Metonymy and metaphor in the process of thinking
In his studies on dreams published in the year 1900, Freud discovered what would later turn out to be nothing less than revolutionary in our understanding of how human beings actually think. The strangeness of dreams, the distortions and fantastic productions found in them would eventually shed an unprecedented amount of light on questions, such as how does our thinking process work? How do we go about communicating our intentions? Why do we think what we think? On its journey to formulating those questions, the study of dreams would forever after problematise the notion of consciousness (ask sceptics about the unconscious to explain dreams and hypnosis), and in the same movement propose a psychoanalytic theory of the human psyche which still stands today.
Nobody in our western culture and society, before Freud, was really interested in dreams, let alone in trying to understand them. Yet history of human science would eventually show they have a key role in understanding how we actually form our thoughts. The aim of the present short paper is to introduce the reader to the two main primary processes at the basis of thinking in general, first discovered by Freud before being taken over by J. Lacan. Hopefully this quick summary will inspire the reader to want to explore more and deepen his or her understanding of how we think.
The action of thinking, or the forming of thoughts in general, is based on only two (ultimately linguistic) processes. One process allows the other to take place and is called 'displacement'; the other is named 'condensation' and will be examined next. Every one of our thoughts, ideas, feelings (besides anxiety), considerations and reflections, everything that our mind cares to construct, whether one lives in the UK or in the remotest part on the planet, obeys the laws laid down by those two processes only.
So, what do we mean by displacement? Its definition suggests that something is moving or displaced from an original place to a new position.
It may be useful to represent displacement as what takes place when an electrical current passes through a wire, say, from a battery to a light bulb. A similar phenomena is at work in our mind: an electrical energy passes from one idea to another (neuroscientists would say from one synapse to another).
In his study of dreams, Freud realised that this unique psychical ability to detach the emotion of an idea to attach it to another (displacement) enables us to do something extremely useful - to bypass our critical judgement and carry-on sleeping. After all, is this not true that we don't usually allow what appears to us as small and secondary to pass as unworthy of our attention because irrelevant or superfluous? "The devil is in the detail", popular language warns us. Following in Freud's footsteps, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would later posit that what is bypassed in dreams is in fact the fulfilment of our deepest desire. A nightmare wakes the sleeper up when he's come too close to the thing, or perhaps more appropriately a no-thing, a hole whose job it was for desire to circle around only, to never fulfil it completely.
In those cases when convention forces us to pay attention to it, we recognise this process as a 'metonymy'. A metonymy is a linguistic trope whereby an element is put in place as a representation for something else, that is, by way of its being a part of it or contiguous with it. To illustrate this concept via an example, in political circles we all understand implicitly that besides indicating an actual house number, 'number 10' has very little to do with a number 10 (try and ask directly the most 'artificially intelligent' computer today what it has to say about the latest news from number 10), but stands as a symbolic representation for the government in office as a whole.
Things become even more complicated to decode when we realise that, under the same principle of displacement, that is, with the view to escaping anxiety, a significant emotion can itself turn into something of small significance and therefore appear irrelevant. Thus the process of displacement teaches us that as part of our thinking process, one singular element may be chosen from an original idea and singled out as a specific symbol whose job it is to represent this idea. If things were not complicated enough, dreams show us that once selected, an element can be the result of several displacements. Several seemingly disconnected thoughts (they are less disconnected than being different versions of the same thought) can all point to the same one small chosen element.
If we accept that, as dreams tell us, an emotional charge is able to move from the general representation of an idea onto a small and thereby seemingly less conspicuous detail belonging to it, it could be rather baffling to hear how emotionally significant the number 10 may be for someone in his dream. As it turns out, upon his freely associating with number 10, we learn that the dreamer had not simply lost his father when he was 10 years of age, but his uncle who had taken in his charge to raise him happened to be working as staff in Downing Street as well.
The work of metaphorisation forms the second primary process at the basis of our thinking. Unlike metonymies which are, as we've seen, symbolic elements more or less directly related to the original thought, metaphors are figures of speech that have almost completely lost their relatedness with the original – if unconscious – ideational thought. Taking the well known metaphor 'a star is born' as an example, we all implicitly assume this expression refers to an individual whose talent is now recognised, and not the actual celestial body itself.
This other primary process which dreams teach us is at work in the productions of thoughts in general is essentially a process of substitution. Owing to the inherent impossibility to perfectly describe it in language, the real is only referred to obliquely, or more or less poetically only. Metaphors may be regarded as so many (successfully failed) attempts to tell how things really are. It is easy to understand how useful metaphors can be as a way for the mind to bypass disturbing ideas such as those we harbour most secretly in ourselves. For, as we have seen above, it is not generally recommended that we completely attain our object of desire; on the other hand not enough satisfaction creates symptoms. It is here important to remind ourselves that if this metaphorical process may first strike us as being capable of yielding more creative solutions in its efforts to grasp the real, this process would not be possible if it wasn't carried forward in some (metonymic) movement, that is, as instigated by the process of displacement.
The implications that result from the elucidation of those two processes of metonymy and metaphor may strike some readers as not immediately obvious in their significance. But soon enough it dawns on us that if indeed it is true that those two processes are effectively at play in constructing each and every one of our every thoughts, then does this not ultimately suggest that almost everything someone says or claims he is suffering from, as in the case of having symptoms, is not to be taken at face value? What we want and ultimately possess is never really it, but always something else. If to think as human means being inescapably caught in an endless motion from one thought or idea to another, then what can we say about our identity and who we actually are?
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About Stephane Preteux
Stephane Preteux is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working in private practice in London. He has a degree in Applied Mathematics from Nanterre University (Paris X) and a Master of Science in Psychotherapy from Roehampton University (London). He is an Accredited Member of the British Association of Psychotherapist and Counsellors (MBACP)