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Note on the Scientificity of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams

In Chapter I of Conjectures and Refutations, K.

Popper raises the question of the scientificity of
certain theories, which he then proceeds to reject
as unscientific on the basis of the now celebrated
criterion of falsifiability. Freud’s is one of these
theories. (Those of Marx and Ad1er are the other
two with which he finds particular fault.) He tells
us that what his friends who supported Marx, Freud
and Ad1er were impressed by was the apparent explanatory power of their theories, and that it was
precisely this feature which he himself came to
find least impressive. The argument is by now
pretty familiar and need only be stated briefly:–a
theory’s claim to be scientific (as oppo~ed to ‘prescientific’ or mythological, however informative
it in fact may be) stands or falls on the possibility
of its being refuted by the appearance of new disconfirming evidence. A theory is s-cientific if it can
become incompatible with certain possible results
of observation. Psychoanalysis, he claims, is not
such a theory since it reads all evidence as confirmatory of its theory, rather than testi~g it,
whereas ‘every genuine test of a theory is an
attempt to falsify it, or to refute it’. Since the
‘clinical observations’ which analysts naively
believe confirm their study are both interpreted in
the light of ‘previous experience’ and at the same
time allowed to count as additional confirmation of
that experience, Popper concludes that they do not
differ in kind from the daily confirmations which
astrologers find in their practice; and as for
Freud’s epic of the Ego, the SUper-Ego and the Id,
‘no substantially stronger claim to scientific status
can be made for it than for Homer’s collected
stories from Olympus’.

More recently-, a philosopher of quite different
political allegiance, namely the Marxist
S. Timpanaro (1), has applied what is· essentially
the Popperian criterion to psychoarlalysis, and
found the latter wanting. He again argues that any
theory’s claim to scientificity depends on its
susceptibility to empirical testing and to falsification by counter evidence. Psychoanalysis, and in
particular its theory of the dream and of the ‘slip’,
unlike Marxis m, fails to apply such tests sufficientlyand manipulates whatever counter-evidence it
encounters to the end of preserving its own 8elfconsistency as theory.

In a recent group reading of The Interpretation of
Dreams, what impressed many of us, as in the
case of Popper’s friends, was the explanatory
force of Freud’s work: it did, indeed, seem able
to account for more of the features of dreaming
than any other attempt at interpretation. What also
troubled many of us, and toa large extent precisely
because of (rather than despite) this explanatory
value, was its status as scientific. The starting
,~int was neither a_~ommitment to Karl Popper
i See SebasttaDo Timpllllllio, ~ Freudian Slip. NLB,London, 19’76

nor an a-critical admiration for Freud,. We were,
by and large, and pace Popper, probably as good
an instance as any of the ‘public character of
scientific method’ in the sense that our stance was
un-biased, if not positively challenging. The only
problem, of course, was that as good and challenging scientists we had no business to be wasting our
time on a mythology.

These notes are based on discussion in the reading group (2) (to which I am indebted) and on my
own thoughts. Their overall purpose is to examine
the scientific credentials of Freud’s interpretation
of dreams in the light of the contradiction between
the conviction lent by that theory and its failure to
submit to the canons of empiricist theories of
s cientificity •
In speaking of ‘notes’ I intend to indicate the very
limited character of what I have to offer and to
provide some kind of excuse or jus tification for the
rather spontaneous and unrelated mode in which I
present it. This is to do with the fact that it was
inspired by questions that arose in the readinggroup diSCUSSion, and is almost exclusively
addressed to them. Hence no attempt is made to
relate it to studies by Timpanaro and others (3)
of Freud’s theory. It goes without saying that anything approaching an adequate and substantial
treatment of these questions would need to be
much more cognizant of the framework of reference that those studies provide.

In the interests of clarity, rather than because
the issues involved are really that separate, I
shall distinguish three areas for discussion. All
emerged as dominant themes in the course of the
reading group; that they are epistemological concerns is no doubt a reflection of the fact that the
group was mainly composed of philosophers.

The three areas are:

(1) Freud’s claim that the motive force of every
dream, despite appearances to the contrary, is a
wish-fulfilment. We have a classic case here, presumably, of everything that a Popperian finds
wrong with psychoanalytic theory: no cases are
allQ\7ed to be dis confirming of the theory, and even
the apparent exceptions are appropriated by it in a
2 The group was ma1nly composed of students at the University of Iilssex
and met on a weekly basis. Discussion was quite informal, there being
no preparation for any session apart from a reading of the particular
section of the text – which was usually some 50 pages in length. We made
no use of secondary material. The gTOup was dominated byth08e
interested in the epistemological implicatiOns of Freud’s approach to
his object of study (what the nature of that object signified for the
appropriateness of a given methodology etc), but it was Interesting, and
I think significant, that a number of members of the gToup were critical
of that emphasis and would have preferred to approach the text from a
more psychological stance, seeing the more interesting questions as to
with the extent to which their own feelings and intuitions about dreaming
were confirmed/disconflrmed by Freud’s theory.

