Free Energy/Bound Energy

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Freud regarded energy as a capacity with two modes of functioning: that of free energy, in which energy proceeds towards an immediate and total discharge, and that of bound energy, in which it is blocked and accumulates.

Freud used the concept of energy in his theory in an attempt to explain a point of transition between the "quantity" of energy and the "quality" of the representation. To this end, he addressed the question of energy in the "Project" (1950a; Laplanche and Pontalis, 1967/1974; Laplanche, 1976) in a far more radical way than Josef Breuer had done. There he described "primary process" as an energic state of disorganization that the ego on its emergence seeks to regulate during the "secondary process" by managing the energy according to the constancy principle.

As concerns energy, however, the distinction clearly does not always work perfectly for Freud because in this text he only used this term twice and without the qualification "bound" or "free." Although Freud's idea of energy used the inevitably sexual encounter between the child and the adult as a metaphor here, unfortunately he combined this with a genetic perspective in which primary-process disorganization precedes the organization that characterizes the secondary process. Accordingly, this hierarchical Jacksonian perspective prevented him from the outset from fully conceiving of the primary process as the result of the absorption of adult sexuality into the child's psychic apparatus.

It should also be noted that with its excessively cut-and-dried oppositions, the dynamics posited by Freud are no more satisfactory in relation to the matter of life. In Freud's concept of the child, he has no chance of survival, whether this is in terms of an excessively organized or an excessively withdrawn system. The latter perspective very clearly leads to the theory of narcissism, while the former leads to the conceptualization of the death drive.

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud reattributed the role of binding to the preconscious. It is also here that the expression "cathecting energy" appears, described as "mobile and capable of discharge" (p. 597), which conflicts with the theories of the "Project," in which cathexis had been conceived as a way of producing bound states. In fact, this concerns an energy in search of representations and, furthermore, an "object." The cathexis of energy is next conceived (1915d) as an approach to the unconscious and its decrease (decathexis) is attributed to repression. In "The Unconscious" (1915e), Freud stated that Breuer had distinguished between "two different states of energy in mental life; one in which energy is tonically 'bound' and the other in which it is freely mobile" (p. 188). In fact, Breuer (1895d) had superimposed on psychic states two types of energy that accorded with the knowledge of the time but which Freud had gone on to use in a much more imaginative way. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), still unaware of a further distortion, Freud also attributed the idea to Breuer by maintaining that he had established the distinction between "two kinds of cathexis of the psychical systems or their elementsa freely flowing cathexis that presses on towards discharge and a quiescent cathexis" (p. 31).

Freud thus established the foundation for his theory of a death drive that unbinds and an Eros that binds. This could be considered as a diluted view of sexuality, simultaneously binding and unbinding, which he had encountered from his first analyses. The main impetus for this development may be the theory of narcissism in which Freud had exalted the theme of happiness found in love of the external object, a theme that had already appeared in embryonic form in the "Project," with its Jacksonian perspective of a possible transition from unbinding to binding.

In conclusion, Freud did not succeed in resolving the question of free energy or framing it in dialectic terms because it simultaneously applied to both conscious (1933a [1932]) and unconscious functioning. The theoretical problem arises, in terms of the conscious, from the perception that leaves no trace and, in terms of the unconscious, from the primary process. If free energy cannot be specific, the solution would be to remove the distinction between free and bound energy because this adventitious hypothesis, since Breuer's proposition, has confused energy and state. In fact, a system that possesses what can be (wrongly) described as a disordered state can operate with the same energy as an ordered system.

Bertrand Vichyn

See also: Psychic energy.


Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5: 1-625.

. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.

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

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

. (1933a). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1950a). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

Freud Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Laplanche, Jean. (1976). Life and death in psychoanalysis (Jeffrey Mehlman, Trans.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1974). The Language of Psycho-Analysis (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1967)