Parapraxis, the Freudian Slip
Parapraxis is an obscure word for a pretty common idea—The Freudian Slip. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was the first to try to analytically explain its occurrence.
In the Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud says parapraxes are unintentional acts resulting from an unconscious wish, desire, attitude or thought.¹
This could involve forgetting names and sequences of words. But classic examples of parapraxes are slips of the pen or tongue.
Imagine a guest at a cocktail party accidentally saying, “I love your horse” instead of, “I love your house.”
For Freud, the hidden, unconscious meaning of the slip points to the person making it. From the above, the slip-maker could be an avid equestrian or, more in line with Freudian thinking, an intensely sexual person (the horse being a traditional symbol of virility).
Along with aggression, Freud attributed tremendous significance to the libido. The example for “Freudian slip” given at Wikipedia is even more directly related to sex, which again, for Freud is one of two innate drives.²
In general use, the term ‘Freudian slip’ has been debased to refer to any accidental slips of the tongue. Thus many examples are found in explanations and dictionaries which do not strictly fit the psychoanalytic definition.
For example: She: ‘What would you like—bread and butter, or cake?’ He: ‘Bed and butter.’³
Jung’s idea of the shadow is both personal and collective. An irruption of shadow contents into daytime life could arise from an unresolved personal complex, the greater forces of the collective unconscious or some combination of the two.
Contrary to Freud’s theory, Jung says that slips do not necessarily point to the person making them. Not exclusively, at any rate. Jung believes that slips can involve an entire situation among several or many people, near or possibly across distance and time.
Freud recognizes the importance of others in the formation of the unconscious. But unlike Jung, he doesn’t talk about instantaneous, thematic connections across distance and time. So Jung arguably prefigures today’s transpersonal psychology, whereas Freud does not. In fact, Freud’s private letters ridicule Jung’s interest in parapsychology.4
Mankind the Information Processor
Like most things in life, there are even more alternative explanations for Freudian slips.
For many secular people accepting cognitive psychology5 there is no need for a personal unconscious or greater, transpersonal connectivity. A purely cognitive theory of parapraxes goes like this:
In contrast to psychoanalytic theorists, cognitive psychologists say that linguistic slips can represent a sequencing conflict in grammar production. From this perspective, slips may be due to cognitive underspecification that can take a variety of forms – inattention, incomplete sense data or insufficient knowledge. Secondly, they may be due to the existence of some locally appropriate response pattern that is strongly primed by its prior usage, recent activation or emotional change or by the situation calling conditions.
Some sentences are just susceptible to the process of banalisation: the replacement of archaic or unusual expressions with forms that are in more common use. In other words, the errors were due to strong habit substitution.6
Meaning, Wisdom and Everlasting Life
There may well be some truth to this. But cognitive psychologists tend to overlook the possibility that aspects of secular, holistic and theological explanations may actually work best together.7
Many researchers dismiss slips, mistakes and accidents as flukes brought on by stress, distraction, patterning, sleep deprivation or malnutrition. But people like Dr. Charles Brenner believe that parapraxes have profound implications:
In the mind, as in physical nature around us, nothing happens by chance, or in a random way.8
Perhaps one way of differentiating attitudes toward parapraxes is to ask whether we learn something of value from them. Are they just glitches in the machine or is something greater going on?
For me, thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett move through life like horses with blinkers. They see themselves and their world as nothing more than a complex outcome of biochemical processes originally formed by chance. Not unlike robots equipped with sophisticated AI, Dawkins and Dennett may learn how to avoid the next bump in the road after stumbling over the first one. And they may learn how to maximize pleasurable activity.
The full human being, however, is so much more. From life’s lessons we acquire enhanced spiritual meaning and wisdom, which far surpasses the mere avoidance of stumbling blocks and pursuit of ephemeral pleasures.
¹ Sigmund Freud, Psychopathology of Everyday Life. London: Penguin, 2002 .
² Freud postulates innate drives for sex and aggression, which later came to include Sabina Spielrein‘s thanatos, or death instinct.
4 See my PhD, p. 283-284.
5 Usually seen as somewhat flimsy science, even among scientists.
8 Charles Brenner, M.D. Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis. New York: Anchor Books, 1957, p.2. This worldview matches my own and perhaps the meaning of the ancient Greek word Kairos – things happening “at the right time.” Kairos in the New Testament (composed in Greek) means at “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kairos
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