A Project for a Scientific Psychology

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The "Project for a Scientific Psychology"—a title provided by the editors upon the manuscript's first publication in 1950—is part of Freud's correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess. Freud himself referred to it as "Psychology for Neurologists," or else as "φ ψ ω" (his denominations for the three kinds of neurones described in the text). His two aims in this piece were to arrive at "a sort of economics of nerve forces" and "to peel off from psychopathology a gain for normal psychology" (Freud to Fliess, May 25, 1895, 1985c, p. 129).

Freud's "Project" was first conceived in late March, 1895. In September, returning from a visit to Fliess in Berlin, where the two discussed it, he began the writing while still on the train, and on October 8, he sent Fliess two notebooks, holding back a third dealing with repression. These were followed by his letter to Fliess of January 1, 1896 and the attached "Draft K." Even at this time Freud oscillated between feeling that the work we know as the "Project" was "delusional" and feeling that it was an excellent start on "the elucidation of the neuroses"; and if the "quantitative conception" would in fact never disappear from his work, it would always remain in the background.

The first part of the "Project" is devoted to the description of physical prototypes of repression. The model of the organism here seems to be the vesicle exposed to the very powerful energies of the "primal soup." When flight is not available to the system, it resorts to its multiple protective survival mechanisms. Thus Freud begins his discussion by introducing the "principle of inertia" and then proceeds to describe two systems of neurones, φ and ψ, soon to be joined by a third, ω, concerned with perception. Presentation of the notion of "contact-barriers" gives him an opportunity to point up the distinction between perception and memory by which he would always subsequently abide (1925a).

To protect itself, the system is said to rely not only on the principle of inertia but also on "quantity-screens" constituted by "nerve-ending apparatuses" as a way of guaranteeing a first bulwark against the powerful stimuli of the outside world (SE 1, p. 306). The outcome of a failure in this protective contrivance is pain, along with the intrusion of excessive quantities of excitation that "leave permanent facilitations behind" (p. 307). Consciousness, meanwhile, is defined by Freud as the locus of transformation of "quantity" into "quality" in the "x" system of neurones (p. 311). This is the context in which the "plea-sure/unpleasure principle" is first framed in terms, here, of proportional fullness (analogous, arguably, to hunger's proportionality to lack in the case of the alimentary function): an excessive cathexis of neurones, according to Freud, generates unpleasure, while a lesser cathexis thereof gives rise to pleasure (p. 312).

After recapitulating "the functioning of the apparatus," Freud goes on to describe the Y-system of neurones as exposed without protection to the quantity of endogenous stimuli, "and in this fact lies the mainspring [Triebfeder] of the psychical mechanism" (pp. 315-16). This first adumbration of the instinct or drive (Trieb) is followed in the "Project" by a discussion of the "experience of satisfaction"—a reaction to the "filling" ("Erfüllung," which also means "fulfillment") of the neurone by a pressure or urgency that results in a motor discharge, as for example screams. Being incapable of feeding itself, the infant succeeds in this way in calling up "extraneous help" (p. 318)—or in other words an adult, who satisfies the need for nourishment and subsequently becomes a "memory of the object" whose image may, should the need arise once again, be hallucinated (p. 319).

Having thus linked the vital and sexual spheres, in counterpoint to satisfaction, Freud turns to the "experience of pain," in which the system perceives a "hostile object" (is Freud thinking of two distinct objects or of a single object "split" into "good and "bad"?) behind which we may discern the "seducer," the idea of which (or of whom) gives rise to an increase in the level of excitation, and hence of unpleasure (p. 320). The organization of the apparatus is thereafter perfected thanks to the development of the "ego." The ego is supposed to inhibit the system and to mobilize secondary against primary processes. This new way of functioning allows for the emergence of "indications of reality" (p. 325), of the capacities for judgment, remembering, thought, and so on. Freud returns to the issue of the primary process at the end of this ontogenetic itinerary, considering its role in sleep and dreams, which constitute a return to an earlier state and permit the "fulfillment"—comparable to the aforementioned "filling" of neurones—of "wishes."

