Review of the essay “On Aphasia: A Critical Study” (by Sigmund Freud, 1891)
Freud wrote this essay in 1891, a few years before officially founding psychoanalysis. The renowned first text dedicated to psychotherapy, Project for a Scientific Psychology, was published four years later, while The Interpretation of Dreams came out in 1899. Why does this treaty on neuropathology interest psychologists, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts? I believe that this text is interesting for primarily historical and philological reasons: indeed, this essay represents the dawn of psychoanalysis as a discipline. During his first years of training as a doctor, Freud carried out works that mainly involved physiology, neurophysiology and neuropathology. He wrote many scientific articles on his researches on nervous tissue. It was thanks to these years studying neurology that he decided to skip to the field of study of psychology, without abandoning the somatic side. According to some philosophers of mind, the essay on aphasia might be the missing link between psychoanalysis and neuroscience, a link that has been desperately searched for in the past decades, both by the so-called mind “scientists” and by psychotherapists.
In this essay, the reader is witness to the conception of the first principle that will later function as the base for psychoanalysis. One could define this text as a “prequel” of what will later be Freudian theory. Here, in fact, the founder of psychoanalysis articulates the fundamental distinction between thing-presentation and word-presentation, a classification that works as a common thread that connects all of his works from the first ones, that were more academic works on neurology and neuropsychology, to the later ones, which were more educational and had a larger outreach. He wrote his last works during his painful last years, when he died as an exile in London. If we think of the works on neuropsychology by neuroscientist Alexander Lurija, we can understand how advanced Freud’s theories were for his time, and how close they are to contemporary neuroscience.
In On aphasia, Freud discredits neurologist Meynert’s point of view. Meynert argued that the periphery of the human body was projected in the cortex, point by point: this theory is known as “localization theory” of the brain, and it was quite valued in the German school of thought of neurology. According to Freud, the peripheral parts of the body are represented in the cerebral cortex, which is quite different. This concept was elaborated by British neurologist Huglings Jackson, who was a reference point for Lurija. Moreover, Freud uses the concept of representation in the word’s definition, as the world in itself is a complex representation that involves various elements (acoustic, visual, motor and phonatory).
The thing-presentation is also made of a complex set of components (visual, tactile, olfactory, taste, kinesthetic) and the aphasia is a disorder that takes place when there’s a breach between the two different types of presentation such as accidents or neurological pathologies (strokes, for example). The size of the representation constitutes an essential ingredient for human life and human psyche. The word-presentation is a closed system and it’s hardly permeable, while the thing-presentation is an open system and it’s always ready to interact with the outside world and with the senses. This concepts of “permeability” and “closure” return in Freudian works in 1895, in the Project for a Scientific Psychology, in which Freud identifies three different types of neurons: perceptual neurons, also known as Φ neurons, which are permeable and penetrable by the neuron discharge that affects them. Mnemic neurons, or Ψ neurons, preserve a memory of the neuron discharge they went through and are therefore alterable by excitement. Finally, Ω neurons are responsible for consciousness; it’s thanks to them that the psyche experiences sensations of various qualities (cfr. Project for a Scientific Psychology, introduction).
In 1899, Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams, which, along with On Aphasia, gives shape to the study of mental representation, while in the Project psychology is mainly described in neuropsychological/neuroanatomical terms. In 1915, in an essay on metapsychology, the distinction between conscious and unconscious is already clear-cut: the conscious world is characterized by language, which is conversely completely absent in the unconscious world. Conscious representation includes the thing-presentation along with the word-presentation, while the unconscious system exclusively contains the thing-presentation, which is a type of representation that isn’t mediated through verbal language. Therefore, language is what separates the conscious system from the unconscious system: in dreams, the world is indeed organized according to a world of images and senses, whereas verbal language, when present, has a completely different meaning than the one we understand in a waking state, as it seems to have a more marginal function and it works according to different logics. In dreams, impulse, the senses, and images prevail; as a system, it’s prevalently void of language. In his Outline of Psychoanalysis (1938), which he wrote one year before his death, the distinction between word- representation and thing-representation expands, as Freud creates a third order of representation: this new order is related to drives, drive-representation, or affection. Any mental representation involves a drive, and drives are a the body’s representation in the psyche. Therefore, a drive is the way in which the soma expresses itself in the mind, in the two extremes of pleasure and displeasure. The articulation of these three orders of representation (in the political sense of the term!), makes for a healthy psychic functioning. As we can observe from this concise written reflection, even this very early Freudian publication is worthy of notice and of being read. Although it’s not psychoanalytic or psychodynamic, it gives significant insight on the genesis of the mindset of the master of thinking without prejudice.
Freud's sofa in his house in London (now Freud Museum)
Translation by Marina Traylor