Freud's Theory of the Slips of the Tongue

Freud's Theory of the Slips of the Tongue


by Dieter Flader

How to conceptualize adequately Freud´ s discovery of the unconscious meaning of parapraxes (slips of the tongue) and of neurotic symptoms?

(Presentation at the University of Klagenfurt, 2002, published in G. Poscheschnik, Ernst, R. (ed.) Psychoanalyse im Spannungsfeld von Humanwissenschaft, Therapie und Kulturtheorie. 2003, Frankfurt/M. p. 33-48


The main issue of my presentation is the theory of parapraxes (slips of the tongue) of Sigmund Freud. By investigating this theory I would like to make a proposal how to develop it so that this theory – so to say – is better founded then it is in Freud´ s version. I have elaborated this proposal more comprehensively in my book “Psychoanalysis in the Focus of Social Action and Language” (1995).


My presentation has another, more far reaching goal. I take Freud´ s “The slip of the tongue” theory as an example to show how, according to my point of view, a basic research work in psychoanalysis should proceed. To clarify my understanding of psychoanalysis: I understand psychoanalysis both as a theory of the psychic unconscious and a certain research method. The form of psychotherapy which Freud has invented is likely the most important practical application of psychoanalysis, but this therapy form is not identical with it. As we know Freud has emphasized this important distinction, and I am following him in this regards. 


With “basic research work” I mean the work on the basic theory and on the different theoretical models connected with it. For me, this work is extremely important. How else can we clarify the explanatory potential of psychoanalysis? Thanks to his ingenious intuition and capability of observation, Freud has made discoveries on the realm of the psychic unconscious which he – as a scientist – was in part not able to conceptualize, since he missed (at least partly) the adequate conceptual tools. The main task of basic research work in psychoanalysis is to continue the elaboration of Freud´ s theoretical sketches and models, so that what is well founded in them can be kept. At the same time the contradictory contents could be omitted or replaced.


How this basic research work should proceed could be described in the following way. 


At first reconstructing the central concepts clarifies the context and the historical development of them. Regarding the theory of the slip of the tongue, the “unconscious sense” is one of its central concepts. Thus, what is meant by “meaning” respective “sense” (“Sinn” in German) is to be clarified first, the “sense” of “mini-neurotic symptoms” as parapraxes are called sometimes, as well as the “sense” of neurotic symptoms.


One has to investigate then, how Freud is operating with the central concepts in analyzing the relevant phenomena and contexts. That is: How he was analyzing the examples for a slip of the tongue and, in a broader scope: clinical cases. To clarify Freud´ s methods is crucial here. The methods which Freud believed to use are not necessarily the same, which he has actually used.


The examination and the critical judgment of the scientific discussion which was held about Freud´ s theoretical models are the next step. This discussion is not restricted to psychoanalysis. Other relevant scientific disciplines should be included. To take the theory of the slips of the tongue again as an example: There is no discipline in social sciences and humanities which has not discussed this theory once. E.g. philosophy (Gruenbaum, 1988); sociology (Giddens, 1995); psychiatry (Arieti, 1955); psycholinguistics (Leuninger, 1993); philology (Timpanaro, 1976) How to judge these contributions – which are mostly critical? Are their critical comments convincing, or do they miss the genuine psychoanalytic point of view?


Finally, as the last step of this basic research work a constructive proposal for the theoretical development is preferred. Unfortunately such proposals are made rarely. I will not discuss now the reasons why basic research work in psychoanalysis is not done more extensive nowadays. The structure of my presentation is reflecting the tasks and steps I have described above.


Let us start with a reconstruction of the Freud´ s concept of “sense”. This was one of Freud´ s great discoveries: Dreams, neurotic symptoms and parapraxes (slips of the tongue) have an “unconscious sense”. What he has defined as “sense” is explained in the “Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis” as follows: “By `sense` we understand `meaning´, `intention´, `purpose´ and `position in a continuous psychical context´.” (Freud XV, p 61)


James Strachey mentions the translation problem for choosing either “purpose” or “tendency” for the German word “Tendenz” (Freud XV, p. 40). I will no discuss here the semantic issue whether “purpose” or “tendency” is more equivalent to “Tendenz” (“Tendenz” has a broader meaning in German language than “purpose” in English, I think). For the purpose of my theoretical proposal, this translation problem is not crucial.


This explication of “sense” was not done easily or on a didactic purpose. Freud was very precise here. He has named the three aspects of his concept of “sense” which had guided his analysis of unconsciously meaningful phenomena. Stephan (1989) has clarified these three aspects. He concentrates on a conceptual reconstruction of one of them – on “meaning” in a narrow sense of “x means y” (German “Bedeutung”). I rely on his reconstruction in the following discussion.


How to understand the three aspects of Freud´ s concept of “sense”? The “position in a continuous psychical context” refers to the concept of “psychic series” which belongs to Freud´ s theoretical frame in terms of “meaning”: It was psychology of associations, the leading theory of meaning at this time (at least in medicine and psychiatry). All his life Freud had stick to this theory as far as his understanding of language, meaning (and symbol) is concerned. The “position in a continuous psychical context” is the minimal condition of a phenomenon to be meaningful: This is the case when it is embedded in a series of associations.


