Illusion is an error experienced by someone who is misled (illudere) by the nature of evidence or the seductive appearance of something that deceives.
The deceiver may be personified (Descartes's "evil genius") or limited to a physical or physiological cause (the illusions of the senses), or even an ontological structure (the Platonic myth of the cave).
However, the subject can create his own illusion by taking his desires for reality.
It is this last formulation that is embodied in the Freudian approach to illusion, defined as a belief primarily motivated by the realization of a desire.
To that extent the illusion has much in common with dreams and dreaming, where the philosophers of antiquity had situated it.
The concept of illusion in Freud is gradually developed, reaching its culmination in The Future of an Illusion (1927c).
In the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c ), illusion is confused with hallucination in the context of perceptual illusion.
But with the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901b), the concept is further refined.
In Freud's case it would be wrong to qualify the feeling of déjà vu or déjà éprouvé as illusion, because theycorrespond, through displacement and concealment, to an authentic unconscious daydream.
Thirty-five years later in "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," Freud would refer to false recognition (déjà vu, déjà raconté) as a part of the "illusions in which we seek to accept something as belonging to our ego, just as in the derealizations we are anxious to keep something out of us" (1936a, p. 245).
There is a certain amount of ambiguity concerning the simple criterion that defines illusion as something that doesn't exist in reality, to the extent that the concept of reality is reconsidered in psychoanalysis as mental reality.
Moreover, the single stable criterion used to define illusion in psychoanalysis is a belief motivated by the realization of desire:
"[W]e will call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification."
Freud identifies illusion as being mostly associated with religion, art, and philosophy, but he also acknowledges the hypothesis that science itself could be an illusion, although he rejects it.
In a deeper sense the greatest illusion would be the belief in the happiness and goodness of human nature.
This pessimism, or realism, is first associated with the illusion that lasting sexual satisfaction is possible ("'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness," 1908d) and that social rules should be modified to procure happiness for individuals.
Freud then assumes the position of a defender of a realist position, which includes negativity instead of ignoring it:
"Because we destroy illusion we are accused of endangering ideals."/blockquote>
In fact the only ideal he defends is that of truth.
He further distinguishes two types of illusions: those that are not harmful since the illusion is obvious, and those that are dangerous because they take the place of an objective apprehension of reality (philosophy, ideology, and especially religion).
To the first category belongs art, which is said to evolve from magic and which, as an artistic illusion, produces the same affective effects as if it involved something real (1912-1913a).
"Art is said to be almost always harmless and beneficent; it does not seek to be anything but an illusion." (1933a , p. 160).
In what sense is art an illusion?
Freud is forced to make use of the concept of reality to determine this.
"The substitutive satisfactions, as offered by art, are illusions in contrast with reality, but they are none the less psychically effective, thanks to the role which phantasy has assumed in mental life."
Illusion, and especially the ability to take pleasure in it, would therefore be the result of the magical omnipotence associated with the beginnings of mental life, which led to the separation of the life of the imagination from the mental life grafted to reality.
"At the time when the development of the sense of reality took place, this region [imagination] was expressly exempted from the demands of reality-testing and was set apart for the purpose of fulfilling wishes which were difficult to carry out."
But reality-testing is difficult to manage when defining illusion.
Freud emphasizes it when he distinguishes illusion from delusion:
"Illusions need not necessarily be false—that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality."
The example chosen (the illusion of a young woman of modest means of being able to marry a prince) is not convincing, because within the framework of erotomaniacal delusion, that same idea (not illusory since it is realizable, Freud says) would indeed appear to contradict reality.
We could therefore say that delusion has more to do with a difference in "temporality"—hope and expectation in one case, real certainty on the other.
The difference between the potential reality of the content of the illusion and the belief in its actual reality is what allows reality testing to be used to define the illusion.
Illusion primarily involves the Weltanschauung and, in this regard, Freud emphasized religious illusion. All religious doctrines are "illusions and insusceptible of proof.
No one can be compelled to think them true, to believe in them" (1927c, p. 31).
The desire they realize is that of being protected and loved by a father who is more powerful than the real father.
Infantile distress is the origin of religious need, which Freud criticizes because of the weight it places on education.
He also feels—and this may sound paradoxical—that it is necessary to maintain religious teaching as a basis of education and human life in common.
"If you want to expel religion from our European civilization, you can only do it by means of another system of doctrines; and such a system would from the outset take over all the psychological characteristics of religion—the same sanctity, rigidity and intolerance, the same prohibition of thought—for its own defense."
In other words even if for Freud religion is a "serious enemy" of science, it would be an illusion to believe that it is possible to renounce belief for the benefit of knowledge alone.
The philosophical illusion that believes it can deliver an image of the world that is coherent and without gaps is undermined by the progress of science; and political illusion, such as communism, is an example of a substitute for religion.
The struggle against illusion is therefore a battle that will only yield incomplete results, following a process of maturation that is never realized:
"Since we are prepared to renounce a good part of our infantile wishes, we can bear it if a few of our expectations turn out to be illusions."
In psychoanalysis the concept of illusion has, in the work of Donald Woods Winnicott, undergone a completely different development than it has in Freud.
Winnicott (1953/1971) defines illusion as the necessary adaptation of the mother to the needs of the baby, which allows her to experiment with narcissistic omnipotence from the beginning.
This phase corresponds to the primary creativity of the infant and is prolonged during adulthood in art and religion.
Winnicott's ideas extended Freudian theories of the "purified pleasure ego" and the "reality test."
Winnicott postulates the existence of "intermediate state between a baby's inability and growing ability to recognize and accept reality" (1953, p. 90).
This ability is strictly dependent on what the mother allows the baby to feel.
"The mother's adaptation to the infant's needs, when good enough, gives the infant the illusion that there is an external reality that corresponds to the infant's own capacity to create."
In other words, the reality test is experienced as a frontal shock, but the reality is initially constructed by the baby who perceives it as being part of himself.
During a subsequent period, it will appear to be independent, but only gradually:
"The mother's eventual task is gradually to disillusion the infant, but she has no hope of success unless at first she has been able to give sufficient opportunity for illusion."
But illusion as a form remains and serves as a binding factor:
"We can share a respect for illusory experience, and if we wish we may collect together and form a group on the basis of the similarity of our illusory experiences. This is a natural root of grouping among human beings."
This differs from the Freudian point of view, which remains dependent on a certain proscientific militancy, while Winnicott situates himself at a level that is both more metaphysical and more affective.
"It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.). This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is 'lost' in play."
Psychose se manifestant par des troubles de la perception et de la production d’idées délirantes.
- Freud, Sigmund. (1901b). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE,6.
- ——. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.
- ——. (1933a ). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.
- ——. (1936a). A disturbance of memory on the Acropolis (an open letter to Romain Rolland on the occasion of his seventieth birthday). SE, 22: 239-248.