Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

The popular understanding of Freud’s project is as it appears at the beginning of the text – as a kind of biologistically deterministic psychology:

“The intention is to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science: that is, to represent psychical processes as quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles, thus making those processes perspicuous and free from contradiction”. [1]

But what is this Natural Science about? Is it a fair criticism of this line of reasoning that the attractiveness of the Project is because it lends itself to deterministic formulations of organisation? I think not, and this reading of “natural science” is itself a mis-take. Things are not always as they seem.

The Project was only one amongst many in a series of working drafts that Freud composed over a period of two years.[2] Furthermore, the 1895 Project is the one draft that he disowned as an “aberration”. The draft that is believed to have inspired Chapter Seven of The Interpretation of Dreams, on the other hand, was based on Freud’s January 1896 revision of the Project. In this 1896 version, the systems and were assigned radically different functions:

“The nerve-paths which start from terminal organs do not conduct quantity but their particular qualitative characteristic peculiar to them; they add nothing to the amount [of quantity] in the -neurones, but merely put these neurones into a state of excitation…. In my new scheme I insert [these] [perceptual] neurones between the -neurones and the -neurones, so that transfers its quality to , and now transfers neither quality nor quantity to , but merely excites – that is, indicates the direction to be taken by the free energy.”[3]

Thus, not only do energies from the external world have absolutely no quantitative effect on the nervous system, so that all quantitative excitations are endogenous. Freud was developing his fundamental psychoanalytical model using a model, which was almost directly antithetical to the passive hydraulic reflex model so often attributed to him. Freud did not conceive of mental life as being in any way reducible to neurophysiological principles when he was constructing his first psychological theories. Rather, Freud took the view that powerful unconscious mental processes, which were constituted by a closed causal system that enabled him to conceptualise mental life independently of its physical substrate, determine conscious events. So “natural science” referred to something rather more radical – a being in relation to the unknowable – in this case the unconscious. He was to clarify this some 43 years later:

“Now it would look as though this dispute between psychoanalysis and philosophy is concerned only with a trifling matter of definition – the question whether the name ‘psychical’ should be applied to one or another sequence of phenomena. In fact, however, this step has become of the highest significance. Whereas the psychology of consciousness never went beyond the broken sequences which were obviously dependent on something else, the other view, which held that the psychical is unconscious in itself, enabled psychology to take its place as a natural science like any other. The processes with which it is concerned are in themselves just as unknowable as those dealt with by other sciences…..” [4]

So here we have a causally closed system with its own endogenous dynamics being affected qualitatively by processes which are not wholly conscious. What happens if I use this as a way of defining organisation? Clearly there is a ‘body’ problem [5], but if the psychical topology of the Project is defined independently of its physical substrate, why not? It would mean that I had to construct a theory of organisation which was based on a theory of the unconscious, of objet petit a, of transference and of the drive.

[1] Project for a Scientific Psychology (1950 [1895]) pp 283-397 Vol 1 Standard Edition. Page 295 (my emphasis)
[2] I am drawing here from a book by Mark Solms and Michael Saling: “A Moment of Transition. Two Neuroscientific Articles by Sigmund Freud” translated and edited by Solms and Saling. Karnac 1990.
[3] p388 SEI
[4] SEXXIII p158 Physical Qualities. (1940[1938])
[5] The immediate ‘solution’ to this ‘body’ problem is through the use of the coral reef metaphor. In other words, what I take to be the incarnate form of the organization is the side-effect of the pacts with desire supported by the organization-as-ecosystem. This ecosystem is governed by its own laws, and has an organization which I will argue reflects an economy of discourses. But this ‘body’ is not without its effects, introducing considerations of the relation of Structure and Function to Organisation.

Leave a Reply