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Holland, N.N. (1973). Defence, Displacement and the Ego's Algebra. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 54:247-257.

(1973). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 54:247-257

Defence, Displacement and the Ego's Algebra

Norman N. Holland

Psychoanalysis thrives on the particularity of its fare: a patient's very words, the special tone and imagery of a certain dream, or the presence in, say, a literary work of some one idiosyncratic symbol. Normally the great asset of psychoanalysis, this particularity becomes a liability when it prevents the development of larger concepts by too close an insistence on details. It seems to me that the defence mechanisms find themselves now impoverished this way as to theory. Currently a list of terms richly confirmed and illustrated in clinical experience, they could profit from some attempt at synthesis. It may be possible—I think it is—to formalize them into a few over-arching concepts, an algebra, if you will, consisting of a few broadly defined operations which are performed on those inputs which trigger defences. If one could arrive at such an algebra, one should be able to make theory simpler and clearer and also return to clinical material with a new and more focused sense of the relevant detail. This is, of course, an aim that goes back to Freud's 'Project' of 1895 and forward even to efforts at computer simulation of psychological phenomena (Moser et al., 1969).

Some of these formalizations begin with immediate clinical data, notably the developing model of Sandler & Joffe (1969), while others proceed from a metapsychological concept in psychoanalytic theory; for example, the primary process (Noy, 1969). I would like to begin at the level of clinical generalization, simply by nothing the great variety of defence mechanisms, most of them unrelated to one another except as a familiar sequence of labels.

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