3 For example, Irv1ng Sarnoff, Testing Freudian Concepts -‘ an Experimental Approach. Springer Pub. Co. New York, 1971; P. Kline, ~
Fantasy in Freudian Theory, Methuen, London, 1972; G. D. W1lsonand
H.J.Eysenck, The Experimental Study of Freudian Theories, Methuen,
London, 1973; Seymour Flaher and Roger P. Greenberg. The Sctentific
Credibility of Freud’s theories and therapy, Harvester Press, Hassocks,


way tbat allows the m to prove the rule. In fact, it
even looks as if there could not be a disconfirming
case, since the analysis of the dream takes place
on the assumption that it represents a wishfulfilment, and it is this assumption that allows
the analysis, and may even determine its course.

Or does it?

(2) Even if we do not accept the claim that every
dream is a wish-fulfilment (or at least want to
dispute the extent to which Freud ‘proves’ this in
the text of The Interpretation of Dreams – as
opposed to the support lent it if placed in the
context of Freud’s work as a whole) – can we not
accept his account of the mechanisms of dream
formation (in terms of condensation, displacement
considerations of representability, secondary
revision and so on)? Are these two elements in
his account (motive force of the dream and mechanism of its expression) dependent in the explanatory
force they have on each other, or are they independ.

ent in the sense that theoretically we could reject
the one while accepting the other? What do the
answers to these questions tell us about the kind
of ‘object’ Freud is examining, and the possibility
of its theoretical appropriation?

(3) To what extent do the assumptions (not just
Popper’s but also those of the empiricist tradition
of which he himself is critical) as to what constitutes a science prescribe the objects of scientific
study (and thus proscribe others, such as the
dream)? Is it possible that we could have a science
of dreaming that fulfilled the conditions of ‘scientificity’ in this sense? Even if the answer is no, it
might still be the case that Freud’s theory of
dreams is correct and wholly” adequate to its object.

What are the implications of this for conventional
notions of a science and its truths?

1) Wish -fulfilmen t
I shall approach the question of wish-fulfilment
firstly from within the Popperian framework, and
secondly from outside it. That is to say, I shall
first present a certain amount of evidence to show
that in the development of his theory of wishfulfilment Freud proceeds with more scientific
caution and more respect for empirical data and
the relevance of its potentially falSifying quality
than the summary dismissal of the Popperians
would suggest. I do not place that much weight on
this evidence, all of which I imagine a hardened
adherent of falsificationis m might want to argue
could be explained as Freud’s paying lip-service
to the empiricist tradition, as hypocritical padding
that does not Significantly affect the question of the
intransigence of his theory to falsification. I cite
it because I personally think it does mitigate
against the kind of instant rejection that Popper
claims we can make of Freud’s work – because it
ought in all fairness to be taken into account in any
consideration of Freud’s contribution, and very
seldom is. However, I place more weight on my
second line of defence of Freud’s ‘scientificity’.

Here too, I shall argue that Freud is far mpre
empirical than speculative” in his approach, but I
shall do so by posing the question of the extent to
which the” data dealt with by Freud could be more
adequately and plausibly dealt with in terms of a
theory other than his own.



(i)(a) How badly dOeS Freud fail the Popperian

=-_ __

I shal~ here ?~ly offer a few quotations and point
to certaIn modIfIcations that Freud introduces to
his basic thesis that every dream is a wishfulfilment.

Freud is first brought to posit this thesis as a
result of his dream of ‘Irma’s injection’ – the first
which he submitted to detailed examination. The
Irma of the dream was a patient of Freud’s whose
treatment had not been entirely successful a fact
for which ott 0 , one of his colleagues had’ in
waking life, reproached FreUd. Freu’d subsequently
dreams that otto had administered an injection to
Irma and that her symptoms were attributable to
that. The overall message that Freud elicits from
his lengthy and complex interpretation is that the
dream fu lfilled his desire to revenge himself for
his colleague’s reproaches in the discovery that it
was Otto, and not himself, who was responsible
for the perSistence of Irma’s pains. He thus
suggests that the content of the dream was the fulfilment of a wish and its motive was a wish. He
then puts aside questions as to the origin and
‘puzzling’ form in which the wish-fulfilment is
expressed in order to pursue the path opened up
by this dream (i.e. in order to consider the universality of the hypothesis based on it). He writes:

