Specific Action

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The purpose of specific action is to permit the release of tension in ways comparable with the instinctual aim. This term appeared in Freud's earliest writings, but he rarely used it afterwards.

The term "specific reaction" (spezifische Reaktion ) was used by Freud in "Draft E" of his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, which dates probably to June 1894, and which he entitled "How Anxiety Originates" (in 1950a). He sketched an answer to this question from the point of view of an energetics of somatic-mental functioning, an approach that went on to play a major role in the development of his thought: anxiety resulted from an accumulation of tension (biological tension, in the sense that need was involved; but also mental tension, for it implied a wish in search of an object), when there was no way for this tension to be released. Tension could be released in two ways: in the form of violent cries, emotional outbursts, destructiveness, and so forth; or in a way adequate to the needas for example, the ingestion of food for a baby, or engaging in coitus for an adult. Such adequate kinds of releases are what Freud called "specific reactions." Freud developed these views in other writings of the same period (1894a [1895]), particularly in the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]).

The notion of "specific action" is sometimes deemed obsolete, or tainted by a naïve behaviorism. In fact, as early as 1894, Freud very plainly stressed the need to distinguish between the biological tension of need and the properly psychic level, where specific action presupposes "preparations," a whole "psychical working-through," in the framework of the conflictual dynamic specific to the subject (Perron-Borelli). Much later, when Freud reframed his conception of anxiety, he added a "signal of anxiety"a testimony to, and outcome of those working-through processesto his earlier "automatic anxiety," generated by the accumulation of tension.

Roger Perron

See also: Act/action; Anxiety.


Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.

. (1895b). On the grounds for detaching a particular syndrome from neurasthenia under the description "anxiety neurosis." SE, 3: 85-115.

. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

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

Perron-Borelli, Michèle. (1997). Dynamique du fantasme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.