Notes on Freud’s metapsychological papers

Since September, Stephen Keating and I have been exacerbating each other’s investment in Freud, libidinal or otherwise, on a weekly basis. This weekend, we talked about Gismu’s papers on metapsychology.

What is metapsychology? You might think that it simply means the meta-theory of Freud’s psychology, i.e., a theory that deals with its fundamental assumptions. I think it’s something else, though. I think of it as the meta-theory, not of Freud’s, but rather of his contemporaries’ psychology.

And it deals, primarily, with this one fundamental assumption of theirs, namely that mental processes are conscious and conscious alone. It challenges this assumption by putting forward justifications for the existence of unconscious mental processes alongside these conscious ones.

You might have wondered why he begins his paper on the unconscious with a section called ‘Justification for the Concept of the Unconscious’. After all, we use that concept all the time and so do psychology textbooks — for example, in talking about ‘subliminal’ stimuli. But this wasn’t the case in Freud’s day. That’s the reason why it made sense back then to include what is to us now an odd-sounding section.

It’s better, then, to think of metapsychology as a theory that begins with a meta-level critique of the psychology that was current in Freud’s day. From there, it proceeds to the construction of a rival psychology, one that’s based on different fundamental assumptions, most significant of which is that there are unconscious psychological processes.

Hence, metapsychology is the psychology of the unconscious, otherwise known as depth psychology, i.e., a psychology that regards conscious mental processes as constituting merely one level — alongside the preconscious and unconscious levels. More commonly, however, it’s known as psychoanalysis.

You should note that, although Freud is contesting the fundamental assumptions of old psychology, he isn’t contesting its data. Psychology, both old and new, begin with the description of the same phenomena. However, in describing those phenomena, they can’t “avoid applying certain abstract ideas to the material at hand, ideas derived from somewhere or other but certainly not from . . . observations alone” (Drives and their Vicissitudes, SE 14:117).

These “abstract ideas” constitute their fundamental assumptions or “basic concepts” (ibid.) as Freud likes to call them. In employing a different set of basic concepts to theirs, Freud is able to produce a novel description of psychological phenomena. This is where his innovation lies.

For example, in his paper on the theory of dreams, he’s describing an already well-studied phenomenon, namely that of dreams. He even admits that his description “does not sound very different from what psychologists and philosophers have said all along” and names Aristotle as one of them (A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams, SE 14:234).

“But,” he continues, “it is based on quite different views about the structure and function of the mental apparatus. These views have this advantage over the earlier ones, that they have given us an understanding, too, of all the detailed characteristics of dreams” (235).

In other words, although the basic concepts employed by psychologists and philosophers before Freud didn’t prevent them from producing similar descriptions to his own, it’s only with Freud’s basic concepts — namely, the topographical concepts of Cs, Pcs, and Ucs — that such descriptions came to be ‘supplemented’ with an understanding of the phenomena described. That’s how I’d like to interpret, playfully, the phrase ‘metapsychological supplement’.

In this respect, metapsychology is much like dream interpretation. It not only describes its material, but in doing so it also helps us to understand that material, to make sense of it. This isn’t surprising, though, given that psychoanalysis is “founded upon the analysis of dreams” (A Note on the Unconscious in Psycho-Analysis, SE 12:65). Metapsychology is psychoanalysis after all, as we noted above.

That’s it for now.

5 thoughts on “Notes on Freud’s metapsychological papers

  1. Have you guys read David Rapaport? He and Merton Gill wrote about metapsychology in the 1950’s. Metapsychology was the preeminent topic amongst ego psychologists throughout the 1960’s. It’s worth checking out.

  2. It’s like you read my mind! I spent the other day on PEP looking at the ‘do we even need metapsychology anymore?’ stuff from the ’80s. What I wrote here echoes Charles Brenner’s ‘Metapsychology and Psychoanalytic Theory’ (1980) which was quite critical of Rapaport and Gill’s 1959 paper. In 1988, Gill published ‘Metapsychology Revisited’ which incorporates a lot of Brenner’s criticisms.

    Antonio Imbasciati still writes on this topic. I liked his ‘Toward New Metapsychologies’ (2010).

  3. Well, it introduced this major schism between psychoanalysts committed to empiricism and those who went down the hermeneutic route (a la Schafer, Spence, etc.). Brenner’s take on the whole metapsychology debate is characteristically awkward. Merton Eagle wrote a solid paper criticizing the critics of metapsychology. I think what was at stake in these debates was basically the question of postmodernism and the attendant concerns about epistemology and ontology.

    Anyway, Rapaport is always worth reading on this subject, in part, because he’s so deeply obsessional, methodical, and brilliant.

  4. Eagle, M. N. (1980). A critical examination of motivational explanation in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 3(3), 329-380.

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