Perception-Consciousness (PCPT.-CS.)

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In the Freudian metapsychology of the period of the first topography, the "Perception-Consciousness System" designates the system located on the periphery of the psychic apparatus. Its function is consciousness, and Freud linked it to the preconscious system.

The theoretical constitution of the Pcpt.-Cs. (Perception-Consciousness) system dates from the time of the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]). Gradually the Pcpt.-Cs. system was assimilated into the ego, or at least considered as its "core." Two clearly demarcated systems were needed to explain two contradictory functionsthe inscription of (lasting) mnemic traces and their renewaland this is what led Freud, following Breuer's observations, to distinguish between the Ucs.-Pcs. and the Pcpt.-Cs.

From the topographical point of view, the Pcpt.-Cs. system is attached to the Pcs. (preconscious) system but not to the Ucs. (unconscious) systemat least, not to the unconscious as an effect of repression, since Freud considers the unconscious of a consequence of the ego. Because consciousness belongs to the ego, which is in part unconscious in the expanded sense of the term (the ego manifests unconscious energy in resisting the transformation of its unconscious into consciousness), the Pcpt.-Cs. system is topographically related to the unconscious of the ego, which, unbeknownst to itself, has "overdetermined" the ego's operations. The Pcpt.-Cs. system receives information externally as well as internally, which is provisionally inscribed on its surface. The preconscious involves the mnemic alteration and fixation of verbal traces and conscious perceptions. Conscious perceptions are current and immediate, while verbal representations "were at one time perceptions" (1923b, p. 20). Furthermore it is because they are past perceptions that "they can become conscious again." Freud explained in The Ego and the Id (1923b) that principally it is acoustic perceptions and not visual perceptions that constitute a "special reserve for the use of the preconscious," "so that the system Pcs, has, as it were, a special sensory source," images not being very suitable for making "thoughts" conscious. On the other hand, the unconscious makes much use of images, which can symbolize thought in the absence of sensory information, and without these thoughts being manifest.

From the economic point of view, the Pcpt-Cs. system poses a particular difficulty in that it causes a transformation in perception itself. It presupposes a hyper-cathexis on the level of energy (or quantity), and it adds a special qualitative dimension with the establishment of an "index of reality." Attention describes the process of making perceptions conscious not as a simple focusing, since perception is already focusing, but as a hyper-cathexis causing an "intensive" transformation of the perceived into a qualitative given. Though Freud does not say it explicitly, we can see that the perceived would become, through the workings of the Pcpt-Cs. system, a "determination"that is to say, a qualified relation of the ego to reality, which obliges the ego in turn to assume a position. In An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940a [1938]), Freud specified that these "positions" are so many "characteristics of the ego. . . . the ego has voluntary movement at its command. It has the task of self-preservation. As regards external events, it performs that task by becoming aware of stimuli, by storing up experiences about them (in the memory), by avoiding excessively strong stimuli (through flight), by dealing with moderate stimuli (through adaptation), and finally by learning to bring about expedient changes in the external world to its own advantage (through activity). As regards internal events, in relation to the id, it performs that task by gaining control over the demands of the instincts, by deciding whether they are to be allowed satisfaction, by postponing that satisfaction to times and circumstances favourable in the external world or by suppressing their excitations entirely.... The ego strives after pleasure and seeks to avoid unpleasure" (pp. 145-46), which the id does not know how to do, with the result that the ego is sensitive to anxiety, being capable of reading its signals. Finally: "From time to time the ego gives up its connection with the external world and withdraws into a state of sleep" (p. 146). It should be mentioned in this connection that Freud did not recognize the activity of thought as one of these possible positions of the ego in relation to reality, even though he always stressed the importance of attention in thought processes.

Finally, from a dynamic point of view, Freud's ideas about the Pcpt-Cs. continued to evolve. In the beginning he claimed that it controlled repression, which suggested that Pcpt-Cs. was based on a voluntarist conception of consciousness. Gradually, defenses and resistances were themselves linked, at least partly, to the unconscious of the ego, so that the "decisions" of the ego were no longer considered as the conclusions of attention, and the will was not longer envisaged as something that attention could control. Consequently attention itself was over-determined, and the Pcpt-Cs. system no longer possessed within itself the means for exploiting its dynamics. Ultimately, the strengthening of the Pcpt-Cs. system, which psychoanalysis attempts to accomplish, according to Freud, means that analytical work should be understood not only as an active transmutation of the Ucs. into the Pcpt-Cs., but also as a working-through of the unconscious that belongs to the ego itselfwhich is precisely what limits the activity of the Pcpt-Cs. system.

Dominique Auffret

See also: Agency; Ego and the Id, The ; Lifting of amnesia; Protective shield; Surrealism and psychoanalysis.


Freud, Sigmund. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1925a [1924]). A note upon the "mystic writing pad." SE, 19: 225-232.

. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

. (1950c [1895]). Project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.