Ideational Representation

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The notion of ideational representation was proposed by Piera Aulagnier. She distinguished three levels of representation: the pictogram, the fantasy, and the idea. Involved here are the three modes (representable, figurable, thinkable) through which the psyche metabolizes the information it draws from its encounter with reality. These three modes coexist, according to Aulagnier in The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement (1975/2001): "Every act, every experience, gives rise conjointly to a pictogram, to a representation and to 'sense-making"' (p. xxx). The ideational representation is thus at the basis of the thinkable, which can be defined as a relational schema that the I imposes on the elements of both its own internal reality and the outside world in order to make them conform and cohere with the logic of the discourse from which the I itself is produced.

What distinguishes the ideational representation from the pictogram and the fantasy is the appearance on the mental stage of the word-presentation and the changes it will impose. On this point Aulagnier's theory converges with that of Sigmund Freud, for whom an idea becomes conscious in conjunction with the appearance of the word-presentation. As he stated in "The Unconscious" (1915): "[T]he conscious presentation comprises the presentation of the thing plus the presentation of the word belonging to it, while the unconscious presentation is the presentation of the thing alone" (p. 201). Aulagnier emphasized the importance of the dimension of what is heard for the mental inscription of word-presentations in The Violence of Interpretation, recalling Ernest Cassirer's description of "the infant's first encounters with language as a series of sound fragments, attributes of a breast that he endows with the power of speech" (p. 55). There is then an adjunct of this "heard" to the thing-presentation, but this is still within the primary system, for the system of signification remains organized based on the postulate of the omnipotence of the desire of the Other. There is thus a first step in the infant's psychic activity during language acquisition, in which libidinal meaning has priority over linguistic meaning. Nevertheless, according to Aulagnier, this libidinal meaning traces an access to linguistic signification "by leading the psyche to accept that this meaning exists, that it is part of the representative's inheritance and that this meaning is not unconnected to the offer or refusal present in the psyche's response" (p. 65).

Alongside this, the infant's thinking activity and thus the formation of ideational representations and language acquisition are part of what the mother expects for the child; at the same time these elements are also what will enable to child to gain its independence by keeping its thoughts secret. In contrast, if thinking is attacked by psychosis such secrecy is impossible. Aulagnier did not situate this attack, as Freud did in "The Unconscious," in terms of a regressive treatment of word as thing, or of metaphor as concrete object (as Harold Searles did in "The Differentiation between Concrete and Metaphorical Thinking in the Recovering Schizophrenic Patient " [1962]) but instead on the basis of the fact that thinking, which constitutes the equivalent of an erogenous zone-function, can become the object of mutilations or amputations, depending on the relational field in which it develops.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement, The .


Castoriadis-Aulagnier, Piera. (2001). The violence of interpretation: From pictogram to statement (Alan Sheridan, Trans). Hove, England, and Philadelphia: Routledge.(Original work published in 1975)

Freud, Sigmund. (1915e). The Unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1998). Penser la psychose. Une lecture de Piera Aulagnier. Paris: Dunod.

Searles, Harold F. (1962). The differentiation between concrete and metaphorical thinking in the recovering shizophrenic patient. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 10 (1), 22-49.