6. Interpretation of Dreams

not marble... and they knocked
down the house...
In his Interpretation of Dreams Freud often talks of the 'riddle' or 'the secret' of the dream. In a letter to Fleiss he mused "Do you suppose that some day a marble tablet will be placed on the house, inscribed with these words: "In this house on July 24th, 1895, the secret of the dream revealed itself to Dr. Sigm. Freud."? At this moment I see little prospect on it." The language of revelation is itself revealing. It comes naturally to us - in certain moods, after certain dreams - to find ourselves thinking of dreams as having a meaning that we might try to unlock. For example we might find ourselves thinking that the dream has something to tell us, but something obscure. The feeling is presumably ancient; we can easily imagine that it underlies such age-old ideas as of dreams as portents, or as of dreams as being interpretable by those who possess the art.
And the King said unto them: “I have dreamed a dream and my spirit was troubled to know the dream.” Then spoke the Chaldeans in Syriac, “O king live forever, tell thy servants the dream and we will show the interpretation.” The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, “The thing is gone from me, if ye will not make known unto me the dream with the interpretation thereof ye shall be cut in pieces and your houses shall be made a dunghill.” (Daniel, 2, 3-10)
The question arises as to whether this sense of dreams' meaningfulness arises from a fact - from the actual meaningfulness of dreams, for example - or arises because of a similarity of dreams to other phenomena which are clearly meaningful. A further - presumably separable - question also arises, as to whether dreams really can be said to have meaning, and (if they can) what it means for them to have such meaning. We will also be interested in how this meaning can be got at, and what it is that makes any interpretation of the dream correct - as opposed, say, to it merely being engaging or provocative or delightful or stimulating of further emotionally productive imaginative activity. That psychoanalytic dream interpretation may have such effects, that the dream may provide a therapeutic sandpit for patient and analyst, is not in dispute. A constructivist - to simplify - may give up the idea of interpretations getting dreams wrong or right, and instead will focus on how dreams are assigned meanings in the clinic. Yet can we stave a constructivist's capitulation to the scientific critic of dream interpretation, and instead still find something of value in the idea of a 'right interpretation of a dream'? At issue here, too, are two different forms of riddle, and the question of which is that which best characterises the dream (Matalon): is it that a dream provides a riddle with a pre-existing solution which must be retrieved, or is it rather that we must do the creative work of developing a solution which at the same time provides a more determinate, articulate shape to the riddle question?

Carl Gustav Jung
Furthermore, do we do well to think of the general notion of dream meaning as given independently of our specification of the general procedures by which dream meaning may be interpreted? Or is it rather that, if we want to know what it means for dreams to have a meaning, we should look to these practices of dream interpretation to tell us what is here to count as dream meaning? In short, must the methods fit the object (Blass), or must the object fit the methods (Elder)? And if there are several different ways in which dreams have meaning, is this a function of there being several different procedures that go by the name of 'dream interpretation' - or is it that distinct procedures have been developed to unearth these otherwise-assessable different forms of meaning?

Emma Eckstein
One of the curious features of dreams, too little remarked, is their captivating quality. Retelling last night's dream can, for the dreamer/teller be rather like re-dreaming it. From the standpoint of the dreamer the dream
has a compelling, inexorable inner logic and narrative, but precisely from this standpoint its meaning is opaque. To the listener, however, the meaning may be all too obvious, and it may even be embarrassing that someone should so openly and unwittingly declare their innermost feelings and make all too clear their lack of self-possession. The dream 'betrays' the dreamer in the same way that an un-noticed slip betrays her. In the dream the dreamer is 'too close' to the meaning to be able to grasp it: in the dream the meaning is instead lived out. The meaning has not yet been born, has not yet dehisced from the self's background to become an encounterable piece of the mind's foreground. The story-like 'and then' quality of a dream consists in its correct portrayal being as a series of happenings: ...and then this happened... and then I found myself doing this.... and then we were in a dark wood... and then I said... One reports these things quite as if the dream hadn't originated 'within one's own mind'. The interpretation, however, is part of an encounter between dreamer and analyst which restores agency and self-possession through recovering subjectivity. (In the peculiar Kantian idiom, the 'I think' may now once again accompany such 'representations'.) What I mean by this is that the dream interpretation encourages the making conscious of such unconscious wishes and fears as were expressed in the dream, and as a result of this restoration of subjectivity the dreamer can now take up the reigns of his own agential sovereignty again: I feel x, therefore I shall now do y.  

Hanna Segal
Finally, to return to the question of what it is that makes a particular interpretation of a dream correct - assuming, that is, that it is correct: are we to accept this question as a good question? Might it not be that the question turns out to be as unhelpful as that which asks, when someone provides for us the word that had been on the tip of our tongue, what it is that makes this word the one that one had been looking for? Of course, my putting it like that rather assumes that my reader will already agree that that question is indeed less perspicuous than it takes itself to be. So my task, here, is to make clear how the question is misguided and then give cause to think that in the relation between a dream and its apt interpretation we meet with an analogous phenomenon. The suggestion will be that the apt interpretation is the one which recovers an internal - constitutive - relation between a person, her words and her wishes/feelings/fears, one that undoes the alienating impact of the defences and their symbolic products. Precisely because this relation is internal rather than external, it makes little sense to ask the 'what makes it the case that...?' question. The question of the meaning of the dream is, really, the question of what feelings, fears, wishes, it (perhaps unbeknown to the dreamer) expresses; in this respect it differs not at all from any stretch of bona fide behaviour.


Rachel Blass (2002). The Meaning of the Dream in Psychoanalysis. State University of New York Press.

Charles Elder (1994). The Grammar of the Unconscious. Pennsylvania State University Press. chs 2&3.

Sigmund Freud (1900/2010). The Interpretation of Dreams. Basic Books. chs 2&3.

Carl Jung (1909/1985). The analysis of dreams. In Jung's Dreams. Ark Paperbacks.

Carl Jung (1948/1985). On the nature of dreams. In Jung's Dreams. Ark Paperbacks.

Nadav Matalon (2011). The riddle of dreams. Philosophical Psychology, 24, 517-536.

Hanna Segal (1991). Dream, Phantasy and Art. Routledge. chs 1&5.