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melanie klein trust

Melanie Klein Trust

Furthering the psychoanalytic theory
and technique of Melanie Klein

Unconscious phantasy


In Kleinian theory unconscious phantasies underlie every mental process and accompany all mental activity. They are the mental representation of those somatic events in the body that comprise the instincts, and are physical sensations interpreted as relationships with objects that cause those sensations. Phantasy is the mental expression of both libidinal and aggressive impulses and also of defence mechanisms against those impulses. Much of the therapeutic activity of psychoanalysis can be described as an attempt to convert unconscious phantasy into conscious thought.

Freud introduced the concept of unconscious phantasy and phantasising, which he thought of as a phylogenetically inherited capacity of the human mind. Klein adopted his idea of unconscious phantasy but broadened it considerably because her work with children gave her extensive experience of the wide-ranging content of children's phantasies. She and her successors have emphasised that phantasies interact reciprocally with experience to form the developing intellectual and emotional characteristics of the individual; phantasies are considered to be a basic capacity underlying and shaping thought, dream, symptoms and patterns of defence.

Key papers

For full references for Melanie Klein's works visit the 'Melanie Klein's publications' section.

Freud, S. (1911, 1916)

1911 'Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning'. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 12. Hogarth Press (1958). Phantasy functions according to the pleasure principle, equating 'reality of thought with external actuality, and wishes with their fulfilment' (p.225). Phantasies are likely to arise when instinctual wishes are frustrated.

1916-17 'The paths to the formation of symptoms', Lecture 23 of Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 16. Hogarth Press (1963). Sources of 'primal phantasies' (primal scene, seduction by adults, castration) lie in instincts and are part of innate, phylogenetic endowment. Phantasy as physical reality.

Klein, M. (1921, 1932a, 1936, 1952 and indeed most of her papers)

Klein does not define phantasy, but stress on it is evident throughout her work with both children and adults.

1921 'The development of a child'. Vivid description of a child's unconscious phantasies accompanying his reality-based activities.

1936 'Weaning'. Klein's belief that analysis shows phantasies are in the mind of an infant 'almost from birth'.

1952 'Observations on the behaviour of young infants'. Unconscious knowledge of the breast exists at birth and in phylogenetic inheritance (p. 117).


1948 Isaacs, S. 'On the nature and function of phantasy', International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 29: 73-97; republished in M. Klein, P. Heimann, S. Isaacs and J. Riviere (eds.) Developments in Psychoanalysis. Hogarth Press (1952). Unconscious phantasy defined as the 'mental corollary, the unconscious mental processes' and described as defence against anxiety.

1962 Bion, W. Learning from Experience. Heinemann. Assumes that individuals are born capable of 'preconceptions' that, if 'realised' in experience, may give rise to 'conceptions'.

1991 Hinshelwood, R. D. A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, 2nd edition. Free Association Books. Emphasis on Klein's findings that phantasies may accompany 'realistic' activities. Unconscious phantasies tacitly express the belief that bodily sensations are caused by internal mental objects. Detailed discussion of unconscious phantasy in Controversial Discussions, 1941-1945.