Despite the unlimited extent of its bases, the ego is never more and never less than consciousness as a whole.
As a conscious factor the ego could, theoretically at least, be described completely.
But this would never amount to more than a picture of the conscious personality; all those features which are unknown or unconscious to the subject would be missing. A total picture would have to Include these.
But a total description of the personality is, even in theory, absolutely impossible, because the unconscious portion of it cannot be grasped cognitively.
This unconscious portion, as experience has abundantly shown, is by no means unimportant.
On the contrary, the most decisive qualities in a person are often unconscious and can be perceived only by others, or have to be laboriously discovered with outside help.
Clearly, then, the personality as a total phenomenon does not coincide with the ego, that is, with the conscious personality, but forms an entity that has to be distinguished from the ego.
Naturally the need to do this is incumbent only on a psychology that reckons with the fact of the unconscious, but for such a psychology the distinction is of paramount importance.
Even for jurisprudence it should be of some importance whether certain psychic facts are conscious or not for instance, in adjudging the question of responsibility.
I have suggested calling the total personality which, though present, cannot be fully known, the self.
The ego is, by definition, subordinate to the self and is related to it like a part to the whole, Inside the field of consciousness it has, as we say, free will.
By this I do not mean anything philosophical, only the well-known psychological fact of “free choice/’ or rather the subjective feeling of freedom.
But, just as our free will clashes with necessity in the outside world, so also it finds its limits outside the field of consciousness in the subjective inner world, where it comes into conflict with the facts of the self.
And just as circumstances or outside events “happen” to us and limit our freedom, so the self acts upon the ego like an objective occurrence which free will can do very little to alter.
It is, indeed, well known that the ego not only can do nothing against the self, but is sometimes actually assimilated by unconscious components of the personality that are in the process of development and is greatly altered by them.
It is, in the nature of the case, impossible to give any general description of the ego except a formal one.
Any other mode of observation would have to take account of the individuality which attaches to the ego as one of Its main characteristics.
Although the numerous elements composing this complex factor are, in themselves, everywhere the same, they are infinitely varied as regards clarity, emotional colouring, and scope.
The result of their combination the ego is therefore, so far as one can judge, individual and unique, and retains its identity up to a certain point. Its stability is relative, because far-reaching changes of personality can sometimes occur.
Alterations of this kind need not always be pathological; they can also be developmental and hence fall within the scope of the normal.
Since it is the point of reference for the field of consciousness, the ego Is the subject of all successful attempts at adaptation so far as these are achieved by the will.
The ego therefore has a significant part to play in the psychic economy.
Its position there is so important that there are good grounds for the prejudice that the ego is the centre of the personality, and that the field of consciousness is the psyche per se.
If we discount certain suggestive ideas in Leibniz, Kant, Schelling, and Schopenhauer, and the philosophical excursions of Gams and von Hartmann, It is only since the end of the nineteenth century that modern psychology, with its inductive methods, has discovered the foundations of consciousness and proved empirically the existence of a psyche outside consciousness.
With this discovery the position of the ego, till then absolute, became relativized; that Is to say, though It retains its quality as the centre of the field of consciousness, it is questionable whether it is the centre of the personality. It is part of the personality but not the whole of; It.
As I have said, it is simply impossible to estimate how large or how small its share is; how free or how dependent it Is on the qualities of this its freedom is limited and its dependence proved in ways that are often decisive.
In my experience one would do well not to underestimate its dependence on the unconscious.
Naturally there is no need to say this to persons who already overestimate the latter’s importance. Some criterion for the right measure is afforded by the psychic consequences of a wrong estimate, a point to which we shall return later on.
We have seen that, from the standpoint of the psychology of consciousness, the unconscious can be divided into three groups of contents.
But from the standpoint of the psychology of the personality a twofold division ensues: an “extra-conscious” psyche whose contents are personal, and an “extra-conscious” psyche whose contents are impersonal and collective.
The first group comprises contents which are integral components of the individual personality and could therefore just as well be conscious; the second group forms, as it were, an omnipresent, unchanging, and everywhere identical quality or substrate of the psyche per se.
This is, of course, no more than a hypothesis. But we are driven to it by the peculiar nature of the empirical material, not to mention the high probability that the general similarity of psychic processes in all individuals must be based on an equally general and impersonal principle that conforms to law, just as the instinct manifesting itself in the individual is only the partial manifestation of an instinctual substrate common to all men.