In An Autobiographical Study, Sigmund Freud defines the process of free-association broadly as speaking one’s mind without direction or censorship.1 As Jonathan Lear aptly points out, Freud calls free-association the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis2 not only because it is essential to therapy but also because it is a sublime exercise of the capacity for human freedom.3 Despite this apparent freedom in free-association, Freud also notes: “we must, however, bear in mind that free association is not really free.”4 Indeed, even though the patient is speaking their mind, they are under the influence of the analytic situation.5 My interest in this article will be to explore the meaning of freedom in free-association by attempting to make coherent sense of how this sort of freedom can be both real and illusory. Elucidations hasn’t yet addressed philosophical problems in psychoanalysis, so I’ll be taking the first pass.

I proceed in stages. In §1, I reuse Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty to argue the meaning of freedom in free-association is at once freedom for human flourishing and freedom from censorship. This shows that freedom in free-association is a two-pronged concept, with freedom for coexisting with freedom from. Then in §2, I distinguish free-association from merely spacing out, arguing that free-association, at least essentially speaking, has a certain point. Finally, in §3, I argue that according to its point, the fundamental rule can be followed well or poorly; though when the fundamental rule is followed well, only then is freedom in free-association realized in a meaningful sense.

1. Free-Association: Freedom For or Freedom From?


Suppose a patient named Alex has a perverse thought: he wants to kill his analyst. Now, does Alex take the liberty to tell his analyst this desire in a session of free-association? If so, does he do it earnestly with all might, like he blood-thirstingly means it, or does he do it in an embarrassed and ascetic way, like a confession to a priest? Or if neither, as a third option, does he just resist the speech-act altogether and instead withhold the desire to himself, repressing it in order to prevent, in either strong or weak sense, contaminating the analytic relationship? Clearly, in any of these three actions, there are significant consequences for the analytic relationship; however, only the kind of consequence we want is essential, and hopefully it’s the one which most advances Alex’s flourishing.6 Thus, to gain clarity, we can consider a cost-benefit analysis and from there conclude the right course of action for Alex in this situation of freedom. Importantly, we can use our answer as a clue to understanding the meaning of freedom in free-association.7

In the first case, if Alex earnestly tells his analyst that he wants to kill him, threateningly looking at him straight in the eyes with piercing words meant to make him fear and tremble for his life, then Alex obviously compromises the analytic relationship, putting it lightly. Of course, there is a contractual rule in analysis not to tell the potential victim when a patient says he wants to kill them in order to not legally compromise the confidentiality agreement, but how might the rule apply when the potential victim is the analyst? Quite simply, the rule applies in the same way, though with different consequences. The analyst on a good day withholds judgment and just goes along with the negative transference. Only, being human, he works at a reduced capacity, fearful for his life while attempting to help the ill patient. Indeed, in this case, the patient acts with utmost sincerity, not only truthful about his wish but also delivering the wish with full-blooded feeling. The consequence is a terrified analyst with reduced capacities, at whatever magnitude, nonetheless an analyst there to help the patient.

In the second case, if Alex confesses to the analyst with embarrassed restraint, nervously looking at his thumbs, afraid to even look at his analyst, then Alex serves the problem to the analyst for them to treat and solve together. Instead of stuffing the problem in the analyst’s face like at gunpoint, where only the most honorable analyst reasons with his potential murderer, Alex in this case serves the problem with the prudent desire to be treated by the analyst, specifically by working with him in together working through the problem. This might take the entire session, a month’s worth of sessions, or a referral to a new analyst, whereas the first case is lucky to even count as a session. Though the key upshot is an updated analytic situation with a new problem to solve: broadly, a state of negative transference which the analyst and the patient must together work through by talking through, or, as Freud would say, by “chimney sweeping.” Together, they treat the analytic situation with extraordinary care, seeking to excavate and make sense of the particular root cause of the problem in such a way that is in good faith and on the patient’s terms. Together, they also seek to reestablish positive transference so they can solve other problems inextricably in the same vein that, most importantly, will ultimately lead to Alex’s flourishing. Not a full-blooded threat like in the first case, in this case the problem is instead an “uninvited guest,” so to speak, which Alex seeks to figure out how to handle by investigating its details with extraordinary care through the help of his analyst.

