According to Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis:

Human behavior is partly driven by the subconscious. The subconscious is a kind of psychological black box, inaccessible directly by the conscious mind, and made of impulses (internal psycho-physico energies).

They might be repressed under the pressure of the "superego", which reflects the internalization of cultural rules, mainly taught by parents applying their guidance and influence.

Nonetheless, impulses need to express themselves in order to relieve the associated tension, otherwise the individual will enter in an unbearable suffering.

This is done via different kinds of phenomena (defense mechanisms, somatization, laspus, dreams).


So certain shameful impulses can be transformed, via a defense mechanism, in order to express themselves in a non-shameful manner (a hateful impulse towards the father gets transformed into an anguish impulse towards a horse), certain impulses can be productively transformed into an artistic activity, or unproductively transformed into a detrimental harmful act (violence).

Many adult problematic behaviors (which are not rare in people suffering from mental disorders) can be explained by defense mechanisms installed during the childhood, in response to impulses, which might, in the adulthood, be no more justified and require to be explored and modified.

This work is guided by the psychoanalyst who can help the patient to explore his/her subconscious impulses in order to solve the conflicts that go back to his/her childhood (1). (Although in modern psychiatry, as for depression, we treat depressive people by solving the immediate problems that the patients suffers from, and not by searching for their causes, as explained by psychiatry professor Michel Lejoyeux)

If you had a bad behavior, it was not really your fault, because it is the subsonscious (the impulses) to which you have not access and therefore can not control, which expressed itself in an unproductive manner. We need to understand the impulse, and help you to express it in a productive manner (to talk in a psychoanalytic therapy, to perform art, etc.).

If on the other hand you expressed your impulse productively, good for you.

No matter what, as alluded in the presentation, these unfathomable impulses should not be controlled over too much, otherwise you will repress yourself too much via defense mechanisms, and become nevrotic/suffer a lot.

As of what is your defense mechanism for which impulse, this is also unfathomable.


Does the Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis understanding of human psychology leads to irrationality and low self-control?

The idea under this question is embodied in this quote from Steven Pinker (The Sugary Secret of Self-Control, Pinker, New York Times, 2011) :

the very idea of self-control has aquired a musty Victorian odor. The Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that the phrase rose in popularity through the 19th century but began to free fall around 1920 and cratered in the 1960s, the era of doing your own thing, letting it all hang out and taking a walk on the wild side. Your problem was no longer that you were profligate or dissolute, but that you were uptight, repressed, neurotic, obsessive-compulsive or fixated at the anal stage of psychosexual development


Beware that psychoanalysis is mostly viewed as a pseudoscience nowadays https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5459228/.

Response to comments:

*One comment asking "Can Freud and Lacan be put in the same box? Don't their methods greatly differ?" Normally Lacan is a follower of Freud, but it has indeed been argued that he went in a very different direction https://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/en-partenariat-avec-books/20120319.OBS4074/comment-lacan-a-trahi-freud.html

So my question concerns more Freudian psychoanalysis, and I include Lacan because TMK a significant part the psychoanalysis practicioners are Lacanian, and that Lacanians are supposed to be in continuation of Freud.


Bouchoux, J. C. (2009). La pulsion: c'est plus fort que moi... Editions Eyrolles.


4 Answers 4


I find it interesting that this question cites all of the negative (pathological) forms of relieving inner tensions, but skips over the concept of sublimation, by which discordant internal tensions are transmuted into positive (pro-personal and pro-social) activities. That speaks to a pervasive misunderstanding of Freudian psychology in the modern world.

Not that I'm likely to defend Freudianism, which has distinct flaws. But the knee-jerk rejection of non-conscious mental activity is problematic in its own right.

At any rate, Freudian/Lacanian psychology does not foster irrationality or dissipative behavior. Instead, it recognizes that our core impulses are not rational or sensible in and of themselves, and only become so by percolating up through the various levels of mind. The evolved psychological form — what Freud called the 'genital character' — has effectively erased internal conflicts so that 'naturally' irrational and disordered impulses are smoothly and easily sublimated into rational and order behaviors. Uncontrolled sexual impulses evolve into love and affection; nascent urges towards power and control transform into reciprocity, respect, and coordination. Romantics like to image that unconstrained impulses are inherently good, but Freudians see unconstrained impulses as amoral and unavoidable: things that need to be 'made good' through (not necessarily conscious) mental activity.

