Fundamental Rule

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The fundamental rule, as set forth in "Freud's Psycho-Analytic Procedure" (1904a [1903]), urges that patients say "whatever comes into their heads, even if they think it unimportant or irrelevant or nonsensical . . . or embarrassing or distressing" (p. 251). Implicitly, the rule urges analysts to adopt a corresponding listening technique ("evenly suspended attention"), for which they are prepared by virtue of what Ferenczi (1928, pp. 88-89) called the second fundamental rule, namely the requirement that future analysts be analyzed themselves.

The fundamental rule was an end-point in Freud's development of his technique. He had begun with the "cathartic method," using hypnosis to elicit a verbal discharge of affects attached to buried traumas. In an intermediary stage, he used "free associations" as a way of uncovering the latent meaning of manifest phenomena such as memories, symptoms, or dreams, but without as yet forgoing the constraining use of suggestion. His adoption of the fundamental rule marked the renunciation of suggestion and of all prior assumptions on the part of the therapist. By initially and always giving the right to speak to the patient, the rule designated him or her as the source of all knowledge. By insisting that both partners in the work of analysis proceed "without any purpose in view" (1912e, p. 114) the rule claims implicitly to institute a kind of independent authority or "third party" before which the sequence of psychic material demanded by the rule might be manifested, perceived, and put into words. This initial positive rationality for the rule gradually came into question as the complexity of what was involved became apparent.

By examining significant variations in the way the rule has been stated, it is possible to get the measure of its metapsychological implications.

1. The statement of the rule was at first intended as a purely negative recommendation: the patient must not, as he would in an ordinary conversation, reject the incidental thoughts that cross his or her mind. The idea is to lift the censorship so that the products of unconscious mental activity could be expressed.

To resolve the paradox resulting from the fact that this negative prescription assumes a patient who is already in the process of speaking, the rule was subsequently pared down by Freud to: "Say whatever goes through your mind" (1913c, p. 135). Thus, the patient's "choice" of a topic was no longer differentiated from "any intrusive ideas that may occur to you" (p. 134). The result of this was that the patient had to attribute two functions to the rule simultaneously, making it both a source of freedom and an obligation to "tell all."

2. Freud's formulation of the rule created a basic disjunction between "whatever goes through the mind" and words used to report it. At first this distinction seems clear enough: The patient's utterances presumably result from a voluntary act, whereas "whatever goes through the mind" is involuntary and passively "received." Thus understood, the logic of the rule combines the supposed "immunity" of the act of speaking with an acceptance of the idea of a "passivity" that implies the suspension of the usual way in which meaning is assigned. This logic is supposed to lead the patient to a positive cathexis of "whatever goes through the mind" and its enigmatic origins. And "whatever goes through the mind," it should be recalled, is a heterogeneous category, including as it does not just ideas, images, or wishes, but also representations, sensations, feelings, pure affects (such as anxiety), bodily states, and so on.

3. Further reflection confronts us with the fact that this as-yet unverbalized material comprises "word-presentations"; it is therefore discursive in nature, which means that the discrepancy between what comes to mind and the act of reporting it is either invalidated or limited to the sphere of linguistic activity.

We can see how Jacques Lacan, as a result of this primordial importance of speech and language, was led to propose the following wording for the rule: "Say anything at all, without being afraid of saying something stupid." However, the disjunction evident in Freud's work remains in full force. An eloquent expression of it is the metaphor of traveling in a train. The patient is compared to the passenger seated by the window, who must describe to his traveling companion the scenery passing by, without paying special attention to any given aspect on a priori grounds. For Freud, the most important point was that the countryside being traversed can never be reduced to what the passenger can perceive of it and say about it. The disjunction between psychic activity and the activity of speaking preserves the heterogeneity of relationships that word-presentations may have with the various registers of psychic and physical reality. According to Freud, "whatever comes to mind" tends, through the favored mode of regression toward the visual image, toward a hallucinatory realization that is similar to the dream and its primary processes.

The crucial phenomenon remains the transference, through which "what comes to mind" is aimed at the analyst to whom, simultaneously, the patient's speech is addressed. The postulate of the rule is that discourse can invest this transferential relationship.

The statement of the rule alludes to certain critical judgments that the patient must disregard. The judgments that something is unimportant or nonsensical naturally attest to the ordinary aspiration to say important and logical things. The judgment against things that are "distressing" to say summarizes all the others. Thus, the conflict whose onset is postulated in the wording of the rule is one that, by attesting to the consistency of the patient's inner psychic conflict, ensures that the attempt to put the rule into effect will have a dynamic value. The analysand's task is thus to confront the unpleasure of telling. At the price of this unpleasure, overcoming resistance can be productive.

From a metapsychological point of view, we can consider that by requiring the lifting of repression, the rule opens up the unconscious, gives the repressed access to consciousness, under the sign of the pleasure principle. The resistances that attempt to close this door are based on ordinary rationality. However, under the aegis of an accepted rule, they are no longer anything other than rationalizations; they express the action of repression, which also derives from the pleasure principle, since its aim is to substitute a sort of flight by avoidance for the action of a psychic "reality principle" and the free judgment it makes possible.