The aspect: “meaning” (“x means y”) was fundamental for Freud´ s theory of dream. The famous comparison of a dream with a rebus relies on this aspect. In reference to psychology of association, Freud has developed a specific model – the model of translation - which had the task to explain the following issue: How it is possible that a conception which no longer has a connection with language is transposed (translated) into another medium (of visual or of the body) without losing the original connection to the series of association.


The aspect “intention”/”purpose” (“tendency”) is fundamental for Freud´ s theory of parapraxes (slips of the tongue). The following quotation is from the “Lectures” where Freud explains how a slip of the tongue occurs. As a starting point he concentrates on the condition that a “disturbing purpose (tendency)” is recognized by the speaker before the slip of the tongue happens, and Freud explains the process as follows.


“The speaker decides not to put it into words (i.e. the disturbing purpose/ tendency, D.F.) and after that the slip of the tongue occurs: after that, that is to say the purpose which has been forced back, is put into words against the speaker´ s will, either by altering the expression of the intention which he has permitted; or by mingling with it; or by actually taking its place. This, then, is the mechanism of a slip of the tongue.” (Freud XV, p. 65)


Freud gives a short summary of this explanation within the same lecture. He uses a metaphor. Parapraxes (slips of the tongue) are the result of the “interference between two different intended speeches.” (Freud XV, p. 42)


Now I will investigate how Freud was operating with this aspect of his concept of “sense” concretely. I choose this example which Freud mentions in the “Lectures” several times. Once the President of the Austrian Lower House of Parliament has declared the sitting to be opened in the following way:


“Gentlemen, I take notice that a full quorum of members is present and herewith I declare the sitting closed.” (Freud XV, p.34)


How we recognize, according to Freud, the “sense” of this case of a slip of the tongue? Freud tells us:


“When the President of the Lower House with his first words closed the sitting instead of opening it, we feel inclined, in view of our knowledge of the circumstances in which the slip of the tongue occurred, to recognize that the parapraxis had a sense. The President expected nothing good of the sitting and would have been glad if he could have brought it to an immediate end. We have no difficulty in pointing to the sense of this slip of the tongue, or, in other words, in interpreting it.” (Freud XV, p. 35)


The fact that the interpretation of the unconscious “sense” of this slip of the tongue is so easy is, according to Freud, not only a matter of the knowledge about the conditions of its occurrence, i.e. the listeners knew that the speaker had an inner resistance to open up this session because in the past such sessions ended up in a great disaster. Besides that, Freud believed that the “sense” of this slip of the tongue came clearly to light because the speaker had expressed it by language.


“The President of the Lower House said in his opening speech: `I declare the sitting closed´. That is quite unambiguous. The sense and intention of his slip was that he wanted to close the sitting. `Er sagt es ja selbst`, we are tempted to quote him; we need only take him at his words.” (Freud XV, p. 40)


And Freud classifies this example as one of those cases where the mis-performed action by itself is a quite proper social action “which merely took the place of the other act which was the one expected or intended.” (Freud XV, p. 35)


This is the point where my critique starts. The President actually had performed none of these both social actions. His listeners will not have known whether he had declared the sitting to be opened or to be closed. He had not properly used the formula which is to be uttered for the purpose of opening up the sitting. On the other hand he could not just close the sitting by the use of the word “closed”. This sitting has not yet started and the members of the parliament expected him to open the sitting.


Although Freud is talking about “acts” and “mis-performed acts” he has not analyzed this example, and likewise the other examples of a slip of the tongue which he has discussed, by categories of action analysis. I want to focus the point, it is “action analysis” which is able to enlighten the complicated contexts of the “unconscious sense” of mis-performed social actions.


According to my approach, most of the examples of parapraxis which Freud had investigates can adequately be analyzed as examples of a mis-performed social action. Freud´ s examples of forgetting a name by forming a name-substitute are to be explained differently.


To interpret an “intention” or “purpose” (“tendency”) presupposes the knowledge about the inner structure of social actions. Freud himself makes this presupposition, but he does not explicate this kind of knowledge. (But we find in his theoretical writings a hint that he had some idea about this kind of knowledge. In the article “The Unconscious” (Freud XIV) he describes the system preconscious in a way which shows some similarities between this system and the concept of knowledge about social actions. See Flader, 1995)


Before I start to present my action analysis I will emphasize that we have to distinguish two different questions: One question is: How to explicate the concept of the “unconscious sense” by categories of action analysis. The other question is different: How to explain the occurrence of a mis-performed action from the point of view of psychoanalysis? Is the “mechanism” which Freud has described above and which he has clarified with the help of the metaphor of “mutual interference between two different intended speeches” a sufficient explanation?


My concept of social action is quite simple: Social acting has two features, it is a cooperative activity and it is goal directed. Since speech is a form of social acting – performing speech actions – both features belong to speech, too. In the case of the slip of the tongue which has happened to the President, there was a failure in both regards, his utterance has failed to reach its goal; and his speech missed the expectations of the listeners (a failure with regard to cooperativity in social interactions.)


This is why the utterance of the president was a mis-performed social action.

