Topographical Point of View

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Like the economic and the dynamic points of view, the topographical point of view is one of the three main dimensions of Freud's metapsychology. It introduced the idea that the mental apparatus was composed of different areas of the mind, different "territories" governed by different processes.

The idea of a mental topography was present in Freud's thought as early as the "Project for a Scientific Psychology" of 1895 (1950c), where it arose as a direct consequence of his conception of the history and successive stages of construction of the psychical apparatus.

In Freud's first topographical approach, three mental regions were distinguished: the conscious, the location of ideas that had direct access to consciousness; the preconscious, the location of material susceptible of becoming conscious fairly easily; and the unconscious, the location of whatever had been repressed from consciousness and was thus inaccessible to it. This initial spatial organization of the mind, known as the first topography, later proved inadequate for dealing with the clinical view of pathological narcissism, for it failed to locate the ego or the internalization of values and principles acquired in the course of the individual's development.

Beginning with Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) and especially in The Ego and the Id (1923b), Freud proposed a new topography of the mental personality and apparatus in terms of the id, the ego, and the superego. The unconscious per se could no longer be treated as a single location in the psyche, for there were in fact several unconscious realms, and of different kinds. From then on, the term unconscious was used only as a qualifier applicable to mental processes, irrespective of their topographical location. A portion of the ego and of the superego were thus said to be unconscious, while components of the id could not become conscious without being transformed into representations, their original forms remaining unconscious.

The second topography did not replace the first, however. Rather, it remained in a dialectical relationship with it, thus complicating the model as a whole. Some French psychoanalysts have taken the view that the two topographies are not merely metapsychological constructs but also correspond to specific organizational modes of the psyche. Different ways of mental functioning could thus be described in terms of the first or second topography, and the metapsychological account remained closely bound up with clinical practice.

RenÉ Roussillon

See also: Agency; Censorship; Consciousness; Ego; Ego and the Id, The ; Excitation; Id; Metapsychology; Model; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis ; Perception-Consciousness (Pcpt.-Cs.); Preconscious, the; Psychic apparatus; Regression; Structural theories; Superego; The Unconscious ; Unconscious, the; Wish, hallucinatory satisfaction of a.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

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

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

Roussillon, René. (1995). La métapsychologie des processus et la transitionnalité. Revue française de psychanalyse, 59, 1351-1519.

Further Reading

Paniagua, Cecilio. (2001). The attraction of topographical technique. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 82, 671-684.