  • "Romantics like to imaging that unconstrained impulses are inherently good" very interested by this. Could you develop a bit? It has been argued that Freud was strongly influenced by romanticism fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantisme_allemand
    – Starckman
    Apr 23, 2023 at 4:14
  • "Freud, in 1924, "allusively recognizes Romanticism as a prehistory of psychoanalysis", finally add H. and M. Vermorel in the conclusion of their article, while Ludwig Binswanger "points out Freud's fidelity to the concept of nature as a 'mythical essence'", echoing Thomas Mann's judgement who "appreciates psychoanalysis as a Romanticism that has become a science "13. Freud also often quotes Goethe, notably as a symbolic representation supporting his psychoanalytical theories11."
    – Starckman
    Apr 23, 2023 at 4:15
  • 3
    @Starckman: It's just a throw-off line, so I'm not sure it calls for development, but Freud's relationship to Romanticism doesn't surprise me. We have to remember that historically — as Freud was beginning to develop his ideas — aberrant behavior was considered either (A) conscious (rational) evil, or (B) a physiological (medical) brain disorder. There wasn't a third choice in the medical field until Freud presented it, and the only place one would find cognitive non-rationality (however glorified) was in the ecstatic writings of the Romantics. Apr 23, 2023 at 4:53
  • Ok. The first paragraph is not correct though, I spoke about the fact that psychoanalysis encouraged to turn impulses into positive activities. I liked your answer anyway
    – Starckman
    Apr 23, 2023 at 5:05
  • In response, I would say that maybe "At any rate, Freudian/Lacanian psychology does not foster irrationality or dissipative behavior." works for non-psychologically problematic patients, but it does not for psychologically problematic patients. In these population, "impulses" (as psychoanalysis calls it) are all over the place and extremely detrimental for themselves and others (for instance borderlines, bipolar or schizophrenic).
    – Starckman
    Apr 23, 2023 at 6:07

I'd say psychoanalysis has to be understood as aimed at being a corrective, to the vision of humans as machines, or capable and even best when aiming to be like machines, which rose with science.

First, while that can be good for achieving set goals, often when people arrive at their goals they aren't happy, and don't know why.

Second, it can oppose sources of information like intuition, and skills like involved in 'flow state' in sports or other activities (see Kahneman on training 'fast' thinking with 'slow' thinking).

Third, there is a high risk of projection, because intrusions by 'non-logical' parts of the mind become sensitised as triggering condemnation, when experienced inside or outside.

I don't think you need psychoanalysis to justify these conclusions, and I think it can be easily understood why psychoanalysis came to the cultural prominence it did, when it did.

So then you have to reflect: is your priority to have a society of people achieving their goals, or one of people who are happy? The former will not necessarily require skills of psychological introspection. The latter will, including into why any goals you pick are chosen. You might broad-brush this as, do you want a society of scientists, or of artists? I suggest, we need both, ideally in the same persons.

The tension in moral considerations between treating people as autonomous, or conditioned, runs deep, and how you see human nature on that spectrum will depend greatly on your philosophical choices, and your experience of yourself. I find the comparision fascinating between Hobbes, who rose from child of a vicar to tutor to the King in exile, contrasted with Rousseau who put all 11 of his children into the orphanage despite writing extensively about the formative importance of childhood and education. Their views of human nature, almost polar opposites. Aside from the philosophical arguments, we can surely glean psychological insights here. I suspect Rousseau was happier than Hobbes, but I really would not like to be like either of them!

The freedom of the will, is among the thorniest of topics in Western philosophy (interestingly of very little concern outside of it, which focus I relate to the emergence of theodicies, as discussed here Can free-will be defined in terms of what it should give someone that they don't already have?). The 'no free will' argument is unsatisfying because we don't feel like robots, the idea of complete sponteneous unconditioned autonomy, simply cannot be sustained by science. But again, we can gain insights into someone's relations with their own impulses, from where they put their focus in the debate. I mean, Steven Pinker definitely has issues, like his views on the decline in violence, and his uncritical bias towards the individualist view of society using which he does intellectual contortions to justify laissez-fair capitalism.

In conclusion, it is not the job of our psychological theories, or psychological work we do on ourselves, to tell us what to do. But, to better understand why we do what we do, and how to get out of our own way. Scientists often view artists as pointless social ornamentation, but I suggest that preference is not part of the path to personal or social wellbeing. Similarly with work on the psyche, which often involves creative practice. To devote yourself to that area only might be a problem (eg an artist who can't do their tax return). But I'd say we all need some space to investigate our hidden springs, whatever tools we use. I find Zizek's thoughts often interesting, and that alone is enough for me to not write off Lacan. Though I prefer more evidenced-based psychological thought.