‘We have learnt that a dream can represent a
wish as fulfilled. Our first concern must be to
enquire whether this ts a universal characteristic
of dreams. or whether it merely happened to be
the content of the particular dream …. which waS
the first that we analysed. For even if we are
prepared to find that every dream has a meaning
and a psychical value, the possibility must
remain open of this meaning not being the same
in every dream. Our first dream was the fulfilment of a wish; a second one might turn out to
be a fulfilled fear; the content of a third might
be a reflection; while a fourth might merely
reproduce a memory. Shall we find other wishful
dreams besides this one? Or are there perhaps
no dreams but wishful ones?’ (4)
Freud then looks at some more empirical evidence, all of which appears to substantiate his
tentative hypothesis. First there are the ‘dreams
of convenience’ (e.g. the dream of drinking when
one is in fact thirsty; the dream of menstruating
when it is a fact that the dreamer has missed her
period). Such dreams would appear to be undisguised expreSSions of wishes. It would be difficult to give an account of them that did not refer
to a wishful impulse. Secondly Freud cites the
dreams of his own two children (his son who in
fact failed to reach the Si mony ijutte in the course
of a mountain climb the previous day, reports that
he climbed up to the hut in his dream; his daughter
who was forbidden to eat strawberries during the ‘

day, dreams of eating them etc.) Of course, it
could be claimed that there is no necessary causal
connexi0,n between the thirst, the missed period,
the preVIOUS day’s events and the dreamers’

dreams, and that therefore the latter are not
expressions of wishes but merely indifferent in
their content. But surely it is more empirical to
proceed on the basis that the coincidence between
fact and dream suggests a causal connexion than to
dispute it? Thirdly, Freud appeals to the ‘common
sense’ evidence of linguibtic usage (‘I wo~d never _
4 S. Freud, &andard Edition (SE), Hogarth Press,· London, 1953, Vol. IV,
p123; Pelican Freud Library (P), Harmondsworth, 1976, Vol. IV, p201.

have fmagined such a thing in my wildest dreams’;
‘what do geese dream of?’ asks the proverb, an~
it replies ‘of maize ‘). At this point it might seem
that Freud had done no more than any other scientist might legitimately do in establishing a working
hypothesis (i.e. considered certain evidence that
suggests its workability).

Then comes the first instance of apparent disconfirmation of the thesis – the ‘distressing’

dream ,-anxiety dreams. Freud of course accounts
for them by introducing the distinction between the
manifest dream content and the latent dreamthought, and the concept of ‘distortion’. He argues
that they too are motivated by wishes, but in
their case there has been some attempt to thwart
the eXpression of the wish. Dreams are now hypothesised to be the result of two psychical forces
or’agents, the one responsible for formulating the
wish, the otheT exercising censorship on it and
forcing its expression into distorted form. At
this point the empiricist might argue that Freud
has entered the realms of spew lation, for the
latent wish that is posited clearly does not have
the same credentials for being counted as a wish
as is the case with the undisguised wish-fulfilment
dreams. That is to say, the connexion between the
dream and the events of the previous day or with
the kind of neuro-physiological conditions that are
represented by the missed period or experience of
thirst, is not self-evident. What right, then, has
Freud to call it a wish, or even to posit its existence, since the only evidence we have is the exact
opposite of gratification (i.e. a disagreeable feeling:

anxiety)? And he might proceed to argue that given
this evidence, Freud should at that point have
abandoned his hypothesis, and that the manifest /
latent distinction, the notions of censorship, distortion etc are all devices introduced to preserve the
‘theory’ of wish-fulfilment. I attempt to argue
against such suggestions in (1)(b). Here I shall
only note that if it is true that distreSSing dreams,
have been accommodated within the wish-fulfilment
thesis, it is equally true that they have been the
cause of a significant modification of that thesis:

‘We shall be taking into account everything that
has been brought to light by our analysis of
unpleasurable dreams if we make the following
modification in the formula in which we sought
to express the, natttre of dreams: a dream is a
(disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed) wish. ‘ (5)
Moreover, Freud proceeds to consl-der the case
of anxiety dreams as a special sub-species of
distreSSing dreams. The displeasure felt in the
distreSSing dream is caused by the fact that a
repressed wish beats the censor OPPOSing it and
this defeat finds expreSSion as unpleasure. Now
some anxiety dreams may arise similarly. But
they may also arise from psycho;..seXl,Jal excitation,
in which case the anxiety corresponds to repressed
libido and the anxiety ‘like the whole anxiety”‘;
dream, has the Significance of a neurotic symptom,
and we come near the limit at wish the wishfulfilling purpose of dreams breaks down’. Such
drea’rns are tantamount to a break-down in the
normal-process of dreaming; they fail to perform
its proper function – for reasons which have
nothing to do with the psychology of the dream but
rather with that of the neuroses. Freud treats them
not as exceptions to the rule of wiSh-fulfilment but
as lying outside the confines of dream theory.

He writes: ‘If it were not for the fact that our topiC
is c~nnec~ed with tqe ~ubiect_of the ~enerat1on o~
5“S. Freud, SE IV, p160; P IV, p244.

anxiety by the single factor of the liberation of the
Ucs during sleep, I should be able to omit any
,diSCUSSion of anxiety dreams and avoid the necessity
for entering in these pages into all the obscurities
surrounding them.’ And even more emphatically
in the footnote added in 1911: ‘Anxiety in dreams,
1 should like to insist, is an anxiety problem, and
not a dream problem.’ Has Freud refused a
‘falsification’ of his theory in anxiety dreams, or
could it not be that his recognition of them as
different serves to limit and specify the dream
theory – not to falsify it but to give it greater
preciSion and a more restricted area of applicability? At the very least, it has to be ,recognized
that Freud does not try to accommodate anxiety
dreams wholly within the confines of dream-theory;
that he is aware of the extent to which wishfulfilment is inadequate in itself to contain and
4 explain them fully, and that in doing this, rather
than reading what he wants into the empirical data,
he has remained obedient to his dictates (i. e. to
the fact that different phenomena have presented
themselves not all of which can be subsumed and
assimilated under a single hypothesis).

