The Freud Museum


Glossary of Terms


<p>Noble and Webster: <em>Scarlett</em> (detail). Part of the exhibition <em>Polymorphous Perverse</em> (2006)</p>

Noble and Webster: Scarlett (detail). Part of the exhibition Polymorphous Perverse (2006)

It is difficult to write a Freudian ‘dictionary’ of psychoanalysis because most of Freud’s terms do not have single, simple meanings. If Freud ever writes a ‘definition’ of a concept, you will be sure that another, alternative and sometimes contrary definition will not be far behind. Mental phenomena are fluid and elusive. To get a complete picture you have to look at the same thing from many different points of view. Thus, all the definitions below are incomplete. Using the email link below, please feel free to contact me and add to the given definition or supply new definitions of other terms you come across in your reading.

Glossary of terms

Non-Alphabetical Glossary of Terms

Object representation – for Freud, we do not perceive people and objects directly, we perceive and relate to the ‘outside world’ on the basis of a mental ‘representation’. This has enormous consequences because mental representations are influenced by our emotions, memories and capacity for symbolic speech.

Splitting – Have you ever found yourself in ‘two minds’ and not knowing what to do? You are experiencing the effect of a ‘psychical split’. Splitting is a fundamental concept of psychoanalysis and a psychical process that occurs throughout our lives. We often separate the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Ambivalence – All intimate relationships are, for Freud, ambivalent. They involve both love and hostility. In Freud’s famous case of the Rat Man, the patient could not acknowledge his ordinary ambivalence towards his father or the woman he loved. The result was an excruciating indecision and obsessional neurosis – since if you cannot be sure about your love, how can you be sure about anything else? One way to avoid the dilemma of ambivalence is to use the defence mechanism of splitting.

Play – we all love to play, but why? Freud sees play as the root of other forms of creativity and the forerunner of adult ‘daydreaming’. In play, we represent and enact our conscious and unconscious ‘wishes’, and try to master our fears.

Condensation - In a sense the word itself says it all. Freud first used the term in relation to dreams. A number of dream-elements (themes, images, figures, ideas etc) are combined into one image, so that the dream becomes more compact or condensed than the dream-thoughts. Similarly an object can mean many different things. For Little Hans, the phobic object ‘horse’ was the repository of many fears; for the Rat Man, the idea of a ‘rat’ could mean ‘money’, ‘father’, or ‘syphilis’. In the unconscious, contradictory meanings can happily exist side by side.

Displacement – If you come back from work and kick the cat it may be because you wanted to kick the boss, but were afraid of doing so. You have displaced your aggression from one object to another. If your child develops an irrational fear of cats (a phobia), one could expect that this emotion is displaced from fear of the person she sees kicking the cat. Objects carry emotional significance that may be displaced from elsewhere.

Wish-fulfilment – What do pigs dream of? Well they don’t dream of being turned into bacon! Freud said that ‘dreams represent the fulfilment of a wish’. And we all know what ‘wishes’ are. Of course, being Freud, it gets a little more complicated, so he finally arrives at the formula ‘Dreams represent the disguised fulfilment of a forbidden, repressed, infantile wish’. The wishes that instigate dreams are ‘forbidden’ and unconscious, which is why they can only be expressed in a ‘disguised’ form by the processes of condensation and displacement.

Defence Mechanisms – When Freud was playing with his toy soldiers as a boy you might imagine that he would be more interested in defence than attack (although sometimes ‘attack is the best form of defence’) and more interested in strategy than hand to hand combat. For Freud, the mind is designed to protect itself. To this end there are a number of ‘dodges’ it uses to avoid being thrown off balance. These mental processes are called ‘defence mechanisms’ and nearly every psychological process has a ‘defensive’ function to some extent.

Anxiety – Defence mechanisms are brought into play by anxiety, the conscious or unconscious perception of an imminent psychological danger.

Projection – one of the ‘defence mechanisms’. Something unacceptable is pushed out of the mind into an object in the outside. You accuse someone else of what you are guilty of, so you don’t have to bear it yourself. In paranoia, the projected ‘stuff’ then comes back to attack you as if from the outside. Other psychical relations can also be projected; writers and artists may project their psychological conflicts into paintings or stories.

