Letter to Wilhelm Fliess of 21st September 1897 : known as Letter 69 : Sigmund Freud

by Julia Evans on September 21, 1897

p264-267 of ‘The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904’ [NB ‘The Project’ is not included]: Translated and Edited by Jeffrey Maoussaieff Masson: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: 1985

Translated by Jeffrey Maoussaieff Masson

Available here 

2) Translated by Eric Mosbacher, with footnotes by James Strachey

p215-218 in Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris, (Eds.), The origins of psycho-analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes, 1887-1902, (Eric Mosbacher & James Strachey, Trans.), London: Imago, 1954

Available here

Availability of references in the Footnotes:

P216 Footnote 1 : Freud’s attention had for months past been directed to the study of infantile phantasy; he had studied the dynamic function of phantasy and gained lasting insights into this field. See pp. 204 and 207 and Letter 62 sqq : See Letter to Wilhelm Fliess of 16th May 1897 : known as Letter 62 : Sigmund Freud or here

P216 Footnote 2 : Quote, Thirdly, there was the definite realization that there is no “indication of reality” in the unconscious. – See “Project,” p. 429 : See The Project for a Scientific Psychology: 23rd & 25th September & 5th October 1895: Sigmund Freud or here : Quote from p428 to 429 of James Strachey’s translation : There is no doubt a second biological rule, derived by abstraction from the process of expectation, to the effect that one must direct one’s attention to indications of quality (because they belong to perceptions that may lead to satisfaction)and then allow oneself to be led from the indication of quality to the perception which has emerged. In short, the mechanism of attention must owe its origin to a biological rule of this kind, which will regulate the displacement of ego-cathexes. [Footnote 1 : See the continuation of this line of thought in Freud (1911b) (Freud, Sigmund. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 213-226.) where attention is assigned the task of “periodically searching the external world, in order that its data may be already familiar if an urgent internal need should arise”. ]

Here it may be objected that a mechanism like this, operating by the help of indications of quality, is redundant. The ego, it will be said, might have learnt biologically to cathect the perceptual sphere in states of expectation on its own account, instead of only being led to this cathexis through the agency of indications of quality. There are, however, two points to be made in justification of the mechanism of attention. (l) The sphere of the indications of discharge from the system W (ω) is clearly a smaller one, comprises fewer neurones, than the sphere of perception-that is, of the whole pallium of ψ which is connected with the sense organs. Consequently the ego saves an extraordinarily large expenditure if it cathects the discharge instead of the perception. (2) The indications of discharge or the indications of quality are also primarily indications of reality, and are intended to serve the purpose of distinguishing the cathexes of real perceptions from the cathexes of wishes. Thus we see that we cannot do without the mechanism of attention. But it consists in every case of the ego cathecting those neurones in which a cathexis has already appeared.

The biological rule of attention, in so far as it concerns the ego, runs as follows : If an indication of reality appears, the perceptual cathexis which is simultaneously present must be hypercathected.

This is the second biological rule. The first one is that of primary defence.

p216 Footnote 3 : (This leaves open the possible explanation that sexual phantasy regularly makes use of the theme of the parents. ) [3] The next step from this was insight into the Oedipus complex.

P217 : Footnote 1 : See Ernst Kris’s Introduction p29 : 1954 : in The Origins of Psychoanalysis op. cit. and following :

Quote p29-30 : During the last few months of 1896 and the first half of 1897 Freud studied the luxuriant growth of his patients’ phantasy life; not only their day-dreams, but more particularly the infantile phantasies which invariably manifest themselves in the thoughts, dreams and behaviour of adult neurotics under the conditions of psycho-analytic treatment. From these he slowly gained the first hesitant insights into the nature of infantile sexual organization, at first into what was later to be called the anal phase. Later observation was to pie on observation in what was perhaps Freud’s boldest undertaking. His observations of adult neurotics enabled him to reconstruct some of the normal stages in the child’s growth towards maturity; in the half-century since Freud first discovered them the stages of development of the libido have been the subject of detailed research and systematic observation which have invariably confirmed them afresh.

In the spring of 1897, in spite of accumulating insight into the nature of infantile wish-phantasies, Freud could not make up his mind to take the decisive step demanded by his observations and abandon the idea of the traumatic role of seduction in favour of insight into the normal and necessary conditions of childish development and childish phantasy life. He reports his new impressions in his letters, but does not mention the conflict between them and the seduction hypothesis until one day, in his letter of September 21st 1897 (Letter 69 – See Letter to Wilhelm Fliess of 21st September 1897 : known as Letter 69 : Sigmund Freud or here), he describes how he realized his error. The description of how this came about, and the consequences of the abandonment of the seduction hypothesis, tallies with that given in his published works.

“When this aetiology broke down under its own improbability and under contradiction in definitely ascertainable circumstances, the result at first was helpless bewilderment”, he states in ‘On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement’. “Analysis had led by the right paths back to these sexual traumas, and yet they were not true. Reality was lost from under one’s feet. At that time I would gladly have given up the whole thing. Perhaps I persevered only because I had no choice and could not then begin again at anything else.”

Nearly thirty years later, in his ‘Autobiographical Study’, Freud pointed to what seems another psychologically important explanation of his mistake. “I had in fact stumbled for the first time upon the Oedipus complex”, he wrote. We see from the letters that insight into the structure of the Oedipus complex, and thus into the central problem of psycho-analysis, was made possible by Freud’s self-analysis, which he started in the summer of 1897 during his stay at Aussee. (This is stated in Letter 75 – See Letter from Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess of 14th November 1897 : known as Letter 75 or here and contradicted in Letter 65)

P217, Footnote 1 continued : Quote : In a footnote dated 1924 to the section on “the specific aetiology of hysteria” in “Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence” (1896b) Freud states : This section was written while I ws under the ascendancy of an error which I have since then repeatedly acknowledged and corrected. I had not yet found out how to distinguish between patients’ phantasies about their own childhood and real memories. I consequently ascribed to the aetiological factor of seduction an importance and general validity which it does not possess. When this error was overcome, the door was opened to an insight into the spontaneous manifestations of infantile sexuality which I described in my ‘Three Essays on the Theory of sexuality’ (1905d).Nevertheless, there is no need to reject the whole of what appears in the text above; seduction still retains a certain aetiological importance, and I still consider that some of the psychological views expressed in this section meet the case.


Julia Evans

Practicing Lacanian Psychoanalyst, Earl’s Court, London


Further texts

Of the clinic : here

Lacanian Transmission : here

Some Lacanian History : here

Topology : here

From LW working groups : here

By Sigmund Freud here

Notes on texts by Sigmund Freud : here

By Jacques Lacan here

Notes on texts by Jacques Lacan here