The two concepts of action and responsibility in psychoanalysis

J Am Psychoanal Assoc. 1984;32(3):557-72. doi: 10.1177/000306518403200306.


I have presented two major concepts of action and responsibility which have a role in psychoanalysis and have been confused in the recent literature. Intentional action is the general action concept concerning consciously, preconsciously, or unconsciously enacted goal-directed behavior. Deliberate action is a type of intentional action, performed consciously or perhaps preconsciously, that involves a choice among specific possible ways of achieving a goal. Persons are ethically responsible for their deliberations and also responsible as the agent, deliberate or not, of the manifestations of their personal characteristics. Responsibility for mere agency is not the same as ethical responsibility, but since it is easy to confuse these two concepts they may be hazardous as features of clinical dialogue. Finally, "free will" and "determinism" are discussed as issues that historically attend the above subject matter. "Free will versus determinism" is argued to be a false issue properly replaced by Freud's actual interest in the "overdetermined" multiple motivations of behavior.

MeSH terms

  • Dreams
  • Ethics
  • Free Association
  • Freudian Theory*
  • Humans
  • Motivation*
  • Personality
  • Psychoanalytic Theory*
  • Set, Psychology
  • Social Responsibility*
  • Unconscious, Psychology