A concept developed by Freud to denote the level of reality specific to unconscious processes, psychic reality, from an epistemological standpoint, refers to the "object" that psychoanalysis attempts to characterize, understand, and explore.
In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), the concept referred to the force of reality associated with the subject's internal fantasy life, which could oppose and even dominate perception of external reality; it could, in other words, seem more "real" than reality itself. From the outset the emphasis was on the objective nature of subjectivity, the reality of subjectivity for the psychical apparatus—even at the expense of its relationship to external reality.
The cultural context in which Freud worked tended to devalue or deprecate the character of subjective mental activity and, in particular, unconscious mental activity. He needed to assert the objective character of unconscious psychic entities in the face of opposition that would prefer to relegate them to the realm of the "imaginary" and unreal.
In an article devoted to hysterical paralysis (1893c), Freud had presented the problem of the "objective" nature of hysterical conversion symptoms and their significance. The difference between biological reality, especially in terms of anatomy, and the "psychic" reality expressed by hysterical symptoms prefigured the objective character of the unconscious, as Freud was to understand it. The nature of symptomatic manifestations—anesthesia, paresthesia, and so on—demonstrated that hysterical patients could not be "malingerers." Existence of an autonomous realm of psychical life and the unconscious psyche, including the reality of fantasies, could henceforth be asserted with growing confidence.
Another aspect to the emergence of psychical reality was sexual trauma and its value in terms of etiology in the debate around the role of real-life events as opposed to fantasy. The early neurotica that Freud developed tended to assign to some "real" traumatic event—childhood sexual seduction, for example—a determinative role in the etiology of hysteria and of neuroses, more generally. However, treatment gradually revealed that it was impossible to say whether the remembered scenes of traumatic seduction had actually taken place or were "invented." The infantile and sexual fantasies that such scenes represented replaced the traumatic etiology of neurosis. These fantasies, an important type of psychical reality, impacted the psychic apparatus with all the force of "reality" and more.
Thus, the concept of psychical reality was advanced initially to point out the imperious nature of fantasy with its hallucinatory quality, which could somehow dominate external reality. Any trace of opposition between external and internal as the concept is currently imployed is complicated further by the question of how to determine the source or basis of the subjectively "real" character of psychical reality.
Two kinds of hypotheses can be advanced in this regard. Not necessarily antagonistic, they represent two major strands in psychoanalytic thought that need to be considered together. The first type relates psychical reality to the impact of external reality, summarized at a preliminary level by the Freudian aphorism, "Nothing in thought that was not first in the senses." Psychical reality in this sense would indicate a previous encounter with reality; it would represent a reality that has become psychical through trace of impact. The character of reality itself would bear witness to the psychical heritage of encounters with the external world. Fantasies, according to this view, are "hybrid" structures that contain a core of reality, a kind of transformed reminiscence, the source of which lies at a remote point in time. Beyond hallucination, what is actualized and acts upon the psychic apparatus refers to a past reality—for example, cruel acts of childhood retained in feelings of guilt.
The second type of hypothesis relates psychic reality to the constraints intrinsic to psychical activity, to its laws and operational principles. Thus, older representations of desire can be reactivated via the pleasure principle through hallucination, creating the perception of a wish fulfilled, even to the possible detriment of perception of the real world.
However the psychic apparatus develops, do awareness and symbolization of lived experience obey the rhythm and laws specific to psychic reality? Its own requirements cannot be ignored. Constraints are imposed by the external world, while others arise from the psychical apparatus itself. Psychical reality makes demands with the same limitations and categorical imperatives as instincts and external reality. This has led some contemporary psychoanalysts to formulate the existence, alongside the pleasure principle and the reality principle, of a "principle of psychical reality."
An epistemological point of view would distinguish three types of reality: material reality generally, that aspect of material reality characterized by biological reality, and another aspect, independent of biological reality, to be known as psychical reality. This last is the special province of psychology. Psychoanalysis would be characterized as providing an account of "unconscious psychical reality" and its impact on psychical reality.
The concept of psychical reality thus unfolds in a paradoxical way. It types reality and constrains subjectivity; it indicates the psychical objectivity of the action of subjectivity and its preeminent concern for the intelligibility of psychical facts. These arise not only from the earliest subjective experiences, from what Freud called the "psychic raw material," but also from the requisite transformation of this material in the course of development, aiming at integration necessary for acceptance at higher levels of consciousness and in consonance with laws that govern there.
See also: Internal/external reality.
Freud, Sigmund. (1893c). Some points for a comparative study of organic and hysterical motor paralyses. SE, 1: 155-172.
——. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Parts I and II. SE, 4-5.
Roussillon, René. (1995). La métapsychologie des processus et la transitionnalité. Revue française de psychanalyse, 59.
Arlow, Jacob. (1996). The concept of psychic reality—how useful. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 77, 659-666.
Friedman, Lawrence. (1995). Psychic reality in psychoanalytic theory. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 76, 25-28.
Meissner, William W. (2001). Psychic reality in the psychoanalytic process. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 49, 855-890.