In Sigmund Freud's work, the term "psychic causality" designates a group of unconscious psychic processes (conflicting drives, structural conflicts, narcissistic and object investments) and defensive mechanisms (repression, denial, splitting, rejection) that are assumed to be the origin of the phenomena of day-today life (dreams, slips, failed acts, creative acts) as well as of neurotic and psychotic symptoms. Operating according to the logic of psychic conflict and primary processes, psychic causality is said to be dissociated from the concept of "psychic reality," and from Freud's ongoing attempt to discover the etiology of neuroses, psychoses, and perversions.
The concept appears indirectly throughout Freud's work but he never examined it at any length. It is known that Freud came upon the idea at the Salpêtrière, working with Jean Martin Charcot in 1885-1886. As he subsequently wrote, "[Charcot] succeeded in proving, by an unbroken chain of argument, that these paralyses were the result of ideas which had dominated the patient's brain at moments of a special disposition" (1893f, p. 22). By 1890 Freud had extended this to all neuroses. In an article entitled "Psychical (or Mental) Treatment," he claimed that "in some at least of these [neurotic] patients the signs of their illness originate from nothing other than a change in the action of their minds upon their bodies and that the immediate cause of their disorder is to be looked for in their minds" (1890a, p. 286). Based on the article, psychic causality is not yet explicitly linked to the unconscious mechanisms he would subsequently describe. However, very early in his work he postulated a "sexual etiology in all cases of neurosis but in neurasthenia the neurosis is actual; in psycho-neuroses factors of an infantile nature are at work" (1896c). In 1898, in "Sexuality in the Etiology of the Neuroses" (1898a), he referred to "unconscious psychic traces."
Psychic causality implies the ability to substitute for a set of apparently unrelated facts an explanatory system based on assumptions that provide them with consistency and can be used to describe the laws governing their interrelations. All of Freud's work revolves around "two opposed conceptions of causal necessity" (Dayan, Maurice, 1985), one of which was responsible for integrating individual differences in a coherent structure, the other tending to emphasize the subject's singularity and originality. There is a gradual complication of the notion of psychic causality in Freud. In 1895 he proposed two models simultaneously: a causality of psychic facts conceived as part of a system that we would now call cognitivist and neurobiological (see, "Project for a Scientific Psychology," 1950c ) and an "event-driven" traumatic conception of neurosis. His "neurotica" is supposed to comprise hysteria and obsessional neurosis based on the psychic traces of sexual aggression experienced during childhood and reactivated later on.
The (relative) abandonment of this etiology (letter to Wilhelm Fliess on September 21, 1897) would confirm the effectiveness of the unconscious fantasy as a psychic act. The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) and the first topographical subsystem enabled him to describe the laws underlying the operation of unconscious processes for which time and contradiction have no meaning, which shift and condense to produce not only dreams but the lapses and parapraxes of the "psychopathology of everyday life" (1901b), together with neurotic symptoms and delusions. Freud thus established the absence of a barrier or discontinuity between the normal and the pathological, a key idea in psychoanalysis. The same unconscious psychic mechanisms are responsible for both modes of existence.
From the first to the second topographical subsystem (1923), the Freudian notion of psychic causality was radically modified. The description of the mental apparatus became increasingly complex. Mental and psychopathological facts are now the result of relations of force between id, ego, and superego agencies, and the dualism between the libido and the death drive. Metapsychology, which combines topological, dynamic, and economic points of view is the final version of this new way of thinking about psychic causality. At the same time, the role of object relations and the weight of civilization on possible subject pathologies were substantiated. The Versagung (refusal) that social reality forces desire to confront, the privation (Entbehrungen) that someone like Judge Schreber, unable to have a child, experienced, or the disappearance of the love object are considered as helping to trigger neuroses and psychoses.