Idealisation – Another ‘defence mechanism’. When we are small we idealise our parents and it makes us feel safe. As we grow up we set up an ‘ideal’ within our own minds, and we achieve great satisfaction when we feel we have reached the ideal. When this tendency to idealisation is transferred to the political realm and political leaders, the capacity for individual judgement is severely impaired.

Oedipus Complex – If only Freud had called it the ‘Family Complex’ he would have got into a lot less trouble! The Oedipus Complex for Freud is the whole set of ‘emotional attitudes’ that occur between children and their parents and brothers and sisters. Bearing in mind that all relationships are ‘ambivalent’ (see above), that children are dependent on their parents for a long time and that parents have privileges that seem unfair to children, you can see that it is quite a hotbed of emotional conflict and confusion. Love, jealousy, fear, rivalry and dependence are mixed up together. Freud thought that children come face to face with the Oedipal situation at about the age of three or four. And yes, there is something ‘sexual’ about it.

Conscious, Pre-Conscious and Unconscious - “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the one's we don't know we don't know." Donald Rumsfeld’s statement on the Iraq War is about the best description of Freud’s stratified (or ‘topological’) theory of the mind as you are ever likely to hear. It’s only that Freud adds notions of ‘repression’ and ‘censorship’ to the model, so that the things we ‘don’t know we don’t know’ mostly stay that way. The contents of the unconscious – forbidden wishes and unacceptable thoughts – can escape in a distorted way through dreams and ‘Freudian slips’.

Ego, Id and Superego – the idea of ‘psychic conflict’ is a basic tenet of Freud’s thought, and this is nowhere better expressed than in his ‘structural’ theory of the mind. The theory expresses the fact that human beings are ‘bio-social-individuals’. The ‘id’ is the term Freud uses for the ‘biological’ bit, the instinctual base that is a realm of appetites, wants and passions that do not take ‘no’ for an answer. Some of the id is inherited, other parts have been ‘repressed’, and like the fallen angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost, seek to escape. The superego represents the ‘social’ part of the human being, connected to group living and social norms. The superego is built up from object relationships that have been abandoned, especially authority figures who tell us what’s what in the world and punish us for misbehaving. The ego has to find a space for ‘me’ – the poor ‘individual’ juggling the demands of the inner and outer worlds, trying to maintain psychic ‘equilibrium’ and to avoid being ‘hurt’. That’s why the ego is the seat of the so-called ‘defence mechanisms’ – there are so many dangers to avoid!

Schizophrenia – not a ‘split personality’ but a mental disintegration that results in a near breakdown of the person’s relations to the world. Freud thought that the ‘symptoms’ of schizophrenia – delusions of grandeur and so on – were the mind’s attempt to cure itself, constructing a new world to replace the one that has disappeared. To maintain psychic integrity the new world often has the ‘self’ at the centre in an exalted position. Perhaps it follows that psychosis may become less easy to detect in a ‘celebrity culture’ in which nearly everyone is encouraged to put themselves at the centre of a phantasy world!

Phobia – A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or situation. You see a pigeon and break out into a cold sweat, or you start to cross a bridge and your whole body shakes in fear. All of us have at one time or another suffered from a phobia or ‘phobic phenomena’, which are typical during the Oedipal period (between the ages of three and six). Like dreams, phobias are both ‘weird’ and ‘normal’. They are of great theoretical interest since they display the mechanisms of condensation, splitting, projection and displacement. A man has a fear of crossing bridges. What’s the story?

Fetishism –Freud asserted that little boys think their mothers are just like them, with a penis. When they learn the truth, the news is traumatic. Perhaps they too could lose their penis! For Freud, the fetish is an object that allows the person to ‘disavow’ the traumatic knowledge of sexual difference and of the imagined ‘castration’ that causes it. Fetishism is more common in men than women, but a degree of fetishism is part of all sexual relations.

Bizarre Objects – suppose your senses – sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste – were fragmented and ejected into the world where they attached themselves to objects. Then they come back to get you. That’s ‘bizarre objects’, which most of us will luckily only experience in horror films and works of surrealist art.

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