My view of the freedom-of-the-will, is that it is about our faculty of decision making, inevitably in the face of incomplete information, and that we can possess it on a spectrum. To obtain skill at being relatively free and autonomous, we call cultivating wisdom. Discussed here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? Now I shall have to go and consider what my views indicate about my own relationship to my impulses...

  • When Freud wrote Civilization and It's Discontents, I think he was in part contemplating the political philosophy which promotes life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Only the ego, the organic effort to govern action in the world, can gain these values in a hostile natural world, if one accepts Freud's terms and context. Freud wants to craft a model of the psyche that explains the subjective experiences of strife, inhibition, and unhappiness even in a society that values life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. His organic ego tries and fails to govern action by the use of reason. May 6, 2023 at 22:19

Does Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis drives toward irrationalism and low self-control?

Absolutely not. But we need to take a tour to get to the response. First, your question is a specific manifestation of the famous question of nature versus nurture:

The complementary combination of the two concepts is an ancient concept (Ancient Greek: ἁπό φύσεως καὶ εὐτροφίας). Nature is what people think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception e.g. the product of exposure, experience and learning on an individual.

That is, your question seems to imply, by reducing human choice to biological drives, are we robbing the individual of choice by inculcating learned helplessness?

In humans, learned helplessness is related to the concept of self-efficacy; the individual's belief in their innate ability to achieve goals. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

I believe that many professional psychologists do indeed hold traditional psychoanalytical thought as suspect and portraying an inaccurate and pseudoscientific of the human mind. On the one hand, psychiatry faced an internal backlash from the antipsychiatry movement which might be seen as an excessive grounding of the concept of mental health in biological determinism. (We are our brains, drives, impulses and are unable to control them) R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz are exemplars of this philosophical backlash.

According to Theory and Practice of Counseling & Psychotherapy by Gerald Corey, psychoanalysis is one of 12 approaches to talk therapy:

  • Psychoanalytic Therapy
  • Alderian Therapy
  • Existential Therapy
  • Existential Therapy
  • Person-Centered Therapy
  • Gestalt Therapy
  • Behavior Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy
  • Reality Therapy
  • Feminist Therapy
  • Postmodernist Approaches
  • Family Systems Therapy
  • Integrative Therapy

It would seem that if psychoanalysis were very successful at delivering on its promises, it wouldn't be a minority of practitioners. What's also of interest is how philosophical some of the approaches are: existential? reality? feminism? person-centered? cognitive-behavioral? These are very philosophically loaded terms.

The psychoanalysis model is either correct or not (more likely). If it is incorrect it doesn't matter what it "drives toward", and if it is correct it doesn't matter what it "drives toward" either. This is of a kind with "determinism makes me apathetic" or "evolution theory makes me lose self-esteem". If people are psychologically "driven" this way the remedy is to help them process models better to avoid falling prey to such pseudo-reasoning, not to indulge in it. Models, whatever they are, do not absolve sins or assign faults, all the ethical payload is contrived on top of them. - Conifold

So, to answer your question using the estimably knowledgeable Conifold's comment as a spring board, all therapy seems to attempt to evolve folk psychology including folk-psychological theory of mind into more accurate representations of the real world. Thus, someone who experiences cognitive distortions experiences relief from stress when they come to realize, for instance, that how they view the world or themselves is inaccurate.

Many adult problematic behaviors (which are not rare in people suffering from mental disorders) can be explained by defense mechanisms installed during the childhood, in response to impulses, which might, in the adulthood, be no more justified and require to be explored and modified.

This is another example of how talk therapy seeks to draw conscious attention to subconcious patterns of behavior. I know a forensic psychologist who reject psychoanalysis but believes the descriptions of defenses is very accurate. By drawing attention the behavior, a person can cognitively reframe circumstances.

Lastly, your question:

Does the Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis understanding of human psychology leads to irrationality and low self-control?

I don't think under psychoanalysis, there is ever a drive to instill in the patient that their impulses are NOT under their control. While Freud can be viewed as part of the movement of psychologism and attempted to root consciousness in the biological basis of the brain as a reductionist, his clinical impulses were to make the lives of his patient better through education. Interpreting behavior through free association and dream analysis isn't applied behavior analysis which takes the behaviorist approach to externally imposing conditions to change behavior. It takes the first person into account and asks the patient to introspect and choose better. Contemporary psychoanalysis still practices this. From Corey's text:

Two goals of Freudian psychoanalytic therapy are to make the unconscious conscious and to strengthen the ego so that behavior is based more on reality and less on instinctual cravings or irrational guilt. Successful analysis is believed to result in significant modification of the individual's personality and character structure.

