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On Instincts, Sublimation and The Id

    Do people have instincts? Today's post is an objective take on Sigmund Freud's "Id", and his idea of "sublimation".

    Ayn Rand is very clear in her explanation that Man "is born naked and unarmed, without fangs, claws, horns or 'instinctual' knowledge". Knowledge refers to our conceptual identifications, and concepts are mental integrations of perceptual data. One cannot integrate perceptual data without perceiving, therefore there is no such thing as innate knowledge.

    The problem with this, however, is that the vast majority of Objectivist intellectuals mistake "instinct" for "instinctual knowledge". "Instinct" refers to innate behavior, not knowledge. The multiple reflexes involved in digestion, for example, do not give us "knowledge about digestion", just like the pure perception of a dog does not give us knowledge about dogs. Like percepts, instincts simply are.

    Reflexes, however, are not nearly as relevant for Man's psycho-epistemology as another type of instinct: drives. A drive is an innate desire, created by our pleasure-pain mechanism, and perceived in the context of a conceptual mind. Hunger is a good example of drive: we do not "learn to be hungry", and it does not tell us anything about how to feed ourselves. It simply is. We feel a specific form of pain and suffering, that only goes away if we take certain actions - it is part of the identity of man's mind.

    Because we are volitional beings, we cannot rely on instinct alone to satisfy our drives, as our primate ancestors did. We have the choice to take actions that satisfy our specific drives, or be plagued by them, until we inevitably die. Our choices, however, do not happen in a metaphorical "vacuum" - they happen in a behavioral continuum, and must take into consideration our present stage of development.

    In concrete terms, a toddler cannot learn to hunt. At one point, it must cease to breastfeed, and learn how to be fed by its parents. Later on, it learns to use forks and knives to cut, and eat the food its parents provide. This development continues gradually, until it becomes an adult that is able to understand and satisfy its hunger by using reason to either produce food directly, or acquire it by trade. This gradual development of new behavior with which to replace more primitive behavior in the satisfaction of a drive is what "sublimation" is.

    The Freudian strawman painted by Leonard Peikoff, in which the Id is a deterministic entity, and sublimation is a way of saying Man "practices surgery because he is a sublimating sadist" is grossly mistaken. The Id is merely a set of drives, that the individual can choose to satisfy in countless ways. To say that practicing surgery is a sublimation of sadism is to say that it is a rational, productive way of satisfying the same innate drives that would cause our primate ancestors to kill one another.

    The ideas of Id and sublimation are not a challenge, but a testament to Man's greatness - his ability to choose his actions, and create his own soul.

  -  April 24th, 2020