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Primary Process/Secondary Process


Freud's terms "primary process" and "secondary process" designate two opposed yet nevertheless complementary modes of functioning within the psychic apparatus. The primary processes, directly animated by the drives, serve the pleasure principle and work to actualize a free flow of psychic energy. Secondary processes, which presuppose the binding of this energy, intervene as a system of control and regulation in the service of the reality principle. Psychical life is entirely regulated by the equilibrium between these two types of processes, which varies between subjects and at different points in time.

Freud raises the prospect of this fundamental duality as early as his "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895c]), where an entire paragraph is devoted to the complete enunciation of a schema that he would refine over the decades to come. Briefly put, desire or the wish (le désir ) unleashes a process of discharge. But since in this "precocious phase" the psychic apparatus is not capable of distinguishing between the representation of a missing object and its perception in reality, the fulfillment of the wish is therefore hallucinatory and "requires a criterion from elsewhere in order to distinguish between perception and idea." This mode of functioning may be "biologically detrimental"a regulation therefore intervenes which makes it possible for the psyche to "distinguish between a perception and a memory (idea)" (p. 324-325) by deferring hallucinatory satisfaction. Thus "wishful cathexis to the point of hallucination . . . which involve a complete expenditure of defense are described by us as psychical primary processes; by contrast, those processes which are only made possible by a good cathexis of the ego, and which represent a moderation of the foregoing, are described as secondary psychical processes " (p. 326-327).

This statement is made from within the framework of Freud's attempt to account for psychic functioning on the basis of an economic hypothesis, that is to say by positing the existence of a specific energy, and, in neurobiological terms, by distinguishing between different types of neurons, and considering the circuits through which this energy circulates between them. He will quickly reject the second hypothesis, but the first will remain central, in that the energy in question, henceforth psychical, is to be re-baptized "libido," and is given a major application in the case of the dream work, which is conceived from the first as an actualization of desire that transforms latent thoughts into dream images. "The intensities of the individual ideas become capable of discharge en bloc and pass over from one idea to another" (1900a, p. 595). Either in mutual displacement, or agglomeration via condensation, this play of unbound energy is characteristic of the primary processes of the dream: "The first wishing seems to have been a hallucinatory cathecting of the memory of satisfaction. Such hallucinations, however, if they were not to be maintained to the point of exhaustion, proved to be inadequate to bring about the cessation of the need, or, accordingly, the pleasure attaching to satisfaction. A second activityor, as we put it, the activity of a second system became necessary . . ." (p. 598-599). Whereas the activity of the first system, that of the primary processes, is "directed towards securing the free discharge of the quantities of excitation," the second system, that of secondary processes, "succeeds in inhibiting this discharge" (p. 599).

The influence of Jacksonian theses defining the neuropsychic apparatus as a hierarchical system of regulating and regulated structures is apparent in this kind of conceptualization. What is also apparent here is Freud taking sides against the positions held by both Josef Breuer and Pierre Janet simultaneously, in that both only tended to account for the weakening of psychical functioning in the cases of hypnoid states or when the mental tonus had been reduced. According to Freud, it is ever indispensable to take an equilibrium between antagonistic forces into account.

This conception is at one and the same time both synchronic and diachronic or, in other terms, both structural and developmental. This is seen clearly in Freud's commentary on the terms he chooses to designate this opposition-complementarity: "When I described one of the psychical processes occurring in the mental apparatus as the 'primary' one, what I had in mind was not merely considerations of relative importance and efficiency; I intended also to choose a name which would give an indication of its chronological priority. It is true that, so far as we know, no psychical apparatus exists which possesses a primary process only, and that such an apparatus is to that extent a theoretical fiction. But this much is a fact: the primary processes are present in the mental apparatus from the first, while it is only during the course of life that the secondary processes unfold" (1900a, p. 603).

Specifying the opposition between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, whereby he posits the pleasure principle as temporally primary, Freud would later write: "It will be rightly objected that an organization which was a slave to the pleasure principle and neglected the reality of the external world could not maintain itself alive for the shortest time, so that it could not have come into existence at all." His answer which followed was to constitute the keystone of the contemporary development of theories of psychogenesis in their entirety, by bringing the mother-child relationship into consideration: "The utilization of a fiction like this is, however, justified when on considers that the infantprovided one includes with it the care it receives from its motherdoes almost realize a psychical system of this kind" (p. 603).

The opposition-complementarity of the primary and secondary processes was therefore described first by Freud in economic terms. However he also accords it a topological dimension. In "The Unconscious" (1915e), he specifies that the Preconscious is the locus of the secondary processes and their regulating function over the primary processes characteristic of the Unconscious. It is this regulation that binds the cathectic energy used for representations, and therefore makes possible the development of thought, which occurs via the passage from thing-representations to word-representations. Indeed the work of thought, which functions via the "displacement of small quantities of energy" requires that the representations upon which it is based remain stable and distinct. This would not be possible if the free flow of energy, and the condensations and displacements characteristic of the primary processes, prevailed.

Roger Perron

See also: Act, passage to the; Condensation; Contradiction; Displacement; Dream; Dream symbolism; Dream work; Free energy/bound energy; Fusion/defusion of instincts; Logic(s); Perceptual identity; Process; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Regression; Representability; Secondary revision; Memories; Thought identity; "Unconscious, The".


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

. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

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

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