The Freud Museum


Is the unconscious structured as a language?

In his early work, Freud observed how his patients' symptoms would sometimes 'join in the conversation', implying that a symptom is tantamount to a verbal message. He described the work of analysis as a collaborative task in which the patient, with the aid of the doctor, tries to decipher the lost language that is being spoken in his or her symptoms. The unconscious can be said to be structured like a language up to a point: the 'ideational representatives' described by Freud are roughly the equivalent of 'signifiers' in linguistics, and the mechanisms of condensation and displacement that Freud identified as its 'primary processes' can be compared to the linguistic processes of metaphor and metonymy. However, Freud observed that the unconscious also has another dimension, linked to the drives, that resists symbolisation, cannot be absorbed into language, and has an intrusive, traumatic quality to it. Freud called this dimension 'the id'.

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