A description of the play of displacements, ideas, and quantities in dreaming provides Freud with an easy transition to the second, and unfortunately the shortest part of the "Project," entitled "Psychopathology." Here he explains "hysterical compulsion" by means of a very interesting theory of the symbol. Whereas the displacements and substitutions that give rise to "symbols" in normal subjects are said to be the same in hysterics, in the case of hysterics, "The symbol has in this case taken the place of the thing [that has been repressed] entirely" (p. 349). The two preconditions of repression coming into play, Freud asserts, are that the idea affected be unpleasurable and that it be sexual (p. 350). But "the core of the riddle" of repression remains, for, in contrast with hysteria, "compulsive neurosis" can arise without symbol-formation (p. 352). Thus the "proton pseudos" is constituted by two premature scenes of a sexual nature whose impact is "deferred" until quantities of sexual excitation are released at puberty. The ego is then evaded by memories while it is preoccupied with defending itself against assaults coming from perception. The specific action of sexuality can be explained only by reference to its belatedness as compared with the rest of the individual's development: "The retardation of puberty makes possible posthumous primary processes" (pp. 356, 359).

The third part of the "Project" is a long presentation of normal mental processes, in which Freud seeks to situate issues of general psychology—attention, judgment, thought, memory in relation to language, and so on—within the framework that he has been developing. One interesting idea is that the pleasure principle might be an inhibiting mechanism that pushes the ego to learn attentiveness and to cathect the wishful idea to a moderate degree (p. 361). In the later development of his work, Freud would make these considerations the basis of the reality principle, even though he would characteristically, given his predilection for over-rigorous oppositions, treat this as an absolute antagonist of the pleasure principle. His discussion here of "observing thought" (pp. 363-65), meanwhile, though it might seem off-putting, may well have led him to develop the technique of "free association."

A final aspect of the "Project" that needs stressing is, according to James Strachey (SE 1, p. 291), the remarkable part played by sexuality in this early work. Freud was indeed rather too prone, later, to forget what he had described here as a cardinal aspect of repression—the fact that it affects only sexual ideas (p. 352); and he likewise paid insufficient attention to the impossibility for the child of metabolizing adult sexuality, of handling what in the "Project" are called "excessively intense" (überstark) ideas (p. 347). Simultaneously indicated and masked by the metaphorization of the general development of the mental apparatus, this embryonic account of the advent of a sexual "program" in the child is presented solely from the point of view of the "receiver" and offers no parallel description of the "transmitter," which would have introduced the interpersonal dimension. Precisely because of this omission, Freud would tend to espouse the idea of inborn sexual programming, in which context the primary process became proof of the unconscious as opposed to what it might have been if the view of the "Project" had been followed, namely a receiving area for an unconscious brought into being for its part by multiple encounters with the objects of childhood.

First published in 1950 in the original German, translated into English in 1954, the "Project" was greeted with enthusiasm by Freud's admirers. A whole generation of physicians thought it promoted a new rapprochement between two forms of knowledge (medicine and psychoanalysis) that history had tended to set at odds. James Strachey, however, had already cautioned against an excessive reaction to the "Project's" disinterment (SE, 1, p. 239). Today the enthusiasm has been much tempered, especially among "biologists," who argue that what seemed like brilliant insights when the "Project" emerged have been much tarnished by the passage of time. All the same, for psychoanalytic researchers this work is still a cornucopia of discoveries yet to be made and of avenues past and future to be avoided.


See also: Attention; Cathexis; Deferred action; Ego; Hypercathexis; Incompleteness; Interpretation of Dreams, The; Mnemic trace/memory trace; Perception-Consciousness (Pcpt.-Cs.); Perceptual identity; Physical pain/psychic pain; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Primary process/secondary process; Protective shield; Proton-pseudos; Psi system; Psychic causality; Psychic energy; Psychology and psychoanalysis; Quantitative/qualitative; Specific action; Sum of excitation; Symbol; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a; Word-presentation. Source Citation

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1950c [1895]). Entwurf einer Psychologie. In Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris, (Eds.), (1950a). Aus den anfangen der psychoanalyse. briefe an Wilhelm Fliess, abhandlungen und notizen aus de jahren 1887-1902. London: Imago; GW, Nachtragsband, 387-477; corrected transcription in J. M. Masson and Michael Schröter, (Eds.), Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1986; Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris, (Eds.), The origins of psycho-analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes, 1887-1902, (James Strachey, Trans.), London: Imago, 1954: 347-445; A project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 283-387.