “Hegel and Freud: A Comparison.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 36, no. 4, June 1976.

Cherry, Kendra. “The Role Ego Plays in Your Personality.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 10 Oct. 2019, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-ego-2795167.

Cherry, Kendra. “What Are Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development?” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 24 June 2019, www.verywellmind.com/freuds-stages-of-psychosexual-development-2795962.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, et al. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Works Cited:

Butler, Clark. “Hegel and Freud: A Comparison.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 36, no. 4, June 1976.

Cherry, Kendra. “The Role Ego Plays in Your Personality.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 10 Oct. 2019, www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-ego-2795167.

Cherry, Kendra. “What Are Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development?” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 24 June 2019, www.verywellmind.com/freuds-stages-of-psychosexual-development-2795962.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, et al. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

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