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French: [[transfert]]

Sigmund Freud


The term "transference" first emerged in Freud's work as simply another term for the displacement of affect from one idea to another.[1]

Later on, however, it came to refer to the patient's relationship to the analyst as it develops in the treatment.

This soon became the central meaning of the term, and is the sense in which it is usually understood in psychoanalytic theory today.

The use of a special term to denote the patient's relationship to the analyst is justified by the peculiar character of this relationship.


Freud was first struck by the intensity of the patient's affective reactions to the doctor in Breuer's treatment of Anna O in 1882, which he argued was due to the patient transferring unconscious ideas onto the doctor.[2]


As he developed the psychoanalytic method, Freud first regarded the transference exclusively as a resistance which impedes the recall of repressed memories, an obstacle to the treatment which must be "destroyed".[3]

Gradually, however, he modified this view, coming to see the transference also as a positive factor which helps the treatment to progress.


The positive value of transference lies in the fact that it provides a way for the analysand's history to be confronted in the immediacy of the present relationship with the analyst; in the way he relates to the analyst, the analysand inevitably repeats earlier relationships with other figures (especially those with the parents).

This paradoxical nature of transference, as both an obstacle to the treatment and that which drives the treatment forward, perhaps helps to explain why there are so many different and opposing views of transference in psychoanalytic theory today.

Jacques Lacan

Lacan's thinking about transference goes through several stages.


His first work to deal with the subject in any detail is 'An Intervention on the Transference,[4] in which he describes the transference in dialectical terms borrowed from Hegel.


He criticises ego-psychology for defining the transference in terms of affects:

"Transference does not refer to any mysterious property of affect, and even when it reveals itself under the appearance of emotion, it only acquires meaning by virtue of the dialectical moment in which it is produced."[5]

In other words, Lacan argues that although transference often manifests itself in the guise of particularly strong affects, such as love and hate, it does not consist of such emotions but in the structure of an intersubjective relationship.

This structural definition of transference remains a constant theme throughout the rest of Lacan's work; he consistently locates the essence of transference in the symbolic and not in the imaginary, although it clearly has powerful imaginary effects.

Later on, Lacan will remark that if transference often manifests itself under the appearance of love, it is first and foremost the love of knowledge (savoir) that is concerned.

Seminar of 1953-54

Lacan returns to the subject of the transference in the seminar of 1953-4.

This time he conceives it not in terms borrowed from Hegelian dialectics but in terms borrowed from the anthropology of exchange.

Transference is implicit in the speech act, which involves an exchange of signs that transforms the speaker and listener: In its essence, the efficacious transference which we're considering is quite simply the speech act.

Each time a man speaks to another in an authentic and full manner, there is, in the true sense, transference, symbolic transference - something which takes place which changes the nature of the two beings present.[6]

In the seminar of the following year, he continues to elaborate on the symbolic nature of transference, which he identifies with the compulsion to repeat, the insistence of the symbolic determinants of the subject.[7]

This is to be distinguished from the imaginary aspect of transference, namely, the affective reactions of love and aggressivity.

In this distinction between the symbolic and imaginary aspects of transference, Lacan provides a useful way of understanding the paradoxical function of the transference in psychoanalytic treatment; in its symbolic aspect (repetition) it helps the treatment progress by revealing the signifiers of the subject's history, while in its imaginary aspect (love and hate) it acts as a resistance.[8]

Lacan's next approach to the subject of transference is in the eighth year of his seminar,[9] entitled simply "The Transference".

Here he uses Plato's Symposium to illustrate the relationship between the analysand and the analyst.

Alcibiades compares Socrates to a plain box which encloses a precious object (Grk agalma); just as Alcibiades attributes a hidden treasure to Socrates, so the analysand sees his object of desire in the analyst (see objet petit a).

In 1964, Lacan articulates the concept of transference with his concept of the subject supposed to know, which remains central to Lacan's view of the transference from then on; indeed, it is this view of the transference which has come to be seen as Lacan's most complete attempt to theorise the matter.

According to this view, transference is the attribution of knowledge to the Other, the supposition that the Other is a subject who knows:

"As soon as the subject who is supposed to know exists somewhere . . . there is transference."[10]

Although the existence of the transference is a necessary condition of psychoanalytic treatment, it is not sufficient in itself; it is also necessary that the analyst deal with the transference in a unique way.

It is this that differentiates psychoanalysis from suggestion; although both are based on the transference, psychoanalysis differs from suggestion because the analyst refuses to use the power given to him by the transference.[11]


From quite early on in the history of psychoanalysis it became common to distinguish between those aspects of the patient's relationship to the analyst which were "adapted to reality" and those which were not.

