Critique of Conflict Theory

Abstract: 'Conflict theory' mirrors the chaotic configuration of the borderline psyche. Brenner has effectively discarded the separate psychic layers of conscious and unconscious. The stream of outer and inner information is loosely connected, mirroring the instability and contradictory nature of the borderline psyche, as opposed to the more hierarchical and austere configuration of drives and perceptions among normal people. Thus, it is an apt example of a "neurotic theory". It will not function as a model of the normal psyche. Conflict theory cannot be reconciled with neuroscience, or the findings of classical psychoanalysis and analytical psychology.

Keywords: compromise formation, structural model, language philosophy, indeterminacy, post-structuralism, Freud, Giegerich.


Charles Brenner's conflict theory is the leading analytic theory taught in psychoanalytic intitutes, throughout the United States, accredited by the American Psychoanalytic Association. On this view there are no psychic structures, like ego and Id, and conscious vs. unconscious. The term unconscious is very much relativized while the theory eliminates the unconscious structure, as such, although conflicts can be partly unconscious.

According to Brenner there is no ego and there is no realm of the unconscious. He drops the well-known denominations of both the topographic and the structural models. Brenner says:

I proposed the view that current data speak against the idea that mental conflict, as well as other aspects of mental functioning, are best explained by assuming that the mental apparatus consists of two or three agencies, systems, or structures, the two system theory being the topographic theory [conscious/pre-conscious/unconscious] and the three system theory being the structural theory [ego/Id/super-ego] (Brenner, 1998).

"Compromises"[1] according to Freud were derivatives of the ego defence, which moulded and "improved" the unconscious content (Cf. Freud, 1916). While in itself an improbable idea, in Brenner's theory it is developed into something quite different and even more peculiar. The compromise formation is said to arise autonomously when maximisation of the gratification of desire forms a compromise with the minimisation of unpleasant restraints, deriving from social and moral proscriptions of childhood origin.

Compromise formations, allegedly, are the sole contents of the psyche and the formation of compromises takes place regardless of any conscious agency, and without any involvement of superego, etc. There is no real difference between health and pathology. If a compromise formation allows for an adequate amount of pleasurable gratification of drive derivatives, then it's normal (Cf. Brenner, 2003). It is as simple as that. Due to the fact that there exists a myriad of compromise formations, pathology is extremely relativized. Everything that counts is to increase gratification of drives, until a level is reached that is considered normal. Comparatively, in Freud, conflict and compromise formations are considered to be in and of themselves pathological.

Brenner uses the term unconscious as an adjective, as if a compromise formation goes into suspension. In Freud and Jung, the unconscious is of a different nature than the ego system, a "realm" where different laws abide. Unconscious, ego, and the conscious realm are involved in a psychic economy that bears resemblance to communicating vessels.

Psychic structure

It will have enormous consequences if we refrain from the notion of the unconscious as a psychic realm, but instead turn to using it as an adjective applicable to compromise formations. It's a very different thing. The notion runs counter to the findings of neuroscience which has corroborated the existence of unconscious motivation. (The concepts of neuroscience aren't necessarily directly translatable to psychoanalytic notions, but they can give us a strong hint).

Brenner's central tenet is that there exists no static function responsible of ego defence mechanisms, such as repressions. But modern neurological research has corroborated a highly effective repressive function located in the medial frontal lobe. Foremost, it causes memories to be selectively remembered in order to prevent unpalatable unconscious contents to alter a person's "rational and good" self-image.

Furthermore, neuroscientists have identified unconscious memory systems that bypass the hippocampus, which is responsible of generating conscious memories. This implies that there exist continuous unconscious memories that produce unconscious motivations in the form of emotions (Cf. Solms, 2004).

Neurologists have corroborated notions of conscious ego vs. unconscious; a repressive mechanism, and unconscious motivation, which are the very factors that Brenner says do not exist.

Brenner is very radical in his wish to dissolve any hierarchies of the psyche. He repudiates the notion of a rational reality-function:

...From these and other examples I concluded that there seems to be no convincing evidence of a need for consistency or realism in what is thought of as adult ego functioning and that inconsistency, illogic, and disregard for reality are quite natural to those aspects of mental functioning (Cf. Brenner, 1998).