Punishment dreams represent the second apparent
major ‘counter-example’ to the wish-fulfilment
thesis. Of them Freud writes: ‘ … their r~cognition
means in a certain sense a new addition to the
theory of dreams’, and in a couple of sentences
added in 1911: ‘I should have no objection to this
class of dreams being distinguished from “wishfulfilment” dreams under the name of “punishment
dreams “. I should not regard this as implyIng any
qualification of the theory of dreams which I have
,hitherto put forward; it would be no more than a
linguistic expedient for meeting the difficulties of
those who find it strange that opposites should
converge.’ Again, it might be argued, we have a
clear case of Freud refusing a ‘falsification’ of
his thesis. But let us note that the punishment
dream is in its turn the occasion for a Significant
modification and correction to his earlier formulation of wish-fulfilment. Hitherto he has supposed
that the motive force for the dream must be provided by a wish belonging to the Ucs; now he distinguishes punishment dreams as an exception t,]
this.rule’: the wish they express emanates not fr’)~l1
the Ucs. but from the ego. It is a punitive reactiJn
to the unconscious wish derived from the
repressed. (6).

In concluding this section, I suggest that the presumption of a Popperian type argument against the
wish-fulfilment theory is that Freud develops a
hypothesis, based on the confirmation of Simple
cases, that is fairly clear-cut and definite – and
thus correctly vulnerable to falsification – and then
proceeds, unscientifically, to distort and manipul’ate the hypotheSiS in the face of apparently dis~onfirming evidence. But an alternative interpretation of his procedure will recognize that at the start
of his analysis the hypothesis of wish-fulfilment is
of the most tenuous and vague character; it is by no
means fully formed and emerges as a theory only
towards the end of his work as a result of his
studies of a whole bodr of data bY,which it has been
6 Note that iD. allowing that in the cue of puntstimert dreams the wtshemanates from the agency of the censorship, Freud contradicts b1s
earUer inststence (when discussing anxiety dreams) that the wtsh always
emanates from the Ucs. He points this out in a footnote added in 1930,
where he further writes ‘Since psychoanalysts has divided the pe1’8onaUty
into an ego and super-ego . .• it has become euy to recognize in thes.

puniShment dreams fulfilments of the wishes of the super-ego’. Neverthe.

less, even the puniShment dream presupposes the repressed Unconscious
wtsh against which the super-ego reacts, and over which it gains
dominance. See SE IV, p473ff; P IV, p614ff and SE IV, p557ff, P IV,


shaiped, determined and limited. Thus to approach
the analysis of dreams as if Freud should present
us with theory right from the start which will then
circumscribe that facts it can accommodate, is to
miss the point; it is to be blind to what is arguably
precisely the scientific aspect of Freud’s progress.

For it is in the process of qualification itself that
the theory emerges from pre-theory; it is in the
light of the empirical evidence of many differing
types of dream that it becomes constituted. The
analytic progress to which we are witness is not
from hypothesis to fact to confirmation of (unchanged) hypothesis, but from fact to (tentative)
hypothesis to (qualified) hypotheSiS. We should also
note that in the course of constructing this qualified
hypothesis Freud has been forced to substantiate
his claims by reference to discoveries outside the
area of dream -theory. Freud’s ‘proof’ that dreams
are wish-fulfilments is not, and could not have
been, based simply on an analysis of dreams. But
nor,. on the other hand, is the dream simply an
instance of an already developed theory, a mere
exemplification, since the dream is also a crucial
nart of the raw material for the development of the
theory. The construction of the doctrine is thus
piece-meal and a process of constant crossreference in which dis coveries made in many
differing examinations of psychic processes are
related to each other, the theory modified and
expanded as a result of the relating. Freud himself
could scarcely have been more aware of this, and
The Interpretation of Dreams is full of testimonies
to his concern both to validate a theory which he
knows full well depends for its credibility on his
discoveries in fields other than dreaming, and at
the same time to keep within the bounds of his
direct subject matter.

He himself is the best spokes man in this regard:

‘There is no possibility of explaining dreams as
a psychical process, since to explain a thing
means to trace it back to something already known,
and there is at the present time no established
psychological knowledge under which we could
subsun1e what the psychological examination of
dreams enables us to infer as a basis for their
explanation. On the contrary, we shall be
obliged to set up a number of fresh hypotheses
which touch tentatively upon the structure of the
apparatus of the mind and upon the play of fo~ces
operating in it. We must be careful not to pursue
these hypotheses too far beyond their first logical
links, or their value will be lost in uncertainties.

Even if we make no false inferences and take all
the logical possibilities into account, the probable
incompleteness of our.pre mises threatens to
bring our calculations to a complete miscarriage.