In 1933, in the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933a), Freud proposes a general theory of neurosis based on the combination of three factors: a refusal of a reality that is unsatisfactory for the id, fixation at a stage prior to libidinal development, and idiosyncratic disposition to the conflict that characterizes the potentially neurotic subject. The neurosis is triggered by regression to the points of attachment; in the case of psychosis and perversion specific defense mechanismsplitting, denial, rejection ("Fetishism," 1927e, "Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence," 1940e )re also involved. In his last writings, Moses and Monotheism (1939a) and An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1940a), published after his death, Freud insists on the particular causal value of the superego that is associated with phylogenesis and the threat of castration, which "[the boy] experiences [as] the greatest trauma of his life and introduces the period of latency with all its consequences" (1940a, p. 155). Whatever the case, Freud reaffirms the continuity of the normal and the pathological: "[T]he neuroses do not differ in any essential respect from the normal" (1940a, p. 184). The normal, neurotic, or psychotic individual will die "of his internal conflicts" (p. 150). Freud also again insists on the central importance of conflict between the body and the mind, and their interrelations, in his conception of psychic causality, which as we have seen had a number of "avatars."
It could be said that, since Freud, all writers on psychoanalysis have tried to enrich the notion of psychic causality with their own theories, which are inspired by archaic fantasies and the individual's traumas and personal history. Jacques Lacan's work represents an original attempt to define psychic causality on a structuralist basis by identifying the unconscious with the chain of signifiers. "The only causality the analyst knows is always that of the cause," he wrote in Seminar XI. At the end of his life, he attempted to systematize intrapsychic activity using mathemes. The contributions of psychosomatic analysts (Georg Groddeck, Franz Alexander) and those of the French school who followed the work of Michel Fain and Pierre Marty reopened the question of psychic causality by focusing on Freud's initial question: the relationship between physical and mental disturbances.
For André Green "the term psychic causality is used by Freud rather loosely, without any genuine theoretical support" (1995). In spite of the lapidary nature of this claim, it must be acknowledged that disagreement over the nature of the concept was the origin of the split in the psychoanalytic movement. For example, Otto Rank believed he had discovered the cause of neurosis in the traumatism of birth. Wilhelm Reich focused on the idea of the sexual frustration imposed by civilization (The Function of the Orgasm, 1927). Sándor Ferenczi, after attempting to illustrate Freud's phylogenetic theory and the concept of regression (Thalassa, 1924), reaffirmed the reality of sexual trauma experienced by the infant, and did so against Freud's advice ("Confusion de langues entre les adultes et l'enfant. Le langage de la tendresse et de la passion," 1933).
Epistemologists, making use of the criticisms that quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity had formulated concerning causality in physics, have contested the causal ambitions of psychoanalysis. Attacking Freud's system of causal interpretation, Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to purely "aesthetic" relationships (Cambridge Lectures, 1932-1934). Karl Popper contested the scientific status of psychoanalysis, which was, according to him, a self-validating theory (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1934).
André Green, in his La Causalité psychique (1995), supplied a masterful criticism of the attempts of biology, neuroscience, and anthropology to invalidate the concept of Freudian causality. Nonetheless, in the realm of physics, measurement can be used to provide uniform descriptions of the natural universe. As far as we know, the relative force of mental drives does not lend itself to any precise form of measurement. Psychoanalysts are content to state that "it works. . . ." As Piera Aulagnier wrote, we are forced to recognize that psychoanalysis can lay claim to "necessary" but never "sufficient conditions" as these are understood by philosophy and mathematics.
See also: "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Deferred action; Need for causality; Psychogenesis/organogenesis; Psychosomatic; Signifying chain; Synchronicity (analytical psychology).
Dayan, Maurice. (1985). Inconscient et Réalité. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Freud, Sigmund. (1890a). Psychical (or mental) treatment. SE, 7: 281-302.
. (1893f). Charcot. SE, 3: 7-23.
. (1896c). The aetiology of hysteria. SE, 3: 186-221.
. (1898a). Sexuality in the aetiology of the neuroses. SE, 3: 259-285.
. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE,4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.
. (1901b). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE,6.
. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
. (1927e). Fetishism. SE, 21: 147-157.
(1933a). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 5-182.
. (1939a). Moses and monotheism. SE, 23: 1-137.
. (1940a). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 144-207.
. (1940e ). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. SE, 23: 271-278.
. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.
. (1950c ). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.
Green, Andre. (1995). La Causalité psychique. Entre nature et culture. Paris: Odile Jacob.
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