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In the Freudian model, word-presentations correspond to verbal language, and thing-presentations correspond to visual images. They differ as signifier differs from signified. In Freud's view, although unconscious thing-presentations and thought antedate word-presentations, which are preconscious-conscious, he assigned a special role to verbal language in the mechanism whereby unconscious processes became conscious.

In the associationist perspective of his prepsychoanalytic work, in particular, in On Aphasia (1891b), where Freud first presented the antithesis between thing- and word-presentations, the thing-presentation constituted an open complex of images, whereas the word-presentation was a closed entity whose special task was to gather the "associations of the object" together as the "complex" that constituted the object's identity. What Freud was apparently referring to here was less the presence of something being represented than the difference between two series of associations, one of which is closed and the other open-ended. The specific role of language is to produce meanings that lie not in things prior to the advent of language but rather in thought before the advent of words.

Upon discovering the unconscious, Freud came to question this nominalist theory of knowledge, inherited from John Stuart Mill, and embraced the idea that unconscious thinking, and by extension thing-presentations, were prior to language and word-presentations. At the same time, however, spoken language acquired a privileged role in the mental processes whereby things become conscious. As early as "A Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), the word-presentation was seen as a substitute for the hallucinatory satisfaction of a wish. This theoretical conception of the relationship between pleasure and language comports with psychoanalytic clinical practice: in Studies on Hysteria (1895d), Freud said that in the treatment process there is a need to replace acts with words to permit the abreaction of repressed wishes. Freud thus stressed how the motor aspect of language can facilitate an emotional release, in connection with the revival of a memory, that is less costly than alternative adequate reactions (tears, revenge, etc.).

Seen in this light, language constitutes the secondary process (the processes of the ego) and the process of emergence into consciousness, though it is true that Freud never denied the possibility of thing-presentations becoming conscious directly, as for instance in dream images and hallucinations. Verbal thinking nevertheless remained the ideal tool of psychoanalysis, for it allows all parts of the psychic apparatus to be accessible at all times to the thought process. In fact, the impartiality of language makes it possible for the demands of the pleasure principle to be placed in abeyance.

No doubt this property of language later spurred Freud to assert that word-presentations, by virtue of the "hypercathexis" of thing-presentations, "make it possible for the primary process [the processes of the id] to be succeeded by the secondary process" and for "a higher psychical organization" to emerge, namely the preconscious system (1915e, p. 202). In "An Outline of Psychoanalysis" (1940a [1938]), however, he proposed a more restricted view, arguing that language did not in fact constitute the preconscious, though it was an important feature of it. He then acknowledged that for language to develop, the secondary process and the ego must have organized and there must also be in place a preverbal form of thinking correlated with the economic equilibrium between the principles of inertia and constancy. In this connection, in the "Outline" Freud spoke of the opposition between free and bound energy (p. 164), thus confirming his view that at an early, prelinguistic stage, the preconscious-conscious system binds the affects with ideational representatives in a process that is the corollary of primal repression. In this context, Freud viewed preconscious thought as depending on the formation of the categories of space, time, causality, and permanence during the first two years of life, categories that supply the foundation for the development of language.

Should we subscribe to Jacques Lacan's view that language is the precondition of the unconscious and that with regards to the mental organization necessary to constitute objects, "it is the world of words that creates the world of things" (2002 [1953], p. 65)? Or should we determine instead that the unconscious is a prerequisite of language, that the organization of the topography of the mental apparatus precedes and accounts for the emergence of language? The issue is important, for it decides the status of language relative to the discovery of the unconscious and of childhood sexuality.

The crux of the question is Freud's conception of the thing-presentation. The empiricist notions Freud employed tend to reinforce the idea that the thing-presentation refers only to the mental reproduction of things, just as the concepts of image and mnemic trace suggest. Contrasting with this Freudian empiricism is Lacan's promotion of an unconscious "structured like a language"an intellectualizing approach according to which language gives the world meaning.

Both approaches lose sight of the fact that thing-presentations are the outcome of the psychic work of internalizing and reappropriating mnemic traces bound up with the hallucinatory satisfaction of wishes. This work of representing and figuring the object is the foundation of fantasizing and has its roots in cathectic activity that antedates perception of objects. The object presents itself in the first instance by way of an affect. This totality can never be represented figuratively in a complete way or expressed in words in a discourse adequate to it.

In its relationship with the secondary process, language appears defined essentially by its communicative function. But it is at the same time subject to the primary process, which tends to strip it of this function and to bring into question the signifying-signified relationship, thus introducing a factor ultimately against the linguistic system itself. When a similarity between signifiers serves to justify a conclusion that the things signified are similar, words, as Freud famously observed, are "treated like things" (1900a, pp. 295-296; 1915e, p. 199). Freud's study of dreams and psychoneuroses brought him to this view. Yet dreams only partially bring into question the relationship between signifier and signified, between word-presentation and thing-presentation. As Freud reiterated, dreams modify not the "words themselves" but rather "the thing-presentations to which the words have been taken back" (1916-1917f, p. 229). In short, "treating words as things" means making words not into things but into other words, other signs, that retain their referential function despite successive substitutions.

The primary process, meanwhile, can also alter the relationship between the linguistic sign and the referent. For example, in schizophrenia the elimination of the semantic relationship between signifier and signified also threatens the linguistic sign in its referential function to a thing in the external world. Indeed, psychosis implies a failure in the counter-cathexis of the hallucinatory representation of wishes, which makes it possible for the preconscious to operate. This failure gives rise to a defensive hypercathexis of language, which, though it constitutes an attempt at recovery by "regaining the lost object" (1915e, pp. 203-204), nevertheless relies on a like massive cathexis of the object.

In this context, any word may carry the excitatory force of the primal scene, that is, the force of a sadistic combination of two poorly differentiated imagos. In the thought of schizophrenics, hypercathexis of language is basic to their linguistic distortions and "concrete" thinking, which in actuality, from the point of view of the relationship between language and reality, is an eminently abstract kind of thought. But concrete schizophrenic thought can foster the illusion that language is forever cut off from the world, whereas in fact the sign can have no meaning outside of that opening onto the outside world (thought) that is its very foundation.

The symbolic function, and hence language, are linked to an economic process indicated by instinctual cathexis. Freud's description (1920g, pp. 14ff) of an eighteen-month-old child playing with a reel on a string (the Fort-Da game) shows how, in this economic process, the work of symbolic substitution operates by means of signs that represent the mother's absence and indicate acceptance of this fact, as distinct from mere signals (as for instance the child's earlier tears), which are addressed to a mother who is effectively present and are meant as a practical response. Inhibition of the aim of the instinct, which results in a shift to tender feelings toward the object and acceptance of a delay in satisfaction, then allows sublimation and symbolization through play, gesture, and language.

Thus the symbolic function, seen here in the process of the subject's working over the absent object, does not arise from a learning process or from an experienced contiguity between word and thing. Rather, it is the means of articulating the double nature of the sign and its differential value in the linguistic system. This symbolic function is achieved through the work of negation carried out in silence, manifesting itself notably in the early split between ego and object, and finding its true fulfillment, as distinct from its raison d'être, in language. As it accedes to speech, this representational function has less to do with language reduced to its role as signal than it does with language as sign, with the sort of sudden advance that can sustain the acceptance not only of a loss but also of a previously instituted social convention regarding the loss.

Alain Gibeault

See also: Thing-presentation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1891b). On aphasia: A critical study. New York: International Universities Press.

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

. (1916-1917f [1915]). A metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams. SE, 14: 217-235.

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

. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

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

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Lacan, Jacques. (2002). The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis. In hisÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1953)