Freud and the Imagination

Psychoanalysts differ widely among themselves over which aspects of Freud’s theories they wish to remember and commemorate. Freud’s theories, so far from constituting a unitary, fixed structure, which either stands or falls as a whole and which analysts subscribe to in its entirety, are really more a collection of miscellaneous ideas, insights, and intuitions, which Freud propounded over a span of fifty years, which he derived from three disparate sources—his clinical experience, his self-analysis, and the biological theories current in his lifetime—and which have proved capable of development and elaboration in several different and apparently, perhaps even actually, incompatible ways. That this last statement is true is shown by the fact that there exist today in Great Britain at least three different schools of psychoanalysis, all claiming to be Freudian and all capable of showing that their ideas can indeed be discovered, albeit often in embryonic form, somewhere in Freud’s writings.

Although the fact that Freud’s writings have proved to be more a quarry than an edifice is not my subject here, it does make it necessary for me to state explicitly which aspect of Freud’s thinking I consider most important and which particular group of Freudian concepts I shall be using while developing my argument.

It so happens that my own view in this matter coincides with Freud’s. To his and my mind the most important, the most seminal, and the most revolutionary idea that Freud ever had was his idea that the human mind is capable of thinking in two different ways or modes; that there are, to use the title of one of his papers, “two principles of mental functioning,” one of which is characteristic of our waking life, the other characteristic of dreaming and neurotic symptom-formation; and that it is possible to define and describe these two modes by presenting them in antithesis to one another, so that each can be conceived of as possessing characteristics which are the opposite of the other’s.

To my mind misleadingly, Freud termed these two antithetical principles or modes the primary and secondary processes, the primary processes being those characteristic of our dream life, the secondary processes being those characteristic of our waking thought. The primary processes, in Freud’s terminology, are condensation, by which mental images tend to fuse with one another, and displacement, by which they tend to replace and symbolize one another; these processes ignore opposites and the categories of space and time, and are wish-fulfilling.

The secondary processes, on the other hand, respect the differences among images, obey the laws of grammar and formal logic, take cognizance of opposites and of the categories of space and time, and are adapted to the “realities” of the external world. To use a terminology which Freud himself did not use, the primary processes are iconic and nondiscursive, the secondary processes are verbal and discursive. The meaning of primary process utterances—if one can call a dream or a symptom an utterance—is ascertainable only by teasing out items and threads from…

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