Social action is a process which is structured. Social actions proceed in certain forms because these actions have an inner context of structural elements. One of these structural elements is the mean-goal relationship which is of high importance for social institutions. Certain means of actions are used to reach certain goals (purposes). Freud´ s third aspect of “sense” - “intention”/ “purpose” (“tendency”) - seems to refer to this relation. But it is crucial to distinguish carefully between a motive for a social action and its goal (purpose). I will explain this difference.


The goal (purpose) of an action is a collective one. It is independent from the actor` s individual wishes and expectations. An actor forms the goal orientation of the acting process by appropriating the collective purpose of a social action for his needs (motives).


Freud´ s comment on the slip of the tongue which has happened to the President of the Lower House gives us a hint that exactly in this structural element of social acting there was a conflict of acting which the president was unable to resolve: The President could not appropriate the collective purpose of this social action opening up the session because there was a contradiction to his motive to close this session as soon as possible. And because he could not resolve this conflict, the goal of his action was unclear – for himself as well as for his audience.


Why he was unable to resolve this action conflict? This question refers to another one: Why this slip of the tongue has happened? Later I will come back to these questions. Now I concentrate first on the context which Freud tries to analyze with the help of this concept of “sense” as “intention”/”purpose”(“tendency”). The process of performing social actions is crucial for this analysis. In the course of performance something happens which is paradoxical: The actor makes use within the process of action performance of certain means by which a certain goal can be reached, but this is done in order to reach with exactly the same means an opposite goal of action.


The example of the President´ s slip of the tongue makes this clear. A certain part of his utterance could have been able indeed to reach the action goal of closing the session – “and hereby I declare the session to be ...” A different social situation given, the speaker only had to complete this formula with the word “closed” – what was done by him. Since we can illustrate the process of action performance metaphorically as a process of going (together) a path (with certain steps and with a direction toward a certain goal) the speaker has tried to do something paradoxical. After having done a first step (on a path of social acting) he attempts to change the direction to the opposite one. This attempt makes use of exactly those elements which belong to the path of social action which he has decided to go and which has an opposite direction.


The attempt to change a goal during the action ´s performance is itself not a social action. Such an attempt only would be successful with the proper means at hand. Using the word “closed” is not enough to use this word as a means for reaching the opposite action goal. The social preconditions for the appropriate use do not exist. The use of this word “closed” by the speaker is a kind of a mental substitute of social acting. The use of this word can be analyzed with the concept of “exothesis” (see Ehlich/Rehbein, 1972). A single thought is set outside directly and spontaneously by a speaker. The president` s exothesis “closed” sets outside his wishful anticipation of the end of the session.


This is the first finding of my analysis of the President´ s slip of the tongue: In the course of the action performance a specific conflict has become manifested. Freud gives us a hint that this action conflict was arising in the previous history of his social action and that this conflict was not resolved by the President. (“He expected nothing good of the sitting.”)


From the point of view of my action analysis this mis-performance of an action is a performance the course of which is determined by an unresolved action conflict. The conflict constituents (in this example) are the action motive (to bring this session as soon as possible to an end) and the institutional purpose of action (opening up the session). Other examples of parapraxis (slips of the tongue) which were collected and discussed by Freud show different kinds of an action conflict. I will mention some of them.


A man addresses a lady who is unknown to him on the street with the words: ”Would You allow me to accompany You?”(“accompany” is mixed with “consult”- German “begleit-digen”). (Freud XV, p. 42) In his utterance the man reveals the existence of an action conflict which he was likely not able to resolve. The conflict constituents are (presumably) the action motive (he wanted to approach this lady) and his moral standards (according to which his attempt of approaching the lady could be evaluated by her as an offence). In this example the unresolved conflict is manifested as a mingling of the designation of the desired action and the exothesis of its negative evaluation. Here, the exothesis does not substitute another word (as it has happened in the case of the slip of the tongue of the president), but it leans on the production of the word “beleidigen” (consult) by which the negative evaluation is expressed.


Another example illustrates a conflict between the goal (purpose) of action and the existing inner picture of that person toward whom this action is directed. A speaker wants to propose the toast of his boss during the course of a festivity. But he dislikes this man actually. And as a consequence of the fact that this conflict was manifested in his utterance he mingled the word “propose” with the word “hiccough”. (German: “aufstoßen”) “I call on you to hiccough to the health of our chief!” (Freud XV, p. 43)


Both examples show clearly how the action principle of cooperativity in social interaction is cancelled for a short moment in the course of the action performance. The man who addresses the lady on the street actually does not know if she would agree with his moral evaluation of his approach. And the speaker who failed to propose the toast of his boss ignores for a short moment the social situation in which he was participating by revealing in public an aspect of his negative personal relationship to his boss.


