Biological Bedrock

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In the last paragraph of "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937c), Freud wrote: "We often have the impression that with the wish for a penis and the masculine protest we have penetrated through all the psychological strata and have reached bedrock [gewachsener Fels : "the living rock"], and that thus our activities are at an end. This is probably true, since, for the psychical field, the biological field does in fact play the part of the underlying bedrock" (p. 252).

As a limit imposed upon psychoanalytical treatment, which is brought to a halt by its inaccessibility to psychic working over, the biological level played a complicated and ever-present motor role in Freud's work. By 1894 he had already introduced three important notions related to this frontier: libido, or psychical sexual energy transmuted from somatic energy; conversion, or the hysterical mechanism of transformation of psychic libidinal energy into somatic innervation; and the sexual instinct, the earliest attempt to conceptualize such "phase shifts"whether continuous or sporadicbetween the body and the mind.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), what Freud called "that part of the theory . . . which lies on the frontier of biology" (p. 133)the theory of the instinctscreated the dynamic frame of reference in which psychic morphogenesis could be grafted onto the underlying biology of onto- and phylogenesis. And in his preface to the third edition (1914) of the Three Essays, Freud added: "I must, however, emphasize that the present work is characterized not only by being completely based upon psycho-analytic research, but also by being deliberately independent of the findings of biology. . . . Indeed, my aim has rather been to discover how far psychological investigation can throw light upon the biology of the sexual life of man. . . . there was no need for me to be diverted from my course if the psycho-analytic method led in a number of important respects to opinions and findings which differed largely from those based on biological considerations" (p. 131). Both the interdependence and the relative autonomy between the mental and the biological were thus affirmed.

In fact Freud drew attention to infantile sexual activity before its organic correlates were discoveredthe word hormone came into use in 1905. He specified the two developmental biological traits responsible for the singular ubiquity of sexuality in human mental life, namely prematurity and the latency period. Freud inferred that humans were descended from a species that reached sexual maturity at the age of about five; this conclusion, which is confirmed by current paleo-anthropology, relates the Oedipus complex to the "bedrock" of the biological development of the species.

Another point of contact between the mental and the biological lay in mnemic phenomena, in memory traces and their transmission. As Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), "Dreams and neuroses seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we could have imagined possible; so that psychoanalysis may claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the beginnings of the human race" (p. 549). The life and death instincts, another interface with the "bedrock," were the basis of a hypothetical biology centered on the diversity of the stabilizing mechanisms of living beingson their ability to internalize external factors and to regularize and convey them on the biological and the mental levels simultaneously. In short, Freud was proposing a kind of Lamarckianism revisited whose necessity would one day be acknowledged by official science: "For incalculable ages mankind has been passing through a process of evolution of culture," he wrote to Albert Einstein, which "is undoubtedly accompanied by physical alterations; but we are still unfamiliar with the notion that the evolution of civilization is an organic process of this kind" (1933b [1932], p. 214).

Penis envy and castration fears were paradigmatic of the complicated, intrinsic causal relationship between the mental and the biological. The unique narcissism of human beings, along with the ideal individual and collective forms to which it gave rise, was likewise, by virtue of prematurity, closely bound up with biology.

The transition between soma and psyche lies at the core of Freud's work. His theory of the instincts is the conceptual instrument that makes it possible to examine this zone without falling prey to neurophysiological reductionism or to the dichotomies of idealism. This set of problems has often been avoided since Freud. It may not be strictly necessary to confront it as a practical matter in treating neuroses, but it is surely essential to do so if we wish fully to understand the dynamics of mental functioning. There are many ways, however, to evade the issue, and to maintain the ancient split between soma and psyche: neglecting or rejecting the theory of the instincts (like the British school); confining that theory to an exclusively clinical realm (Melanie Klein), or to an exclusively structural one that ignores the economic dimension (Jacques Lacan); or suppressing Freud's biological work on fantasies (Gantheret). The diametrically opposite approach, a neopositivist reading of Freud's work as a "biogenetic fable" (Sulloway), has the same result. On the other hand, some biologists with a more nuanced epistemology (Jean-Didier Vincent, Alain Prochiantz) have been reassessing the dynamic point of view in their discipline in a way that restores its relevance to the Freudian position, which a certain number of psychoanalysts (such as those concerned with the earliest mother-child bonds and with psychosomatic illnesses) have never abandoned.

MichÈle Porte

See also: "Analysis Terminable and Interminable"; Castration complex; Femininity; Penis envy; Phylogenesis; Real trauma; Termination of treatment.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1933b [1932]). Why War? (Einstein and Freud). SE, 22: 195-215.

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

Gantheret, François. (1975). Quelqueséléments de recherche sur la place du biologique dans la théorie psychanalytique. Psychanalyseà l 'Université, 1 (December 1), 97-104.

Sulloway, Frank J. (1979). Freud, biologist of the mind. New York: Basic.

Further Reading

Silverstein, Barry. (1985). Freud's psychology and its organic foundation: Sexuality and mind-body interactionism. Psychoanalytic Review, 72, 199-228; 203-228.