In the third case, if Alex resists the speech-act altogether, then the analytic relationship is not contaminated, at least for the time being. Instead, Alex goes on living with the wish in a repressed way, lugging an unwillingness to tell. Because he is inherently unable to solve the problem himself (i.e., be a causa sui), whereby the problem must be worked through, and made sense of, in some way either directly or indirectly in relation to the person it is concerned with, Alex carries the problem like a deadweight. Consequently, other problems may arise in analysis that are symptomatic of the root problem, making for an untreated wound only to exacerbate.

Given these three cases, we are now in a position to put ourselves in Alex’s shoes and conclude how he ought to act. First, according to the premise:

(W) We understand Alex’s problem to constitute a wound, which, if we were Alex and aim at his flourishing, we wouldn’t want to pick at and exacerbate.

In the context of Alex’s situation, premise (W) is a starting point that seems, all things considered, to entail the action:

(S) Apply the second case such that Alex be treated by the analyst, particularly by working with him in working through the problem together.

By doing (S), Alex serves the problem to the analyst, so he and the analyst can expose, treat, and heal the wound together and ultimately advance Alex’s flourishing. By contrast, as we saw, the first case exacerbates the wound by actively shoving the analyst’s face in it. Despite being a case that equally makes use of freedom to speak one’s mind, the case tells the truth in an unhealthy way that picks at the wound. On the other hand, the third case also makes use of freedom and picks at the wound, but it picks at the wound by passively letting the problem eat him up inside. Clearly, by putting their freedom to waste, the first and third cases are far worse courses of action than the second case, which at least promises to heal the wound and advance Alex’s flourishing.

In the context of the sort of freedom in Alex’s analytic situation, for (S) to be the right course of action is to demonstrate a particular concept of freedom in free-association. The concept not only understands we are in a basic position to freely choose how to act but also understands we are under the constraint of human flourishing. In other words, we want to act not only freely but also in a very basic sense well. Acting well is simply an added constraint on freedom in free-association whereby it’s up to the use of practical reason to work through the best course of action which rightly advances human flourishing. In this sense, freedom in free-association is not raw freedom to make any choice, but the freedom to choose to act well in an ecosystem where life is contingently interdependent. Where the former lacks the capacity of agency and rests on the rawest concept of freedom, the latter accounts realistically for the kind of situation of freedom experienced in free-association. Our selection of (S), then, demonstrates human flourishing to be one part of freedom coexisting with the raw fact of freedom to choose.

In view of this insight, we can articulate this concept of freedom succinctly as the following principle:

(F) Freedom in free-association is a two-pronged concept in both of Isaiah Berlin’s senses of freedom for human flourishing and freedom from censorship.8

Under the principle (F), Alex is free to express his problem to the analyst without censorship, telling the dismal truth that must be worked through with the analyst. The essential element of (F) is he does this on his terms, telling the truth in such a deliberate way that advances his own flourishing. The truth is not lost by repression or submission to inchoate impulses, but given its fair treatment by being expressed well and in a good key so as to even be meaningful. In short, why one free-associates is essential to how one free-associates: one free-associates in order to achieve psychic integration – to make oneself whole – and flourish, and one free-associates by achieving psychic integration and flourishing. Contrastingly, in a situation of merely raw freedom without ‘freedom for’ in attendance, the truth is inchoate, alone, and uninterpretable. It is of the sort of private language described by Wittgenstein, being without any intelligible connection to other relevant thoughts, and hence being meaningless, only to be lost in a heap of obscurity – clearly a wasteful, unviable path of action in free-association.

Returning to the problem laid out in the introduction, we can now say the sort of freedom in free-association is real is the sense of being freedom from censorship (i.e., the raw ability to choose what to do), and illusory in the sense of being freedom for human flourishing (i.e., an added constraint of advancing human flourishing in order for such freedom to be viable). Such freedom nevertheless may seem empty and artificial as a sort of circular formalism; however, this is not exactly the case. From our first-personal perspective, freedom’s essential two-pronged structure is just the basic assumption we must work with in order to practically deliberate and act in the world. In a way following Kant’s thought that ‘ought implies can,’ the fundamental rule is fundamental not only because it’s constitutive of analysis but also because it gives us interdependent creatures the conditions to be able to be integrated, flourish, and even express our freedom.9 This fact doesn’t mean that we will necessarily follow it in analysis, but that we ought to follow it in order to even begin to freely speak our mind in a meaningful sense. So, it’s up to us in our capacity as thinking, deliberative, rational10 agents to follow the rule and only then make meaningful use of our freedom.