No conclusions upon the construction and working
methods of the mental instrument can be arrived
at or at least f1,Illy proved from even the most
painstaking investigation of dreams or of any
other mental function taken in isolation .. To
achieve this resdlt, it will be necessary to
correlate all the established implications derived
from a comparative study of a whole series of
s1ch functions. Thus the psychological hypotheses to which we are led by an analysis of the
process of dreaming must be left, as it were in
suspense until they can be related to the findings
of other enquiries which seek to approach the
kernel of the same problem from another angle. ‘


These are hardly the ‘Yords of a

-7 S. Freud, SE IV! p511; P .IV, pp654-5.



on constraining all’ empirical data within the limits
of a pre-conceived theory.

(l ) (b) The adequacy of the theory
It might be objectedfluttthe arguments adduced
above are not convincing, or at any rate wrongfooted, and that in justifying the ’empirical’ and
‘scientific’ nature of Freud’s procedure I have only
served to show the extent to which it does not, and
cannot be made to, conform with that demanded by
Popper. But if my arguments have at least lent
‘Conviction to the claim that Freud’s progress is
obedient to empirical data and non-dogmatic, then
we can justifiably entertain some scepticism about
the worth of the Popperian criterion, and move to
the question of the extent to which Freud must
necessarily fail the Popperian test in order to
re main faithful to, and to produce an adequate
knowledge of the data he is studying. I shall examine this question by looking at the· tractability of
that data to explanations other than Freud’s.

After citing the dream ‘A child is burning’

(in which a father dreams that his recently dead
child is still alive – the full content of the dream
need not detain us), Freud says that if we eliminate the wish-fulfilment only two features are left
to distinguish the dream from waking thoughts:

(i) the thought is transformed-into sensory images
and (ii) it uses the present tense. As regards (ii),
Freud claims ‘we need not linger over this
peculiarity of dreams’ and compares it to the same
device used in day-dreaming. His argument here
directs us im mediately to the essential connexion
between this aspect of dreaming and the fact that
the dream is a wish-fulfilment: ‘The present tense
is the one in which dreams are represented as
fulfilled. ‘

The argument is, of course, tautological: if a
wish is fulfilled in a dream (as opposed to merely
being wished) then the dream has no alternative but
to transfer the optative and future tense into the
present. Thus, in the dream of Irma’s injection
the optative ‘if only otto were responsible for
Irma’s illness’ becomes ‘Yes, otto is responsible’.

But there are two sides to this issue. The critic
of Freud might cite the tautological nature of the
argument as further instance of Freud’s ‘seeing
what he wants to see’ – of the recalcitrance of his
method to falsifiability – on the grounds that the
fact that the dream takes place in the presellt tense
is used by Freud as proof that the dream is wishfulfilment. On the other hand, it has to-be recognized that dreams do take place in the present tense
and this is an empirical fact about them which
therefore stands in need of explanation in any
theory of dreaming.

Now the fact that it is often possible to establish
a relationship between a waking event or thought
and the material of the dream, suggests that this
would be a starting point for any explanation. Let
us take the simple case of Freud’s son who dreams
of reaching the Simony Rutte after failing to do so
the previous day. That he atte mpt~d to r~ach th~
hut in waking life, and that he achIeves hIS ambItion in sleep are two undeniable facts . In this very
simple case we are not even dependent upon the
dreamer’s own account of his waking experience,
since Freud himself accompanied the child on the
mountain walk. In other words, the connexion
between the events is not simply made by the
dreamer .but something that must strike one objectively. Now is it not legitimate. to try t? .make sense
of. the ‘coincidence’ of the waking ambItion and the

dream ~.achievement – granted, that is that we are
interested at all-in considerations of the connexion
between them – on the basis that the dream’s
representation of a scene in the present of a scene
experienced in waking-life as a future desideratum
speaks of its wish-fulfilling function. Why must we
accept the suggestion that it is only the prior hypothesis of wish-fulfilment that alone allows the
explanation of the present tense of the dream
thought? Why should the latter be related to only
in terms of its confirmation of an already established theory rather than as ‘evidence for the
construction of that theory?

It might be argued against this: that the child’s
dream is wish-fulfilling tells us nothing about other
dreams, particularly those apparently most intransigent to a theory of wish-fulfilment (anxiety
dreams, punishment dreams etc), and it is
especially in relation to these cases that the falsifiability criterion should apply. Such dreams should
be taken as sui e:eneris, as new, autonomous events
discovered to bE{ a part of the ‘raw material’ for a
theory of dreaming. The mode of their explanation
should not be predetermined by the already established theory of dreams as wish-fulfilment, and it
is mere sophistry we are offered in that account
of them.

