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A "joke" is an incongruous or tendentious verbal message, which, by discharging its psychic energy, gives the listener pleasure. Characteristically a joke is not fabricated (manufactured); rather it emerges as a spontaneous, involuntary idea (Einfall ) and briefly returns the person to an infantile mode of cognition. Wit is, according to Freud, "the most social of activities, designed to provide pleasure through the simple and disinterested activity of the psychic apparatus" (1905c).

Freud devoted an important work, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, SE, 8 ), to jokes and their relation to the unconscious (1905c). Published five years after The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), this essay confirmed the usefulness of the principal processes it described, such as the transformation of thoughts into images (metaphor), condensation, and displacement. Like The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901b), the book marks the extension of psychoanalysis beyond the field of psychopathology, without using the method of analysis, but yet offering another area where it could be rediscovered. This interest in word play is found in some of Freud's later work (the contradictory meanings of primitive words, dreams in folklore, language, and schizophrenia), though not in respect to work on literature or the development of civilization.

The concept analysis of wit is important because it allows a description of psychic processes and thus delineates the development of pleasure from a topographical, economic, and dynamic perspective. Thought processes in The Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950c [1895]) are here approached from a different angle, thus going beyond that found in The Interpretation of Dreams. Every successful joke indicates a victory against the inhibition that critical reason imposes on thought in the normal waking psychic state. Unlike dreams, there is no need for secondary elaboration or disguise to escape censorship. However, the joke must occur in a situation when the play of words or nonsense presents itself in a form "that is both admissible [a joke] and ingenious [wit] by virtue of the multiple meanings of words and the infinite variety of negative relations" (1905c).

Technically, the joke is related to the dream but it must take into account its audience and the listener's ability to correct the distortions (displacements, condensations) through which sense is communicated through non-sense. The goals of dreams and jokes should not be confused. The first tends to express a desire by eliminating unpleasure, while the second is an extension of the game that seeks to obtain some additional pleasure.

Considered from the economic viewpoint, the joke is also similar to the dream (condensation) through its conciseness and, consequently, its psychic economy. This conciseness is not the result of conscious effort but the consequence of unconscious processes' effect on preconscious thought, which is then recovered in consciousness. This development consists in letting certain elements fall by the wayside and overdetermining others that will remain, thereby obtaining much greater impact.

Freud's work on jokes has largely been misunderstood, although it introduces new perspectives on aggression, the thought process, the production of pleasure, and infantile mental activity (see Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905d). It wasn't until Donald Winnicott that theoretical work on children's jokes and their connection to creativity was taken up again, a prospect foreseen by Freud in these terms: "In doing so they come across pleasurable effects, which arise from a repetition of what is similar, a rediscovery of what is familiar, similarity of sound, etc., and which are to be explained as unsuspected economies in psychical expenditure" (1905c). Games with words and thoughts serve as the point of departure not only for the pleasure of jokes but the "pleasure of thinking" (Mijolla-Mellor, 1990), which includes critical reason in its scope but escapes its inhibitory effect through the creative process that is set in motion.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Children's play; Condensation; Formations of the unconscious; Humor; Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious ; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Repetition; Sense/nonsense; Signifier/signified; Sudden involuntary idea; Work (as a psychoanalytic notion)


Freud, Sigmund. (1905c). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE, 8: 1-236.

Kohn, Max. (1991) Mot d'esprit etÉvénement. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Lacan, Jacques. (1998). Le Séminaire-Livre V, Les Formations de l'Inconscient (1957-1958). Paris: Le Seuil.

Rolland, Jean-Claude. (1996) Du rêve au mot d'esprit, la fabrique de la langue, L'inactuel, 5, 91-105.

Safouan, Mustapha. (1988) Désir et mot d'esprit. Apertura, 2, 93-97.

Further Reading

Gilman, Sander L. (1984). Jewish jokes: Sigmund Freud and the hidden language of the Jews. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 7, 591-644.