Pleasure in Thinking

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According to Sigmund Freud, "thought-processes are in themselves without quality, except for the pleasurable and unpleasurable excitation which accompany them, and which, in view of their possible disturbing effects upon thinking, must be kept within bounds," (The Interpretation of Dreams [1900a], p. 656). However, the notion of sublimation allows us to consider the activity of thought and the partial processes that compose it as a libidinal investment, and as an off-shoot of narcissism that offers a pleasure as limitless as knowledge itself.

For Sándor Ferenczi, in "The Birth of Intellect," suffering is at the origin of intellect, which "is born not simply of common, but only of traumatic, suffering. It develops as a consequence of, or as an attempt at, compensation for complete mental paralysis. . . .Pure intelligence is thus a product of dying, or at least of becoming mentally insensitive, and is therefore in principle madness, the symptoms of which can be made use of for practical purposes." ("Notes and Fragments," [1931], p. 244-46).

This perspective on the relation between trauma and the development of intelligence was taken up again by numerous authors, for example by Kurt R. Eissler (1961), and Didier Anzieu and Matthew Besdine (1974). Nevertheless, the issue of decathexis or inhibition of thought would not arise if we did not assume that the subject had already developed a capacity to master trauma through thought and to feel pleasure at this prospect. Rather than suffering in itself, it is confidence in the capacity to master suffering that can create cathexis in intellect. This evokes a fantasy of certitude, of a truth that is just on the horizon, aiming at an ultimate synthesis, like the absolute knowledge of Hegel, the third kind of knowledge of Spinoza, or the contemplation of the world of ideas of Plato.

The pleasure of thinking appears, however, not only as a goal, but also as the surplus pleasure produced by whatever the exercise of intellect puts into play through the sublimation of the partial drives of seeing and seizing. These two drives combine, as Nietzsche described the character of the scholar, to form "an ego with an unlimited avidity, which desires everything and would want to see with the eyes and take with the hands of a thousand people, an ego that recovers all the past and would lose nothing that could belong to it" (in Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de, 1992).

Considered from the standpoint of intellectual development, pleasure and trauma might be equally necessary. The initial methodology of thought is to ignore perplexity and doubt, regarding what it discovers as unquestionably true; afterwards there comes a time when the basis of evidence collapseswhether this is regarded as a result of the primal scene, as for the Wolf Man, or a discovery; in whatever form it takes, whatever the child regarded as secure is fond to be an illusion. The pleasure that thought aims at experiencing consists in the attempt to recreate a basis for certainty that it will not fail again (Mijolla-Mellor). Pleasure in thinking will consist, from then on, in the encounter with points of certitude, effected through a construction of thought. The subject learns that these points of certitude are not fixed forever and that it is in their power to reconstitute them under other forms, if necessary. This experience of the pleasure of reconstructing points of certitude, which are capable of substituting for the kind of evidence available to sensation, is a condition for being able to cathect to thought, and should be distinguished from an exercise in obsessional intellectualizing defense. On the contrary, the visionary intuition of the researcher provides them with instants when thought not only operates through images to be captured in sensible form in the imagination, but itself turns into an image or schema fusing the primary and secondary processes. The desire for knowledge, in so far as it always pursues an object just out of reach, an enigma present in the appearance of things, would be opposed to any renunciation of dissatisfaction. The desire for knowledge works against the force of Thanatos by keeping the will to question alive.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Civilization (Kultur ); Intellectualization; Jokes; Reciprocal paths of influence (libidinal coexcitation).


Eissler, Kurt R. (1961). Leonardo de Vinci. New York: International Universities Press.

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1933 [1955]). Notes and fragments. Final contributions to the problems and methods of psycho-analysis. (Eric Mosbacher and others, Trans.) New York: Basic Books.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE 4, 5.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1992). Le plaisir de pensée [The pleasure of thought]. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.