Freud and the Dynamics of the Unconscious

"... the mind is an arena, a sort of tumbling-ground, for the struggles of antagonistic impulses..."

Freud and the Dynamics of the Unconscious
'Bleu II' (1969) by Joan Miro 

The following article contains sixteen excerpts from 'Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis' (Einführung in die Psychoanalyse), a set of lectures given by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in 1915–1917 (published 1916–1917).

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This article was used as the basis for episode 6 of the GreatInsights Minicast.

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To preface these selections, here is an extract from Malcolm Levene's introductory note in my paper copy:

These lectures were written during the First World War, when Freud was approaching the years he thought would be his last (actually he survived till 1939). They represent a kind of summation, a kind of personal epitaph for his work up to that time. You will see on the last page that he is "heavily oppressed by the many defects of the lectures I have delivered before you [...] I undertook to give you an account of a thing that is still unfinished". This has a sad note. Freud was at this stage moving towards the pinnacle of his fame, but also towards old age. His followers were beginning to fight, defections from the ranks were beginning to take place. Europeans were slaughtering each other by the million.

Note: All italicization is from the original text. Bold text has been highlighted.

[Start of Excerpts]

Excerpt 1 – from ‘Lecture 1: Introduction’

For the next difficulty I shall not hold you, your training or your mental attitude, responsible. There are two tenets of psycho-analysis which offend the whole world and excite its resentment; the one conflicts with intellectual, the other with moral and aesthetic, prejudices. Let us not underestimate these prejudices; they are powerful things, residues of valuable, even necessary, stages in human evolution. They are maintained by emotional forces, and the fight against them is a hard one.

The first of these displeasing propositions of psycho-analysis is this: that mental processes are essentially unconscious, and that those which are conscious are merely isolated acts and parts of the whole psychic entity. Now I must ask you to remember that, on the contrary, we are accustomed to identify the mental with the conscious. Consciousness appears to us as positively the characteristic that defines mental life, and we regard psychology as the study of the content of consciousness. This even appears so evident that any contradiction of it seems obvious nonsense to us, and yet it is impossible for psycho-analysis to avoid this contradiction, or to accept the identity between the conscious and the psychic. The psycho-analytical definition of the mind is that it comprises processes of the nature of feeling, thinking, and wishing, and it maintains that there are such things as unconscious thinking and unconscious wishing. But in doing so psycho-analysis has forfeited at the outset the sympathy of the sober and scientifically-minded, and incurred the suspicion of being a fantastic cult occupied with dark and unfathomable mysteries.1 You yourselves must find it difficult to understand why I should stigmatize an abstract proposition, such as "The psychic is the conscious," as a prejudice; nor can you guess yet what evolutionary process could have led to the denial of the unconscious, if it does indeed exist, nor what advantage could have been achieved by this denial. It seems like an empty wrangle over words to argue whether mental life is to be regarded as co-extensive with consciousness or whether it may be said to stretch beyond this limit, and yet I can assure you that the acceptance of unconscious mental processes represents a decisive step towards a new orientation in the world and in science.

As little can you suspect how close is the connection between this first bold step on the part of psycho-analysis and the second to which I am now coming. For this next proposition, which we put forward as one of the discoveries of psycho-analysis, consists in the assertion that impulses, which can only be described as sexual in both the narrower and the wider sense, play a peculiarly large part, never before sufficiently appreciated, in the causation of nervous and mental disorders. Nay, more, that these sexual impulses have contributed invaluably to the highest cultural, artistic, and social achievements of the human mind.

In my opinion, it is the aversion from this conclusion of psycho-analytic investigation that is the most significant source of the opposition it has encountered. Are you curious to know how we ourselves account for this? We believe that civilization has been built up, under the pressure of the struggle for existence, by sacrifices in gratification of the primitive impulses, and that it is to a great extent for ever being re-created, as each individual, successively joining the community, repeats the sacrifice of his instinctive pleasures for the common good. The sexual are amongst the most important of the instinctive forces thus utilized: they are in this way sublimated, that is to say, their energy is turned aside from its sexual goal and diverted towards other ends, no longer sexual and socially more valuable. But the structure thus built up is insecure, for the sexual impulses are with difficulty controlled; in each individual who takes up his part in the work of civilization there is a danger that a rebellion of the sexual impulses may occur, against this diversion of their energy. Society can conceive of no more powerful menace to its culture than would arise from the liberation of the sexual impulses and a return of them to their original goal. Therefore society dislikes this sensitive place in its development being touched upon; that the power of the sexual instinct should be recognized, and the significance of the individual's sexual life revealed, is very far from its interests; with a view to discipline it has rather taken the course of diverting attention away from this whole field. For this reason, the revelations of psychoanalysis are not tolerated by it, and it would greatly prefer to brand them as aesthetically offensive, morally reprehensible, or dangerous. But since such objections are not valid arguments against conclusions which claim to represent the objective results of scientific investigation, the opposition must be translated into intellectual terms before it can be expressed. It is a characteristic of human nature to be inclined to regard anything which is disagreeable as untrue, and then without much difficulty to find arguments against it. So society pronounces the unacceptable to be untrue, disputes the results of psycho-analysis with logical and concrete arguments, arising, however, in affective sources, and clings to them with all the strength of prejudice against every attempt at refutation.