With regard to the types of conflict, we can distinguish two different groups of slips of the tongue. In one of these groups –like the examples I have discussed above – there is an unresolved action conflict which is manifested in the course of action performance. The other group of slips of the tongue - Freud has named them “self-betrays” of a speaker, is determined by an unresolved conflict of verbalization (communication). A speaker has decided a certain thought to be excluded from verbalization. But then it happens: Because of a strong need for communication this thought is integrated in the production of his utterance. An example for this kind of slip of the tongue is the utterance of a speaker who gives a report about some events. Although he has decided not to evaluate these events which he believes to be scandalous, he expresses his indignation nevertheless by mingling “come to light” with “pig” (literally `piggish´, disgusting) (German: “zum Vorschwein gekommen”) (Freud XV, p. 42)


In the first group of slips of the tongue, the conflict constituents are the structural elements of social action (motives, inner pictures, concepts of situation, moral standards, goal-means relations) These elements are represented by knowledge about social (interactive) actions. This knowledge is a collective one, i.e. all actors make use of it as guidance for social acting.


The examples of a slip of the tongue which I have analyzed above as examples of an action´ s mis-performance have given us some hints that in the course of that performance an unresolved action conflict which belong to the previous history of that social action became manifested because it was reproduced in this course. The consequence of that was a failure in both regards: a failure of cooperativeness, and a failure of the goal reaching feature of social acting. Since social (interactive) actions are guided by the action knowledge we can draw the conclusion that in these cases the use of this knowledge was distorted (for a short moment).


Social actions are meaningful for actors because they understand what happens – or what has happened – with the help of their knowledge about actions. The “meaning” of a slip of the tongue turns out to be more complicated then Freud´ s concept of “intention”/”tendency” suggests. Let us examine this group of slips of the tongue which Freud has called “slips of the tongue to the opposite”. (German: “Versprechen zumGegenteil”) and which are the most common. The examples of a mis-performed action belong to them.


“Meaning” has a double structure here. The manifestation of the unresolved action conflict takes place in such a way that in the course of performance the conflict constituent (which was repressed before by the actor) has influence now on exactly the element which has the opposite meaning. (The President` s  suppressed motive had influence on the means by which his action` s purpose being contradictory to his motive, is fulfilled ; the suppressed inner moral judgment of the man addressing the lady had influence on the naming of that action of approaching her which he tried to do etc.)


Ricoeur (1969) has analyzed Freud´ s concept of “unconscious meaning” as a double structure. But he did not explain this idea in the framework of action analysis. Instead of that, Ricoeur analyzes this kind of meaning as the result of the process of the double constitution of signs: On the basis of the first (conventional) meaning of signs another meaning is constituted which belong to a logically second order. I think, nevertheless, we come to a more adequate conceptualization of Freud´ s concept when we analyze, according to my approach, slips of the tongue as a matter of manifestations of unresolved conflicts of action (respective of verbalization) instead of formation of signs.


Still the problem is to be solved why such a “meaning” is necessarily unconscious. And we have, besides that, to find an appropriate answer to the basic question: Why a slip of the tongue – in terms of a mis-performed action - does occur? Investigating these questions we will understand better the double structure of meaning (in the sense of a meaning connected with an action); and we will recognize that an explanation of a slip of the tongue must take into consideration, that there was a connection of a psychic conflict with the action conflict. Without such a link an action´ s mis-performance will not occur.


The process character of social acting is the key to answer these questions. We have already noticed that there is a hint about the previous history of the slip of the tongue which has happened to the president. We find this hint in Freud´ s comment that the President expects something bad to happen (because such sessions had been regularly tumultuous in the past) and that he had been glad to close this session as soon as possible. Freud has taken this example (together with this context information) from Meringer. Unfortunately, we do not get some precise information about the previous history of this conflict.


The reason for this lack of information lies in Freud´ s theory of the slips of the tongue. According to Freud´ s explanation (the above quoted description of the “mechanism”) information about the previous history of a slip of a tongue is not relevant. From the point of view of Freud´ s approach (slips of the tongue are the outcome of the “interference of different intentions”) the cause of the occurrence of a slip of the tongue is simply this interference. Information which is needed to interpret the “unconscious sense” is the information about the present “psychic situation” of the speaker. No more information is needed.


We have found in the course of analysis above some evidence that Freud has located the starting point of a slip of the tongue at the wrong place: in the performance of the action. We have found that the slip is not simply caused by the actions´ s performance but it is a manifestation of an unresolved conflict which is just reproduced in this process. Starting point/beginning of a slip of the tongue is to be located when the actor, in the previous history of this action, had a conflict which he was unable to resolve.


The pregnant picture of the “interference between different intended speeches” is shadowing this structural context. Similar to other discoveries made by Freud, a metaphor has taken the theoretical position of a concept. When we consider Freud´ s research conditions, the theory formation by metaphors was a necessary step. Since he has discovered a hitherto unknown continent, he had no adequate categories at hand to identify what was new. In such a situation metaphors at least illustrate findings of the research work.


But the use of metaphors has ambivalent functions for the process of theory formation. A metaphor is able to illustrate something – but at the same time, it obscures at the same phenomenon some other important features which do not fit into the picture. (Flader, 2000)


Only if we have a meta-level of the theory which a metaphor belongs to, or at least if we develop the theory to a more elaborated one, we are able to recognize a metaphor´ s effect of obscuring important features. If we don´ t have this point of view, we would not be aware of the metaphor´ s effect.


