Although the analyst's speech is characterized by many different kinds of speech act (asking questions, giving instructions, etc.), it is the offering of interpretations which plays the most crucial and distinctive role in the treatment.
For example, in one of the earliest interpretations, Freud told one patient that she had not revealed all her motives for the intense affection she showed towards her employer's children, and went on to say; "I believe that really you are in love with your employer, the Director, though perhaps without being aware of it yourself."
In the second chapter of this work the psychoanalytic method of interpretation is distinguished from the "decoding" method of interpretation by the use of the method of free association: a psychoanalytic interpretation does not consist in attributing a meaning to a dream by referring to a pre-existing system of equivalences but by referring to the associations of the dreamer himself.
It ollows that the same image will mean very different things if dreamed by different people.
Even when Freud later came to recognize the existence of 'symbolism' in dreams (i.e. the fact that there are some iamges which have fixed universal meanings in addition to their unique meaning for the individual dreamer), he always maintained thaat interpretation should focus primarily on the particular meaning and warned against "overestimating the importance of symbols in dream interpretation."
However, after the initial period in which the offering of interpretations seemed to achieve remarkable effects, in the decade 1910-20 analysts began to notice that their [[interpretations were becoming less effective.
In order to explain this, analysts turned to the concept of resistance, arguing that it is not sufficient simply to offer an interpretation of the unconscious meaning of the symptom but that it is also necessary to get rid of the patient's resistance to becoming fully conscious of this meaning.
Lacan, however, proposes a different explanation.
Among other things, Lacan blames the increasing tendency of the first generation of analysts to base their interpretations more on symbolism (despite [Freud]]'s warnings to the contrary), thereby returning to the pre-psychoanalytic "decoding" method of interpretation.
Not only did this reduce interpretations to set formulas, but the patients soon came to be able to predict exactly what the analyst would say about any particular symptom or association they produced (which, as Lacan wryly comments "is surely the most annoying trick which can be played on a fortune-teller.")
Interpretations thus lacked both relevance and shock-value.
However, the solution which they proposed for this problem was that "too much knowledge on the part of the patient should be replaced by more knowledge on the part of the analyst."
Lacan, however, proposes a different solution.
For example the interpretation may be of the form "What you really mean by this symptom is that you desire x."
The fundamental assumption was that the [[interpretation unmasks a hidden meaning, the truth of which could be confirmed by the patient producing more associations.
"Interpretation is directed not so much at 'making sense' as towards reducing the signifiers to their 'non-sense' in order thereby to find the determinants of all the subject's conduct."
Interpretation thus inverts the relationship between signifier and signified: instead of the normal production of meaning (signifier produces signified), interpretation works at the level of s to generate S: interpretation causes "irreducible signifiers" to arise, which are "non-sensical."
Often the most effective way for the interpretation to achieve this is for it too to be ambiguous.
An interpretation is therefore not offered to gain the analysand's assent, but is simply a tactical device aimed at enabling the analysand to continue speaking when the flow of associations has become locked.
The value of an interpretation does not lie in its correspondence with reality, but simply in its power to produce certain effects; an interpretation may therefore be inexact, in the sense of not corresponding to "the facts," but nevertheless true, in the sense of having powerful symbolic effects.
That is, the task of the analyst is not to achieve some imaginary intuitive grasp of the analysand's 'hidden message,' but simply to read the analysand's discourse as if it were text, attending to the formal features of this discourse, the signifiers that repeat themselves.
Hence Lacan's frequent warnings of the dangers of "understanding."
"The less you understand, the better you listen."
- Freud, Sigmund. 1895d. SE II. p.117
- Freud, Sigmund. 1900a.
- Freud. 1900a. SE V. p.359-60.
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p.10-11; Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.390
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.462
- Ferenczi and Rank, 1925: 61
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.82.