We can conceive that "intrusive ideas" are derivatives of the repressed: They can be perceived and spoken because they are not too threatening to the censorship. At a certain threshold of instinctual investment, a certain proximity to the unconscious kernel, signal-anxiety triggers repression, which manifests itself as resistance. It is because the conflict between repressing and repressed is well "organized" that it reveals the topographical contradictions of the pleasure principle (what is pleasure in one place becomes unpleasure in another), and that by following the associative chains and the "compromises" whose traces they bear and the context this process creates, the analyst is enabled to "discover the repressed instinctual impulses which are feeding the resistance," according to Freud in "Remembering, Repeating and Working Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II)" (1914g, p. 155). In the same essay Freud defined the cure as a "working-through of the resistances" (p. 155). The aim of the rule is not to "free" unconscious material (as in hypnosis), but rather to support the most complete and most "free" manifestation of conflicting forces so that their interplay may be modified.

Let us highlight the complexity of the rule's inherent stakes and their metapsychological correlates:

  1. The rule cannot be described as either impartial or exterior to the forces at work in the analysis. It is directly involved in the phenomena inherent in the processes of the cure and its indirect "goals" (symbol-formation, sublimation, transference onto speech, becoming-conscious): Putting it into effect is an end as much as a means.
  2. Accordingly, the rule inevitably plays a role in the transference. Far from remaining a third locus, it is invested as an emanation of the analyst's desire that it will thus be possible to satisfy or disappoint. Mobilization of the conflict in response to the rule can be expressed in the form of a transferential acting out (Agieren) inherent in the logic of the situation. But the massive nature of this mobilization and the instantaneous nature of making the rule the locus of conflict do not facilitate the task of interpretation.
  3. It is thus clear that the rule necessarily summons up the transgressions that contest it, the events that illustrate the impossibility of completely putting it into effect. It is only realized through that which seems to negate it: the activation of modes of "magical" or animistic thinking, which subvert the very existence of an observing ego, of a reality principle applied to psychic space. Any reference, even implicit, to the rule, seems to disappear at times, and it is then the sustained analytic setting that ensures through its vicariousness, until such time as a successful interpretation or a working-through makes it reappear, along with the meaning of the play of psychic forces that it represents.
  4. The putting into effect of the rule has its optimal relevance when, as is the case in the neurotic, the topography of the repression attests to a tempered conflict between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. Clinical work has brought to light forms of resistance linked to the unconscious of the ego and the superego that subvert the dynamics of the analytic situation (interminable analysis, or even disorganizing regression). Here we shall mention only the need for punishment, linked to unconscious guilt, that can be appeased only in and through suffering. The dynamic of the rule is perverted when the unpleasure it involves satisfies this need in an overly masochistic way. The work of analysis can then no longer be based on the logic of the pleasure principle to modify this need. This is but one of the many examples that could illustrate the limits of the rule's relevance and the need, in many cases, to situate the analysis outside its bounds.

The discrepancy between the apparent programmatic rationality of the rule and the complexity of its metapsychology explains that both its practical value and the function of its statement have been relativized and indeed called into question. Many analysts believe it is superfluous to state it. Others even deem it antianalytic, because it introduces an alienating representation of a goal, that of speaking "according to" the rule, and they believe it is preferable that the dynamics of the analysis begin spontaneously, allowing the patient to discover its inherent rule when they can make sense of it.

By contrast, one can underscore that the analytic situation could not be established by acting as if the superego-linked register of the prescription could be abolished. In this vein, one can point out that the statement of the rule, in its brilliant economy, condenses that which can be directly transmitted at the outset of the cure, and which the analyst states in the name of the analysis. In this way, it dismisses other, more implicit or more insidious prescriptions, and places the patient in the position of assuming responsibility for his or her own analysis.

The statement of the rule thus takes on the meaning of a repetition of an original, founding statement of the analytic situation. While the rule was initially intended as a third locus excluding suggestion from the analytic process, through its ineluctable transferential evolution, it has proved to be the means and the place through which the effects of suggestion can be identified and analyzed in the transference.


See also: Active technique; Face-to-face situation; Free association; Modesty; Obsessional neurosis (compulsive neurosis); Outline of Psychoanalysis, An; Psychoanalytic treatment; "Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-Analysis;" "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through;"; Training analysis; Training of psychoanalysts; Transgression; Truth. Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund (1904a [1903]). Freud's psycho-analytic procedure. SE, 7, 247-254.
   * ——. (1912e). Recommendations to physicians practising psycho-analysis. SE, 12, 109-120.
   * ——. (1913c). On beginning the treatment (Further recommendations on technique of psycho-analysis I). SE, 12, 1-144.
   * ——. (1914g). Remembering, repeating and working-through (Further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II). SE, 12, 145-156.

Analysis Fundamental Rule:: The fundamental rule of: to say whatever what comes into one's mind without censoring any of it. See free association.

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