According to the approach which I have outlined above, we come to the conclusion that the metaphor of the “interference between different intended speeches” is misleading us when we are looking for an adequate explanation why such a slip of the tongue has occurred. The fact is: We do not find in Freud´ s comments that information which we need to reconstruct the conditions of occurrence comprehensively, neither in his comment on the slip of the tongue which happens to he president nor in his comments on all other examples of parapraxis (slips of the tongue). The consequence of this lack of information is simply that we cannot explain these examples thoroughly.


Thus, I can only sketch a possible formation process of a slip of the tongue (in terms of a mis-performed social action). I do not know if this reconstruction is sustained by the facts. I am constructing a possible formation process, and I will emphasize some elements of this process which are, from my point of view, the characteristic of a psychoanalytic explanation.


I presume that the President of the parliament was afraid to go into this session and to open it. But he was obliged to do it. This was a part of his institutional position. Instead of looking for a resolution of this psychic conflict he has suppressed his fear and the wish not to be bothered with this session, as well. This wish remains an abstract wish because it was excluded (by suppression) from the process of social actions: from making plans, developing strategies etc. This wish was disconnected from any possible means of social acting by which it could have been realized.


It is not necessary that the defence mechanism of repression has been used. This is not Freud´ s assumption. Within his description of the “mechanism” of a slip of a tongue the disturbing “purpose”(“tendency”) has been “forced back” by the speaker, i.e. it has been suppressed, before the slip occurs. Repression is a possible but not a necessary condition for a slip of tongue to happen. But we must assume that a psychic conflict which belongs to the previous history of a slip of the tongue was connected with the process of social acting. Otherwise it remains unclear why this conflict has become manifest in the course of the action´ s performance, being reproduced there. The same is the case from the side of the action conflict. It must be connected with a psychic conflict to become manifest in the course of the action´ s performance. E.g. a single action conflict like that which is manifest in the President´ s slip of the tongue can be resolved by the actor, simply by decision making. The same is true with the examples mentioned above. E.g. the man who tries to approach the lady on the street could have solved his action conflict in a similar way, by deciding. He could have decided before performing this action not to address the lady in the direct way as he did, but to find another occasion to come in contact with her, or to address and to accompany her in a more gentle manner. The question is: Why such a decision was not made?


I go back to the President. The wish (not to be bothered by the session and its opening) is still existing (and is represented) in the very abstract form when the slip of the tongue happens. One of the consequences of this abstract form of the wish was the ignorance of the listeners´ expectations. I have mentioned this. By using the exothesis of “closed” the speaker just set outside directly his anticipation of the settings immediate end. For a short moment he had ignored the situation in which he was acting. The other consequence was the failure of reaching the goal to bring that session to an end. The exothesis of the anticipated end (“closed”) was not an appropriate means for closing the session.


Here we can see clearly what is meant with the reproduction of the unresolved conflict of the previous history of the action in the course of the action´ s performance. One of the conflict constituents, the motive, was as a consequence of the suppression disconnected from the process of social action – and this disconnection is represented in the slip of the tongue. It causes both the failure regarding cooperativity in social interactions and with regard to a successful goal orientation of social acting.


What happens (for a short moment) to the President we can call the doubling of his ego. Thus we avoid the misleading metaphor of “interference between two different intended speeches”. The ego of the action` s performance was doubled by the ego of the previous history of the same social action. This simultaneousness may explain why the speaker could not recognize the “meaning” of his slip of the tongue in the same moment when this slip has occurred. He could not recognize the meaning while he was performing the action which he had decided to do, because at the same time the articulation of an inner contradiction to this action´ s goal occurs.


The action´ s performance was guided by the knowledge about this institutional type of social action to declare a session to be opened. A kind of protest or contradiction to this performance was not part of the action plan. The spontaneous attempt by the use of the exothesis of “closed” to change the goal of this action while its performance was going on could not be reflected by the speaker when this attempt was made. It was the reaction of some listeners who were laughing about his slip of the tongue what has called his attention to his slip.


I have mentioned above the double structure of meaning which we can analyze in many cases of parapraxis (slips of the tongue). This structure is connected with the spontaneous attempt to cope with the psychic conflict which could not be resolved and which is reproduced in the course of the action´ s performance. I will shortly explain this issue and continue the construction of the conditions of the President´ s slip of the tongue.


I have assumed that he was afraid (in the previous history of this action) to take over the Presidency of the setting. But he felt obliged to fulfil his tasks. His wish (in the abstract form of “I don´ t want” or “I will this session close as soon as possible.”) was a medium to cope with that fear. He has suppressed it before – and now the use of this defence mechanism turns out to be unsuccessful. The fear is reactivated while he is performing the act of opening the session. Again, we have no information about this important issue: Why the suppression did not work efficiently?


His attempt to cope with his fear has taken from the very action which (by its institutional force) is initiating what he is afraid of, (another tumultuous session) the means to prevent the object of his fear to occur. For a short moment the action which he is performing is no longer oriented toward the institutional purpose. Instead of this the action, as far as it is under the influence of the attempt to cope with fear, is directed by the goal which is located in the individual himself.


The conceptual distinction between action conflict and psychic conflict is basic for my proposal of the analysis of the “unconscious sense”. According to Freud´ s theoretical framework of “meta-psychology”, this distinction corresponds to the difference of the “structural” and the “dynamic” perspective of analysis.


