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An internal moral conviction resulting from reflection, or subjectively imposed in the form of an intuition or illumination, certainty is an intellectual sentiment that transposes sensory evidence into the realm of thought. Sigmund Freud gave little thought to the concept except when considering its opposite, doubt, or as related to the idea of conviction, which connotes an illusory or mistaken content (delusional conviction). However, dreams are an example of a mental product accompanied by certainty since images, rather than judgments, are involved. Conversely, whenever there is doubt, it is the misrepresentation that underscores the ability of the element in question to convey meaning. It is especially in the area of superstition and knowledge of the paranormal that Freud investigated the notion of certainty. As with paranoid delirium, he sees its origin in a projection of the contents of the unconscious onto the outside world (1901b). This idea was developed in connection with animist thought and later with the category of experience, which included feelings of seeing or experiencing something one has seen or experienced before (déjà-vu and déjà-vécu) (1914a), and feelings of alienation (Entfremdung), or the uncanny (Unheimlichkeit). What is in question in all of these are "obsolete primal convictions" associated with a primal inability to differentiate between the ego and the outside world. Freud's analysis of religious feelings—what Romain Rolland refers to as oceanic feelings (1930a [1929])—provided him with an opportunity to question whether certainty is equivalent to an objective perception. These feelings, he wrote, are "described as feelings but are apparently complicated processes associated with determinate contents and decisions concerning those contents." The only things that are certain are death and the relation between the mother (certissima [absolutely certain]) and the child, while the father is semper incertus (always uncertain). The fantasy of certainty, which the most skeptical researcher is never without, can thus be associated with this experience of primary and irreplaceable assurance: that of being the mother's child. What is certain is irreplaceable. For Freud, the psychoanalyst is prepared "for the sake of attaining some fragment of objective certainty, to sacrifice everything—the dazzling brilliance of a flawless theory, the exalted consciousness of having achieved a comprehensive view of the universe, the mental calm brought about by the possession of extensive grounds for expedient and ethical action" (1941d [1921], pp. 179). This spiritual abstinence is not based on an obsessive predilection for uncertainty but, on the contrary, a desire of anticipated certainty, of possessing fragmentary crumbs of knowledge once and for all (Mijolla-Mellor, S., 1992). The concept of certainty in psychoanalysis appears to be related both to the analysis of illusion associated with desire (Freud); or, more radically, with the destruction of critical thought, the seductive appeal of deviation, where the only possibility is one of repetition (Aulagnier,1984), and to the always partial and painfully won acquisition of partial certainties incorporated in a renewed hypothetical-deductive approach.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1901b). The psychopathology of everyday life. SE,6.
  2. ——. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  3. ——. (1914a). Fausse reconnaissance (déjà raconté) in psycho-analytic treatment. SE, 13: 201-207.
  4. ——. (1914d). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.
  5. ——. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 59-145.
  6. ——. (1941d [1921]). Psycho-analysis and telepathy. SE, 18: 177-193.
  7. Lacan, Jacques. (1945). Le temps logique et l'assertion de certitude anticipée. Un nouveau sophisme. InÉcrits (pp. 197-213).