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The Question of the Drive in Psychoanalysis

The Letter, Issue 21, Spring 2001, Pages 80 - 105


Hugh Arthurs


In terms of the meta-psychology of psychoanalysis, Freud's Project for a Scientific Psychology may be seen as one of his seminal works.[1] In this Freud sets out a particular view of the mind to which he returns many times, most notably in chapter seven of The Interpretation of Dreams.[2] The fact that he develops this model of the mind from an 'economic', or one might even say a 'physiological' beginning to a final psychological form does not change its fundamental structure.

Freud abandoned the Project shortly after he sent the initial draft to his friend Fleiss in October 1895. Nevertheless, he continued to hold the view that the psychic apparatus, which from this point onwards he explored from a mentalistic or psychological perspective, would in some future time be explained in terms of physiology. In this regard, Ernest Jones says of the Project that it represents Freud's 'last desperate effort to cling to the safety of cerebral anatomy'.[3]

Despite having abandoned the Project Freud continued to hold to the idea that the economic dimension was the central driving force of the psychic apparatus. At the same time however, at the level of clinical practice and human interaction he seems to take the position that it is only in psychological terms that the operation of the mind can be understood. Holding that the psychic apparatus is physical does not conflict with the view that its operations can only be understood in mental or psychological terms. Thomas Nagel, commenting on Freud from the perspective of analytic philosophy, puts it in the following way:

... there is a causally complete physical system, some of whose processes ... have the property of consciousness in addition, or have conscious concomitants. The mental then appears as the effect of a certain kind of physical process.[4]

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