But neuroscience has convincingly demonstrated that there is an autonomous function that efficaciously rationalizes away unwelcome facts, giving plausible but invented explanations of unconsciously motivated actions. The most well known experiments have been made by neurologist V. S. Ramachandran. We have a remarkable ability to repress memories selectively and to immediately create rational explanations for the holes in the story. Ramachandran says that the left hemisphere manifestly employs Freudian "mechanisms of defence". We are extremely rationalizing. Realism and regard for logic is autonomous. When facts don't fit our worldview, we immediately create logical stories to make up for the autonomous repressions that have occurred (Cf. Ramachandran & Blakeslee, 1998).

So evidence is mounting in neuroscience that there is an autonomous repressive function and a rationalizing function. We have conscious memories and we have unconscious memories, which bypass hippocampus.

In Brenner's thinking the mind is not composed of separate agencies. In his scheme there is no place for an overlying repressive function:

...Whatever helps minimize unpleasure associated with a drive derivative is a defense. There are no special defense mechanisms; that is, there are no mental mechanisms or activities that serve the function of defense and of nothing else. Whatever thoughts or behavior serve to diminish unpleasure are defenses (Brenner, 1982).

Discoveries of neuroscience have highlighted an implicit memory and an unrepressed unconscious (Cf. Mancia, 2006). Such a region exists before the formative principles of compromise formations, namely the unpleasant restraints deriving from social and moral proscriptions. Hence we know that at least one region of the psyche is not comprised of compromise formations. It will be very hard to reconcile Brenner's thinking with the findings of neuroscience, not to speak of the findings of classical psychoanalysis and analytical psychology.

A borderline theory

Logically, conflict theory does not seem to hold water. How can we remember things and have a continuous personality if we don't have recourse to a permanent conscious faculty called the ego? How do we explain the synthetic function whereby contents are assimilated? The theory of projections, whereby everything unconscious remains projected, suddenly hangs in the air. How can a reaction formation[2] be explained in terms of compromise formations?

It's clear that we cannot do without the notion of the ego. Thus, we are bound to accept the notion of the unconscious, too, as the idea of the conscious mind is meaningless except the notion of the unconscious.

Conscious and unconscious are better viewed as "realms" where different psychological laws abide. The unconscious is by nature manifold, whereas the synthetic nature of consciousness comes to expression in ego unity. In the unconscious incompatible elements can exist side by side and be alloyed. Consciousness demands consistency and directionality, otherwise we wouldn't recognize people, and they couldn't perform a monotonous work, like driving a train engine all day. This only became possible after the development of the self-governed ego, and is still impossible to primitive people.

The quality of consciousness is synthetic, making it a different realm. At the rise of consciousness psychic laws take form that have bearing on the relation between conscious and unconscious. They are realms because they function like realms (there is no need to introduce terms of ontology).

How, then, is it possible for Brenner to create a theory that flies in the face of reason? It's because he says that "logic, consistency, and consonance with reality is not normative". There exists no ego, and thus, no reality-function. Of course, with such a theoretical grounding Brenner can be as illogical as he wishes (Cf. Brenner, 1968).

In therapy, then, the therapist can interpret the material as he likes, due to the fact that there is no logic or consistency in mental functioning. Instead "indeterminate meaning" is the basis of the psyche, in the form of a multitude of compromise formations. Nothing is correct or incorrect, anyway.

This attitude poses an immediate danger to the fragile patient. It's always possible to discern psychological conflicts of a trivial kind, in any person. People who suffer from certain forms of borderline pathology are often rather acute psychological observers. Their apparent nearness to other people's unconscious primarily derives from their ability to register minimal nuances in our verbal expression, voice, facial expression, and other expressive motions, like our involuntary bodily motions.

The problem is that they register only the initial impulse, but fail to heed its rectification via defence mechanisms and realistic thinking. This psychological "talent", together with the very suitable "conflict theory", would forebode a future with borderline doctors. They can keep to the surface all the time and make any deduction they want.

It's true that pathology and health can, in a way, be regarded as relative and not absolute concepts. But Brenner's version of this relativism is over the top. A correct form of relativism, that retains the demarcation line between conscious and unconscious, is to regard as pathological when the complex disturbs consciousness. When the same complex does not disturb consciousness, then the subject does not suffer from pathology.

