The previous look at The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is found here.
The “Freudian slip” is the most famous of all concepts from Freud. It occurs when someone reveals a hidden motivation by substituting the “wrong” word. As he begins this essay, Freud reviews the work done by Meringer and Mayor, and then the observations of Wundt.
Freud underscores an element from Wundt – an element which Freud will enforce at the end of this essay: These slips of the tongue take place when there is a “suspension of the attention that it would inhibit it, the uninhibited flow of associations is activated and may be said, even more definitely, to do so through that suspension.” (60) As he says toward the end of the essay, “I do not think anyone would make a slip of the tongue [examples given], in short in all those cases where, as one may say, the mind is really concentrated on the matter in hand.” (96)
Freud rejects the argument that slips of the tongue are merely the result of confusing or substituting sounds of words. He does not deny that sounds of words can have an effect upon errors, and indeed may be the cause of some errors:
But they do not seem to me strong enough to impair correct speech by their own influence alone. In those cases that I have studied closely and of which I can claim some understanding, they merely represent an existing mechanism that can easily be used by a remote psychic motive without its binding itself to the sphere of influence of those connections. In a great many substitutions, a slip of the tongue occurs quite regardless of such laws of phonetics. (79)
Freud explains that he uses these slips to “resolve and track down neurotic symptoms.” (78) Patients “may try to conceal the subject, but cannot help revealing it unintentionally in many different ways.”
He contends that his theory “will stand up to examination even in its minor details.” (95)
To support his contention, he notes dozens of instances where someone substitutes one word for another, and thereby discloses a secret they had hoped to conceal.
I found most compelling the example he gave from the novel Egoist by George Meredith (I cannot agree with Freud that Meredith is the “greatest English novelist”). Without rehearsing the entire nature of the example, the proposition is that a woman in the novel, by a confusion of names reveals a secret hope and desire she tries to keep concealed – but cannot. Why I found this example compelling is that is an independent attestation by someone other than Freud (or a professional psychologist/psychiatrist) of the same idea. Now, since Meredith was a rough contemporary of Freud, it is possible that such ideas “were in the air.”
However, Freud provides an example from Shakespeare where Portia discloses herself by a slip.
Let’s take his concept seriously, that people sometimes say what they mean to conceal. I would think that best explained by the fact that a person is intently thinking about two things and is speaking with the hope of not saying something but the thoughts get the better of the tongue – we can’t concentrate on two things at once. For instance, Freud gives an example of where he is attempting to defend himself from a conflict with his wife and thus discloses something he did not wish to say.
But Freud has a rather different theory of what happens: He puts the emphasis on the unintended nature of the disclosure. In his theory, the concealed fact just finds a way out because sufficient control is not being brought to bear upon the speech so the unconscious makes a break for it.
Yet, I think his examples could easily be re-read as not an unconscious escape but rather the conflict of multiple thoughts.
For instance, he gives the example of where a soldier on trial for burglary used the word Diebstellung – position as thief – when he meant to use the word Dienstellung – military service. The soldier made this blunder while testifying in Court. But it is in just such a circumstance that Freud said a slip would not occur, “in a speech made in defense of his name and honor before a sworn jury” (96). The soldier was trying to explain that he could not have committed the crime because he was still in the military: but he would at the same time be thinking of what he had been accused.
If there are revealing substitutions, I don’t think he proves a subversive unconscious but rather a confusion of thoughts.