Friday, November 22, 2013

Ego, Mind, and Culture

by Miki Kashtan

The idea for this piece came to me when I read a comment on an earlier blog post. The specific content of that post (which was about race), is not the issue here. Rather, it was two references to “ego” which caught my attention and got me thinking for all these months. Here they are as context:

“The only use for these false values are to enhance the ego’s sense of separateness, be it through conceived superiority or inferiority.”

“One result of acting upon true values is the freedom from the ignorance to which the separative ego tenaciously clings.”

There is nothing unusual about these sentences. They simply capture a way of speaking that I have been aware of: attributing intention to what is, ultimately, an abstraction. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so noticeable to me if it weren’t for a second aspect: the intention being assigned to this abstraction called “ego” is one that has a negative connotation with it.

It was a sad surprise to me when I learned that the entry of “ego” into the English language was in large part the result of choices made by Freud’s translator, James Strachey. “Ego” was introduced as a translation of the word in German that simply means “I,” thereby changing the meaning and tone of what Freud wrote. “When one says ‘my ego,’” says Mark Leffert, “one can always distance oneself; when one says “I,” no distance is possible.”[Footnote 1]