A summary of the different definitions given to sublimation from psychoanalysis.
One of the defense mechanisms of the psyche, raised by psychoanalysis, is repression, which authors such as Freud related to psychopathology and great emotional discomfort and dysfunctionality.
However, Freud also proposed a mechanism that, similar to repression, consists in that instead of trying to silence our most basic instincts, it transforms them into something superior, socially accepted and that has a useful use for the rest of society: the sublimation.
In this article we are going to talk about what sublimation is in psychoanalysis, what authors of the stature of Freud, Jung and Lacan think and how it has been related to the development of humanity.
Sublimation according to psychoanalysis
The idea of what is understood by sublimation within the scope of psychoanalysis varies depending on the author, although all of them are very solidly based on the concept given by Sigmund Freud of this idea. Even those who are critical of the Freudian idea of sublimation take it as an example.
Below we will see in more depth different positions on the concept, focusing especially on who postulated it, Sigmund Freud, although highlighting alternative views such as Lacan and Jung.
Within the most classical psychoanalytic theory, and from the mouth of Sigmund Freud, sublimation (“Sublimierung” in German) is understood as the defense mechanism in which an impulse, sexual or not but socially little accepted, is transformed into something which, apparently, doesn’t have much to do with sexuality. In turn, the end result of the process is that of something that has a beneficial purpose for society as a whole, usually being a cultural, artistic, intellectual, scientific or sports product.
The erotic energy of the human being can be expressed, but within limits. If you have an excess of this energy and it is not socially acceptable to demonstrate it, the subject has two options: either sublimation or repression. If repressed, sexual tension may incur psychopathology according to the foundations of psychoanalysis itself.
Freud considered that this mechanism was much healthier compared to others, such as repression, denial, intellectualization or projection. According to his daughter Anna Freud in her book “The ego and defense mechanisms” (1936), sublimation constitutes the psyche’s superior defense mechanism.
It should be noted that the main difference between sublimation and repression is that in this second defense mechanism there is a derivation and channeling of energy. In contrast, in repression, the drive is deeply repressed and not channeled, which would give way to all the psychopathology proposed by Freud when it comes to repressing sexual energy.
This is what Freud affirms in his work Continuation of the introductory lessons to psychoanalysis (1932). Sublimation is nothing more than the modification of the end and change of object, adapting it to the socially acceptable. It is a socially acceptable outlet for excess sexual energy.
Freud defended the idea that most of the higher aspects of the human species, that is, culture and its derivatives, were the result of how human beings had imposed social norms that, by not allowing them to show themselves sexually free but not opting for repression, he had to channel sexual energy and give it a more accepted use.
Culture, civilization, humanity is nothing more than the result of stifling sexual drives. Thus, for the Viennese psychoanalyst, culture was seen as radically contrary to the natural, although this was not necessarily a bad thing. Civilization was the result of human beings having repressed their most primal instincts throughout history, through a value system that has become more complex, increasingly penalizing sexuality.
Freud believed that sublimation was a sign of maturity of civilization. It was a mechanism to allow people to behave in a socially functional way, that is, without breaking cultural norms, which as a general rule used to treat sexuality as something not suitable to be treated in the public street and its excess was seen as a problem.
Faced with such a sacrifice, far from being completely repressed or extinguished the sexual drive, this would have been used and it would have been the energy that would have allowed the creation of treasures of art, science, knowledge and, together, human intellectual productions.
This can be seen in areas where sexuality is highly restricted, as is the case of medieval priests, who had to comply with celibacy and, as they could not satisfy their sexual need, dedicated themselves to the writing of codices or the study of the Bible, in addition to being the group that practically monopolized culture during that time.
But despite the fact that the most general definition refers to how the sexual drive should be channeled and transformed into something more socially desirable, it is true that Freud took into account that the original drive is not always something of a sexual nature.
He himself talks about the case of a prestigious German surgeon, Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach, who in his childhood was dedicated to cutting the tails of dogs. This behavior, clearly sadistic but not sexual, is worrying, typical of a child who when he is older we would not be surprised if he was a psychopath. However, in this specific case, he channeled it and transformed it into a more useful, socially acceptable end, being an outstanding surgeon, known for great advances in rhinoplastic and maxillofacial surgery.
From the hand of Harry Stack Sullivan, another well-known psychoanalyst, although perhaps not of Freud’s stature, comes what is known as interpersonal psychoanalysis. Within this psychoanalytic current, and defined by Sullivan, it is understood that sublimation is an involuntary substitution that results in a partial satisfaction but with broad social support of something that, although it would give us great pleasure, society would not see it with. good eyes.
This substitution may be something that we really do not want, but it is the only way that we can have, no matter how small, satisfaction without carrying out a very disruptive behavior for the rest of society.
Sublimation according to Jung
Carl Gustav Jung considered sublimation to be something mystical from nature, which was significantly different from the Freudian point of view, who gave him a fairly detailed and, in a way, logical explanation of human behavior.
Freud, as we have already commented, considered that the concept of sublimation allowed us to understand how humanity had transformed sexual instincts into something non-sexual, with a different purpose and substantially beneficial for the whole of humanity.
Jung was critical of Freud’s conception, since he considered that the Viennese psychoanalyst had tried to define it in a way that made it appear scientifically credible. For Jung, sublimation is not as voluntary a process as Freud originally claimed. It was not the simple transformation of sexual impulse into something different because society did not want us to be sexually free. For the Swiss psychoanalyst, sublimation was something very mysterious, alchemical in nature.
Das Ding, sublimation and Lacan
Jacques Lacan relates the idea of sublimation to the concept of “Das Ding” (“The thing”). Das Ding is an abstract notion, and one of the defining characteristics of the human condition. He sees it as the void that we experience as human beings, which we try to fill through human relationships, objects, and experiences. The problem is that all attempts to fill the void that Das Ding implies are not enough to achieve full individual satisfaction.
Once the idea of the Lacanian Das Ding is understood, it is possible to understand the concept of sublimation according to the French psychoanalyst’s perspective. For him, sublimation, the fact that something morally unacceptable is transformed into a socially productive product, be it artistic, scientific or cultural, is done to reduce the internal tension of the subject.
Science and religion are examples of how it is intended to fill the gap in the world, that is, there are things that we do not know, that we want to know more in depth because it raises questions, and therefore we seek, either through theological explanations or through scientific investigation, answers.
- Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ (1930) in The Standard Edition Of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud – The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents, and Other Works, trans. by James Strachey (Hogarth Press; London, 1961), vol. XXI, 79–80
- Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (Karnac Books, 2011), p. 44.
- Carl Jung, Letters, ed. By G. Adler and A. Jaffé (Princeton University Press; Princeton, 1974), vol. 1, 171,
- CG Jung, Dreams: (From Volumes 4, 8, 12, and 16 of the Collected Works of CG Jung), Princeton University Press (2012), p. 100.