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The concept of metapsychology was created by Freud to refer to the most theoretical and abstract elements of psychoanalysis. It consists of a set of laws, principles, and fundamental concepts used to represent and describe the operation of the mental apparatus in three fundamental structural aspects: dynamic, topographical, and economic.

The term itself appeared early in Freud's work and is found in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess. It was most likely coined by analogy with the philosophical term "metaphysics," which Freud proposed to "transform . . . into a metapsychology" (1901b, p. 259). The meaning of the concept was gradually refined, and in 1915 Freud attempted to provide a systematic metapsychological description of his current model of psychic structure. The "witch," as he liked to call this metapsychological description, consisted of a set of principles (like the pleasure-unpleasure principle) and hypotheses (such as hypotheses about repression and the unconscious) that presented the functioning of the mind and the processes responsible for its organization as a coherent and intelligible whole.

Freud suggested "that when we have succeded in describing a psychical process in its dynamic, topographical and economic aspects, we should speak of it as a metapsychological presentation" (1915e, p. 181). The economic viewpoint considers the psychic apparatus as crisscrossed by forces that tend toward resolution. The dynamic viewpoint examines how those forces are constructed and how they negotiate mutual conflicts. The topographical viewpoint assumes that we can describe the psychic apparatus as a space where different areas can be delimited (conscious, preconscious, unconscious), these being governed by laws and intersected by specific processes (unconscious primary processes and preconscious secondary processes). These three viewpoints in combination can present these processes in light of how they are cathected, the role they play in mental organization, and the effect they have on the course of psychic events.

Freud also suggested adding a fourth viewpoint, the genetic, to the first three, which are structural. Freud's proposal, admittedly never fully developed in his work, was given little consideration in French psychoanalysis. But especially in America, writers such as Ernst Kris, Rudolph M. Loewenstein, and Heinz Hartmann have incorporated the notion into ego Psychology. Other authors feel that the three structural viewpoints should be contrasted with a historical viewpoint, which, though not "genetic" in the strict sense, comprises the notion that the psychic processes undergo historical development and organization.

The overall organization of Freud's metapsychology underwent a change of direction in 1920 with the movement "beyond the pleasure principle" to a compulsion to repeat. This turning-point of 1920 led to a "second topography." This new system, also known as the "structural model," does not overlap with the earlier arrangement of conscious, preconscious, and unconscious point by point. Instead, it divides the psychic apparatus into ego, superego, and id. This topographical change entailed a theoretical reorganization so broad that it may be considered a "second metapsychology." Some authors maintain that the introduction in 1937 of the process of splitting introduced a "third metapsychology."

A dialectic existed in Freud's work between metapsychology and clinical practice: the identification of new clinical facts would bring about a corresponding evolution in metapsychology, and this in turn had an affect on theoretical-clinical description. Although the foundations of metapsychology are well established, there is no reason to believe that it is incapable of change and enrichment from advances in clinical knowledge, just as it may evolve through metapsychological research papers.

Metapsychology is the most fundamental component of psychoanalytic theory, the component that consolidates the most essential elements of a psychoanalytic conception of mental functioning. This is what makes it a metapsychology, that is, a second-level psychology with direct bearing on the processes that govern individual psychologies, a theory that enables us to account for specific clinical variations, using general and universal principles and processes. By abstractly describing processes of ordering, classification, displacement, and condensation (the transformations of psychic reality), metapsychology overcomes the paradox of a theory applied to itself. It defines a process of theorization that, in its movement and mutations, successfully averts the risk of self-validation that its reflexivity might bring about.

Early twenty-first century debates with detractors who refuse to grant metapsychology the status of a rigorous theory and with some psychoanalysts who claim to be able to do without "the witch" and her claims in their daily clinical work center around this fundamental theoretical status. But to reject the status of metapsychology within psychoanalysis amounts to eliminating the most fundamental element of its contribution to depth psychology.

RenÉ Roussillon

See also: Dynamic point of view, the; Economic point of view, the; First World War: The effect on the development of psychoanalysis; "Instincts and their Vicissitudes"; "Repression"; Topographical point of view, the; Witch of Metapsychology, the.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915e). The unconscious. SE,14:159-204.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

Oppenheimer, Agnès. (1985). Qu'est-ce que la métapsychologie. Revue française de psychanalyse, 49 (5), 1197-1216.

Roussillon, René. (1995). La métapsychologie des processus et la transitionnalité. Revue française de psychanalyse, 59 (special number), 1351-1519.

Further Reading

Gill, Merton. (1988). Metapsychology revisited. Annual of Psychoanalysis, 16, 35-48.

Loewald, Hans W. (1988). In search of nature: Metapsychology, metaphysics, projection. Annual of Psychoanalysis, 16, 49-54.

Rubinstein, Benjamin B. (1996). Why metapsychology? Psychological Issues, 62, 485-496.

Zepf, Siegfried. (2001). Incentives for a reconsideration of the debate on metapsychology. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 82, 463-484.

Philosophical Psychology

views updated Jun 11 2018

Philosophical psychology

The area of study where psychology and philosophy intersect, focusing on metaphysical and speculative problems in the study of mental processes.

One of the central questions in philosophical psychology has been the relationship between the mind and body, a perennial area of inquiry throughout the history of philosophy. Other topics considered in this discipline include memory , perception , and consciousness ; the nature of the self; the existence of free will; the relationship between thought and emotion ; and so-called irrational phenomena, such as self-deception.

The study of the mind and mental processes was traditionally the province of philosophers, but philosophy and psychology began to diverge with the advent of experimental psychology as practiced by such figures as Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) and Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the separation of the two disciplines became standard in American universities, resulting in the establishment of professional associations and journals devoted to psychology and its practitioners. This schism was further entrenched with the rise of behaviorism , which advocated behavior as the sole focus of psychology and rejected introspective inquiry and the study of consciousness. In 1925, the prominent American behaviorist John Watson predicted the demise of philosophy as a field of inquiry altogether.

In the 1950s, however, psychologists and philosophers increasingly found themselves once again on common ground. The "cognitive revolution" shifted the focus of psychology back to mental processes and such topics as language acquisition and mental representation. In turn, philosophy has demonstrated a growing interest in the empirical side of psychology; philosophers have studied the clinical foundations of psychoanalysis as well as topics such as behavior modification . Representative journals in philosophical psychology include Philosophy of Science, Mind, British Journal of Psychology, and The Philosophical Review.

Further Reading

Russell, Bertrand. The Analysis of Mind. New York: Macmillan, 1921.

Strawson, Peter. Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.


views updated May 21 2018


Umbrella term used to describe the attempt to establish general principles to explain all psychological phenomena.

Metapsychology describes the effort to construct or to postulate a systematic and comprehensive set of general principles encompassing all of psychology, specifically including elements that are theoretical in addition to elements that are considered to have been empirically demonstrated; also known as nomothetic psychology. In classical Freudian psychoanalytical theory, the term metapsychology is used in reference to the analysis of the dynamic (instinctive), topological (association with id , ego , or superego ), and economic (allocation of psychic energy) aspects of mental processes. The term metapsychology is sometimes used as a synonym of the term parapsychology . Parapsychology is a field of study that involves the investigation of paranormal phenomena, such as extrasensory perception , precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, and telekinesis, that are (presumably) not explainable in terms of scientifically established principles or natural laws.

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