If we won't presume a division conscious/unconscious then a person's feelings and perceptions must always be regarded to be on the same level of objectivity as anything else. If a subject is angry with Mr. Smith, then the subject knows he must be right because otherwise he wouldn't have these feelings. Emotionally, he has not established a division between inner and outer reality. This is same as the narcissistic short-circuit.

If he had read Freud, on the other hand, then he could suspect that these feelings might derive from the unconscious, his perceptions might be misperceptions building on unconscious expectations. His motif of leaping out at Mr. Smith might derive from his own unconscious, etc.

If we were to remove that demarcation line in theory then we migrate more and more towards a borderline psychopathology. Typical of this is that there exists no inner and outer, the two are melded together. So every definition of reality, every action, is also a reflection of oneself. Effectively, the subject's ego and the world are one. So it would mean that he himself defines the world. "Mr. Smith is a bad person because I have those negative feelings about him". Anything that the subject creates, whether intellectual or anything else, cannot be criticised because that would imply an attack on his ego. It's experienced as a lese-majesty. So his definitions of reality must be fully respected. Everybody else must follow him in rebuking Mr. Smith. Otherwise, it's again experienced as a direct attack on the subject's ego. Of course, this pattern is easily recognizable in the well-known narcissistic pathology.


Brenner's repudiation of psychic structure is due to his footing in the post-structuralist tradition. Post-structuralists hold that the concept of "self" as a singular and coherent entity is a fictional construct. Instead, an individual comprises conflicting tensions and knowledge claims, e.g. gender, class, profession, etc. (Cf. Wikipedia).

It's necessary for this theory to work that the psychic content is of a linguistic, narrative, nature, otherwise compromise formations could not form. A symbol, on the other hand, can contain opposites that, if formulated in language, will fly apart. So if the psyche has a pre-linguistic, symbolic layer, then Brenner's theory collapses. While a symbol can relate undivided 'meaning', the compromise formation cannot, due to the indeterminacy of meaning in language.

Post-structuralistic thinking implies relinquishing the structures (including Freud's structural model), and abandoning the assumption that there are truths to be uncovered, and a (neurotic) conflict to be resolved. This assumption is what we had before, with Freud. In the post-modern project, to which Brenner's theory belongs, there is merely inherent conflict and self-contradiction. You can only exchange one inherent conflict, one compromise formation, against another inherent conflict. You can 'deconstruct' one compromise formation, only to create another. It's all along lines of Jacques Derrida, for instance. Brenner's theory clearly belongs in the post-structuralist, post-modernist, project. It is in the same vein as solipsistic language philosophy.

The inner conflict of language is imperative to the post-modernist project, to which Brenner belongs. If there is such a thing as 'symbolic representation' instead of representations in the form of 'linguistic narratives', then Brenner's model of the mind collapses like a house of cards. A symbol is something that goes beyond language, and hence, cannot be a part of any compromise formation. Opposites form after an intervention of a language-dependent consciousness. Symbolic representation, on the other hand, transcends the opposites of consciousness and can carry meaning, inexpressible in words. Thus, Brenner's conflict model stands and falls with the supremacy of language representation (Cf. Bradley S. Peterson, 2002).

The impossibility of determining the precise meaning of utterances between individuals, the alleged "indeterminacy of meaning", underlies the multiplicity of meaning in the compromise formations. These philosophers think that the intrapsychic, too, wholly builds on language. Hence, its content is indeterminate, and can be interpreted any way you like. There is no need for a reality-function (that is, an ego), due to the fact that the extrapsychic and the intrapsychic can be interpreted much as you like. There is no "absolute reality" to adapt to. So it has a strong smell of the Wittgensteinian form of solipsism.

The influence from Anglo-Saxon language philosophy is marked also in other academic branches. The so-called post-structuralists in the humanities argue that a text, a film manuscript, or whatever, cannot reach outside itself, i.e., we are "enclosed in our language".

In that case one would expect these theorists to shut up, but the effect is the opposite. Since it doesn't matter what they are writing, they realise that they can just as well babble about anything. It doesn't matter that it's senseless because there is never any true reference to any external meaning, anyway.