Thus, while psychoanalysis of various stripes places the origins of behavior in the subconscious impulses, it seeks to build and strengthen an edifice of personhood and responsibility through deliberate choice. This is very compatible with a philosophy of mind that embraces free will.

  • @Frank I have a bone to pick with Freud's theory (I went through an anti-psychology phase for personal reasons), but despite it has fallen out of scientific favor (it really doesn't meet contemporary empirical standards), I believe there's value in any talk therapy no matter how scientifically ridiculous (think astrology as a path to better living) that helps grow a person's worldview to align with scientific knowledge.
    – J D
    Apr 22, 2023 at 16:04
  • There's clinical research that supports as an oversimplification that the a patient's relationship with the therapist (perhaps on account of the alignment of worldviews) is a statistically viable predictor of clinical outcomes.
    – J D
    Apr 22, 2023 at 16:05
  • But "talk therapy" today is much much more and far far away from old Freudianism. Even professional therapists today tend to see Freud's idea as at least lacking. For one, they are very male centric. Maybe there are only a few ideas that survived usefully: the possibility of an unconscious part of the mind, defense mechanisms, repression. Maybe a few others, but many other old Freudian ideas are more or less superseded today.
    – Frank
    Apr 22, 2023 at 16:05
  • 1
    @Frank Psychoanalysis has apparently adapted. According to Corey's chapter "Strupp (1992) maintains that the various contemporary modifications of pscyhoanalysis have infused psychodynamic psychotherapy with renewed vitality and vigor." He lists 5 specific points of the improvements of contemporary practice...
    – J D
    Apr 22, 2023 at 16:11
  • so what I would say is that the model of the mind that psychoanalysis provides isn't so important as the practices of the talk therapy that are shown to be clinically efficacious. For instance, improvements include group-forms of therapy, good therapeutic relationship with analyst, specific treatments for modern disorders, increased focus on childhood trauma, and shorter, cost-effective sessions.
    – J D
    Apr 22, 2023 at 16:13

Video Lecture - Civilization and It's Discontents

TLDR - In Civilization and It's Discontents, Freud makes a philosophical argument for prudent, rational, and pro-social ego behavior. First, he says love makes the ego happy, so the ego should strive to love. Saint Francis, for example, can make love for all living creatures into persistent happiness, but the typical person limits the scope of love, and the rational person loves only those who are worthy. Second, failure to work in cooperation with others threatens to harm or destroy the ego due to the hostile attributes of nature. Therefore, the biological ego can only become happy, to some degree, via efforts to love and work in society. Note that Freud conflates this philosophy of hedonism with medicine by describing a pattern of social drama as "sick" or "healthy" instead of mapping this to the patterns of drama that we experience in life.

My comment - Freud's theory of biological drives implies a human biological drive to become prudent, that is, a drive to govern action by the use of reason, and that this drive succeeds or fails in a context where the effort incorporates modes of autonomous and social learning. Baruch Spinoza gives a better description of the domain of drama. In this description unconscious appetite is a source of cause of conscious desire. Spinoza defines an affect or emotion as a feeling of desire, pleasure, or pain accompanied by an idea of its cause. Desire is appetite accompanied by consciousness thereof. Freud maps sources of cause to the id, the ego, reality, and the ego-superego memories. He maps the conscious and unconscious attributes to these sources of cause. If we judge the effort to govern action as rational or irrational or prudent or imprudent or healthy or sick then in this context our judgments emerge as subjective evaluations of sources of cause in the context of drama. This is not medicine - it is the folk psychology of social morality, also common in law and religion, but Freud assimilates the language of medicine to justify psychoanalysis as a profession.

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and It's Discontents, UBC Arts Online, Jan. 28, 2015

The It:


This is someone trying to impose the id, ego, and superego on the earlier conscious, preconscious, and unconscious picture. The idea being the id is entirely unconscious; and the superego and the ego both have conscious aspects and unconscious aspects. The id is a translation of actually I think Latin of the It, in German, das Es. So I think it is interesting to think of it as an It. Because id now just means the Freudian term id. But the It, is evocative to me. And one of the things that I read about Freud said that he borrowed a term from George Groddeck who wrote a book called The Book of the It. And Groddeck defines the It thus: "I hold the view that man is motivated by the unknown. That there is within him an Es, an It - some wonderous force which directs both what he himself does and what happens to him. The affirmation I live is only conditionally correct. It expresses only a small and superficial part of the fundamental principle - Man is lived by the It."

