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Over-interpretation is the possibility, envisaged by Freud (1900a), that the psychoanalyst may encounter an increase in material and produce a new interpretation very close to the patient's unconscious fantasy. Over-interpretation can result from the patient's freely associating on the basis of his dream, thereby increasing the material subject to interpretation. More generally, over-interpretation involves giving an interpretation that is not limited to clarification but comes close to the unconscious fantasies that structure the material. Fantasies not only occur in dreams, to be extracted by interpretation; they predetermine how dreams are interpreted. Over-interpretation allows these fantasies to be dynamically revived.

In chapter 7 of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), where over-interpretation appeared for the first time, Freud employed it as a way of warning the novice analyst that his work is not finished when he arrived at what he believes to be a complete and coherent interpretation of the dream: "For the same dream may perhaps have another interpretation as well, an 'over-interpretation,' which has escaped him. It is, indeed, not easy to form any conception of the abundance of the unconscious trains of thought, all striving to find expression, which are active in our minds. Nor is it easy to credit the skill shown by the dream-work in always hitting upon forms of expression that can bear several meaningslike the little tailor in the fairy story who hits seven flies at a blow" (p. 523).

The possibility of over-interpretation is thus directly linked to the overdetermination of unconscious formations and the interdependence of mental contents, which this overdetermination presupposes. Unconscious formations do, of course, result from different causes (such as symptoms and fantasies), but in each case they are connected to multiple unconscious elements. In this sense, over-interpretation is the repeated attempt to stay as close as possible to sexual and infantile contents. Yet over-interpretation also points directly toward what Freud designated as the main stumbling-block for interpretive work on dreams, the umbilical navel of the dream: "There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure; this is because we become aware during the work of interpretation that at this point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unravelled and which moreover adds nothing to our knowledge of the content of the dream. This is the dream's navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown" (1900a, p. 525).

The notion of over-interpretation thus allowed Freud to show that there is no such thing as a true or false interpretation that could be related to a realist conception of meaning. On this subject Pierre-Henri Castel has remarked, "It is thus never one single meaning that is really present to the mind, and can be given a true or false interpretation: rather, it is always a partially realized set of meanings that can be given a true or false interpretation only if this interpretation takes into account their potential interrelations" (1998).

More generally, the notion of over-interpretation, by making an open, dynamic conception of interpretation possible, raises the question of origins. Fantasies of origin create and determine the formations of the unconscious in general and of the dream in particular.

Delphine Schilton

See also: Interpretation; Overdetermination.


Castel, Pierre-Henri. (1998). Introductionà "L'interprétation du Rêve" de Freud. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.