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In many of Freud's writings, "thing-presentation" means solely what it means for empiricist psychology, as his concept of the mnemic image or trace would suggest. In his paper "The Unconscious" (1915e), however, Freud defined "thing-presentation" as "the cathexis, if not of the memory-images of the thing, at least of remoter memory-traces derived from these" (p. 201).

This definition refers to the theory that Freud had worked out on the contrast between perception and memory and on the sequence of mnemic systems. The psychic apparatus, he had concluded, has a spatial structure in which presentations are related to one another as a function of different types of associations. This means that a thing-presentation is significant less by virtue of its individual character than by virtue of its being coded as a link in a network. Rather than being a direct duplication of an object, a thing-presentation is an inscription in the systems of the mind of certain aspects of the object relative to an instinctual cathexis.

In his monograph on aphasia (1891b) Freud first drew the distinction between the presentation of a thing (which at that time he called an "object-presentation") and the presentation of a word. In this neurological work, he classified the different forms of aphasia on the basis of a psychology of mental representations independent of the nervous system, thus parting company with his predecessors, who had constructed associationist models based on the search for cerebral localization. Freud defined the link between a thing-presentation and a word-presentation as the result of an association (which in terms of the theory of signs might be called arbitrary) between a sound image specifically representing the word and the visual image that of all possible mnemic images is especially representative of the thing.

There is an inescapable connection here with the signifier/signified relationship that Ferdinand de Saussure would later be the first to describe, for Freud explicitly asserted in his work on aphasia that "a word . . . acquires its meaning by being linked to an 'object-presentation,'" and not by reference to the thing itself (SE 14, p. 213). By embracing this account of meaning, Freud preserved differences internal to language and differences external to it, for thing-presentations, on this view, still refer to things in the outside world.

The compounds "thing-presentation" and "word-presentation" thus acquired a double sense, depending on how the relationship between the two component terms was understood. On the one hand, one could take the thing or word concerned to be represented by the corresponding thing- or word-presentation, that is, by mental visual images and sound images that can be assimilated to the linguistic concepts of the signified and the signifier respectively. On the other hand, one could understand thing-presentations and word-presentations as referential signs, in which case these terms would denote representatives of things and words in the outside world. As a mnemic image, a presentation in a sense indicates the referential or denotative function, and thus restores the sign-thing relationship that the signifier/signified opposition, immanent to the sign, excluded.

More than twenty years later, Freud, in his article "The Unconscious" (1915e), called once more on the distinction between thing- and word-presentations, this time to help overcome the difficulties inherent in topographical and economic hypotheses advanced to explain the differences between actual experience and what was heard during analysis. His aim was to relate such differences, not to varied forms of aphasia, but rather to distinct mental systems: "The conscious presentation comprises the presentation of the thing plus the presentation of the word belonging to it, while the unconscious presentation is the presentation of the thing alone" (p. 201).

This hypothesis once again raised the vexing question of the relationship between thought and language. It promoted the idea that a thought precedes language: thought is initially unconscious and concerned with the sense impressions left by objects; when it later becomes conscious, it does so only by means of word-presentations. The question of thought thus led back to a realm prior to language, a realm that Freud occasionally compared to Kant's noumenal realm, the realm of the thing-in-itself.

On this view, thing-presentations correspond less to images than to thoughts or ideas of things that have lost all the sensory vividness of perception. These thing-presentations are incorporated into an associative process along with other presentations, thus constituting a thought process that, by definition, is devoid of quality or feel. Hence there is an essential need for word-presentations, which re-endow thing-presentations with their former sensory vividness. Freud did not exclude the possibility of thing-presentations directly becoming conscious; dream images and hallucinations were evidence of such a process. But he stressed that nonverbal thought is a very imperfect means of bringing items into consciousnesswitness how we picture topographical relationships in dreams (1923b, p. 21).

The specificity of the notion of thing-presentation in psychoanalysis lies in the difference between cathected external objects and internal objects resulting from the processes of introjection and projection directed at external objects. In the primitive splitting of ego and object that occurs when the object relationship is established, when the mother is first perceived as a whole object, it is possible to discern the origin of a topographical distinction between psychic systems, and thus the origin of the unconscious. This moment, which correlates with the defense mechanism of primal repression, is the starting point of representation.

Alain Gibeault

See also: Action-(re)presentation; Ego; Fantasy, formula of; Ideational representation; Infans; Multilingualism and psychoanalysis; Preconscious, the; "Unconscious, The"; Visual; Word-presentation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1891b). On aphasia: A critical study (E. Stengel, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press, 1953. Extracts in Freud (1915e), SE 14.

. (1915e). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

Gibeault, Alain. (1985). Travail de la pulsion et représentations: Représentation de chose et représentation de mot.Revue française de psychanalyse, 49 (3), 753-772.

Further Reading

Tesone, J. E. (1996). Multi-lingualism, word, thing presentations and psychic reality. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 77, 871-883.