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McIntosh, D. (1993). Cathexes and their Objects in the Thought of Sigmund Freud. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 41:679-709.

(1993). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41:679-709

Cathexes and their Objects in the Thought of Sigmund Freud

Donald McIntosh


This paper reexamines Freud's theory of "cathexis" (a quantity of motivational intensity invested in an object) in the light of recent developments in philosophy and cognitive psychology. Contrary to what is often thought, the quantitative element is defensible as a purely psychological idea. The notion of a cathexis is closely similar to the philosophical idea of an "intentional" state, which derives from Franz Brentano, Freud's teacher and mentor.

Freud initially held the object of a cathexis always to be intrapsychic, a position which is untenable and which he largely abandoned after 1915, when he began (correctly) to take cathected objects generally to be persons or events, not their representations. His idea of a cathexis as "entering into" its object contains a valuable and neglected insight, which undermines the centrality of the distinction between the "outer" and "inner" realms of experience. This distinction should not be confused with the key distinction between "fantasy" and "actuality" with respect to cathectic objects. So-called "inner" (fantasy) objects are generally "inside" the mind in a metaphorical sense only.

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