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Sublimation is a process that diverts the flow of instinctual energy from its immediate sexual aim and subordinates it to cultural endeavors.

The idea of sublimation leads back at once to the alchemical metaphor of the transmutation of base metal into gold, and to aesthetics, which from the ancient world (Longinus) to Romanticism (Goethe) saw the sublime as the transcendence of the individual's limitations. The concept evolved in Freud's work from the idea of the ennoblement or embellishment of a fantasy (Draft L [1950a (1895)]) to that of a genuine intra-instinctual process, the transformation of object libido into ego libido before it could assume new aims (1923b).

The unresolved complexity of the notion of sublimation means, however, that the term designates a set of questions rather than a well-circumscribed concept (Laplanche, 1980).

Sublimation would appear to be a very special vicissitude of the instinct, for its diversion of libidinal energy harnesses instinctual impulses in a way congenial to the superego and its society. Retransformation is possible, however, and therein the original instinctual force may regain the upper hand (resexualization of sublimated homosexual impulses (1911c [1910])). Desexualization alone cannot define the process of sublimation, which is not to be confused with inhibition or reaction formations, even if it plays a fundamental role because of its ability to exchange an originally sexual aim for another, which is its "psychical parent" (1908d).

As for the effect of sublimation on the object it valorizes in the eyes of society, Freud took great care to discourage any risk of confusion between sublimation and idealization, the latter implying an overestimation of the supposedly "sublime" object (1914c).

The development of the ability to sublimate ("Fähigkeit zur Sublimierung") was related for Freud both to the individual's constitutional disposition (the initial strength of the sexual instinct) and to the events of childhood (the link between trauma and the intensity of infantile curiosity; cf., the case of Leonardo da Vinci being a good example). Sublimation occurred at the expense of the polymorphously perverse drives of childhood (especially bisexuality), which were diverted and applied to other aims, as witness the sublimation of anal eroticism into an interest in money, or the link between urethral eroticism and ambition. This process contributed to the formation of character traits. The component instincts were of particular significance here: the instinct to see could be sublimated into artistic contemplation and into the instinct to know (1910c), while sublimated aggression could manifest itself as creative and innovative activity.

But Freud always emphasized the risks associated with sublimation of the instincts when it takes place at the expense of the sexual and deprives the subject of immediate satisfaction. Although sublimation appears as the guarantor of the social bond and promoter of culture, it is, nonetheless, a dangerous demand, a "ruse of civilization" (Mellor-Picaut, 1979) when it presents individual sublimations as ideal models. For Freud, sublimation is not the core of an axiological approach to psychoanalysis, and the introduction of narcissism represented an important turning point in his theory. Sublimation took place "through the mediation of the ego, which begins by changing sexual object-libido into narcissistic libido, and then perhaps goes on to give it a different aim" (1923b, p. 30). Sublimation no longer occurs at the expense of the object-libido but offers the narcissistic libido a needed extension. However, it does not protect the individual, who is left at the mercy of the death instinct.

Freud was against making sublimation a privileged goal of the treatment, one that could even be advocated by the analyst (1915a [1914]). In this, he disagreed with Carl G. Jung (1914d), as well as Lou Andreas-Salomé, whom he had also accused of "blab-bering about the ideal" in his letters to Jung (January 10, 1912), James J. Putnam (May 4, 1911), and Oskar Pfister (October 9, 1918). In all these cases he was struggling against the temptation of an anagogic approach to psychoanalysis. It may be assumed that this threat of having such a complex concept corrupted contributed to the fact that it has never been thoroughly developed. One thinks in particular of an unpublished draft on sublimation written for Freud's projected book on metapsychology.

The concept of sublimation has been discussed by many of Freud's followers, though without any significant contributions being made to metapsychology. In later years Melanie Klein became one of the most important commentators on sublimation, primarily in connection with epistemophilia. In France, Daniel Lagache (1962) and Jean Laplanche (1980) have both written essays on sublimation.

Sublimation, which is often mentioned in the literature, by emphasizing the desexualization of goals and the social valorization of the object, remains both an essential concept and an unresolved question for psychoanalysis.


See also: Anality; Analytic psychology; Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Applied psychoanalysis and the interactions of psychoanalysis; Character; Civilization (Kultur); Defense; Depressive position; Desexualization; Drive; Ego; Ego autonomy; Ego and the Id, The; Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, The; Eroticism, anal; Eroticism, urethral; Friendship; Group psychology; ; Idealization; Identification with the aggressor; Ideology; Intellectualization; Knowledge (instinct for); Latency period; Law of the Father; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood; Pleasure ego/reality ego; Pleasure of thinking; Psychic apparatus; Reaction formation; Reciprocal paths of influence (libidinal coexcitation); Reparation; Repetition; Rite and ritual; Science and psychoanalysis; Sexuality; Superego; Symbol; Symbolization, process of; Thought; Work (as a psychoanalytic concept); Working-off mechanisms. Bibliography

   * Freud. Sigmund. (1908d). "Civilized" sexual morality and modern nervous illness. SE, 9: 177-204.
   * ——. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.
   * ——. (1915a [1914]). Observations on transference love. (Further recommendations on the technique of psychoanalysis III). SE, 12: 157-171.
   * ——. (1914d). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.
   * ——. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.
   * ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
   * Lagache, Daniel. (1984). La sublimation et les valeurs. In Oeuvres completes 5. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (Original work published 1962)
   * Laplanche, Jean. (1980). Problématiques III, la sublimation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
   * Mellor-Picaut, Sophie. (1979). La sublimation ruse de la civilisation. Psychanalyseà l'Université, 4.

