Critique of Conflict Theory

Abstract: ‘Conflict theory’ (psychoanalytic) mirrors the chaotic configuration of the borderline psyche. Charles 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. It is an apt example of a “neurotic theory”, since it cannot function as a model of the normal psyche. Conflict theory is irreconcilable with neuroscience as well as 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 institutes throughout the United States. The theory is accredited by the American Psychoanalytic Association. On this view there are no psychic structures, such as ego and Id, or conscious and unconscious. The term unconscious is very much relativized since the theory has eliminated 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 conceptions 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 are derivatives of the ego defensive function, which moulds and “improves” 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 maximization of the gratification of desire forms a compromise with the minimization 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 — it is as simple as that! (cf. Brenner, 2003). Due to the fact that there exists a myriad of compromise formations, pathology is extremely relativized. The only thing 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 prevail. The unconscious realm, ego and consciousness, are involved in a psychic economy that bears resemblance to communicating vessels.

Psychic structure

Brenner’s idea is to discard the notion of the unconscious as a psychic realm. Instead the term is used as an adjective applicable to compromise formations. However, adopting such a view will have enormous consequences. 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, although they may corroborate the latter). Brenner’s central tenet is that there exists no static function responsible of ego defence mechanisms, such as repressions. Yet modern neurological research has revealed a highly effective repressive function located in the medial frontal lobe. Basically, 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. It confirms the existence of continuous unconscious memories that produce unconscious motivations in the form of emotions (cf. Solms, 2004). Neuroscience has corroborated notions of conscious ego vs. unconscious, a repressive mechanism, and an unconscious motivation — the very factors that do not exist, according to Brenner. Brenner is very radical in his wish to dissolve all the 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. (Brenner, 1998)
Yet 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).

Thus, 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. However, 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 confirmed the existence of a non-verbal implicit memory and an unrepressed unconscious. Mauro Mancia says that “[the] implicit memory is the archive for unconscious experiences that cannot be remembered or described verbally” (Mancia, 2006, p.97). Such a region exists prior to the formative principles of compromise formations (i.e., the unpleasant restraints deriving from social and moral proscriptions). Thus, we can be certain that at least one region of the psyche is not comprised of compromise formations. Mancia continues:
[The unrepressed unconscious] is the result of storage in the implicit memory of experiences, fantasies, and defenses dating from the presymbolic and preverbal stage of development, that therefore cannot be recollected even though they carry on influencing a person’s affective, emotional, cognitive, and sexual life even as an adult. (ibid. p.107)
We are endowed with a dual memory system; the explicit or declarative memory, which can be verbalized and recalled (essential to our identity and our autobiography), and the implicit memory, which is unconscious and can neither be verbalized nor recalled (p.12). Even during adulthood, strongly stressful or traumatic experiences may alter the circuits of the explicit memory, so that they have to be filed in the implicit memory, where they form the building blocks of a late unrepressed unconscious (p.100). Although gaining access directly to the repressed unconscious and the implicit memory is impossible, contents may be acquired through a circuitous process. Luigi Cappelli explains:
According to Mancia […], fear and anxiety stored in the emotional and affective implicit memory can to some extent become independent of external references that might trigger them. These memories, however, exert a constant pressure on a person’s conscious psychic life and on the declarative memory, even if they are not formulated verbally and cannot easily be called up voluntarily. As Mancia points out, in psychoanalysis these nonthinkable, nonsymbolic emotional levels tend to surface in non-verbal form, in the tones and rhythms of the voice, and the structure of the language, more than the content of what the patient is saying. Dreams and the transference are other gateways through which they can irrupt in analysis. Mancia considers this level of memory as part of an unrepressed unconscious that may contain traumatic experiences. These presymbolic features, manifested in the “musicality” of the patient’s language in the transference and through the figurative and symbolopoietic aspects of the dream, can thus be defined in explicit, conscious terms. (ibid. p.184)
Thus, it is evident that Brenner’s theory, which presupposes that the psychic content has a linguistic and narrative nature, conflicts sharply 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 hold water. How can we remember things and have a continuous personality if we lack 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 evident that we cannot do without the notion of the ego. Thus, we are bound to adopt the notion of the unconscious, too, as the idea of the conscious mind is meaningless without a notion of the unconscious. Conscious and unconscious are better viewed as “realms” where different psychological laws prevail. The unconscious is by nature manifold, whereas the synthetic nature of consciousness comes to expression in ego unity. In the unconscious realm incompatible elements may exist side by side and remain alloyed. Consciousness requires consistency and directionality, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to recognize people; nor would we be capable of performing a monotonous work, like driving a train engine all day. This only became possible after the development of the self-governed ego, a function that remained unrealized in archaic man.

