The Dynamics of Freud’s Two Principles of Mental Functioning (2011)

            Freud in his formulation of the pleasure principle and the reality principle constructs a dynamic system involving the cooperation of fantasy and reality testing to develop an epistemology of human consciousness that does not require an axiomatic starting point.  This system involves a shifting of energy and dominance between these two types of mental process to render a psychic reality that is involved with the constant flow between internal and external stimuli.  By positioning his dynamic system of psychological valences between the internal and external, the unconscious and conscious, Freud is able to avoid committing to a philosophical axiomatic starting point as embodied in Immanuel Kant’s writings:

            Either the object alone must make the representation possible, or the representation alone must make the object possible [Entweder wenn der Gegenstand die Vorstellung, oder diese den Gegenstand allein möglich macht]. In the former case, this relation is only empirical, and the representation is never possible a priori. This is true of appearances, as regard that [element] in them which belongs to sensation. In the latter case, representation in itself does not produce its object in so far as existence is concerned, for we are not here speaking of its causality by means of the will. [, §14, A92, B124-125, Norman Kemp Smith, St. Martin’s Press, 1929, 1965, p.125]

Freud does not necessarily decide between the predominance of the existence of the ‘object’ or the ‘representation’ and he seems conscious to avoid locating his notion of reality exclusively directed internally or externally. He addresses this directly in The Ego and the Id:

By their interposition internal thought-processes are made into perceptions.  It is like a demonstration of the theorem that all knowledge has its origin in external perception.  When a hypercathexis of the process of thinking takes place, thoughts are actually perceived-as if they came from without- and are consequently held to be true. (Freud, SE, 1923, p. 23)

Because the ego is also unconscious, internal impulses may seem to be perceived outside elements as they are transformed into hypercathected thoughts.  “The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface.” (Ibid, p. 26) That is, the ego can project the perceived world into the internal morass of the id’s unconscious.  Thus internal stimuli can be transformed into apparent perceptions and external perceptions can be projected inwardly in forming a two-way circuit of psychic reality. 

            Freud’s attention to this integrated current is suggested at the outset of Two Principles of Mental Functioning as he describes the phylogenic (and suggested developmental) evolution of the reality principle as a developing progression of mechanisms to tune the internal and external components of psychic reality to the external world.  Consciousness is developed as the inward reflection of the heightened reflection of the sense-organs.  Attention conversely is the heightened energy directed towards the external world when an urgent internal need arises.  An internal notation of the external world results in memory, an internal trace of the external world which is available material for fantasizing or reality-testing functions.  In the case of repression, the function of this circuit has broken down and there is a disparity between the internal and external and the reality-testing and pleasure-seeking components. 

            Freud then turns his attention towards the development of action as the pleasure-inducing discharge of internal stimuli towards the physical world and explains how an internalized transformation of action into thinking results in a postponement of this discharge which can further hone the relation between the ego’s pleasure-seeking and reality-producing functions.  Ideas arise as a currency for action in which the fantasies associated with delayed action (or perhaps cathected fantasies of inaction) serve the pleasure principle while the sublimation of impulsive action by means of ideational transformation serves the reality principle.  Thus, the pleasure-seeking internalized fantasies serve the attunement to external reality by allowing a higher threshold of inaction as well as a redirection of the energies of motor impulse into ideational content.  The transformation of active energy into fantasy and ideational components can also serve as internalized assets in reality-testing as the shape of the memory traces can be cross-referenced with immediate perceptual stimuli.

            The developmental progression from unconscious thinking to imagery to verbalization is also significant in this integrated process in that unconscious thoughts evolve towards more conscious qualities as they become connected with ‘verbal residues.’ In this process it seems, cathected interjected material from the proto-verbal experience is reactivated and oriented outwardly in the reality-testing of its memory traces.  Freud returns to this insight in The Ego and the Id asserting that something progresses from pre-conscious to conscious ‘through becoming connected with the word-presentations corresponding to it.’ (ibid, p.20)  He continues this bridge from the unconscious by explaining that thinking in pictures is ‘only a complete form of becoming conscious.’(ibid, p. 21) Not only is this mode of thinking older ontogenetically and phylogenically, but it is closer to primary process thoughts.  This relates to his topographic theory in the Interpretation of Dreams in which he explains dream imagery as appearing with a collapsed sense of time, much like a painting, with verbal elements represented in images in which spatial proximity implies a primitive form of logical association while verbal and image condensation weave unconscious threads of meaning.  Again in this process, we see how the circuit of reality-testing and pleasure-gratification flows; wish fulfillments become distorted by the valve of pre-consciousness into images replete with reality-testing concerns.  Also, the conscious desire to sleep, perhaps brought on by the reality principle is granted its wish by pleasure-seeking dreams, the guardians of sleep. 

            After Freud merely hints at these insights in Two Principles, he diverts his focus away from the development of language and avoids creating a structure related to a linguistic epistemology (which Lacan did so in revisiting Freud’s insights through the premise that the unconscious is structured like a language).  Rather he directs his attention towards the two principles in action in sexuality, again asserting that the reality principle calls for the postponement of imaginary satisfaction for real satisfaction.  Even in sexuality there is a mutualistic symbiosis of the pleasure and reality in which the postponement of sexual discharge works in concert with the imagination of the future sexual activity in order to achieve ‘real satisfaction’ with an external object. This satisfaction is brought about by the well-tuned cooperation between the ego’s reality-testing and pleasure-seeking functions.  Although Freud acknowledges the structural intervention of the reality principle during the latency period, he maintains that the sexual instinct is ultimately under the predominance of the pleasure principle and acknowledges the difficulty in divorcing the sexual aim from auto-erotism and ‘educating the sexual instinct to pay regard to reality.’ (Two Principles, SE, 1911, p. 223)

            It is interesting that Freud’s description of this currency between the energies of the pleasure and reality principle seem to culminate in the assertion that the pleasure-ego can do nothing but wish while the reality-ego can do nothing but ‘strive for what is useful and guard itself against damage.’ (Ibid) But in substituting the reality for the pleasure principle he asserts that there is no deposition, only safeguarding.  Once again, in this model the ego cycles its drive through wish, reality-testing of the wish, the introjection of the perceptions of this reality testing, the integrated memory residues of these cathected introjections, and the ego’s reactions to safeguard these internal objects from the vicissitudes of external reality. 

            It is significant that in this same paragraph, Freud asserts that where religion has only satisfied the externalized pleasure principle, that the discipline of science comes nearest to satisfying the demands of the reality principle.  Yet, science offers an outlook satisfying the pleasure principle as well in that it offers intellectual pleasure as well as practical gains.  He is shaping this psychical model of a dualistic ego-function as a dynamically-integrated, self-contained, self-challenging quasi-dialectical system. Like science, this psychic mechanism functions to find better models to represent physical reality while producing pleasure-inducing benefits.  By relating his system of governing psychic principles to science, Freud is seeking to establish his theory of ego function as thoroughly biological.  The human psyche functions like a science with its use of experimentation, observation and the integrated findings of trial and error.  Unlike religion, the ego is involved in reality-testing and gains aggregate pleasure from integrating the challenges of external reality rather than wishing against them.  Unlike many philosophical systems, the ego needs no a priori predominance of an internal or external reality.  Freud’s psychic reality is found in the dynamic integration of the internal and external ego. The conflicts and harmonies between the pleasure and reality functions create images from impulses and impulses from images, ultimately needing no other imperative than to seek pleasure through internal and external realities.