Principles of Mental Functioning

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The term principles is used to refer to the fundamental postulates or hypotheses proposed by Sigmund Freud to describe the basic laws of the psyche; they provide the basis for ordering mental functioning as a whole and making it intelligible. The two main principles of the psychic apparatus are the pleasure/unpleasure principle and the reality principle; their dialectical relationship and composition explain the organization of psychic dynamics.

The concept of principle does not appear as such in psychoanalytic metapsychology; it is always articulated together with another notion whose essential and organizing characteristics are determined in accordance with it. Regardless of which principle is involvedthe pleasure/unpleasure principle or the reality principle, or, as these are expressed in different forms, the nirvana principle or the principle of constancy (the latter being less conceptually important in the current and historical corpus of the theoretical practice of psychoanalysis)a principle describes the orientation of the action of the psychic processes, which determines their direction and limits the conditions under which they are put into effect. Principles are thus both explanatory principles used in making the psyche intelligible, and laws to which the psyche is subjected or must submit.

The first principle to appear in Freudian metapsychology is the unpleasure principle posited in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which states that the psyche aims to reduce or eliminate sources of tension that result in unpleasure. However, as early as the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1895), Freud postulated the existence of a psychic process that also aims to select memory traces of pleasurable experiences.

The pleasure/unpleasure principle as described by Freud in "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911b) has two aspects: on the one hand, to reproduce and re-present to the psyche experiences that have produced pleasure in the past or are likely to produce pleasure in the present; and, on the other hand, to avoid or eliminate experiences that have resulted in unpleasure. This implies a principle of selection that is exercised either through hallucinatory wish-fulfillment, for pleasurable experiences, or through repression, for unpleasurable experiences. However, hallucinatory wish-fulfillment or repression cannot in fact cause intrapsychic tensions to disappear, and an organism limited to the pleasure/unpleasure principle alone could not survive.

Thus, when it goes into effect the pleasure principle encounters what could be called the "reality principle of pleasure"that is, the principle of an effective reduction of tension that presupposes, at least initially, recourse to an external object. The reality principle thus does not override the pleasure principle; rather, it transforms its mode of expression and action by taking into account the conditions of internal and external reality.

It is the constancy principle that governs the fact that pleasure is no longer attained as a result of an absolute reduction of intrapsychic tensions, but rather through a reduction relative to a certain threshold or constant, and by submission to certain requirements of reality. The nirvana principle, on the other hand, expresses the psyche's tendency toward an immediate and absolute reduction (to zero) of sources of tension. As can be seen, all of the principles evoked above can be inscribed within the orbit of the principle of plea-sure/unpleasure; they are derivatives that integrate, to varying degrees, other characteristics of psychic life into their operations, but without calling into question the primary and fundamental principle of the orientation of the psyche's action.

In "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920) Freud began to describe processes that seemingly contradicted the pleasure/unpleasure principle. In this essay he emphasized the existence of mental impulses that reactivate experiences that had not produced any conscious or unconscious satisfaction, either at the time or through deferred action (après-coup ). These exceptions to the pleasure/unpleasure principle are due to the repetition compulsion. In this way, with "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," the pleasure principle appears as a secondary principle; the primary or immediate or fundamental tendency is no longer the avoidance of unpleasure or the search for pleasure, but rather repetition of an earlier state, the tendency to return to an earlier state.

RenÉ Roussillon

See also: Act, action; Automatism; Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; Binding/unbinding of the instincts; Cathartic method; Children's play, the; Conscious processes; Cure; Death instinct (Thanatos); Desexualization; Determinism; Discharge; Dualism; Ego; "The Ego and the Id"; Ego instincts; Erotogenic masochism; Excitation; Fantasy; Fechner, Gustav Theodor; Fort-Da; Free energy/bound energy; Frustration; Fundamental rule; Historical reality; Hypercathexis; "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes"; Judgment of condemnation; Matte-Blanco, Ignacio; Mythology and psychoanalysis; Neurosis; Nirvana principle; Omnipotence, infantile; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Primary process/secondary process; Principle of constancy; Principle of identity preservation; Principle of (neuronal) inertia; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Protective shield; Protective shield, breaking through the; Psychic apparatus; Psychic reality; Psychology and psychoanalysis; Purified-pleasure-ego; Quantitative and qualitative; Reality testing; Relaxation principle and neocatharsis; Satisfaction, experience of; Self-preservation; Structuralism and psychoanalysis; Sum of excitation; Thing, the; Unpleasure; Wish, fulfillment of a; Work (as a psychoanalytical notion).


Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 218-26.

. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 7-64.

. (1924). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 149-53.

Laplanche, Jean. (1970). Vie et mort en psychanalyse. Paris: Flammarion.

Roussillon, René. (1995). La métapsychologie des processus et la transitionnalité. (Congrès 55 des Psychanalystes de Langue française des Pays romans. Paris, 1995) Revue française de Psychanalyse, 59, 1351-1519.

Further Reading

Modell, Arnold. (2000). Are mental functions hierarchical? Annual of Psychoanalysis, 28, 127-136.

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Principles of Mental Functioning

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Principles of Mental Functioning