The quality of consciousness is synthetic, making it a different realm. At the rise of consciousness psychic laws take shape that have bearing on the relation between conscious and unconscious. They should be viewed as 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 holds that “logic, consistency, and consonance with reality is not normative”. There exists no ego, and thus no reality-function. Of course, such a theoretical grounding allows Brenner to be as illogical as he wishes (cf. Brenner, 1968). In therapy, then, the therapist may interpret the material as he wishes, 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.

Such an attitude poses an immediate danger to the fragile patient. It’s always possible, in any person, to discern psychological conflicts of a trivial kind. People having certain forms of borderline or narcissistic disorders 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 befitting “conflict theory”, would forebode a future with borderline doctors. They may 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. However, Brenner’s version of this relativism is over the top. A sensible form of relativism, that retains the demarcation line between conscious and unconscious, signifies a condition as pathological when the complex continually disturbs consciousness. On the other hand, the subject cannot be regarded as suffering from a pathology, such as neurosis, if the very same complex has not the capacity to disturb consciousness.

If we are lacking a theoretical divide between conscious and unconscious then a person’s feelings and perceptions must always be regarded as more or less objective. If a subject is angry with Mr. Smith, then the subject knows he must be right because otherwise he wouldn’t have had these feelings. Emotionally, he has not established a division between inner and outer reality. This is same as the narcissistic short-circuit. On the other hand, had the subject read something of Freud, then he could begin to suspect that the feelings really spring from the unconscious, and his perceptions might be misperceptions building on unconscious expectations. His motive of leaping out at Mr. Smith has unconscious roots.

If we remove the theoretical demarcation line, then we are moving closer to a theory that mimicks borderline psychopathology. Characteristic of this condition is that there exists no inner and outer — the two are melded together. It means that every definition of reality, as well as all action, is also a reflection of oneself. Effectively, the subject’s ego and the world are one. It implies that the subject himself is capable of defining the world. “Mr. Smith is a bad person because I have those negative feelings toward him”. Anything that the subject creates, whether an intellectual product or anything else, cannot be criticized because that would imply an attack on his ego. It’s experienced as a lese-majesty. So the subject’s definition 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 well-known pattern is easily recognizable in the narcissistic pathology.


Brenner’s repudiation of psychic structure depends on his footing in 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. New World Encyc., here). It’s necessary for this theory to work that the psychic content is of a linguistic and narrative nature, otherwise compromise formations could not form. A symbol, on the other hand, may contain opposites that, if formulated in language, will fly apart. Thus, if the psyche has a pre-linguistic and symbolic layer, then Brenner’s theory collapses. Whereas a symbol can relate undivided ‘meaning’ the compromise formation cannot, due to the indeterminacy of meaning in language.

Post-structuralist thinking implies the relinquishment of all kinds of structures (including Freud’s structural model), as well as 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. According to the postmodern project, to which Brenner’s theory belongs, there is merely inherent conflict and self-contradiction. The subject is only capable of exchanging one inherent conflict, one compromise formation, against another inherent conflict. He may ‘deconstruct’ one compromise formation, but only to create another. This is modern philosophy in terms of Jacques Derrida, et al. Brenner’s theory clearly belongs in the post-structuralist and postmodernist project. It is in the same vein as solipsistic language philosophy.

The inner conflict of language is central to the postmodernist 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. Hence it 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 may carry meaning inexpressible in words. Thus, Brenner’s conflict model stands and falls with the supremacy of language representation (cf. 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 (i.e., 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 many other academic branches. In the humanities, the so-called post-structuralists argue that a text, a film manuscript, or whatever, cannot reach outside itself, which means that we are “enclosed in our language”. In that case one would expect these thinkers to shut up, but the effect is the opposite. Since it doesn’t matter what they are writing, they realize 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 an external meaning, anyway. Should somebody 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, such as 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 a lack of reference to objective meaning.

I hold that this way of thinking is neurotic. Theories, in themselves, can be affected by a “rational neurosis”. It means that any person that digests these theories, and practices them, will acquire secondary and 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 are deprogrammed. It’s the thinking they subscribe to that is neurotic. This is why “cognitive therapy” has achieved a degree of success. It encourages the patient to challenge his/her distorted and unhelpful thinking. Much of the problems that people have today really derives from the bunkum they have accumulated in their heads — errant thoughtways that they have come to believe in.

