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Wolfenstein, E.V. (1985). Three Principles of Mental Functioning in Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 66:77-94.

(1985). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 66:77-94

Three Principles of Mental Functioning in Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice

Eugene Victor Wolfenstein

I have three aims in this essay. First, I develop a critique and reconstruction of Freud's three principles of mental functioning. I argue, against Freud, that the Nirvana principle results from the clash between the pleasure and reality principles. It is not a first principle from which the other two can be derived. Service to the Nirvana principle is a defence against intense psychic pain.

Second, I attempt to establish Melanie Klein's idea of a paranoid-schizoid position on this reconstructed metapsychological foundation. Because I view psychic pain and not a death-drive (or its derivatives) as the primary genetic and dynamic issue, this requires a fundamental revision of the Kleinian concept.

Third, I present a partial record of an analytic experience, which is intended to illustrate the clinical utility of these metapsychological principles.

There were times during the course of the analysis I will be discussing when I would find myself becoming hypnotically sleepy. My efforts to understand this phenomenon brought the relationship between the three principles of mental functioning and the paranoid-schizoid position into focus. Accordingly in the clinical presentation I emphasize this aspect of my interaction with the patient.


For the better part of his long career, Freud (1895), (1900), (1911) grounded psychoanalytic discourse in the relationship between the pleasure principle (stated negatively, the human aversion to painful stimulation) and the reality principle (the impossibility of avoiding painful stimulation, along with the consequences of this fact for psychical development).

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