Further Reading

   * Arlow, Jacob, rep. (1955). Panel: Sublimation. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 3, 515-527.
   * Kris, Ernst. (1955). Neutralization and sublimation. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 10, 30-46.
   * Loewald, Hans W. (1988). Sublimation: Inquiries into theoretical psychoanalysis. New Haven: Yale University Press.


The term 'sublimation' (Fr. sublimation) is one of the most familiar terms in the vocabulary of psychoanalysis.

Sublimation and Freud

Sigmund Freud never developed a coherent theory (or account) of sublimation.

Sublimation is a term widely used in psychoanalytic theory to describe the process in which the libido sexual drive (psychic or erotic energy) is channelled, converted, transformed into an apparently non-sexual activity, such as artistic creation and intellectual work, or redirected, diverted toward an apparently non-sexual aim or a socially valued object, such as artistic creation and intellectual work, into creative and intellectual activity, into "socially useful" achievements.[1]

Sublimation is a type of coping mechanism or defense mechanism, which functions as a socially acceptable escape valve for excess sexual or erotic energy which would otherwise have to be discharged in socially unacceptable forms (perverse behaviour) or in neurotic symptoms. Erotic energy is only allowed limited expression due to repression.

The logical conclusion of such a view is that complete sublimation would mean the end of all perversion and all neurosis. Civilization has been able to place "social aims higher than the sexual ones."[2]

Sublimation and Art

This usage appears to be influenced by the aesthetics of the sublime. In his study of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud uses 'sublimation' in this sense to describe the transformation of theyoung Leonardo's sexual curiosity into a spirit of intellectual inquiry.[3] Whilst this produced great works of art, the sublimation of libido into a general urge to know meant that a small quota of Leonardo's sexual ennergy was directe dtowards sexual aims, and resulted in a stunted adult sexuality. Elsewhere Frud suggests tht a mature woman's capacity to pursue an intellectual profession may be a sublimated expression of her childhood desire to acquire a penis.

Sublimation and Lacan

Lacan's account of sublimation differs from Freud's on a number of points.

  1. Freud argues that sublimation is only necessary because this direct satisfaction of the drive (although theoretically possible) is prohibited by society.
  1. Freud's account implies that perverse sexuality as a form of direct satisfaction of the drive is possible, and that sublimation is only necessary because this direct form is prohibited by society.

Lacan conceives of perversion in a highly structured relation to the drives which are already, in themselves, linguistic rather than biological forces.[4]

  1. Whereas Freud believed that complete sublimation might be possible for some particularly refined or cultured people, Lacan argues that "complete sublimation is not possible for the individual."[5]

This is not to say that the "free mobility of the libido" (Introductory Lectures 16.346) is ever fully contained: "sublimation is never able to deal with more than a certain fraction of libido."[6]

  1. In Freud's account, sublimation involves the redirection of the drive to a different (non-sexual) object.

In Lacan's account, sublimation does not involve directing the drive to a different object, but rather changing the (position of the object in the structure of fantasy) nature of the object to which the drive was already directed, a "change of object in itself," something which is made possible because the drive is "already deeply marked by the articulation of the signifier."[7] The sublime quality of an object is thus not due to any intrinsic property of the object itself, but simply an effect of the object's position in the symbolic structure of fantasy. Sublimation relocates an object in the position of the thing. The Lacanian formula for sublimation is thus that "it raises an object ... to the dignity of the Thing."[8]

  1. Lacan (following Freud) associates sublimation with creativity and art, but also links it with the death drive.[9]
    1. Firstly, the concept of the death drive is itself seen as a product of Freud's own sublimation.[10]
    2. Secondly, the death drive is not only a "destruction drive," but also a "will to create from zero."[11]
    3. Thirdly, the sublime object, through being elevated to the dignity of the Thing, exerts a power of fascination which leads ultimately to death and destruction.

Sublimation and Ethics

In his 1959-60 seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan emphasizes the element of social recognition as central to the concept, and reflects upon the dimension of shared social values (towards which the sublimated drives are diverted) in his discussion of ethics.[12]


See Also


  1. Freud 1933
  2. Introductory Lectures 16.345
  3. 1910a
  4. see Zizek, 1991: 83-4)
  5. S7, 91
  6. Introductory Lectures 16.346
  7. S7, 293
  8. S7, l 12
  9. S4, 431
  10. S7, 212
  11. S7, 212-13
  12. Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. p. 107, 144
  13. Seminar XI sublimation, 11, 165