1 [Literally, " that wishes to build in the dark and fish in murky waters." – in the original German]


Excerpt 2 – from ‘Lecture 2: The Psychology of Errors’

For this purpose we shall select certain phenomena which are very frequent, very familiar and much overlooked, and which have nothing to do with illness, since they may be observed in every healthy person. I refer to the errors that everyone commits: as when anyone wishes to say a certain thing but uses the wrong word ('slip of the tongue') [versprechen]; or when the same sort of mistake is made in writing ('slip of the pen') [verschreiben], in which case one may or may not notice it; or when anyone reads in print or writing something other than what is actually before him ('mis-reading') [verlesen]; or when anyone mis-hears [verhören] what is said to him, naturally when there is no question of any disease of the auditory sense-organ. Another series of such phenomena are those based on forgetting [vergessen] something temporarily, though not permanently; as, for in-stance, when anyone cannot think of a name which he knows quite well and is always able to recognize whenever he sees it; or when anyone forgets to carry out some intention, which he afterwards remembers, and has therefore forgotten only for a certain time. This element of transitoriness is lacking in a third class, of which mislaying [verlegen] things so that they cannot be found is an example. This is a kind of forgetfulness which we regard differently from the usual kind; one is amazed or annoyed at it, instead of finding it comprehensible. Allied to this are certain mistakes, in which the temporary element is again noticeable, as when one believes something for a time which both before and afterwards one knows to be untrue, and a number of similar manifestations which we know under various names.


Excerpt 3 – from ‘Lecture 3: The Psychology of Errors (continuation)’

Let us once more agree upon what we understand by the "meaning" of a mental process. This is nothing else but the intention which it serves and its place in a mental sequence. In most of the cases we examined we could substitute for the word "meaning" the words "intention" and "tendency."


Excerpt 4 – from ‘Lecture 3: The Psychology of Errors (continuation)’

[Errors] are not accidents; they are serious mental acts; they have their meaning; they arise through the concurrence-perhaps better, the mutual interference-of two different intentions.


Excerpt 5 – from ‘Lecture 3: The Psychology of Errors (continuation)’

Psycho-physiological factors such as excitement, absent-mindedness, distraction of attention, obviously provide very little in the way of explanation. They are mere phrases; they are screens, and we should not be deterred from looking behind them. The question is rather what has here called forth the excitement or the particular diversion of attention. The influence of sound-values, resemblances between words, and common associations connecting certain words, must also be recognized as important. They facilitate the slip [of the tongue] by pointing out a path for it to take. But if there is a path before me does it necessarily follow that I must go along it? I also require a motive to determining my choice and, further, some force to propel me forward. These sound-values and word associations are, therefore, just like the bodily conditions, the facilitating causes of slips of the tongue, and cannot provide the real explanation of them. Consider for a moment the enormous majority of cases in which the words I am using in my speech are not deranged on account of sound-resemblance to other words, intimate associations with opposite meanings, or with expressions in common use. It yet remains to suppose, with the philosopher Wundt, that a slip of the tongue arises when the tendency to associations gains an ascendance over the original intention owing to bodily fatigue. This would be quite plausible if experience did not controvert it by the fact that in a number of cases the bodily, and in another large group the associative, predisposing causes are absent.


Excerpt 6  – from ‘Lecture 3: The Psychology of Errors (continuation)’

The truth is that you have an illusion of a psychic freedom within you which you do not want to give up. I regret to say that on this point I find myself in sharpest opposition to your views.


Excerpt 7  – from ‘Lecture 3: The Psychology of Errors (continuation)’

Now you think you have me in a trap. "So that is your technique," I hear you say. "When the person who commits a slip gives an explanation which fits your views then you declare him to be the final authority on the subject. He says so himself! But if what he says does not suit your book, then you suddenly assert that what he says does not count, one need not believe it."

Certainly that is so. But I can give you another instance of a similarly monstrous procedure. When an accused man confesses to a deed the judge believes him, but when he denies it the judge does not believe him. Were it otherwise the law could not be administered, and in spite of occasional miscarriages you will admit that the system, on the whole, works well.


