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The notion of "action-language" was proposed by Roy Schafer to refer to a code or group of rules, within the framework of a conceptualization that aims to legitimize existence to all conscious or unconscious activity, and all mental acts capable of being externalized by means of words or gestures, so that these mental acts can be related to unconscious conflicts (slips of the tongue, parapraxes), representations of self and object, bodily fantasies, feelings and emotions, desires and beliefs, or courses of action that the subject uses to "put aside" certain ideas or invest others.

Action-language involves a strategy (favoring the use of action verbs and adverbs over nouns, adjectives, and the verbs have and be ) for listening to, acknowledging, translating, retranslating, interpreting, and organizing the data or the modalities of action of the agent or his or her person, that is, the analysand, within the context of the transference and resistance.

The analysand acts in a conflicted way, whether at the unconscious, preconscious, or conscious level. He or she follows actions of thinking or ideas that possess mental qualities, and verbalizes according to different narrative registers. According to Schafer, the concept's originator, who drew his inspiration from the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jean-Paul Sartre, action-language is an alternative to the traditional, mechanistic terminology of metapsychology, encumbered by psychoeconomic, spatial, biological, physiochemical, or anthropomorphic metaphors. Such metaphors, according to Schafer, are devoid of content, anachronistic, attributive and conducive to fragmentation, archaic and childish. Terms such as motives, propulsive energy forces, regulating principles, structures, functions, instincts, and objects, used by Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysts in a general way, can only very partially account for the mind's activities of ideation and speech (including inner thoughts, associations, and substitutive formations).

By contrast, action-language purports to bring, through the rigorous descriptions of mental acts it entails, greater clarity and effectiveness to treatment, in that the causal explanation based on the concrete and active "existence" of the person ostensibly leads to a personal recharacterization of his or her psychic reality. Further, by getting away from notions of the "mind-machine," action and its language can supposedly bring us back to the true hermeneutics that is psychoanalysis. The idea, moreover, is not to replace or alter psychoanalytic technique, but to find a metalanguage that is faithful to its origins.

A number of charges (psychologism, personalism, phenomenological reductionism, disregard of the unconscious, a flattening of discourse, the inadequacy of the rules of transcription) have been leveled against this undertaking "in the first person," which aims to provide a foundation for psychoanalysis and to oppose any reification of the subject.

Simone Valantin

See also: Act/action; Action-(re)presentation; Interpretation.


Schafer, Roy. (1976). A new language for psychoanalysis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

. (1978). Language and insight. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

. (1980). Action language and the psychology of the self. Annual of Psychoanalysis (Chicago Institute). 8, 83-92.

Further Reading

Spence, Donald P. (1982). Some clinical implications of action language. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 30, 169-184.