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Devereux, G. (1980). Freud, Discoverer of the Principle of Complementarity (A Serious Inaccuracy of Translation in the Standard Edition). Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 7:521-521.

(1980). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 7:521-521

Freud, Discoverer of the Principle of Complementarity (A Serious Inaccuracy of Translation in the Standard Edition)

George Devereux

A crucially important sentence in the 3rd (1920) German edition of Freud's Vorlesungen (p. 316) reads as follows: 'Nicht nur, dass der Sinn der Symptome regelmässig unbewusst ist; es besteht auch ein Verhältnis von Vertretung [my italics] zwischen dieser Unbewusstheit und der Existenzmöglichkeit der Symptome'.

On p. 279 of the Standard Edition(Freud 1916-17) the crucial italicized words are translated simply as: 'inseparable relation'. The correct translation is: 'relation of reciprocal representation' or 'relation of reciprocal substitutability'. Freud's statement is, of course, a generalization drawn from Breuer's observation that the presence of a symptom presupposes that its meaning is unconscious; once that meaning becomes conscious, the symptom disappears (Breuer & Freud, 1893–95).

A great mathematical physicist and philosopher of science, Pascual Jordan, has shown that Freud's use of the word 'Vertretung' in this sentence was a stroke of genius. I add that it anticipated Niels Bohr's greatest contribution to the philosophy of science—the principle of complementarity—which Bohr had formulated on the basis of the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle.

Jordan (1934) writes: 'Freud described the "psychological complementarity" which manifests itself here, in a formulation which strikingly (in geradezu frappanter Weise) resembles Bohr's propositions', and then cites the just quoted Freud sentence. Several paragraphs of Jordan's text, which precede and follow this passage, highlight the crucial implications of that sentence and, for that matter, of psychoanalytic theory as a whole for the theory of complementarity.

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