Metapsychology: What It Is And How Sigmund Freud Defined It

Metapsychology is one of the most relevant concepts when it comes to understanding psychoanalysis.


Psychoanalytic theory is very interesting, mystical, and often quite confusing. It is not surprising, since it was one of the first psychological approaches in history and, with the science of the mind still in its infancy, it was to be expected that the theories related to it had yet to be clarified.

Among the most interesting psychoanalytic proposals we have the metapsychology of Sigmund Freud, a rich set of proposals on how the human mind is organized and works, although it could also be said that it abuses mysticism and is unclear.

Next we will try to understand what this metapsychology is, how Sigmund Freud tried to describe the structure of the mind and what energies are those that would be behind the psychological functioning.

What is metapsychology?

Metapsychology is the most abstract and theoretical part of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. It is a very complex theory in terms and, to tell the truth, it could even be considered somewhat mystical. It is the part of Freudian theory that tries to explain mental functioning, personality and behavior based on general principles.

The term “metapsychology” was developed by Freud himself in 1896, to designate the psychology founded by him in its most theoretical dimension. Metapsychology develops a set of conceptual models, to a greater or lesser extent distant from experience, such as the fiction of a psychic apparatus divided into instances, the theory of drives, the process of repression and others.

The formulations of metapsychology describe mental phenomena in terms of the fictional psychic apparatus, and contain references to topographic, dynamic, and economic aspects of each phenomenon. The topographic aspects refer to the location of the phenomena within the psychic apparatus, that is, both in the id, the ego or the superego.

The dynamic aspects refer to the instincts involved, and the economic ones refer to the distribution of energy within the psychic apparatus. In addition to the economic, topographical and dynamic vision, Freud speaks of other visions:

  • Structural point of view: referring to the structure of the unconscious.
  • Genetic point of view: talking about biology and genetic inheritance.

Economic point of view

This vision qualifies everything that is related to the psychic processes involved in the transport and distribution of an energy that would be the basis of human behavior. This energy, which would explain the drives, would be like any other, that is, susceptible to increase, decrease and equivalences with respect to other energetic actions of the psyche. The idea of ​​energy raised by Freud is used to clarify changes in attention, interest or commitment from one object to another in one activity to another.

The economic approach consists in considering the cathexis (energy that joins a group of representations) in their mobility, their changes in intensity, the oppositions that are established between them (counter-cathexis). Throughout all of Freud’s work there are economic considerations, for him a complete description of a psychic process would not be possible without appreciating the economy of cathexis.

It must be said that the psychoanalytic idea of ​​energy proposed by Freud is not without controversy. Although it can be understood as the motivational aspect or a psychologic representation of the action, there are those who would think that this idea is somewhat mystical, like the rest of Freudian metapsychology.

Dynamic point of view

This point of view refers to the psychic phenomena resulting from a psychological conflict. This idea has a lot to do with the Freudian concept of the unconscious, since it would be the most dynamic dimension of the human mind, insofar as its permanent action influences consciousness, regulates repression and is directly related to psychopathology from the psychoanalytic perspective primal.

Topographic point of view

When we refer to the topographic aspects of metapsychology we refer to the theory or point of view that supposes a differentiation of the psychic apparatus in a certain number of systems endowed with different characteristics or functions, placed in a certain order. It is what allows us to consider them, in a metaphorical sense, as psychic places, hence the “topographic” thing.

The first tomographic conception of the Freudian psychic apparatus is represented in Chapter VII of “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900), although it already had its origins in “Scientific Psychology Project” (1895). In this first proposal of the topic, he already distinguishes between three systems within the apparatus itself: unconscious, preconscious and conscious. The relationship between these systems and the existence of censorship would be what would determine the person’s ability to remember, especially related to psychological trauma.

The topographic division is also given in the form of instances, which would be the following three:

  • It: drive pole of the personality.
  • I: body that stands to represent the interests of the person (libido)
  • Super-ego: instance that judges and criticizes.

It should be said that the topographical idea proposed by Freud can be confused with the anatomical-functional ideas of the brain, strongly popularized in the days of the psychoanalyst. Thanks to the findings of Wernicke, Broca and other neurologists, the idea that cognitive functions were located in different regions of the brain was gaining more and more force.

However, curious as it may seem, Freud does not pose the topographical point of view as something that indicates where the conscious, the unconscious and the preconscious are located in the brain. Rather, it refers to where you are in a psychic system, of a rather abstract and intangible type.

Freud, in his metapsychology, considers that the unconscious is organized as if it were a file system, even a library. In his work “Studies on hysteria” (1895), he describes a conception of the unconscious that is organized in layers, where memories would be arranged more or less close to a pathogenic nucleus, which would come to represent the crystallized traumatic memory .

Final reflection

Freudian metapsychological ideas have been an aspect considered fundamental in early psychoanalysis, although it is not very clear what Freud refers to by topographic, economic and dynamic. He tried to explain them further in life, and other authors have tried to expand on his principles. However, on many occasions, these three aspects have been defined in a somewhat vague way, and even some of the ideas proposed by Freud himself overlap between visions, especially the economic and topographical.

Bibliographic references:

  • Laplanche, Jean LAP Dictionary of psychoanalysis / Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis: under the direction of Daniel Lagache.- Ia ed. 6f reimp.- Buenos Aires: Paidós.
  • Iturbide, L. (2016). Dynamic Psychology: Chapter IX Freudian Metapsychology. Basque Country.ía%20freudiana%20%28texto%29.pdf
  • Roudinesco, E .; Plon, Michel (2008). Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Buenos Aires: Paidós. p. 715. ISBN 978-950-12-7399-1.

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