I think that we can only get the deeper insight into the discovery of the “unconscious meaning” when we make this distinction. Only under this condition it becomes evident that an unresolved psychic conflict can be carried out in the knowledge about social actions. And this is what happens, from the psychoanalytic point of view, in most of the cases of a slip of a tongue. In these cases the “ego” cannot control completely what happens. Generally speaking: The usage of this knowledge is not a performance which can be sure about itself.


The uncertainty of this knowledge´ s performance has some consequences for the use of language. As a collective knowledge about social actions, this knowledge is organized by language. A distorted use of this knowledge will have an impact on language use, too. The phenomenon of exothesis in the context of slips of the tongue is a good example for the illustration of this impact on language.


The process of setting outside a thought directly and spontaneously is a part of the speaker` s attempt to cope with his psychic conflict. Such a thought belongs to the speaker ` s individual situation of (psychic) problems. The listener may have some knowledge about his individual situation, as it was the case for the President´ s slip of the tongue. But sometimes the listener will not know it. In any case the speaker will use an exothesis of his thought, and he will do it in a specific way which Freud has called “parasitical”: The exothesis will connect with some of those expressions which are just produced by the speaker. The principle of formation is that of similarity with the linguistic form. As we have seen above, the ignorance of the Present social situation is characteristic for this phenomenon.


It is interesting to notice that both features of the use of exothesis within a slip of the tongue are typical for linguistic signs (and for the semiotic foundation of structural linguistics). We can draw the conclusion that in the case of a slip of the tongue (analyzed as a mis-performed social action) language changes for a short moment from a communication system to a system of linguistic signs.


I have referred at the beginning to some of the authors from social sciences and humanities which have discussed Freud´ s theory of the slip of the tongue. I cannot present these discussions in full details here. When one studies them, one will find that these discussions regularly missed the central role of the dynamics of conflict which is essential from the psychoanalytic point of view. Besides that, the issue of “unconscious meaning” is not taken seriously as a challenge for a theoretical clarification. Instead, it is mostly treated as something out of date.


Now it is interesting to see how Freud makes use of his concept of “sense” within a different context of interpretation: in the context of neurotic symptoms. These phenomena have an “unconscious sense” too. What is the difference to that “sense” of slips of the tongue? It is possible to clarify this “sense” by the concept of the distorted use of knowledge about social actions, too?


In the seventeenth Lectures which have the issue “The Sense of Symptoms” Freud presents a short analysis of a symptom of obsession (German “: Zwangshandlung”). I will use this analysis to clarify the above questions. Freud tells us:


“A lady, nearly 30 years of age, who suffered from the most sever obsessional manifestations (…) performed (among others), the following remarkable obsessional action many times a day. She ran from her room into another neighbouring one, took up a particular position there besides a table that stood in the middle, rang the bell for her housemaid, sent her on some indifferent errand or let her go without one and then ran back into her room.” (Freud XVI, p.261)


Freud has asked the lady again and again why she was acting in that way. She could not answer this question. She did not know why. But finally she told him a memory which she has got in this context:


“More then ten years before, she had married a man very much older than herself, and on the wedding night he was impotent. Many times during the night he had come running from his room into hers to try once more but every time without success. Next morning he had sad angrily:` I should feel ashamed in front of the housemaid when she makes the bed,´ took up a bottle of red ink that happened to be in the room and poured its contents over the sheet, but not on the exact place where a stain would have been appropriate.” (Freud, XVI, p.261-2)


Apart from the appearance of the housemaid and the running-from one room-to another one it was clear how this memory was connected with the obsessional action. Freud continues:


“My patient then led me up to the table in the second room and showed me a big stain on the tablecloth. She further explained that she took up her position in relation to the table in such a way that the maid who had been sent for could not fail to see the stain.” (Freud, XVI, p. 262)


Freud then presents his interpretation of this obsessional action. He uses two of the aspects of his concept of “unconscious sense” which we know already. Firstly he refers to the symbolic meaning of “table” When a table occurs in a dream it is regularly to be interpreted in the meaning of “bed” (according to the formula “being divorced from table and bed” as a symbol for “marriage”), i. e. the patient who repeats what has happened in the wedding night (with some important changes) has substituted the bed and the bed cover by the table and by the cover of the table.


The second aspect of the concept of “unconscious sense” (the “intention”/”purpose”) of the obsessional action is taken by Freud to be far more extending then the aspect of “meaning”. He continues:


“Its kernel (i.e. the obsessional action, D.F.) was obviously the summoning of the housemaid, before whose eyes the patient displayed the stain, in contrast to her husband´ s remark that he would feel ashamed in front of the maid. Thus he, whose part she was playing, did not feel ashamed in front of the maid; accordingly the stain was in the right place. We see, therefore, that she was not simply repeating the scene, she was continuing and at the same correcting it; she was putting it right. But by this she was also correcting the other thing, which had been so distressing that night and had made the expedient with the red ink necessary - his impotence. So the obsessional action was saying: `No, it´s not true. He had no need to feel ashamed in front of the housemaid; he was not impotent.` It represented this wish, in a manner of a dream as fulfilled in a present-day action; it served the purpose of making her husband superior to his past mishap.” (Freud, XVI, p. 262-3)


Freud´ s interpretation clearly demonstrates the process character of the formation of this symptom. The patient does not just repeat the event of the wedding night; she (unconsciously) has worked on it in several regards. Her obsessional action is the result of this process.