So if anybody should create something seemingly deep and intelligent, one can always 'deconstruct' it and reveal that it's simply a petty bourgeoisie political motif underlying the text, or homophobia, misogynism, etc. This kind of thinking is represented in psychology by Brenner's 'conflict theory'. The case material can be interpreted in any way you like, due to the lack of reference to objective meaning.

I hold that this thinking is neurotic. Theories, in themselves, can be affected by a "rational neurosis". This means that any person that digests these theories, and practices them, will acquire secondary, induced, neurotic symptoms. It's essentially the same phenomenon as a person reading communist books by Lenin. With time he might even develop the characteristics of a personality disorder. Such people really need to be "deprogrammed" similarly to how sect members need to be deprogrammed. It's the thinking they subscribe to that is neurotic.

This is why "cognitive therapy" is not altogether unsuccessful. This is because it encourages the patient to challenge his distorted and unhelpful thinking. Much of the problem that people have today really derives from the bunkum they have in their heads, errant thoughtways that they have come to believe in.

Dream example

I reject the notion that the defining elements of the psyche consist of compromises formed of narratives, that is, linguistic entities with indeterminate meaning. It's necessary to exemplify what I mean. Let's look at the frequent "failed exam" dream: "You are about to take the exam, but you are probably going to fail because you haven't studied diligently."

Possibly, the failed exam dream could compensate a sense of failure, but not in the way of a compromise formation. A complex, i.e. a "failure complex", has formed. It is what it is: a sense of failure that resides in the unconscious. As soon as consciousness realizes it clearly, it dissolves: "In fact, I have passed life's exams! I can walk straight-backed."

This is one possible explanation. Another one could be that the individual is too stressed up about life, and an "achievement complex" has prevailed in the unconscious and disturbed consciousness. When this is fully consciously realized the complex dissolves, and he can sit down on the pier with a fishing-rod in his hand. So again, it's not the case of a compromise formation, but of a complex. Its name is "achievement" and it is what it is.

But these are the easy and atypical examples. The more difficult case is when the failed exam dream points at a symbolic content. In this case the dream says that he lags behind in "something". When he wakes up he has the feeling that he is missing out on something. The complex doesn't dissolve. Then we are dealing with a symbolic content. The unconscious doesn't "know" what it is, only consciousness has the capability of formulating it. Typically it pertains to matters connected with individuation. When the worldly education has ended, the spiritual school has just begun. Such dreams in midlife, or later, herald a change of attitude, causing many preconceptions to collapse like a house of cards. It is high time to pass a bridge (the exam) and arrive at a higher level of consciousness.

None of the above explanations make use of compromise formations. So we are dealing with complexes and with symbol formation. A theory of compromise formation and linguistic narratives cannot explain the processes of the psyche. A symbol is not a narrative. In fact, it is something that is not yet wholly formulated. A complex is not a compromise. On the contrary, what you see is what you get.

The archaic mind

Brenner's repudiation of Freud's structures is echoed in Neo-Hegelian Wolfgang Giegerich's repudiation of Jung's structures, who likewise postulates an ego, while the Id here is called "collective unconscious" and takes on a more ideational character. According to Giegerich there is no unconscious. It's "technology" that takes its place, and the magnum opus of our time is "making money" (Cf. Giegerich, 1996 and 2004).

It is not easy to understand the underlying motif of this thinking. Of course, in a pre-conscious human, or in an animal, there is no ego consciousness, and, hence, there is no unconscious. But as soon as an ego consciousness appears there is also an unconscious. It's like a contrast effect. Arguably, Brenner wants to employ a psychology based on the primitive- or animal mind. The borderline psyche represents, as some psychoanalysts rightly hold, a fallback to the archaic psyche. A pathological conflict arises while it cannot succesfully harmonize with modern society.

Giegerich follows along similar lines. He also drops the notion of the unconscious by reverting to the archaic mind. Anyway, that's how I understand his thinking. In order for a projection to fall out there must exist an unconscious content (and, thusly, an unconscious). But in an archaic state of identity there is actually no projection. For instance, a primitive that sees a divinity in a stone has no doubts of his experience. Hence there is no projection of an unconscious content. The psyche of the primitive is at one with the surrounding world.