In reply to such an objection, I would maintain
that the mode of counter-argument Iilave just
sketched for the Simple, cases also applies to these
apparently disconfirming cases. That dreams are
dreamt which arouse fear, anxiety or else give
expression to self-criticism and even ‘punish’ the
dreamer, need not and probably should not be seen
as referring us directly to wish-fulfilment for their
explanation. It is rather that even if we adopt a
neutral stance on them, and do not consider them
a priori as instances of wish-fulfilment, we nonetheless seem to be brought back to that hypothesis
in order to give any explanation of their nature and
existence. That is to say, it is only wish-fulfilment
that seems able to provide an adequate and consistent answer to questions about their purpose and
about whether they are serving as ends or means.

Let us relate to the anxiety dream as Freud did
to his child ‘8 dream – i.e. as a clear case of fulfilment of anxiety or fear. But the notion that this
suggests – that fears and anxieties are ends in
themselves – is a peculiar one. Is it”not rather
the case that fear and anxiety serve to protect and
defend, and the protection and -defence they provide
only makes sense in terms of preserving some
pleasure? Again, it is not clear why the existence
of anxiety and punishment dreams cannot be seen
as evidence for wanting to hypothesize a theory of
wish-fulfilment rather than as evidence for the
rejection of such a hypothesis. It is the necessity
of explaining their existence that leads to the theory
of wish-fulfilment, rathe’r than the theory of wishfulfilment leading to their explanation.

It is true, I think, that Freud’s presentation of
these dreams is misleadirig, and plays into the
J:lands of Popperian critics, because he approaches
the m from the standpoint of their apparent, but not
actual, disconfirmation of the theory of wish..;
fulfilment. That is to say, he tends to approach
them as if it were a matter of accommodating
them within wish-fulfilment theory rather than
from the standpoint of the-inadequacy of alternative
attempts to deal with the phenomena they manifest,
but I do not think it involves him in an evasion of
the real nature of the raw material; in the process
of his constant confrontations with ‘disceJlfirming’

material he is providing explanations of that
material of a kind which do not- in an arbitrary and
illegitimate way expose the apparently disconfirming as in fact confirming, but reveal the material
at issue to be itself evidence for the theory it
looks like falsifying. It is not that we can only
explain the anxiety dream etc because we have a
theory of wish-fulfilment; it is that in order to
explain such dreams at all we are led to discover
_~daten( wish .. The presumption of the Popperian
crit-ieis m of this progress is that the object of
anything deserving the name of ‘scientific’ in-vestigation is in some sense already known and
pre-constituted. This knowledge – which in effect
is a ‘knowledge of what kind of knowledge we want
– thus determines the appropriateness of certain
hypotheses, and deCides beforehand what kind of
phenomena will be counted as candidates for confirming/ disconfirming those hypotheses. It is
therefore not allowed that it is the nature of the
phenomena submitted to investigation that will
determine the appropriateness of a particular
methodology, or that the object of a science and
the very criteria for selecting phenomena as
relevant to its domain, are constituted in the
process itself of investigation and theorisation.

2) The Interdependency of the Theory
of the Motive and the Theory of the
The issue of the autonomy of the theory of wishfulfilment is particularly raised by the distressing
dream. Is the acceptance or rejection of the theory
independent of the acceptance or rejection of
Fre~d ‘s theory of dream formation? Freud himself
speaks of the ‘mutual relation’ (8) between the wish
which is the dream’s motive and the four conditions
to which the dream is subject, but he does not
explicitly discuss the question of their logical
autonomy. The four conditions referred to here
are: (i) a necessity for condensation of its psychical
material; (ii) a regard for the possibility of its
being represented in sensory images; (iii) a demanc
that the structure of the dream shall have a rational
and intelligible exterior (though there are dreams
which dispense with this demand)·and (iv) the
necessity of evading the censor. Elsewhere, these
are listed as condensation, displacement, consider,ations of representability, and secondary revision.

It, is in terms of the latter formulation of the
conditions that Freud investigates the mechanism
of dream formation (i.e. the ‘translation’ of dream
thoughts into the dream content, in the lengthy
chapter on the dream work).

The argument in support of the idea that Freud’s
analysis of dream-formation is dependent upon the
theory of wish-fulfilment, and cannot be theoretically accepted in isolation from the latter, could be
elaborated with a great deal of –exemplification,
consideration of counter-examples, and so on.

Since this is only a note, I shall present it very
briefly and baldly. My conviction is, and I believe
its truth to be demonstrated by Freud (who probably
never even considered the possibility of detaching
his account of the dream mechanism from the
account of its motive), that if we investigate these
four conditions we discover that there can be no
rationale for their operation except that provided
by the theory of wish-fulfilment. This theory, inits modified form, states that the motive of dreams



8 S. Freud, sE IV, p533, P IV, p6Sl.


is f~r the most part a disguised fulfilment of a
suppressed wish. Now our ‘advocate’ of the logical
independence of motive and mechanis m is one who
in principle can reject the theory of wish-fulfilment
whil~ accepting the theory of the dream mechanis m,
that IS to say, the processes of dream production
or translation. In theory, then, it can be claimed
by such an advocate that a dream is motivated by a
fear but that the processes of translation of the
fear into the dream content are those; of condensation, displacement, etc. In that case, ‘however,
either condensation, displacement, etc would have
to be accounted for as defensive against the expreSSion of fear, or else an account of their function would have to be provided other than in terms
of their defensive and distorting operation. Both
alternatives see m inadequate, but they need to be
spelled out.

