The term “ego” is today in common usage. People use the term “ego” in a variety of ways. Because the word is in everyday usage, people assume they know what it means. However, a word such as ego varies in the ways in which it can be used. As Wittgenstein sought to explain, we can think we know the meaning of a word, but it can have a variety of meanings depending on its use. Wittgenstein believed that meanings of words arise out of the social and interactive nature of language. The original meaning of the word is derived from the Latin ego, meaning “I” or “self.” While the term ego retains the basic “I” or “self” meaning, it has also come to apply to our sense of identity, our individuality, and our executive and organizer functions as well as the center of our consciousness. We have carried the word ego into the English language and normalized it. We do not say “the I” when we refer to ourselves, but very often we say “the ego” as if to refer to a specific thing or part of our minds.
Today we find that ego, as used in the vernacular, means that some people have an inflated feeling of pride that elevates them above others (superiority). This meaning is usually associated with self-importance, egotism, and pride. We also see the term ego being used in reference to our consciousness of our own identity.
Carl Jung’s notion of anima in reference to the inner self being in touch with the unconscious is an example of this type of usage. Also associated with this usage is the notion of an alert cognitive state in which you are aware of yourself and your situation. Another use of the term ego comes from the psychoanalytical method of Sigmund Freud. In Freudian terms, the ego is the reality principle. It is the seat of reason and is responsible for our thoughts and feelings mediated by our understanding of social norms and expectations.
The study of the ego or ego psychology began at the turn of the 20th century as philosophy and psychology became two separate disciplines. By the 1930s, the field of ego psychology had earned a respected place in psychological studies. However, a battle between Anna Freud’s view and Heinz Hartmann’s view of the ego was at the forefront of ego psychology during this period. Anna Freud focused on the defensive nature of the ego while Hartmann focused on its adaptive potential. According to Robert Kegan, these two views were not reconcilable. On the one hand, Anna Freud’s view of the ego was a defense mechanism that sought to ward off anxiety that could lead to the ego’s breakdown. On the other hand, Hartmann’s view of the ego was one that encompassed the process of meaning making. The idea of the ego as a meaning-making agent can be found in the work of Robert Kegan, Carl Rogers, Jean Piaget, and Jane Loevinger, while the idea of the ego as a defense mechanism that mediates the id (or our impulsive desires) can be seen in the work of psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Karen Horney, and Eric Erickson.
The basic difference in the Freudian conception of the ego and that of meaning-making psychologists is that in the former the ego arises or develops from an interaction with our social and cultural experiences, while in the latter it is considered to be with us at birth as a process and as such is an active agent in our ability to make sense of our world experiences. Adler, a student of Freudian psychology, departed from Freud’s view of the ego. While Freud thought that the ego was derived from drives through processes of frustration and renunciation, Adler understood the ego to provide a reference for the way in which one structures one’s world and perceives his or her experiences in the world.
The debate as to the origin and function of the ego is still very much alive today. We have on the one side, those who see the ego as residing in the real world. The ego is driven by the id and attempts to accomplish what the id wants. The ego develops out of our need to interact with the world and the id’s need for a mediator. It is on the foundation of Sigmund Freud’s structural ego that Anna Freud’s Ego Psychology, Melaine Klein’s object relations, Erikson’s notion of identity development, and Heinz Kohut’s self-psychology were built. On the other hand, other theorists, especially developmental psychologists, view the ego as an innate process that organizes our life experiences. As such, the ego helps us derive meaning from our life experiences and develop our world view.
There are also many philosophers who have contributed to our understanding of the ego and how it develops. George Herbert Mead (1934) developed his understanding of the “I” and “me” in his seminal work, Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. James Mark Baldwin (1897) in his work entitled Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development, discusses the development of the individual (or self) in relation to the evolution of society. In The Nature of the Self, Risieri Frondizi (1953) argued that the self is an organic unity and its parts cannot be understood in isolation from each other. This opposed those who treated the self as an aggregate of parts rather than a whole.
The word “ego” has a vast array of meanings and usages. The Oxford Reference Online Library lists 68 definitions for the word “ego” and its associated usages. How one understands the word “ego” depends on which theoretical or philosophical assumptions one makes. Ego is closely tied to concepts of self, identity, consciousness, and way of being. However, the common element in all the meanings is the central understanding that the ego is intimately connected to the “I.”
- Baldwin, J. M. (1973). Social and ethical interpretations in mental de New York: Arno Press.
- Encyclopedia Britannica Online. (n.d.). Ego. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/ebc/article-9363461
- Frondizi, (1971). The nature of self: A functional interpretation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human de Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Mead, G. H. (1962). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago
- Oxford Reference (n.d.). Ego. Available from http://www.oxfordreference.com
- Richards, S. (n.d.). Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). Retrieved from http://www.forg.uk/Philosophy/wittgenstein.htm