Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

1915 – 1916

SE Volume XVI

As the purpose of these lectures is to introduce the reader to psychoanalytic theory, there is no need to summarise the text – Freud himself has provided the best introduction to his own works.

So what follows is a list of some of the arguments against psychoanalysis that Freud confronts and attempts to answer in his conversations with an ‘impartial person’. The parapraxes (or ‘Freudian slips’) and dreams are covered here.

The Parapraxes (Freudian Slips)

First, why study parapraxes at all? Aren’t there so many things in psychology more deserving of our attention? Why do some people have terrifying hallucinations, believe they are persecuted by their relatives or closest friends, or hold the most fantastical delusions that are completely illogical? Aren’t these questions more deserving of the attention of psychoanalysis?

Freud says this criticism confuses the vastness of the problem with the conspicuousness of what points to it. Sometimes we find out about the most important things only by looking at the smallest and most trivial details. For example, a man trying to court a woman might detect a sign of her affections in a glance she gives him, or the way she holds his hand a split second longer than she has to. Or a detective investigating the scene of a crime would not expect to be looking for a picture of the criminal with his address written on the back; he would instead look for any signs of shiftiness or discomfort in the suspect under questioning, the way he mangles his words, etc. (p.26-27).

What is the first reaction to Freudian slips? ‘Oh, they don’t matter, they’re not important’.

Freud says that this is unscientific: there’s a reason why everything happens – the whole of science if founded on the wager that things, no matter how discreet, can be explained. Indeed, even in religion things happen because ultimately it is God’s will. (p.28).

Aren’t there physiological reasons why people make Freudian slips? Fatigue, or distraction, for example, causing changes in blood supply to the central nervous system?

Freud accepts that there are indeed physiological reasons why people make slips or bungle actions, but these occur in people who are not tired or distracted, who are feeling perfectly normal. Unless, of course, we make the move of trying to ascribe a tiredness to them on account of their parapraxis. And you can’t explain away parapraxes on the basis that someone was distracted when they made one. It is very easy for us to carry out simple tasks (that are bungled in parapraxes) even if we do not have our minds on them. When we go for a walk, for example, we might not have our minds on where we’re going but we nevertheless manage to walk in a straight line. We do it automatically.  Indeed, parapraxes occur most often when our attention is strongly focused on something.

Couldn’t this be because we’re nervous or excited?

But why should excitement or  nervousness not increase the attention given to a task? If you make a Freudian slip whereby what you actually say is the exact opposite of what you meant to say it does not seem adequate to explain it by arguing that you were not paying sufficient attention to what you were saying. Why would you have said the total opposite of what you had intended if it was only because you were not concentrating, or because of some physiological reason? (p.29-30).

Okay, we might be able to walk or talk without really thinking about it, but every so often we are surely going to make a slip?

Doing something well or doing it a lot should not increase the likelihood of making mistakes. For a virtuoso pianist, playing is entirely automatic, without the need for attention. It cannot simply be a matter of attention because when we forget a name, for example, no amount of attention can help us recall it.(p.30-31)

Why can’t we just say that parapraxes occur when you’re ill, when you’re tired, when you’re distracted?

Freud accepts that they do, but these circumstances only facilitate or favour the production of the slip; they do not provide sufficient explanation for it. Freud tells a story to illustrate his point: if you were out walking by yourself late at night and someone came along and stole your wallet, would you then go to the police station and say that darkness and loneliness had robbed you of your wallet? (p.45-46).

Why does Freud claim that the slip has to have a meaning? Why can we not just believe someone when they protest that it was just a slip, unimportant, and that they could just as well have said something else instead?

Freud says that this would be to ignore the actual fact of what was said. When we are confronted with a slip in which a significant substitute word replaces the other intended one, we cannot just ignore the fact that that word has been used. We have to ask why that particular word was used instead of another- we cannot just ignore the word as unimportant on the basis that it could have been any other. It would be like a chemist weighing something, finding out its weight, but then rejecting his findings and any inferences his might draw from them on the basis that the object might just as well have had another weight! That would be a totally invalid reason to reject the facts in chemistry – why therefore consider it legitimate for a slip? (p.48-49).

Someone might make a parapraxis and Freud might insist that this reveals a hidden meaning. Freud might say, ‘You yourself used the word’, and the person might agree with him. But why, when the person insists that they did not mean that at all does Freud decide not to believe them? Does it not look as though Freud believes you when it suits him, or when it suits the interpretation he has proposed?

Freud says that the position of the analyst here is similar (although not identical) to that of a judge in court. If someone is charged with a crime and confesses, the judge believes him; but if that person denies it, the judge cannot take his denial as a reason to believe him – he has to look at the evidence. It is much the same in psychoanalysis. If the person admits the slip, the analyst believes him. If the person rejects the slip and refuses to give further information, the analyst cannot take that as a reason to believe him. Instead, he has to admit that he does not have enough evidence to prove his interpretation. However, unlike a judge, the psychoanalyst does not then rely on circumstantial evidence to prove the charge. But at the same time the psychoanalyst cannot reject the circumstantial evidence outright. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of science is to work with circumstantial evidence, build upon it and be satisfied with it in the absence of final proof. Freud says that in all cases with parapraxes the analyst has to have the slip, the suspicion for making an interpretation, and a reason in this ‘circumstantial evidence’ for why the analyst might think he is justified in that interpretation. (p.50-51).