2. Free-Association versus Merely Spacing Out

To emphasize the unique concept of freedom in the situation of analysis, we can contrast free-association with merely spacing out. On the one hand, spacing out is inherently a passive activity. One spaces out when one is for whatever reason bored and loses their attention to life’s immediate tasks. The activity consists of going down rabbit holes with no particular direction. The activity is essentially day-dreaming, comprising in a conglomerate of ephemeral thoughts. For example, during their board meeting, one begins to think hard about the red solo cup on the table and then transitions to thinking about the perspective of the cup and what it would be like to be a cup, and then about things that share cup-ness. In short, the train of thought has no path dependence: it is a nonsensical train to nowhere, with the mind leading one astray from the immediate situation.

On the other hand, free-association is an active activity. One free-associates in analysis when they prudently seek to derive some helpful self-realization – this at least being what they paid for. They speak their mind and express their thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and attitudes about loosely connected matters in the world that are of personal relevance. At the same time, they actively process their own activity, making sense of what they say by making connections, noticing patterns, and reflecting on what they ought to think and do about what comes to mind. In other words, the train has a path dependence to psychic integration; it is a train that leads to home. While there is neither conscious direction nor censorship to their thoughts, there is a way the thoughts are told that is unique to the analytic situation. They are told in such a way that ultimately advances one’s flourishing. Indeed, the thoughts have a certain point, but the point is achieved not artificially by some bad faith simulacrum, but organically through the analytic situation’s integrative process.

The idea that free-association has a certain point where spacing out lacks one is free-association’s essential marker, though it is important to elaborate on the nature of its point. The point of free-association is only possible because of the analytic situation. In other words, the analytic situation is what gives free-association meaning. When not in analysis, but when speaking one’s mind with a friend, variables such as a professional interlocutor and a sanctified space to observe the Sabbath-like rule with the requisite extraordinary care lack. Hence, the analytic situation, being professional, is the most sublime application of the fundamental rule. Simply, only the rule-followers in the analytic situation can follow the rule and meaningfully get to the point.

3. Can One Free-Associate Well?

It may seem prima facie wrong for free-association to have a certain point, as this seems to simply contradict the essence of freedom in virtue of not only placing a constraint on freedom but also, relatedly, implying that one can free-associate well or poorly; however, this is not so straightforward. For starters, we can make sense of freedom in free-association by comparing it with the sort of freedom in sleeping. Both are activities that are for the most part freely chosen, work to process stimuli, and, when done well according to certain constraints, heal the body to bring about one’s flourishing. Though despite having the same point, sleeping and free-associating nonetheless differ in their activity, revealingly so. The former’s success is purely unconscious, depending on non-rational factors, whereas the latter is a mix, depending on one’s use of conscious rationality to deliberate and make decisions while listening to their unconscious drives. So, where free-association seems to have a contradiction in thought, where one is, so to speak, ‘condemned to be free,’ it fails to have a contradiction in experience, where one as a basic fact of life must follow a two-pronged notion of freedom in order to meaningfully free-associate at all. We escape our confusion, then, by understanding that one free-associates well if and only if one makes rational, and thus meaningful, use of freedom in analysis, where free-associating poorly is simply to make use of freedom in an empty, meaningless way, like speaking a private language which no one can understand.

The two-pronged experience of freedom in free-association becomes clear as a basic fact of life when we examine the nature of the activity. As we have already seen, in free-association, one not only gets a locked door to behind be free to speak their mind but also gets a professional analyst to work with in order to work through personal problems of living. The reason there is a professional analyst is to help the patient speak their mind well. Importantly, the patient needs professional help because they are a human with natural inhibitions. As Freud notes in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, one does not need a symptom to have an inhibition – inhibitions are just part of the human condition.11 We all refuse to do, say, or think things because of unconscious reasons and it is impossible debunk this contradiction in experience with a contradiction in thought, such as the incoherence of constrained freedom. We must simply accept the experience of discordant inhibitions as part of the human condition, and work from this premise with an analyst. Indeed, never is free-association not a (fundamental) rule. Instead, free-association is always an activity of rationality, that is, of following a rule of actively pursuing the activity’s essential point: human flourishing through psychic integration. Such rule-following isn’t meant to be a brute condemnation to be free, but rather to be a modest constraint to act with the right sort of extraordinary care in order to be free at all in meaningful sense.

