The reality principle is one of the two major principles that govern the workings of the mind. It designates the psyche's necessary awareness of information concerning reality and stands in contradistinction to the pleasure/unpleasure principle, which seeks the discharge or elimination of drive tension at all costs. Although the reality principle was formally introduced into the Freudian vocabulary in 1911 ("Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning"), it can be found in latent form in his thought as early as the 1895 "Project for a Scientific Psychology."
The need for such a concept arose at that time as a result of an internal contradiction in the pleasure principle, or more specifically, in the notion of hallucinatory wish fulfillment, which tends to mislead the mental apparatus and leave it traumatized by producing a satisfaction that is hallucinated rather than real.
It is therefore only by siding with the reality principle that the mental apparatus gives up the hallucinatory wish-fulfillment carried out by holding onto and binding its cathexes of traces of previous pleasures. It must be satisfied by representing what it wishes for, and engaging in the specific acting needed to make this wish a reality. This confirms why the reality principle is the effect of an internal transformation of the pleasure/unpleasure principle, because it arises first and foremost from the question of whether a pleasure is real, and because adaptation to reality is not its primary function. This transformation brings together both the question of external reality, concerning whether the object of satisfaction is present or absent, and the question of internal reality, concerning whether pleasure is real.
As soon as it is in place, however, the reality principle comes into conflict with the pleasure principle, insofar as the latter seeks hallucinatory, immediate, wish-fulfillment. The reality principle, therefore, is the domain of the most "secondary" layers of the psychical apparatus. In the first topography it is expressed as the preconscious, and assumes its various qualities (perception, judgment, etc.).
However, in 1920 Freud in effect reversed the respective positions of the pleasure principle and reality principle when he overtly located a "beyond the pleasure principle"—a repetition compulsion—at the root of the psychical apparatus itself. The impact of early reality—whether "pleasurable" or not—becomes primary ("primitive" reality-ego), and the pleasure/unpleasure principle appears as secondary ("pure" pleasure-ego). Paradoxically, it would then be necessary to depict primary reality as falling under the primary of the reality principle ("definitive" reality-ego), due to the intervention of the external object.
See also: Principles of mental functioning.
Ferenczi, Sándor. (1968). Le développement du sens de la réalité et ses stades. In O.C., Psychanalyse (Volume 2, pp. 51-64). Paris: Payot. (Original work published 1913)
Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.
——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
——. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.
Le Guen, Claude. (1995). Le principe de réalité psychique. Revue française de psychanalyse, 59 (1), 9-25.