Functional Phenomenon

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In his study on "hypnagogic" states (states between being awake and falling asleep) (1909/1951), which earned immediate publication and led him to make contact with Sigmund Freud in 1909, Herbert Silberer designated by the name "autosymbolic phenomenon" the visual image he saw when falling asleep that, upon analysis, could be understood as a representation in image form of his ideas at that moment. He gave the name "functional phenomenon" to what, in this process, represented not the object of his thought but how his mind was functioningeffortlessly, cumbersomely, or vainly. In other words, the term refers to a symbolization of the thinking process itself, of the current activity of the mind, its affects, and its intentions.

In "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c), Sigmund Freud, in his discussion of the role of moral conscience, offered a commentary that is as clear as it is full of praise: "It will certainly be of importance to us if evidence of the activity of this critically observing agencywhich becomes heightened into conscience and philosophic introspectioncan be found in other fields as well. I will mention here what Herbert Silberer has called the 'functional phenomenon,' one of the few indisputably valuable additions to the theory of dreams. Silberer, as we know, has shown that in states between sleeping and waking we can directly observe the translation of thoughts into visual images, but that in these circumstances we frequently have a representation, not of a thought-content, but of the actual state (willingness, fatigue, etc.) of the person who is struggling against sleep. Similarly, he has shown that the conclusions of some dreams or some divisions in their content merely signify the dreamer's own perception of his sleeping and waking. Silberer has thus demonstrated the part played by observationin the sense of the paranoic's delusions of being watchedin the formation of dreams. This part is not a constant one. Probably the reason why I overlooked it is because it does not play any great part in my own dreams; in persons who are gifted philosophically and accustomed to introspection it may become very evident" (pp. 96-97).

In Silberer's thought, analysis of functional phenomena resulted in an interpretation that increasingly evolved toward abstraction and generalization"anagogical interpretation," which Freud criticized.

At the end of a lengthy critical examination of Silberer's theories in his article "The Theory of Symbolism" (1916/1948), Ernest Jones concluded, "Silberer, by first extending the term 'functional symbolism' from its original sense to cover the concrete representations of concrete processes in general, and by then confining it to the cases where these are secondary in nature, receds from the conception of true symbolism and reaches once more the population conception of symbolism as the presentation of the abstract in terms of the concrete" (p. 127).

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Anagogical interpretation; Silberer, Herbert.


Freud, Sigmund. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

Jones, Ernest. (1948). The theory of symbolism. Papers on Psychoanalysis. Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1916.)

Silberer, Herbert. (1911). Symbolik des Erwachens und Schwellensymbolik überhaupt. Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen, 3, 621-660.

. (1951). Report on a method of eliciting and observing certain symbolic hallucination-phenomena. In David Rapaport (Ed.), Organization and pathology of thought: Selected sources (pp. 195-207). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1909)

. (1971). Hidden symbolism of alchemy and the occult arts (Smith Ely Jelliffe, Trans.). New York: Dover. (Original work published 1914.)