The patient, the woman in this case, could not resolve the underlying conflict which Freud hints at. We are not informed precisely about the structure of this conflict. This is similar to the lack of information about the previous history of the various examples of slip of the tongue which are presented by Freud. Thus it was not possible to reconstruct the formation process of these examples. With regards to the formation history of this obsessional symptom we must rely on assumptions, too.


I presume that the woman was not only disappointed of her husband, but she was also angry. For him it was not important to ask himself how his wife feels in this night, it was more important to consider the remarks of other people when they would recognize that he was sexually impotent. Obviously he did not talk to her about his failure and he did not ask her to help him. But nevertheless she was in love with him, and she I still loving him, since she is doing something important for him. She demonstrates to the public which is represented by the waitress, that everything is “ok” with her husband.


In her mind (and conception) her husband is still present, although, as mentioned by Freud, they are separated since long. The patient, the woman is not only performing something significant regarding her husband, but also something aggressive and dominating, which is reflected through her action. It is literally speaking “in her hand” weather the proof of her husband´ s sexual potency is given or not.


Now the course of the formation process of this symptom, analyzed as an attempt to cope with the conflict, has become clear. In the wedding night, psychic conflict and action conflict were connected with each other. The unconscious process of working on these conflicts was proceeding within the inner structure of the husband´ s action which, so I presume, had been perceived by the woman as being mean and grieving her: To present somebody whose judgment about this night was of more importance then the feelings of her wife by the means of the ink spot a proof of his sexual potency.


In the process of working on these conflicts, different kinds of psychic defense mechanisms have been involved and likewise some forms of fulfilling certain wishes. The patient had changed the position within this action. She is now acting in the position of her husband. Besides that she has changed the place and the substance of the stain, but still she has kept to the purpose of this action to demonstrate the housemaid as a representative of the public the proof of potency. The “unconscious sense” of this symptom is the connection of the different structural elements of this action in which the course of the attempt to cope with the unresolved conflict has taken place and which are all influenced by that process: the motive, the inner picture (of the husband), the concept of situation, certain moral standards (according to which e.g. a deceit of other persons is legitimate), and the means-goal relationship.


In the centre there is conflict of ambivalence. On the one hand she wants to free her husband from the reproach being sexually impotent and on the other hand the same action which fulfils this purpose causes regularly the temptation to expose her husband by abstaining from this poof. That is why this action is an obsessional one. By performing it the underlying psychic conflict is reproduced again and again because the contradictory wishes “Do it! (in favour of him)” and “Leave it! (for his damage)” never come to end but they are reactivated by each action performance.


There is some evidence that the attempt to cope with this conflict has caused a psychic regression which has taken place at the structural elements of this action. We can reconstruct the forms of regression on the basis of some hints on the existence of some infantile patterns of thinking and wishes which are represented in this compulsive action. I take the following patterns as the characteristic for the “anal-sadistic” stage of the ontogenetic development of the child` s sexuality although, unfortunately, there is still missing a convincing psychoanalytic theory of this ontogenetic development (see Flader, 1995). Thus, we can analyze only with some reservation in this compulsive action a strong wish to control; a concept of reality according to which “real” is only something which can be observed; and a sense for “accuracy” (represented by the care for the proper location of the spot).


I will finish at this point the analysis of this compulsive action. This case will help us now to clarify roughly what is similar and what is different in a slip of the tongue and in a neurotic symptom with regard to their “unconscious sense”.


According to Freud there is no conceptual difference between them since the aspect of “intention”/”purpose”(”tendency”) was for him equally relevant.


To start with the similarities: In both cases (in those of the discussed examples of the slip of the tongue and in that of the obsessional action) my analysis has assumed that an action conflict and a psychic conflict had been linked together in the formation process of these cases. There was some evidence that none of these conflicts were resolved. Instead there was an attempt to cope with the conflict.


The crucial difference was the following one: In the examples of the slip of the tongue the carried out underlying psychic conflict which had an influence on only two of the structural elements of social action, just for a short moment. In the course of the formation process of the neurotic symptom, obviously, the whole person` s subjectivity, as far as it was acting under influence of the unresolved conflict, was affected, since all the structural elements of an compulsive action were determined by the unconscious process of “working on” the psychic conflict. Such process does not only take place in the case of the above analyzed obsessional action but in different kinds of neurotic symptoms, too (like phobic symptoms, see Flader, 1995).


This difference implies a different kind of distortion of the knowledge about social action. In the case of a slip of the tongue (in terms of a mis-performed action) the use of this knowledge was distorted (for a short moment); in the case of the obsessional action the knowledge about this action was “distorted”. Calling the housemaid and showing her the stain on the table had that “unconscious meaning” which I have analyzed.


How could this knowledge about social actions (as far as it was under influence of an unresolved psychic conflict) be “distorted”? This question is just another version of the question of this kind: Why the “meaning” of this obsessional action was unconscious? We find a similar process structure here as in the above analyzed examples of slip of the tongue. We can call this structure the simultaneity of what is in fact (in terms of genetic development) not simultaneous. (I think this concept is a good remedy to Freud´ s tendency of hypostatizing “the” unconscious).