Dreams are too imprecise and indefinite to be the objects of any scientific investigation.

Firstly, Freud says that the same argument used to justify the study of the parapraxes can be used again here – the biggest discoveries can be hidden behind the smallest of indications. With regards to dreams in particular, not all dreams are indistinct, and even with the ones that are we might point to other objects of scientific research (such as obsessions and delusions handled by psychiatry) that are equally indistinct (p.84-85).

Are dreams the result of external sensory stimuli during sleep? For example, I may dream that I can hear church bells but it’s actually my alarm going off.

Freud says that an influence may indeed be there, but that its importance is marginal. Our inability to point to a stimulus that produces dreams in all but a few cases leads us to doubt their importance. And in any case, with the example of the bells and the alarm clock, this can only explain a small portion of the dream – it does not help us to explain the vast majority of it. (p.94-96).

What about the idea that dreams represent internal stimulus from the body- so if you dream of long, winding passages that means that you intestines are affecting you.

Freud says it’s open to the same objection as above. We can only point to the influence of internal stimuli in certain dreams. Moreover, dreams don’t actually just reproduce the stimulus: what we find in the dream work is a working over of it, putting it in another context, making allusions to it, replacing it with something else. Somatic or sensory stimuli may instigate the dream but cannot tell us why the dream arranges itself in the way that it does (p.96).

How is it that you can arrive at the meaning of a dream by free association? Dreams are so nefarious and unclear, how could anything come into your mind at all? Even if it did, how could you be sure that what came to mind would be of any importance?

Freud tells us not to take it as an excuse that ‘nothing’ comes into a person’s head when they are asked to associate on something. We should put a bit of pressure on them, tell them that they must be thinking something. This usually does the trick – slowly but surely associations begin to emerge. The most readily available ones tend to be memories from the previous day which the dreamer connects with their dream. On the second point – that what we might bring up in associations might be random and useless – Freud says that if you think that a person’s associations with the content of their dreams is unimportant you have ridiculously strong view that mental life is undetermined, that there is no kind of reason to why you think of certain things when you do. You overestimate your own free will too greatly. Freud maintains that you have to respect the fact that when you ask someone what they associate with this, that or the other, that association is what occurs to them at that time and nothing else. (p.106)

Dreams are like the fingers of an untrained hand wandering over the keys of a piano.

Freud says that the dreams of children disprove this. They are often clear and exhibit wish-fulfilments in an undistorted form (128). We see this with people suffering hardship or extreme distress. Freud tells the story of the polar explorers who dreamt of dinner parties, mountains of tobacco and the postman delivering them their mail and apologising for being so late because he had delivered it to the wrong address. You might be thirsty during the night and you might dream that you are drinking; or if you need the toilet you might dream that you are standing over the urinal; or if you are looking forward a trip to the theatre or you might dream that you are already there watching the play. So Freud’s idea that dreams present to us a wish as fulfilled is not without basis in our own experience (132-134).

But I can’t believe that I have the desire that you say my dream reveals-  does it not matter at all if I assert the precise opposite of what you say my dreams mean?

Freud says that you cannot use your liking or disliking of something as grounds for scientific judgement- what difference would it make if the wish the dream presented as fulfilled was disagreeable, embarrassing and repulsive? It would not prevent things from existing! If someone told you that you had a fatal illness you would not reject it on the grounds that you didn’t like the idea. You cannot argue against what might be an unconscious attitude by asserting that the opposite attitude is true in consciousness (p.145).

Regarding the idea that the dream work makes use of sexual symbolism, is this really the case? Do I really live in a world where all objects must be taken as sexual symbols?

Freud says that it is not psychoanalysis that turns objects into sexual symbols- they are all around us: in myths, jokes, folklore, colloquial banter and buffoonery, even in Shakespeare. These are the sources of dream symbolism, according to Freud, and we see them utilised in dreams (p.158-159).

Isn’t an interpretation of a dream just an arbitrary choice of the interpreter?

Freud says that it is not a matter of arbitrary choice, it is a matter of the skill, experience and understanding of the interpreter. In many other scientific roles there is ultimately no way of stopping someone using bad technique, but bad practice does not invalidate the method. With regard to the arbitrariness of the interpretation of symbols in dreams (where it appears, for instance, that it is arbitrary to say that a sword could represent a penis) Freud reminds us that there are many different symbols that could be selected for their serviceability in connecting the content of the dream to the dreamer’s life. The dream selects one symbol to use and dismisses the others. Dreams by their very nature are ambiguous and indefinite – the imperfections in interpretation that this necessarily entails should not be used as an excuse to reject the hypotheses of psychoanalysis (p.228-229).

Aren’t dreams just too ambiguous and indefinite, too open to multiple interpretations?

Freud makes the analogy that if you speak to someone using ambiguous terms it does not necessarily mean that what you are saying is going to be taken as ambiguous. Just as in speech you might intonate or gesture to indicate your intended meaning, so this is what happens in the dream as well, and interpreting dreams means being alert to this. Freud says that interpreting a dream is much like the interpretation required in the Chinese language, where in one dialect we find four hundred syllabic sounds and four thousand words, so each sound having around ten different meanings. What you get in Chinese, like the dream, is the raw material, without any indication of the relationship between the words: it is indefinite, but the hearer understands it on the basis of context. Indefiniteness therefore does not necessarily lead to ambiguity (p.230-231).

By Owen Hewitson,

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