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.212
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.250
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.237
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p.153
- Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p.141
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.270; Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p.130; Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.229-30
- Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.349
- Lacan, 1953b: 227
Interpretation seeks to bring out, within the confines of the analytic method, the latent meaning of a subject's words and behavior; its aim is to reveal unconscious desires and the defensive conflicts that are linked to them. Technically, interpretation consists in making manifest this latent meaning, in accordance with the rules dictated by the various phases of the treatment. The first version of the theory of interpretation was delineated by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic study of dreams (1900a) and is applicable to other products of the unconscious, such as parapraxes, slips of the tongue, and symptoms. For Freud, psychoanalysis was an art of interpretation, but he preferred the term "construction" as a description of the core of the psychoanalytical method, that is, the unveiling of the unconscious. This "construction" of the unconscious is entirely a matter of applying successive interpretations to the different aspects of a case. The interpretations allow an overall perspective to emerge and thus define a strategy for the treatment; however, it might also be tactically necessary at times to adjust to unforeseen developments. Interpretation is not just a matter of what needs to be expressed and its actual utterance: it conveys its own meaning, one that disturbs that defensive arrangements meant to maintain the effectiveness of repression. Care must be taken not to provide a premature "translation" of unconscious content, as this risks discouraging the patient, reinforcing his resistance and creating a purely intellectualized understanding. Firstly, the affects associated with these defensive structures need to come to expression, and this implies a struggle of wills. While interpretation is characterized by the necessary intelligibility of its formulations—its reductiveness—as well as by its closeness to manifest representation, generalization, and theorization, it also has a darker and more complex dimension that relates to the polysemy of language, personal symbolism, or the history of the affects involved. Bringing out these affects opens up an economic dimension in which instinctual energy forces the representation into the open. This is made possible, first of all, through the workings of the transference and the counter-transference. In "The Dynamics of Transference," Freud insisted that interpretation should not begin before the appearance of the transference, and specified that the goal in interpreting the patient's transference is "to compel him to fit these emotional impulses into the nexus of the treatment and of his life-history, to submit them to intellectual consideration and to understand them in the light of their psychical value. This struggle between the doctor and the patient, between intellect and instinctual life, between understanding and seeking to act, is played out almost exclusively in the phenomena of transference. It is on this field that victory must be won" (1912b, p. 108).
What the interpretations communicate to the patient in terms of the construction of the unconscious, and on the basis of the transference, is indissociable from the analyst's reconstruction which is based on the analysis of his own counter-transference. The analyst responds to the transference demands with only a minimum of authority, allowing him to make the counter-transference into a tool for exploring the unconscious of the patient. For Freud, the unconscious of the patient is consequently revealed through the unconscious of the analyst. The primary goal of interpretation is the lifting of resistance: the cure is not the result of a premature recognition of whatever has been repressed, but occurs through a victory over the resistances at the source of this ignorance. Thanks to the love-transference and the psychoanalyst's patience, the analysand should be able to accept the psychoanalyst's "translation" without these revelations about their unconscious adding to their conflicts or symptoms. Freud rejected any interpretation that is isolated from the symbolic material issuing from the unconscious, and indicated that it would be a mistake to think that the interpretation of dreams is central to all analyses. As Michel Fain wrote, "While the turning of 1920 [Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920g] shattered the metapsychology of 1915, conceptions from the first topic continued to influence Freud's conception of interpretation" (1983). It would seem useful to emphasize the necessary complementarity of the two topics, neither being able alone to account for the theoretical role of interpretation. "The path that starts from the analyst's construction ought to end in the patient's recollection; but it does not always lead so far. . . If the analysis is carried out correctly, we produce in him an assured conviction of the truth of the construction which achieves the same therapeutic result as a recaptured memory" (Freud, 1937d, pp. 265-66). Interpretation has recently become one of the latest focuses in the epistemological debate over the status of psychoanalysis. The "experimental" point of view, in which interpretation is conflated with a generalizable scientific truth that results from verifiable protocols and can be duplicated within the context of multidisciplinary research, includes certain models from psychoanalytical theory, comparing them with other developmental models or conceptual tools from psychopathology. Conversely, the "hermeneutic" point of view results in a purely relative, narrative, and pragmatic conception of truth, whereby the interpretation is only a new version of the life story that makes the patient feel better. Consequently it tends towards a language of action that valorizes the conscious dimension. Highlighting the narrative point of view obviously involves challenging the status of metapsychology (Schafer, Roy, 1983), but the "scientific" point of view ultimately leads to the same tendency. A closely related notion, often mentioned when clinical cases are being discussed, is that of "intervention." It is often used by default, when the analyst wants to utter words that are deemed appropriate, without the elements of the construction justifying those words being clearly established. It is given that analysts do not merely proffer interpretations during the session—in addition they may request a clarification, verify an element already referred to in the treatment, encourage the patient to continue speaking, and the like. However, because of the transferential situation, it is impossible to predict the outcome of these interventions, whose inoffensive, innocent, or insignificant character cannot be affirmed a priori. Jean Cournut has criticized the illegitimacy of this notion, adding that, in his view, "the term 'intervention' should be eradicated from the lexicon of psychoanalysis" (1983).
- Siegfried Bernfeld
- La construction de l'espace analytique (Constructing the analytical space)
- Constructions in Analysis
- Dream interpretation
- Interpretation of dreams (analytical psychology)
- The Interpretation of Dreams
- Psychoanalytic Technique with adults
- Psychoanalytic Technique with children
- The Violence of Interpretation: From Pictogram to Statement
- Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.
- ——. (1912b). The dynamics of transference. SE, 12: 97-108.
- ——. (1937d). Constructions in analysis. SE, 23: 255-269.