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Qualitative and quantitative are two indissociable adjectives applied to the concept of affect in psychoanalytic theory. From Sigmund Freud to André Green, affect has been approached in terms both of its dynamic (quantitative) and subjective (qualitative) dimensions.

The relationship between these two terms evolved in Freud's work at the same time as the relationship between representation and affect. Initially, representation took priority over affect, the latter being assigned a function of mere coloring, and the emphasis was on the quantitative dimension. As subsequent theoretical revisions were effected, affect took on importance and was no longer studied only in terms of its relationship to representation, and the qualitative dimension thus was given growing prominence.

Quantity was the term that appeared first, in an article written by Freud for Villaret's Encyclopedia (1891). In Studies on Hysteria (1895) Freud took up the term again and used it in an economic sense in his description of the excitation present in the nervous system and its vicissitudes. He took his inspiration from the scientific model of thermodynamics: The psychic apparatus seeks to maintain the sum of excitation at the lowest possible level, either by spreading it out by means of association, or by discharging the surplus.

Freud approached the quantitative and qualitative dimensions together for the first time in "Project for a Scientific Psychology," which was written in 1895 but never published during his lifetime. Although what was at issue was not yet affect but rather psychic energy, the fundamentals of Freud's future hypotheses can be discerned in this text. He had not yet abandoned the idea of a scientific career in biology, and, as he explained in the introduction, was seeking to bring psychology into the framework of the natural sciences. He divided the psychic apparatus into systems ( φ system of permeable neurones, ψ-system of impermeable neurones, and ω-system of perceptual neurones) in which the psychic processes are quantitatively determined states of material particles, the neurons. The φ system refers to exogenous and physical quantities, while the system ψ refers to internal, mental quantities. The quantity Q derives from hypotheses he had already proposed in an article written the previous year, "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence," (1894) in which he distinguished measurable quantity, its variations, the movement associated with this quantity, and its discharge.

The affects are thus, according to Freud, internal, secreted discharges. The taking into account of quality is subordinated to this dynamic conception. He had difficulty in approaching this dimension, and for this purpose introduced the third system, ω, which he linked to perception. This system is aroused by perceptions, and it is the discharge of this excitation that produces a quality. Further on, he specified that quality appears where the quantity Q has been reduced beforehand. All this thus amounts to the transformation of an external quantity into a quality. Qualitative phenomena are brought back to the vicissitudes of quantity, an idea that Freud expresses in his statement that the tendency to avoid unpleasure is blended with the primary tendency toward inertia. This implies communication between the ψ and ω systems.

Freud put considerable emphasis on the sensation of a psychic modification giving the impression of an internal movement, in this way relating indices of quality to information about discharge. Attention is thus brought to bear both on indices of quality belonging to the external properties of the object and on the internal processes of the passage of a psychic quantity, Q. Because he did not allude on this occasion to the ! system, it is impossible to say whether it is this system that provides this perception of movement. The confusion grows even further in a correction Freud sent to Fliess, in which he specified that the ! system serves only to excite, that is, it is limited to indicating the path to be followed; this would imply that unconscious processes remain unconscious and can acquire only a secondary and artificial consciousness by being linked to processes of discharge and perception.

With The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud effected an epistemological break and renounced the biological model, but he nevertheless remained unclear about the qualitative, which remained subordinated to the quantitative. He stressed the quantitative, dynamic aspect of the repression of representations. Affect, independent of the latter, is not transformed in dreams; its quality remains unchanged, although it content is suppressed.

Up until his metapsychological writings of 1915 ("Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," "Repression"), Freud distinguished two very different things: representation (or ideation) on the one hand, and on the other, the quota of affect representing the instinct. The two have very different vicissitudes. The quota of affect corresponds to instinct that is detached from representation and that finds expression, proportionate to its quantity, in processes that are experienced as affects. This amounts to saying that there are only quantitative differences between different instincts that are qualitatively alike. Freud then pursued this line of thinking and posited a duality between the quantitative factor with representation, on the one hand, and the qualitative factor with affect, on the other. He distinguished the ideational representative from the representative of affect, with the two having different fates. The first disappears from consciousness under the effects of repression. The second has three possible outcomes: suppression of the instinct, expression of a qualitatively defined affect, or transposition of the psychic energy of the instincts into affects.

Not until 1924, with the article "The Economic Problem of Masochism," did Freud come to recognize the relative independence of quantity and quality. At this point he dissociated states of pleasure and unpleasure from the economic factors of relaxation and tension, and distinguished the Nirvana principle, on the one hand, from the pleasure principle, on the other. The former has the purely quantitative task of reducing the level of psychic energy to zero. The latter is responsible for the qualitative avoidance of unpleasure and the search for pleasure. Affect is thus found in an intermediate position between annihilation by means of discharge, and the desire to transcend it.

After Freud, others continued to investigate the connection between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of affect. There remained, however, a tendency to approach affect only in its quantitative dimension, neglecting its qualitative dimension. Only with Green's book, The Fabric of Affect in Psychoanalytic Discourse (1973/1999), in which he attempted to develop a metapsychology of affect and representation, was the relationship between quantitative and qualitative significantly reexamined. Green described two poles of affect, one economic and the other psychic, that are most often complementary. In its economic aspect, affect can be considered as a quantity of dischargeable energy. This is the primary dimension of affect, closer to the id than to representation, but difficult to distinguish from the latter. In its psychic aspect, the movement of discharge is only incipient, and is overridden by the qualitative dimension. It is found in the form of the pleasure/unpleasure dichotomy, which for Green is "the principle of primary symbolization."

Philippe Metello

See also: Desexualization; Discharge; Erotogenic masochism; Instinctual representative; Otherness; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Principle of (neuronal) inertia; "Project for a Scientific Psychology, A"; Quota of affect; Reciprocal paths of influence (libidinal coexcitation); Representation of affect; Hard science and psychoanalysis; Sum of excitation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-40.

. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-58.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-70.

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

Green, André. (1999). The fabric of affect in psychoanalytic discourse (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). London and New York: Routledge. (Original work published 1973)