Historical Truth

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Historical truth, as Sigmund Freud conceived it, can be defined as a lost piece of the subject's lived experience that is accessible only through the work of construction. The term historical here refers to origins, which explains why historical truth can be presented as a kernel of truth in formations as diverse as legends, religions, or delusions.

The problem of historical truth can be theorized in a number of ways in the field of history. The fundamental split between the approach of the historian and that of the psychoanalyst has to do with their respective ways of conceiving temporality. For the psychoanalyst, time is blended: Present and past live together in repetition and in the reliving that is a part of the transference. For the historian, by contrast, the past is separate from the present, and even if there are causal links between the two, their order of succession remains immutable, since what endows an event with its historicity is precisely the fact that it occurred at one time that will never be repeated. Thus, seen from a psychoanalytic perspective, historical truth is not the material truth of an event, even if Freud may have believed this early on his works, but rather the truth of a history as it appears through an event. It is the truth of a sequence and not of a point; it requires the reconstruction of phases leading up to the constitution of an element that can claim the status of truth. Accordingly, historical truth is to be distinguished from material truthliteral truth that is presumed to have a direct referent in reality.

Although Freud spoke a great deal about truth throughout his work, it was toward the end of his work that he essentially developed the notion of historical truth, mainly in connection with "Constructions in Analysis" (1937d) and "Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays" (1939a [1934-38]).

The idea of historical truth is very important in psychoanalysis, because it makes it possible to take off from a realistic conception of the analytic process, as it was present in Freud's early theory centered around trauma, and move toward a more refined, perspective-based conception where the main focus is on the notion of construction and the process of an indirect confirmation of the construction by the analysand, who can thus give it a truth value, even in the absence of a recovered memory. However, the notion of truth remains dependent upon a feeling of certainty. It is not formal, in the sense that it could be considered to be the same thing as exactness.

Two factors must be taken into account here. The first relates to what Freud called intellectual feeling and concerns the degree of conviction brought by an isolated and repressed piece of truth that returns. This "kernel of truth," a veritable fossil, is the basis for the irresistible claim to truth contained in religious faith as well as in delusional beliefs. This is a "historical" truth, that is, the truth of both the fossil kernel and the sense the subject may have of the process of distortion that is attached to it. In Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays, Freud wrote: "An idea such as this has a compulsive character: it must be believed. To the extent to which it is distorted, it may be described as a delusion ; in so far as it brings a return of the past, it must be called the truth " (p. 130). "Historical truth" is thus revealed to be distinct from historical exactitude when the latter does not involve this passage by way of the repressed, and the truth is not implicit in historical narration, for this is, on the contrary, the site of compromise and dissimulation, which this time are conscious. However, as Freud wrote in Moses and Monotheism : "In its implications the distortion of a text resembles a murder: the difficulty is not in perpetrating the deed, but in getting rid of its traces" (p. 43); the only possibility is thus to follow these guiding fossils (Leitfossil ) that open a pathway toward truth through these distortions.

In "Constructions in Analysis," the dialectic concerning truth is even more subtle, since an erroneous construction can lead the patient to remember a fragment of his or her historical truth. In this case, said Freud, citing Shakespeare's Polonius, it is as if "our bait of falsehood had taken a carp of truth" (p. 262). The work of interpretation thus entails freeing the fossil from the aggregate of current material encasing it and bringing it back to the point in the past to which it belongs.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Amnesia; Anticipatory ideas; Construction de l'espace analytique, La ; "Constructions in Analysis"; Myth of origins; Paranoia; Truth.


Freud, Sigmund. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE, 23: 255-269.

. (1939a [1934-1938]). Moses and monotheism: three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1985). Vérité ou fantasme de vérité. Métapsychologie et Philosophie. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Viderman, Serge. (1970). La Construction de l'espace analytique. Paris: Denoël.

Further Reading

Mijolla, Alain de. (1996). Psychoanalysts and their history. International Psychoanalysis: The Newsletter of the IPA, 5 (1), 25-28.

Spence, Donald. (1982). Narrative truth and historical truth. Meaning and interpretation in psychoanalysis, New York: W. W. Norton.

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Historical Truth

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Historical Truth