In closing, it may also seem that free-associating well requires the mediation of a hand-holding professional analyst, which in turn can delegitimize the idea that one free-associating well really is a personal achievement; but this is just another resolvable confusion. Ultimately, the upshot of following the fundamental rule well with a professional analyst is not only the patient flourishing in analysis but also the patient flourishing generally in life, independent of analysis. In particular, it’s often the case that the patient, after following the fundamental rule with the analyst, is able to follow the rule by themselves in a situation of solitude. In this case, the patient internalizes the superego of the analyst – not the analyst’s personal superego, to be sure, but the analyst’s professional superego needed to analyze the patient in analysis. This internalization is generally known as the ultimate fruit of analysis.12 Such a sublime experience of healing in which the patient, by determining their freedom according to a professional superego, is able to analyze themselves for some may only be had after professional analysis but for others may be acquired elsewhere. Though in either case, what’s clear is free-associating well means seriously improving as a person in a meaningful way, achieving individual excellence in mind and body, and flourishing.


In this article, I hope to have shown that freedom in free-association is a two-pronged concept, requiring the activity of rationality in analysis in order to work in a meaningful sense. I made my case by laying out three different choices one, in a basic sense, can freely make in a particular analytic situation, identifying the right course of action (S) in the situation according the premise (W), discovering (S) to demonstrate a particular concept of freedom in free-association (F), remarking the various key implications of (F), and resolving two easy confusions about (F).

About the Author

Joseph F. Diller is a master’s student of philosophy at the University of Chicago; formerly an undergraduate student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. He has broad primary interests in moral, political, and legal philosophy, as well as secondary interests in epistemology and the philosophy of science. Reach him via email at or on Twitter @Dillerjf.


  • Berlin, I. (1969). Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Freud, S. (1995). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. (J. Strachey, A. Freud, A. Strachey, & A. Tyson, Trans.) (Vol. 20). London: The Hogarth Press. 

  • Lear, J. (2019). “Encountering and speaking to the unconscious.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 100(6), 1102–1116.

  • Levenson, L. N. (1998). “Superego Defense Analysis in the Termination Phase.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 46(3), 847–866.

  1. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 20), 40. [return]
  2. Ibid. [return]
  3. Lear, “Encountering and Speaking to the Unconscious,” 1115. [return]
  4. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 20), 40. [return]
  5. Ibid. [return]
  6. By “flourishing,” I follow Aristotle in meaning one’s general mental and physical health, adequate circumstances, sense of meaning in self-consciously living well, and accordant happiness in the world. [return]
  7. While Alex’s situation may be highly unordinary, my hope is the essence of his situation – i.e., in analysis, being faced with a perverse thought which one qua patient must decide to tell or not tell, and then face the consequences – is plausible in such a way that you, the reader, either can sympathize with as someone who has suffered an essentially similar situation qua patient, or if not, can at least empathize with as a thoughtful person. Hopefully the magnitude doesn’t distract from the essence of the situation, but instead emphasizes it. [return]
  8. Exegetically, it may seem implausible that Berlin, at least in his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” ever means freedom from and freedom for to apply outside a political context. My reply to this worry is my interpretation is plausible in virtue of essentially being in the same spirit. Particularly, my more objectionable reusage of ‘freedom for’ as ‘freedom for human flourishing’ equally values a sort of rational self-mastery in achieving certain self-directed, life-affirmative ends as Berlin’s ‘freedom for collective self-realization.’ So, at bottom, both share the same formal structure, only applied to different contexts. [return]
  9. In his paper “Encountering and speaking to the unconscious,” Jonathan Lear states this point poetically in other words. He writes: “Thus, Freud fosters a new meaning for freedom of speech: one in which the very act of speaking is the act of integrating ourselves, of making our selves whole, of making ourselves true to ourselves. In this way, the fundamental rule as deployed in psychoanalysis is constitutive of the humanity that matters to us. And this is what makes the fundamental rule fundamental” (1115). Indeed, for freedom in either speech or association to work meaningfully, it must actively integrate the self in addition to being freedom in a raw, passive sense. [return]
  10. By “rational” and, as I say later on, “rationality,” I mean broadly the kind of rationality humans have, which is the capacity of evaluative and reflective deliberation that generally promotes human flourishing. [return]
  11. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 20), 88. [return]
  12. Levenson, “Superego Defense Analysis in the Termination Phase,” 850. [return]