In the latter category fell all the patient's reactions which were caused by "perceiving the analyst in a distorted way".

Some analysts used the term "transference" to refer to all aspects of the analysand's relationship to the analyst, in which case they distinguished the distorted "neurotic transference" or "transference neurosis" from the "unobjectionable part of the transference" or "therapeutic alliance."[12]


Other analysts argued that the term "transference" should be restricted to the "unrealistic" or "irrational" reactions of the analysand (William Silverberg, Franz Alexander).

However, the common assumption underlying both of these positions was that the analyst could tell when the patient was not reacting to him on the basis of who he really was but rather on the basis of previous relationships with other people.

The analyst was credited with this ability because he was supposed to be better "adapted to reality" than the patient.

Informed by his own correct perception of reality, the analyst could offer "transference interpretations"; that is, he could point out the discrepancy between the real situation and the irrational way that the patient was reacting to it.

It was argued that such transference interpretations helped the analysand to gain "insight" into his own neurotic transference and thereby resolve it or "liquidate" it.


Some of Lacan's most incisive criticisms are directed at this way of representing psychoanalytic treatment.

These criticisms are based on the following arguments:


1. The whole idea of adaptation to reality is based on a naive empiricist epistemology, involving an appeal to an unproblematic notion of "reality" as an objective and self-evident given.

This entirely neglects what psychoanalysis has discovered about the construction of reality by the ego on the basis of its own méconnaissance.

Hence when the analyst assumes that he is better adapted to reality than the patient he has no other recourse than "to fall back on his own ego" since this is the only "bit of reality he knows".[13]

The healthy part of the patient's ego is then defmed simply as "the part that thinks as we do".[14]

This reduces psychoanalytic treatment to a form of suggestion in which the analyst simply "imposes his own idea of reality" on the analysand.[15]

Thus "the inability [of the analyst] to sustain a praxis in an authentic manner results, as is usually the case with mankind, in the exercise of power."[16]


2. The idea that the analysand's "distorted perception of the analyst" could be liquidated by means of interpretations is a logical fallacy, since the transference is interpreted on the basis of, and with the instrument of, the transference itself.[17]

In other words, there is no metalanguage of the transference, no vantage point outside the transference from which the analyst could offer an interpretation, since any interpretation he offers "will be received as coming from the person that the transference imputes him to be."[18]


Thus it is contradictory to claim that the transference can be dissolved by means of an interpretation when it is the transference itself which conditions the analysand's acceptance of that interpretation:

"The emergence of the subject from the transference is thus postponed ad infinitum."[19]


Does this mean that Lacanian analysts never interpret the transference?

Certainly not; Lacan affirms that "it is natural to interpret the transference,"[20] but at the same time he harbours no illusions about the power of such interpretations to dissolve the transference.

Like any other interpretation, the analyst must use all his art in deciding if and when to interpret the transference, and above all must avoid gearing his interpretations exclusively to interpreting the transference.

He must also know exactly what he is seeking to achieve by such an interpretation; not to rectify the patient's relationship to reality, but to maintain the analytic dialogue.

"What does it mean, to interpret the transference? Nothing else than to fill the void of this deadlock with a lure. But while it may be deceptive, this lure serves a purpose by setting off the whole process again."[21]


When describing the transference as "positive" or "negative", Lacan takes two different approaches.

Following Freud, Lacan sometimes uses these adjectives to refer to the nature of the affects, "positive transference" referring to loving affects and "negative transference" referring to aggressive affects.[22]


Sometimes, however, Lacan takes the terms "positive" and "negative" to refer to the favourable or unfavourable effects of the transference on the treatment[23] (where Lacan argues that when the analysand's resistance opposes suggestion, this resistance must be "placed in the ranks of the positive transference" on the grounds that it maintains the direction of the analysis).


Although Lacan does speak occasionally of countertransference, he generally prefers not to use this term.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1900a: SE V, 562
  2. Freud, Sigmund. (1895d) With Josef Breuer. Bibliography|Studies on Hysteria. SE II.
  3. Freud, Sigmund. (1905e [1901]) "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria." SE VII, 3: 116
  4. Lacan, Jacques. (1951) "Intervention sur le transfert." Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966: 215-26 ["Intervention on the transference." Trans. Jacqueline Rose. Eds. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne. London: Macmillan, 1982; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982: 61-­73].
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 225
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p. 109
  7. 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. 210-11
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 135; Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 204
  9. Lacan, 1960-1
  10. 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. 232
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 236
  12. Edward Bibring, Elizabeth Zeztel
  13. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 231
  14. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 232
  15. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 232
  16. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 226
  17. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 206
  18. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 231
  19. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 231
  20. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 271
  21. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 225
  22. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 222
  23. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. 271