Concerning the slips of the tongue, I have reconstructed a doubling of the ego (the ego of the action` s performance was doubled for a short moment by the ego of previous history of the same action). In the case of the obsessional action we should broaden the concept of doubling because the individual subject is affected in this case. In performing this obsessional action the woman was acting in the presence (she calls the housemaid and stands at the table at such a place that the housemaid could see the stain on the table). At the same time the woman continues the process of working on the conflict which belongs to her emotional relationship with her husband and reactivation (in the context of psychic regression) some infantile patterns of thinking and wishes. In doing this she was on two different positions of her subjective development at the same time.


She needs a third person who helps her to look through this involvement in an unresolved conflict with the husband. This position was taken by Freud (i.e. the psychoanalyst).


Before I explain how my proposal to conceptualize the “unconscious sense” is connected with Freud´ s structural model (the psychic instances) I would like to discuss the metaphor of “neurotic symptom”. In the context of my analysis of the slips of the tongue it became obvious that the metaphor of “interference” (between two different intended speeches) was misleading since the metaphor located the central condition of the occurrence of the mis-performance at the wrong place, namely at the action` s performance itself. Instead, in these cases, we found good reasons for placing the central condition in the previous history of the same action.


The metaphor of “symptom” is misleading too. We become aware of it, when we recognize how the “unconscious sense” is linked to a neurotic symptom (like that I have analyzed above). The non-metaphorical meaning of a symptom is used in medical sciences: A symptom is an index. Like smoke is an index of an existing fire, in medical sciences a symptom is an index of an existing disorder or malfunction of the organism.


Freud has taken this medical concept. It is plausible in so far the aspect of disorder refer to a similar feature of neurotic symptoms. Freud’s discovery stating such kind of symptoms have an “unconscious sense” transgresses the meaning of the medical concept of symptom. In the context of psychoanalysis, symptom is a metaphor.


According to my approach a neurotic symptom is the form of proceeding of an unresolved conflict and the ongoing attempt to work on this conflict. Such a symptom does not have “meaning” because it functions as an index of an existing disorder. - This misunderstanding has caused much confusion in the scientific debate on psychoanalysis. Instead of that, we must recognize that a neurotic symptom is part of the unconscious attempt (of the involved individual) to work on an underlying conflict, the symptom being a result of that process. Thus, the unconscious meaning of a neurotic symptom is within such a symptom.


Basic for my proposal to re-conceptualize Freud´ s concept of the “unconscious sense” (in the context of slips of the tongue and of neurotic symptoms) is the idea that we can interpret the first as well as the second model of the “psychic apparatus” in that way that these models implicitly assume a fraction of the inner structure of social (interactive) action, and that they generalize this fraction as being characteristic for the individuals´ subjectivity. I.e. this fraction is seen to be “normal” (“normal” in the sense of the conditio humana in modern societies). The reference to the process of social acting is not so evident in the first model (distinguishing the systems unconscious, pre-conscious and conscious) as it is in the structural model. It uses pronominal metaphors to paraphrase the fraction of the different structural elements of social acting (ego, id, super- ego) “id” refers to motives and “super-ego” to moral standards under the condition of being fractioned. Thus, this model is not complete. What are missing are other important structural elements of social acting, like “inner pictures” (the concepts of self and of objects belong to this element; they became the main issue of the psychoanalysis of relationship); concepts of situation, and the means-goal relationship.


Thus, the structural model represents an important outcome of the psychoanalytic research work on the psychic unconscious: In the various (collective) forms of social interactions which built up the society´ s stock of action forms, there are always some individual traces of unresolved psychic conflicts which belong to the ontogenetic development of the actors´ subjectivity, such traces being given by the individual´ s action performance (the individual subject is seen to develop in childhood within the acquisition of the collective forms of interaction, see Flader 1995).


The ego is a concept on a different theoretical level then the structural elements of social acting. Ego is the centre where knowledge about interactive actions is activated. Freud´ s statement that ego is not the master in the own house, can be understood in that way that ego cannot control completely the knowledge which is activated in the course of interacting with others. Since this knowledge is the medium for the psychic conflicts to be carried out and working on them it can never be excluded the possibility that it may come under influence of psychic conflicts which cannot be resolved but are just reproduced in the course of social acting. I think the above analyzed examples have shown the evidence of Freud´ s statement.


This discovery made by Freud questions the “common sense” of actors in everyday life. For them the knowledge about social actions is self-evident and a ground for interacting with others being provided by this knowledge with orientations and meanings which are reliable. The discovery of the “unconscious sense” of slips of the tongue and of neurotic symptoms demonstrates that this ground is not very stable, that it may stagger indeed when the simultaneity of what (with regard to ontogenetic development) is not simultaneous brings the past back to the present. Two of the effects have been analyzed above: The ego is then doubled for a short moment when a slip of the tongue occurs; and the individual suffering from a neurotic symptom, acts (at the very moment when the social acting is under influence of an unresolved psychic conflict) at the same time on two different positions of its subjectivity´ s development.




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