Experience of Satisfaction

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In The Language of Psychoanalysis, Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis gave the following definition of "experience of satisfaction": "Type of primal experience postulated by Freud, consisting in the resolution, thanks to an external intervention, of an internal tension occasioned in the suckling by need. The image of the satisfying object subsequently takes on a special value in the construction of the subject's desire. This image may be recathected in the absence of the real object (hallucinatory satisfaction of the wish). And it will always guide the later search for the satisfying object" (1967/1973, p. 156).

The concept of the experience of satisfactionreal or hallucinatoryis obviously a cornerstone in Sigmund Freud's metapsychological construction in that it raises the issue of the mnemic registration of the encounter with the object and in that it tries to articulate the problematic of the assuagement of need and the fulfillment of desire. Freud evoked the experience of satisfaction as early as the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]): "The residues of the two kinds of experiences [of pain and of satisfaction] which we have been discussing are affects and wishful states are affects and wishful states. These have in common the fact that they both involve a raising of Qé tension in Ybrought about in the case of an affect by sudden release and in that of a wish by summation" (pp. 321-322).

Freud also referred to this concept several times in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), after which it faded somewhat before reappearing in "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911b): "It was only the non-occurrence of the expected satisfaction, and the disappointment experienced, that led to the abandonment of this attempt at satisfaction by means of hallucination. Instead of it, the psychical apparatus had to decide to form a conception of the real circumstances in the external world and to endeavour to make a real alteration in them. A new principle of mental functioning was thus introduced" (p. 219).

He returned to the concept yet again in "Negation" (1925h) in an attempt to link together the experience of satisfaction, on the one hand, and the reality principle, on the other: "[I]t is evident that a precondition for the setting up of reality testing is that objects shall have been lost that once brought real satisfaction" (p. 238). In other words, not only does the experience of satisfaction serve as a bridge between need and desire, it is also the basis for reality testing, which is set in motion by the absence of the real object and by insufficient compensation for that absence through the reactivation of memory traces.

The discussion of the experience of satisfaction thus raises the whole question of primitive hallucination, which Freud, as we know, deemed crucial to the emergence of the infant's very first mental representations. Initially, the experience of satisfaction is linked to the baby's fundamental immaturitythat is, its state of helplessness, its primary and fundamental powerlessness (Hilflosigkeit ). Incapable on its own of affecting the tension produced by endogenous excitations, the infant must rely on intervention by an outside person. (Guy Rosolato would later interpret this as being the germ of the differentiation between the realm of need and that of sexual difference and autoerotism.) Satisfaction thus comes to be associated with the image of the outside object that has relieved tensions, and when these reappear, there is an active recathexis of the image of the object. Should this recathexis be overly intense, it is liable to produce the same "indication of reality" as the perception itself (hence the possible confusion between the real and hallucinated object, a confusion that is at the heart of the dynamics of desire). According to Laplanche and Pontalis, "the wish, though it originates with a search for actual satisfaction, is constituted on the model of the primitive hallucination" (p. 156). The formation of the ego is what puts an end to this confusion between hallucination and perception by means of its inhibiting role, which prevents an overly intense recathexis of the image of the satisfying object.

Involved here are the notions of "thought identity" and "perceptual identity," which Freud introduced as early as The Interpretation of Dreams : what the subject seeks through the direct path of hallucination (thought identity) is invariably something identical to the perception formerly associated with the satisfaction of a need (perceptual identity).

Recent work has attempted to distinguish between the experience of satisfaction and the experience of instinctual gratification, conceived as being broader. In reality, the main discussions have focused more on the nature of primitive hallucination than on the experience of satisfaction itself. Or rather, what is debated is the place of primitive hallucination in the process of the emergence of thought. Some authors have continued to place the absence of the object at the center of this process, while others have emphasized the presence of the object and its relationship with the subject or future subject. Clearly, the experience of satisfaction is what links these two approaches, the first of which is characteristic of classical psychoanalysts and the second of so-called developmental psychoanalysts, who in particular want to introduce attachment theory into their thinking (John Bowlby).

The absence and presence of the object appear in fact to be fundamentally inseparable, and it is undoubtedly in the experience of satisfaction that the dynamic interactions of need and desire, and even of demand, are most tightly enmeshed.

Bernard Golse

See also: Infantile omnipotence; Pain; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; "Project for a Scientific Psychology"; Symbolization, process of; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5: 1-635.

. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.

. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-287.

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1973). The language of psycho-analysis (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1967)

Rosolato, Guy. (1964). La différence des sexes. Essais sur le symbolique. Paris: Gallimard, 1969.

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