We must be clear: to accept the theory of the
dream mechanis m is to accept the latent / manifest
distinction. It is to accept the theory of dual
psychic agencies in conflict with each other. It is
to accept the existence of the system Ucs. and the
impossibility of an undistorted translation of its
thought into the manifest dream content. Otherwise,
why would there be any call for a mechanism of
dream formation at all? Given this, the strongest
argument that might be put by someone accepting
the theory of dream mechanism but rejecting the
theory of dream motivation would be something as
follows: a dream is not always motivated by a
wish; sometimes it is motivated by, e. g. a fear
(or by indifference). In the latter event the dream
work submits to the same processes – the fear is
condensed, disphiced’- undergoes transformation,
uses sym bolisation, revises its initial thoughts, etc
etc, and finds expression in the dream content. But
expreSSion as what? Perhaps as a palpable wishfulfilment – i.e.’ in totally distorted form? So how
does such a theory account for distressing dreams,
in which the fear is not distorted? There are two
possibilities: one could argue, as Freud does in
regard to the simple wish-fulfilment dreams, that
no disguise is required, so that they represent
cases of simple fear fulfilment dreams. Or else it
can be allowed that distressing dreams are disguised’ and hence argued that their motive is not a
fear but something else – which it might be claimed
was indeed a wish in their specific case. The first
argument, however, is not really available to one
who advocates the logical independence of motive
and mechanis m that we are examining since it does
not raise the issue of the dream mechanism at all:

the supposed palpable fear-fulfilment dreams do
not demand any recourse in their explanation to that
mechanism since their motivating fear coincides
with the fear of the dream content. On the other
hand, the second argument fails to explain what it
is that is corn mon to the motivating fear that issues
in the pleasant dream on the one hand, and the
motivating wish that issues in the distressing dream
on the other hand. It seems impossible to provide
an account of psychical impulses and functioning
that renders the’ need to distort, condense, displace,
etc a fear, compatible with the need to do the same
to a wish. The protection of the one motive would
seem necessarily to invoke the expreSSion of the
other as affect and vice-versa.

But let us consider the other argument – that
condensation, displacement, considerations of
representation and secondary revision have a
function in the production of the dream that is not
one of defence. Then the onus is on anyone who

would attempt to claim this to show the function of
the changes wreaked by these four factors in the
transition from dream thought to dream content.

What is the purpose of their alterations to the
motivating force of the dream? Are they merely
modes of expression operating analogously to
metaphor and metonymy in the production of language, upon any ad hoc motive that the unconscious
offers? To suggest this is tantamount to suggesting that psychical processes are arbitrary, that
there is no purposefulness in dreaming, no causal
connexions that we can ascertain between dream
thought and dream content. It is to argue, in effect,
that we can have no knowledge of the dream and its
modus operadi, that it is not an object for a knowledge since it displays no ordering, no generalities,
no causal nexus. And the same would have to be
said of psychic functioning as a whole.

3) The Question of Scientificity



I have already suggested the extent to which Freud
was aware that the credibility of his theory of
dreamingwas dependent upon his work in psychoanalysis as a whole. It is no accident that the
dreams :whfch cause most trouble from the point of
view of wiSH-fulfilment are those in whose explanation Freud is forced to refer most directly to the
theory of the psychoneuroses/which he has already
developed. The dreams in questi.Qn cause trouble
not so much because they look like disconfirming
wish-fulfilment but because the credibility of his
explanations relies ultimately on the credibility of
the whole of Freudian psychology – in particular
of the theory of the aetiology of the neuroses, and
in general of the theory of psychic topology and

Thus in the case of the punishment dream, the
wish that the dreamer may be punished for a
repressed and forbidden wishful impulse is claimed
to derive from the ‘ego’. Freud’s comment on this
is that the mechanism of dream formation would in
general be greatly clarified if instead of the opposition between ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ we
were to speak of that between ‘ego’ and ‘repressed’.

This cannot be done, however, without taking
account of the processes underlying the psychone,uroses and for that reason it has not been carried
out in the present work (9). Or again, when dealing
with the dream and repression he writes: ‘Though
my own line of approach to -the subject of dre’a’iJ1s
was determined by my previous work on the
psychology of the neuroses, I had not intended to
make use of the latter as a basis of reference in
the present work. Nevertheless I am constantly
being driven to do so, .instead of proceeding, as I
would have wished, in the contrary-direction and
using dreams as a means of approach to the
psychology of the neuroses. ‘ (10) Similarly he
recognizes over and over again his incapacity to
deal with anxiety-dreams in terms of dream

‘But it is not until towards the end of the book that
the complexity and specificity of the theory of
dreams-as wish-fulfilments becomes clear, with
Freud’s account firstly of the relationship between
conscious and unconscious wishes, their antithetical
nature, and secondly of the nature of the wish itself.