The ego, id, reality, and superego:


Quoting Freud - The poor ego then, has to struggle with three masters, he says, it has to struggle with the external world which imposes reality; it has to struggle with the id which says "I want, I want, I want, and I want pleasure all the time"; and it has to struggle with the superego which imposes, beyond reality, other rules, especially moral rules, you may not do this, I don't care what the id wants, I don't care what reality is, you may not do it.

My Interpretation of Freud's Model of the Psyche

Freud has to describe what exists (ontology) in the psyche and he maps what exists in the psyche to four distinct sources of cause recognized by the conscious ego.

When God spoke to Moses he said, "I will be what will be"; or "I am what is". Freud, who describes himself as a godless Jew, is Atheist, so he describes what exists in the consciousness or psyche as the conscious ego (I am) and the unconscious It (what is):

  1. ego;
  2. the It

Although the ego is embodied as a biological function it is not always aware of this condition. The biological function of the ego is to govern action in the sensory context. We infer that the conscious ego may exist in the womb, or in the newborn mammal, independent of our knowledge of biology. This is why Freud reduces the psyche to the ego and the It because he infers that the innocent or newborn ego lacks knowledge of the It.

Hebrew scripture has the story of the first man and woman who incorporate the knowledge of good and evil by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Also, in scripture the prophet says, "He will be eating curds and honey by the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good." An old man with bad teeth might eat curds and honey and by then maybe he learns to reject the bad and choose the good.

Freud rejects Jewish storytelling in favor of Greek stories and yet he argues that the ego incorporates knowledge of the It into itself much like an explorer converts the unknown into the known. He argues that the ego function of the biological organism incorporates knowledge of the unconscious id and unconscious reality as outlined below.

Freud says the It has two attributes recognized by the conscious ego. These are the ego perceptions of the biological source of inner drives (id) and the ego perceptions of external reality (reality).

  1. ego
  2. id
  3. reality

Jesus said, "Man cannot serve two masters." Freud says the newborn ego, which makes efforts to govern action in the sensory context, is weak compared to both the id and external reality. He says the newborn ego serves two harsh masters: the id and reality. Furthermore, the developing mammal ego incorporates the attributes of parents and adults into itself, via modes of social learning, which in humans forms the superego. Now Freud argues that the ego has three harsh masters: the id; reality; and incorporated life lessons stored in a source of ego-superego memories.

  1. ego
  2. id
  3. reality
  4. ego-superego memories

Freud argues that the id drives the ego to strive to become happy in the world of human affairs. This is hedonism and rational egoism. He observes that the ego, the biological effort to govern action in the sensory context, is often unable to become happy, and for humans this is an invisible source of suffering. When reality does not seem to be the cause of suffering the ego-superego adaptations in prior life are the next logical source of cause of residual pain. The id and reality are not in control of the ego so if they cause a loss of vitality or pain then the only remedy is the ego efforts of the self and/or of other humans. But during superego development the self can associate pain and disability with other humans so it might not have confidence when asking others for help as a remedy for actual or residual pain.

Freudian psychoanalysis regards hedonistic drive as natural; but the developing ego is inherently weak or helpless in the conditions generated by the id and reality; so there is at least the possibility to suspend judgment of what is rational or irrational about the early life ego-adaptation. Freud maps the observer function to an emergent attribute of the superego. He says observation of the ego expressions is a precursor to human judgment. Jesus evokes this observer function when he says, "You justify your actions in the sight of man, but God reads your hearts. What man considers important God holds in contempt."

Webster's dictionary defines prudence as the ability to govern action by the use of reason. The common law doctrine, called the age of reason, holds that humans below age seven are unable to govern action by the use of reason. This means, in the judgment of human adults, animals and young children are unable to govern action by the use of reason. In the context of psychoanalysis this means animals and young children express ego efforts without the ability to reason. Furthermore, when resolving disputes or living life in society, human adults might hold different judgments concerning what patterns of behavior are reasonable (rational) or irrational in a particular situation.

The judgment of rational or irrational behavior applies to the psychoanalytic or therapeutic effort to adjust the ego to existing conditions of life in the present by removing obstacles that seem to be in the unconscious adaptations of the ego during prior development. If this is characterized as medical treatment, then there is the idea that the ego suffers from conditions perhaps beyond its control; but the remedy is to adapt the ego to reality; so it appears that therapy is an effort to convert irrational adaptation to a rational effort in life.

The above statements are all derived from my reading of the Bible; from my reading of Freud; and my knowledge of moral causation in the common law where a human age seven or above is expected to act with prudence - the ability to govern action by the use of reason. I have no interest in reading Lacan.

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