Dream example

I have criticized the theory that the defining elements of the psyche consist of compromises formed of narratives, that is, linguistic entities with indeterminate meaning. To exemplify, let’s look at a common theme in dreams, namely “the failed exam”: “I am about to take the exam, but I’m probably going to fail because I haven’t studied diligently.” Arguably, this theme would 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 will dissolve: “In fact, I have passed life’s exams and may walk straight-backed through life.”

This is one possible explanation. An alternative interpretation is that the dreamer is too stressed up about things. An “achievement complex” has constellated in the unconscious and is causing a disturbance in consciousness. When this is wholly consciously realized the complex dissolves, and the subject may seat himself on the pier with a fishing-rod in his hand. Again, it’s not the case of a compromise formation, but of a complex. Its name is “achievement” and it is what it is.

Yet, these are, arguably, rather 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 the dreamer lags behind in “something”. When he wakes up he has the feeling that he is missing out on something. The complex doesn’t dissolve. In this case 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 finished, the spiritual schooling has just begun. Such dreams in midlife, or later, would herald a change of attitude, which will soon collapse the many preconceptions 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 structural notions is echoed in Wolfgang Giegerich’s Neo-Hegelian repudiation of Jung’s structures. Jung likewise postulates an ego, whereas the Id is termed the “collective unconscious” and takes on a more ideational character. According to Giegerich, there is no unconscious because “technology” has replaced it. The magnum opus of our time is “making money” (cf. Giegerich, 1996 & 2004).

It is not easy to understand the underlying motif of this manner of thinking. Of course, in a pre-conscious human, or in an animal, there is no ego consciousness, and thus there is no unconscious. In fact, ego consciousness emerges coincidentally with the unconscious realm. It functions like a contrast effect. It seems that Brenner aims to formulate a psychology based on the primitive or animal mind. The borderline psyche represents, as some theorists have argued, a fallback to the archaic psyche. Since the archaic standpoint cannot successfully harmonize with modern society, a pathological conflict ensues.

Giegerich reasons along such lines. He has dropped the notion of the unconscious and reverted 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 therefore an unconscious). However, in the archaic state of worldly identification projection does not take place. For instance, the aborigine experiencing a divinity in a stone has no doubts of the veracity of his experience. Since the psyche of archaic man remained at one with the surrounding world there occurred no projection of unconscious content. Comparatively, in a projective economy there is always critical reflection and doubts arising, which means that a projection may be withdrawn.

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 situated in a technological reality, whose foremost drive it is to create money. The modern dweller has no unconscious mind because he does not project. He is at one with the machines, as pre-conscious mankind was at one with the trees, the watercourses, etc.

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 shape are “compromise formations”, formed by incommensurable contents in the individual. This means that childhood conflicts, as well as certain compromise formations that they occasion, persist throughout life. So childhood conflict is all, and this is what’s taught in psychoanalytic institutes in the U.S., today (2007).


Brenner makes use of psychological definitions in an inconsistent way, disregarding their original signification. It is a deceitful way of introducing a wholly new concept of the psyche. Thus, although the psychological concepts really have a different meaning, he may 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, defence and repression, complexes and symbol formation. It is necessary to employ such 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 may take shape as a father figure. Complexes, including the Oedipus, can take any theriomorphic or anthropomorphic form. The content is often of a symbolic nature and not necessarily a linguistic narrative. The idea that classical models are translatable to conflict theory (i.e., that the latter is a less cumbersome way of saying the same thing) cannot be proven and it underrates psychic complexity.

Conflict theory is extremely relativistic. Since there is no real difference between health and pathology the irresponsible therapist needn’t really bother about the patient’s well-being. What determines normality is an adequate amount of pleasurable gratification of drive derivatives. This connotes a standpoint of amorality as it neglects notions of a constitutional morality. Judging from ethological research and recent discussions in evolutionary psychology, such a conclusion is unfounded.

In Brenner’s form of relativism there is no clear demarcation line — no clear indicator of pathology. It’s a gliding scale. This will have as consequence that notions of pathology and health will become wholly subjective terms. It’s up to the doctor to decide what he deems is healthy or sick. If the patient is still in conflict, it isn’t necessarily a problem, since the psyche consists of conflicts. As a consequence, psychological thinking will become 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 is damaging to the therapeutic relation.

The hidden premise of Brenner and Giegerich is a formulation of the healthy mind as modelled on the archaic mind, existing in a state of world-identity. Such a way of thinking will sustain the narcissistic psychotherapist since his ego may then wholly envelop the patient. Thanks to an indeterminacy of meaning he may draw any conclusion he wants, especially those that are self-gratifying. He may 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. 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 (2), 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. (A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Rycroft, 1995).


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