And it is the conjuncture of these two accounts
which reveals most profoundly the dependency of
the, theory of dreaming on the- theory of the
9 S. Freud, SE IV, p558; P IV, p710.

10 S. Freud, SE IV, p588; P IV, p745.

Uncdnscious and on the metapsychology of pleasure
principle / reality principle. At this point, it
becomes clear that what counts from the point of
view of the ‘scientific’ status of the theory of
dreams is not the account he gives (or manipulation
he wreaks, as his critics might put it) of the apparently disconfirming evidence,· but the scientificity
of the Freudian account of the human psyche generally. For his account and interpretation of dreams
is entirely plausible and totally without strain when
set in this context, and when viewed from the standpoint of his theory of the psychical apparatus and
its working, the distressing dreams present themselves as autonomously and immediately confirmatory evidence for his hypotheses about the psyche
– evidence which is drawn from a specific manifestation of psychic activity, namely dreaming. Freud
is not hypothesising from the nature of dreams to
the nature of the psyche, nor from-some preestablished and rigid set of ideas about the nature
of the psyche to the nature of dreaming. Rather,
he is building a psychology based on an honest
confrontation with all the phenomena presented by
psychic life (and it is surely to his credit, and
should recommend him to the Popperians; that he
does not merely confront the abnormal and exceptional, but poses himself the question of the normal
psychic activity of dreaming). Now the object of
any scientific theory can be said to be the· adequate
explanation in as self-consistent form as possible
of the mass of objective facts that fall within its
province. The problem here, of course, is what
counts as the ‘province of the study’, i.e. the
problem of the criteria for including or excluding
data as relevant. It is the problem of selectivity
(and such problems always refer-us back to
further ones regarding the conceptual orderings
which we bring to the ‘chaotic aggregate’ of the
universe). It is right, I believe, to raise these
problems of ordering and of the selectivity of data
based on them (in the way that, for example, Levistrauss and Foucault do). And it is right to do so
not because it provides the titillating frisson of
intellectual shock (to whose embarrassment and/or
seduction the Western analytic mind is pretty
resistant anyway) or because it provides the
opportunity for indulging in an entertaining foray
into relativist thinking a la Feyerabend, but
because it allows us to break down prejudices
about what is knowledge and what is not; and it is
only via a constant questioning in regard to this
that new and crucial areas of study are opened up
and new knowledge thereby gained. It is not clear
what is meant, therefore, by charging Freud with
being ‘arbitrary’ in his selection of data and mode
of dealing with it. Arbitrary relative to what?

It is not as if there were an already constituted
object of psychoanalysis to which Freud applied a
certain set of conceptions and wielded them- in a
certain kind of way; the object of psychoanalysis
is constituted in the process of selecting and
attempting to explain certain phenomena encountered in human experience (dreams, the symptomatologies of mental illness, the recovery from
these etc. ).

But the clain that Freud’s work is unscientific is
based on the notion that we already know what can
count as the object for a science – that-our selection has already been made in this respect. If the
set of phenomena that Freud-attempted to explain
are not susceptible to appropriation by methodologies regarded as scientific, then they cannot
consUtute the object of scientific work. Popper

makes this very clear when he cedes that Freud
may well be partially correct – he could cede he
is wholly correct – in what he discovers about the
human psyche. Nevertheless, these truths are not
scientific -theyarewhathe calls ‘revealed’science’.

But Popper’s criterion for demarcating between
such ‘revealed’ science and science proper is its
public quality – the fact that it is made accessible
to what he calls free criticism (i.e. its being
presented in a way that allows it to be challenged,
refuted, denied, etc~ through the discourse and
experience of other scientists). What is not clear
is why Freud’s theory fails in this respect. -A,fter
all his work was made public in the way required
and Freud himself was highly sensitized to criticism and very prepared to review his theories in the
light of it. The problem seems rather to be that the
criticism was lacking – Freud himself repeatedly
bemoans the fact that his theory never gets so much
as a mention (see the Prefaces to The Interpretation
of Dreams).

Now this position has to some extent been rectified
in recent years by various experimental and theoretical investigations of Freud’s theory (11), If Popper
would allow – as it seems he must – that that kind of
criticis m and testing of Freudian theory constitutes
the ‘genuine’ type of criticism to which he seems to
be referring when, for example, he cites the
deficiency of a Robinson Crusoe’s astronomical
observations (there would be no means of Cnusoe
discovering his ‘personal equation’ of the characteristic personal reaction time affecting his observations), then what would he acknowledge tp be its
implications for the scientificity of Freud’s work?

It would at least appear that Popper’s a priori
jismissal of Freudian theory as non-scientific
would have to be reconsidered in the light of his
own criteria as to what constitutes a science.

Either the strict Popperian must recognize the
implications of public ‘criticis m of Freud’s work,
or else we must suspect a prejudicial stance
towards it in the first place – a quite deliberate and
irrational refusal to confront the kind of evidence
that might grant it the seal of scientificity.

11 See works referred to in footnotes (1) and (3).


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