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Shope, R.K. (1973). Freud's Concepts of Meaning. Psychoanal. Contemp. Sci., 2(1):276-303.

(1973). Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science, 2(1):276-303

Freud's Concepts of Meaning

Robert K. Shope, Ph.D.

Thus in the Interpretation of Dreams every page deals with what we are calling the letter of the discourse. … The first sentence of the opening chapter announces what for the sake of the exposition could not be postponed: that the dream is a rebus.…This derives from the persistence in the dream of that same literal (or phonematic) structure through which the signifier in ordinary discourse is articulated and analyzed.… The structure of language which enables us to read dreams is the very principle of the “meaning of dreams,” the Traumdeutung.

—Jacques Lacan (1966, p. 128)

But the interpretation of symptoms always remains for Freud the establishment of the causal mental nexus.… If, therefore, a symptom is, in Freud's terminology, considered to be “meaningful,” this simply refers to the possibility of assigning it a place in the (causal) relationships of the mind. When Freud shows that dreams are “meaningful,” he intends to say that they have their foundation in unconscious (though analogous to conscious) and often meaningful thought-connections on the basis of which the apparently absurd manifest content can be explained with the aid of our knowledge of dream mechanisms.

—Heinz Hartmann (1927, p. 400)

Freud's account of the meaning or the sense of a mental phenomenon is central to his explanations of the human condition. Certain psychoanalysts and philosophers have recently championed the view that when Freud employs the term “meaning” (Sinn, Bedeutung), he is essentially concerned with the symbolizing and signifying functions which have been studied, for example, by Cassirer and de Saussure, and with the presence in mental phenomena of what phenomenologists call intentionality.

I believe, however, that a close reading of Freud's texts will reveal several concepts of meaning or sense which are much closer to the type of concept that Hartmann attributes to Freud. Hartmann does not cite any specific passages from Freud concerning this point, and his account is extremely simplified.

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