The Splitting of the Ego in the Processes of Defence

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This short essay, dating from January 1938, was published after Freud's death. In this work Freud returned to an issue that he had previously discussed in "Fetishism" (1927e) and that he was to take up again in An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940a [1938]).

The subject of ego splitting surfaced also in other much earlier texts, particularly those concerned with psychosis, which is why Freud hesitated between "whether what I have to say should be regarded as something long familiar and obvious or as something entirely new and puzzling" (1940e [1938], p. 275).

In the paper, Freud described as "cunning" (p. 277) the solution found by the child simultaneously to satisfy his instincts and respect reality. (It is surprising here that what Freud called a "real" danger was just the fact that the child had been threatened with castration.) Through the mechanism of splitting, the child "takes over the fear of that danger as a pathological symptom and tries subsequently to divest himself of the fear" (p. 275). The displacement of confrontation anxiety (onto a phobia, for example) allows for a particular solution, namely the creation of a fetish.

Freud goes on to describe how the "reality" of the threat is confused with the reality of the absence of a penis in the woman, falsely interpreted as a castration. Displacing the absent penis onto an object chosen as a fetish allows the child to disbelieve the threat of castration, since a substitute for the penis exists. However, this is only possible at the price of "a turning away from reality" (p. 277), an erroneous conception of female anatomy. Demarcating this mechanism from psychotic functioning is the fact that the substitute is not hallucinated but chosen in a regressive manner—that is, from a pregenital perspective. "Success," Freud wrote, "is achieved at the price of a rift in the ego which never heals but which increases as time goes on" (p. 276).

This text has been much discussed, notably for its innovation in seeing the splitting of the ego as a process involved not only in fetishism and psychoses, but also in neuroses. Freud further developed this idea of ego splitting in An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940a [1938]), where he described the splitting of the ego as "a universal characteristic of neuroses that there are present in the subject's mental life, as regards some particular behaviour, two different attitudes, contrary to each other and independent of each other" (p. 204).


   * Freud, Sigmund. (1940e [1938]). Die Ichspaltung im Abwehrvorgang. Internationaler Zeitschrift Psychoanaltischer Imago, 25 XXV, p. 241-244; GW, XVII, p. 57-62; Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. SE, 23: 271-278.


   * Freud, Sigmund. (1927e). Fetishism. SE, 21: 147-157.
   * ——. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psychoanalysis. SE, 23: 139-207.