Unusual’ human experiences: Kant, Freud and an associationist law

Linda A. W. Brakel

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12775/ths.2003.022


Kant famously held that there are 12 categories of understanding necessary to ground human experience, where human experience can be taken to include the perception of objects ‘objectively’ and the ordinary daily rationality of mature adults. There are however other ‘unusual’ human experiences, most notably dream and hallucinatory states, and much of the thinking of the very young, all of which seem to be grounded by some other organizing principle, prior to the categories. I want to make a case that this principle is an associationist one; and further that such an associationist principle is prior to and transcendentally necessary for the categories to operate. Since Kant himself held this, although not so famously, the purpose of this paper is not to refute Kant. Rather it is to demonstrate that experiences organized by the associationist law vs. experiences organized by the categories map very well onto the two types of mentation posited by Freud-the ‘primary processes’ and the ‘secondary processes’ respectively. Discovering this mapping can help psychoanalytic theory by providing some convergent support for its posits; and it can make vivid a lesser known piece of Kantian philosophy of mind as it is instantiated by observations made everyday as a practical consequence of psychoanalytic theory.


human experiences; primary processes; secondary processes; associative principle;

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