Giegerich introduces the notion of primitive identity in the modern world and argues that the modern psyche is at one with technology. So he interprets the modern world in terms of pre-conscious mankind in a technological reality, whose foremost drive it is to create money. He has no unconscious while he doesn't project. He is at one with the machines, like pre-conscious man was at one with the tree-deities, and the river-deities.

Comparatively, in Brenner, if there is no unconscious, where do all the repressed contents go? The answer is that they don't go anywhere, because there is no repression. A cat doesn't repress his hunting instinct, nor does a human employ repression. What takes form are "compromise formations", formed by incommensurable contents in the individual. This means that childhood conflicts, as well as some of the compromise formations to which they give rise, persist throughout life. So childhood conflict is all, and this is what's taught in psychoanalytic institutes in the U.S., today.


Brenner makes use of psychological definitions in an inconsistent way, disregarding their original signification. This is a deceitful way of introducing a wholly new view of the psyche. Although concepts make a different implication he can argue that he retains much of the former conceptuality.

Conflict theory means a radical departure from the "classic" economy of the psyche, which includes the transactions between conscious and unconscious, defense and repression, complexes and symbol formation. It is necessary to employ these notions in psychotherapy because they are included in the natural language of the unconscious. In dreams and fantasies the conscious and unconscious are depicted as realms (entering a churchyard at night, for instance). The unconscious is sometimes personified, and the daylight world can appear like a father figure. Complexes, and not only the Oedipus, can take any theriomorphic or anthropomorphic shape. The content is generally symbolic. It seldom builds on linguistic narratives. The idea that classical models are translatable to conflict theory (i.e., that it's a less cumbersome way of saying the same thing) cannot be proven and underrates psychic complexity.

Conflict theory is extremely relativistic. While there is no real difference between health and pathology the irresponsible therapist needn't bother about the patient getting well. What determines normality is an adequate amount of pleasurable gratification of drive derivatives. This connotes a standpoint of amorality and neglects notions of a constitutional morality. This, judging from recent discussions in evolutionary psychology, is to cross the bridge prematurely.

In Brenner's relativism there is no clear demarcation line, no clear indicator of pathology. It's a gliding scale. This will have as consequence that the notions of pathology and health will become subjective concepts. It's up to the doctor to decide what he deems is healthy or sick. If the patient is still in conflict, this isn't necessarily a problem, since the psyche anyway consists of conflicts. Psychological thinking consequently becomes arbitrary and shallow. Despite the fact that adult life is the root of much psychological suffering, all emphasis is put on childhood conflict. Such a theoretical preconception will damage the therapeutic relation.

The hidden premise of Brenner and Giegerich is a formulation of the healthy mind as modelled on the archaic mind, living in world-identity. The thinking will sustain the narcissistic psychotherapist while his ego can then wholly envelop the patient. Thanks to an indeterminacy of meaning he may draw any conclusions he wants, especially those that are self-gratifying. He can give free rein to his own projections. There is no need for a painful, conscientious groping in the dark, anymore. What a relief for the burdened therapist! What comes to mind is Gresham's Law (1858) which says that money with less intrinsic value will drive good money out of market. But from a patient perspective the dangers are obvious.


© Mats Winther, 2007.


(1) compromise formation n. In psychoanalysis, a form assumed by a repressed wish, idea, or memory to gain admission to consciousness as a symptom, usually neurotic (1), a dream (1), a parapraxis, or some other manifestation of unconscious activity, the original idea being distorted beyond recognition so that the unconscious element that needs to be repressed and consciousness that needs to be protected from it are both partially satisfied by the compromise. The idea was introduced by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) in 1896 in his article 'Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence' (Standard Edition, III, pp. 162–85, at p. 170) and developed further in his book Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916–17): 'The two forces which have fallen out meet once again in the symptom and are reconciled. It is for that reason, too, that the symptom is so resistant: it is supported from both sides' (Standard Edition, XV-XVI, at pp. 358–9). (A Dictionary of Psychology, Colman, 2001).

(2) reaction formation   Defensive process by which an unacceptable impulse is mastered by exaggeration (hypertrophy) of the opposing tendency. Solicitude may be a reaction-formation against cruelty, cleanliness against coprophilia, etc. (from A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Rycroft, 1995).


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