Excerpt 8  – from ‘Lecture 3: The Psychology of Errors (continuation)’

It is a mistake to believe that a science consists in nothing but conclusively proved propositions, and it is unjust to demand that it should. It is a demand only made by those who feel a craving for authority in some form and a need to replace the religious catechism by something else, even if it be a scientific one. Science in its catechism has but few apodictic precepts; it consists mainly of statements which it has developed to varying degrees of probability. The capacity to be content with these approximations to certainty and the ability to carry on constructive work despite the lack of final confirmation are actually a mark of the scientific habit of mind.


Excerpt 9  – from ‘Lecture 3: The Psychology of Errors (continuation)’

But where shall we find a starting point for our interpretations, and the indications for our proof, in cases where the subject under analysis says nothing to explain the meaning of the error? From various sources. First, by analogy with similar phenomena not produced by error, as when we maintain that the distortion of a name by mistake has the same intention to ridicule behind it as intentional distortion of names. And then, from the mental situation in which the error arose, from our knowledge of the character of the person who commits it, and of the feelings active in him before the error, to which it may be a response. As a rule what happens is that we find the meaning of the error according to general principles; and this, to begin with, is only a conjecture, a tentative solution, proof being discovered later by an examination of the mental situation. Sometimes it is necessary to await further developments, which have been, so to speak, foreshadowed by the error, before we can find confirmation of our conjecture.


Excerpt 10  – from ‘Lecture 3: The Psychology of Errors (continuation)’

Anyone who has experienced often enough the annoyance of not being able to find something which he has himself put away will certainly be unwilling to believe that he could have had intention in so doing. And yet cases are not at all rare in which the circumstances attendant on the act of mislaying point to a tendency to put the object aside temporarily or permanently. Perhaps the best example of this kind is the following.

A young man told me this story: "A few years ago there were misunderstandings between me and my wife; I thought her too cold, and though I willingly acknowledged her excellent qualities we lived together without affection. One day, on coming in from a walk, she brought me a book which she had bought me because she thought it would interest me. I thanked her for her little attention, promised to read the book, put it among my things and never could find it again. Months passed by and occasionally I thought of this derelict book and tried in vain to find it. About six months later my dear mother, who lived some distance away, fell ill. My wife left our house to go and nurse her mother-in-law, who became seriously ill, giving my wife an opportunity of showing her best qualities. One evening I came home full of enthusiasm and gratitude towards my wife. I walked up to my writing desk and opened a certain drawer in it, without a definite intention but with a kind of somnambulistic sureness, and there before me lay the lost book which I had so often looked for."

With the disappearance of the motive the inability to find the mislaid object also came to an end. I could multiply this collection of examples indefinitely; but I will not do so now. In my Psycho-pathology of Everyday Life (first published in 1901) you will find plenty of examples for the study of errors. All these examples demonstrate the same thing over and over again; they make it probable to you that mistakes have a meaning and they show you how the meaning can be guessed or confirmed from the attendant circumstances.


Excerpt 11  – from ‘Lecture 4: The Psychology of Errors (conclusion)’

Now we can turn at last to the main question which has been so long postponed, namely, what kind of tendencies these are which bring themselves to expression in this unusual way by interfering with other intentions. They are evidently very various, yet our aim is to find some element common to them all. If we examine a series of examples for this purpose we shall soon find that they fall into three groups. To the first group belong the cases in which the interfering tendency is known to the speaker and, moreover, was felt by him before the slip. […] A second group is formed by other cases in which the interfering tendency is likewise recognized by the speaker as his own, but he is not aware that it was active in him before the slip. He therefore accepts our interpretation, but remains to some extent surprised. Examples of this attitude are probably more easily found in other errors than in slips of the tongue. In the third group the interpretation of the interfering tendency is energetically repudiated by the speaker; not only does he dispute that it was active in him before the slip, but he will maintain that it is altogether entirely alien to him. […] My interpretation includes the assumption that tendencies of which a speaker knows nothing can express themselves through him and that I can deduce them from various indications.

You hesitate before a conclusion so novel and pregnant with consequences. I understand that, and admit that up to a point you are justified. But let one thing be clear: if you intend to carry to its logical conclusion the conception of errors which has been confirmed by so many examples, you must decide to make this startling assumption. If you cannot do this, you will have to abandon again the understanding of errors which you had only just begun to obtain.

