In psychoanalytic theory, a bungled action such as a slip of the tongue whose goal is not achieved and which is replaced by another. Like symptoms, parapraxes are interpreted by Freud as compromise formations resulting from a conflict between conscious intentions and repressed feelings or impulses.
A parapraxis is an act that appears to be unintentional but can be understood, through psychoanalytic exploration, to be perfectly motivated and unconsciously determined. A brief and delimited disturbance that may be spontaneously explained as the result of chance or inattention, a parapraxis may be readily perceived by its initiator or by a third party to be a "mistake."
Parapraxes include a wide range of events, including failures of memory, slips of the tongue or pen, mistakes, and bungled or accidental acts. A parapraxis cannot be explained by referring to the nature of the "slip" itself, but psychoanalytic hypotheses make it possible for it to be described simultaneously as a mistake and not a mistake, depending on one's point of view.
Parapraxes interested Freud as early as 1890. In letters to Wilhelm Fliess, he created a virtual collection of examples communicated to him by correspondents. Parapraxes represented, in fact, an important demonstration of disturbances created by the unconscious. As opposed to dreams, parapraxes tend to require fewer biographical details while providing valuable evidence—indeed, often with comical effect—that offers a popular audience an easy way to grasp psychoanalysis. Furthermore, parapraxes constitute one of the pillars of the psychopathology of everyday life, which Freud considered necessary to understand mental pathology in a broader context.
Freud discusses parapraxes in two of his major works: Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901b) and Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-17a [1915-17]).
Beyond the anecdotal nature of many of the examples in these two works, parapraxes clearly raise an issue fundamental for psychoanalytic thought—namely, the link between psychic determinism and the unconscious. Freud was led to clarify his position toward the notion of "chance" (as discussed in the review Topique, 1997) as differentiated from superstition: "I do not believe that an event in whose occurrence my mental life plays no part can teach me any hidden thing about the future shape of reality; but I believe that an unintentional manifestation of my own mental activity does on the other hand disclose something hidden, though again it is something that belongs only to my mental life [not to external reality]. I believe in external (real) chance, it is true, but not in internal (psychical) accidental events." (Freud, 1901b, p328)
The link between parapraxes and psychopathology, moreover, is established, according to Freud, uniquely through the fact that, in the case of chance events in a real world, "slips" involve the most insignificant psychic events. By contrast, neurotic symptoms are related to the most important psychic functions from both individual and social perspectives. In both instances, however, the same processes enable such symptoms to be understood, that is, as compromise formations located between desire and defense, between a subject's conscious intention and repression.
Fault made by inadvertency consisting in substituting a word for that which one wanted to say or write.
- Freud, Sigmund. (1901b). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE,6.
- ——. (1916-17a[1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.
- Topique. (1997).