Need for Causality

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According to Freud, no innate need for causality exists in the human mental apparatus, rather, such a need is itself the result of a practical interest (praktisches Interesse ).

Regarding the awakening in the infant of the impulse to investigate (1905d), he emphasizes that the interest that impels the infant to research is not theoretical (nicht theoretisch ). This means that it is has no relation of the drive for knowledgewhere it is precisely a matter of establishing originsbut rather that it is practical and is related in this instance to egoistic drives (eigensüchtige Triebe ), that is, to the ego-drives. These drives, in fact, claim the entire love of the parents and, in order to guard against the danger of the appearance of younger siblings, will force the activity of thought in the direction of investigation. Likewise, in reference to primitive peoples, Freud thought that "What released the spirit of enquiry in man was not the intellectual enigma [of death], and not every death, but the conflict of feeling at the death of loved yet alien and hated persons" (1915b, p. 293).

Freud did not deny that causality could at a given moment create the object of a need, but he based it on other more primitive needs or gave it an origin, in the above case the conflict of ambivalence. The enigma, as Freud saw it, was a product of the urgency of life (Lebensnot ), which emphasizes both its restrictive character and the fact that it does not depend on a desire to know, but rather on the necessity of knowing as a means of self-preservation.

Once this origin was established, Freud emphasized the need for causality, but more often it took the form of illusion insofar as its only object could be a unique exhaustive explanation. "It is enough for our need to discover causes (which, to be sure, is imperative) if each event has one demonstrable cause" (1939a [1934-1938], p. 107). This unitary fantasy is the root of every Weltanschauung, defined as an "intellectual construction which solves all the problems uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place. It will easily be understood that the possession of a Weltanschauung of this kind is among the ideal wishes of human beings" (1933a [1932], p. 158).

He had, regarding the dynamics of the transference (1912b), noted that "in contrast to what ordinarily holds good for the real world, people prefer to be satisfied with a single causative factor" (p. 99n) and already in 1909, in Five Lectures, he spoke of fact that "what seems to be our innate craving for causality declares itself satisfied with a single psychical cause" (p. 38). The question of a need for causality is, for Freud, mired in the necessity to defend intellectualist idealization. The need for causality that motivated, at each step, his own research was linked together with and humbled by the resistance of reality and, in his case, clinical experience.

The position of Piera Aulagnier on the question of causality is different from Freud's because she starts with the experience of a dispossession of the search for causes and a negation of this need in psychotics. The need for causality, a notion that this author attributes to Ernst Cassirer, is merged in her work with a need for identification. The questioning of the child does not inquire so much about the threat of the birth of younger sibling, but rather the desire of the parents who were able to cause the child's own birth. Far from being abstract or superfluous, causality bears upon desire: the wish to know what causes the mother's desire (once the child stopped trying to be its unique object) and to know what causes the world to be as it is, necessitates a "contriving from what seems true (which does not necessarily mean what is true), from meaning, even while there is a risk of the irruption of the non-meaning and the not-known of desire" (1967). Making sense seems to be the work of the I, and also what makes it emerge as such, and in such a way that "the causal explication becomes, for thought, part of necessity" (1979).

Aulagnier found that in psychosis, before the delusional reconstruction, it is precisely the need for causality that is confronted with "the collapse of the function of signification" (1979). The delusion, in turn, has the function of creating a "reasonable interpretation of the violence suffered."

In this understanding, the creation of meaning by the I implies in effect that it is capable of thinking of itself as a being that is not just the reduplication of what preceded it, that has had a history of its own and is going to know a future full of changes. The need for causality, for from being reducible to a single cause, encompasses the multiplicity of all the causal events of the past. Conversely, in psychosis, causality is self-created, a pure repetition of what has already been. Aulagnier writes, "The fantasy of self creation that we see in certain forms of psychosis is most often able to be decoded, when it is looked at closely, as a fantasy that attributes to the subject the power to engender not only its own past, but all of the past, not only its own origin, but the origin of everything" (1984). In this case, the need for causality does not disappear, but is limited to a unique cause that is the subject itself.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Animistic thought; Death and psychoanalysis; Determinism; Infantile sexual theories; Knowledge or research, instinct for; Logic(s); Psychic causality; Psycho-genesis/organogenesis; Sense/nonsense; Synchronicity; Thought.


Aulagnier, Piera. (1967). Le désir de savoir dans ses rapports à la transgression. L'Inconscient. 1 (Reprinted in Un inter-prète en quête de sens. Paris: Ramsay, 1986).

. (1979). Les destins du plaisir. Aliénation, amour, passion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

. (1984). L'Apprenti-historien et le maître-sorcier: Du discours identifiant au discours délirant. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1910a). Five lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 11: 7-55.

. (1912b). The dynamics of transference. SE, 12: 97-108.

. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis . SE, 22: 1-182.