Let us pause a moment on that which unites the three groups and is common to the three mechanisms of a slip of the tongue. Fortunately this common element is unmistakable. In the first two groups the interfering tendency is admitted by the speaker; in the first, there is the additional fact that it showed itself immediately before the slip. But in both cases it has been forced back.2 The speaker had determined not to convert the idea into speech and then it happens that he makes a slip of the tongue; that is to say, the tendency which is debarred from expression asserts itself against his will and gains utterance, either by altering the expression of the intention permitted by him, or by mingling with it, or actually by setting itself in place of it. This then is the mechanism by slip of the tongue.

For my own part I can bring the process in the third group also into perfect harmony with the mechanism here described. I need only assume that these three groups are differentiated by the varying degrees to which the forcing back of an intention is effective. In the first group, the intention is present and makes itself perceptible before the words are spoken; not until then does it suffer the rejection for which it indemnifies itself in the slip. In the second group the rejection reaches further back; the intention is no longer perceptible even before the speech. It is remarkable that this does not hinder it in the least from being the active cause of the slip! But this state of things simplifies the explanation of the process in the third group. I shall be bold enough to assume that a tendency can still express itself by an error though it has been debarred from expression for a long time, perhaps for a very long time, has not made itself perceptible at all, and can therefore be directly repudiated by the speaker. But leaving aside the problem of the third group, you must conclude from the other cases that a suppression (Unterdrückung) of a previous intention to say something is the indispensable condition for the occurrence of a slip of the tongue.

We may now claim to have made further progress in the understanding of errors. We not only know them to be mental phenomena in which meaning and purpose are recognizable, not only know that they arise from the mutual interference of two different intentions, but in addition we know that, for one of these intentions to be able to express itself by interfering with another, it must itself have been subject to some hindrance against its operation. It must first be itself interfered with, before it can interfere with others.

2: [German: Zurückdrängen = to force back. This word is stronger than unterdrücken = to press under, which we translate by suppress (not & technical term); zurückdrängen contains already the drängen of verdrängen, the technical word used by Freud to denote the strongest pressure of all, repression. In the examples discussed here, the agency withholding the intention from expression may be either conscious or unconscious (groups one, two, and three, according to the degree of unconsciousness) ; Freud does not use verdrängen = " repression," the technical word for unconscious agency only, here, but one very near to it in sense.]


Excerpt 12  – from ‘Lecture 4: The Psychology of Errors (conclusion)’

To work from slight indications, as we constantly do in this field, is not without its dangers. There is a mental disorder called combinatory paranoia in which the practice of utilizing such small indications is carried beyond all limits, and I naturally do not contend that the conclusions which are built up on such a basis are throughout correct. Only by the breadth of our observations, by the accumulation of similar impressions from the most varied forms of mental life, can we guard against this danger.


Excerpt 13  – from ‘Lecture 4: The Psychology of Errors (conclusion)’

So now we will leave the analysis of errors. But there is one thing more which I might impress upon you: to keep in mind, as a model, the method by which we have studied these phenomena. You can perceive from these examples what the aim of our psychology is. Our purpose is not merely to describe and classify the phenomena, but to conceive them as brought about by the play of forces in the mind, as expressions of tendencies striving towards a goal, which work together or against one another. We are endeavouring to attain a dynamic conception of mental phenomena. In this conception, the trends we merely infer are more prominent than the phenomena we perceive.


Excerpt 14  – from ‘Lecture 4: The Psychology of Errors (conclusion)’

[On mis-reading:]

Whatever interests and occupies the mind takes the place of what is alien and as yet uninteresting. The shadows of thoughts in the mind dim the new perceptions.


Excerpt 15  – from ‘Lecture 4: The Psychology of Errors (conclusion)’

It is important to begin early to reckon with the fact that the mind is an arena, a sort of tumbling-ground, for the struggles of antagonistic impulses; or, to express it in non-dynamic terms, that the mind is made up of contradictions and pairs of opposites. Evidence of one particular tendency does not in the least preclude its opposite; there is room for both of them. The material questions are: How do these opposites stand to one another and what effects proceed from one of them and what from the other?


Excerpt 16  – from ‘Lecture 4: The Psychology of Errors (conclusion)’

Losing and mislaying objects is of especial interest on account of the numerous meanings it may have, and the multiplicity of the tendencies in the service of which these errors may be employed. What is common to all the cases is the wish to lose something; what varies in them is the reason for the wish and the aim of it. One loses something if it has become damaged; if one has an impulse to replace it with a better; if one has ceased to care for it; if it came from someone with whom unpleasantness has arisen; or if it was acquired in circumstances that one no longer wishes to think of. Letting things fall, spoiling, or breaking things, serves the same tendency.


[End of Excerpts]

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"... the mind is an arena, a sort of tumbling-ground, for the struggles of antagonistic impulses..."

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