Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Winnicott's Rejection of the Basic Concepts of Freud's Metapsychology1

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Winnicott's Rejection of the Basic Concepts of Freud's Metapsychology1

Article excerpt

In this paper, the author attempts to show how Winnicott rejected the basic concepts of Freud's metapsychology, namely the concepts of Trieb (instinct/drive), psychical apparatus and libido. To that purpose, he first elucidates what metapsychology is, according to Freud. Freud describes metapsychology as a speculative superstructure of psychoanalysis in which the aforementioned concepts correspond to the dynamic, topographical and economic viewpoints. The author then presents an explanation of what metapsychology means in Winnicott's view, and examines his criticism of this kind of speculative theorization in psychoanalysis, as well as his suggested substitute for each of those basic concepts. Subsequent analysis shows that Winnicott replaced the main concepts of the metapsychological theory, which have no correlation whatsoever in the phenomenal world, with a set of other, non-speculative concepts, thereby favouring a factual theorization.

Keywords: metapsychology, speculation, heuristics, factual theorization


To Freud, metapsychological theorization was a matter of necessity (1937); since then, psychoanalysts have been busy with either its advancement or disparagement. It is noteworthy that most time-honoured 'school founders', such as Klein and Lacan, have reiterated the need for a metapsychology and either worked on Freud's proposal or traded it for a different model. However, this was not an altogether unanimous position. Philosophers (such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger) and psychoanalysts (such as Ronald Fairbairn, Harry Guntrip, H. J. Home,2 Heinz Kohut, Roy Schafer and George Klein) have been stern critics of that type of theory. Among all those who opposed metapsychology, Donald Winnicott occupies a special place. Recent studies have shown that not only did he criticize that type of theoretical construction, but he also offered a consistent alternative-one that had no use for metapsychological concepts-to the development of psychoanalysis.

In order to ascertain that Winnicott discarded the basic concepts of Freud's metapsychology in favour of another set, of an epistemological nature, I propose: primarily, to revise the nature, function and characteristics of Freud's metapsychological concepts; second, to trace the meaning of the term 'metapsychology' in Winnicott's work; third, to demonstrate that he discards the metapsychological concepts of Lebenstriebe (life instinct/drive) and Todestriebe (death instinct/drive) and, subsequently, the concepts of Trieb (instinct/drive3) in general and psychical apparatus; and, last, to endeavour to show that the term 'libido', as used by Winnicott, no longer denotes an energy analogous to that inherent in the physical phenomena, but is instead an allusion to the assessment made of events and fantasies pertaining to interhuman relationships. On the basis of this analysis, I assert that Winnicott's theorization is of a factual type, unlike metapsychological theorization, which is of a speculative nature.

Nature, function and characteristics of the metapsychological concepts according to Freud

Freud employs the term 'metapsychology' in two different senses: as designating a psychological theory that considers the unconscious as the field of the psychical par excellence (1900, p. 612), i.e. a general theory of a 'psychology of the unconscious';4 and as designating a set of concepts, auxiliary theoretical constructs, of a purely heuristic value. He refers to this second sense when he says, 'I propose that when we have succeeded in describing a psychical process in its dynamic, topographical and economic aspects, we should speak of it as a metapsychological presentation' (1915b, p. 181, original italics). Thus, metapsychology became known as the theoretical construct that regards the psychical processes according to three points of view: the dynamic, which considers the psychical as if it were moved by opposing psychical forces, what Freud calls Trieb; the topographical, which sees the psychical as if it were an apparatus divided into spatially representable instances; and the economic, which conceives the psychical as if it were moved by an energy. …

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