Sublimation (psychoanalysis)

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Sublimation , sublimation or sublimation (from the Latin sublimare , to lift up, lift up, in the figurative sense to raise ) means in general that something is brought to a higher level through a refinement process. In physics, sublimation is the process of the direct transition of a substance from the solid to the gaseous state of aggregation. Since the 18th century, sublimation has been the name given to the transformation of original, natural feelings, sensations and needs into a processed, "refined" form. In psychoanalysis , the term goes back to Sigmund Freud and has been discussed controversially ever since.

Definition and conceptual history

Sigmund Freud used sublimation to describe the process of modifying instinctual energy into artistic-creative, intellectual or, more generally, into socially recognized interests, activities and productions. There is a change in the target (object) towards which the drive energy is oriented:

"A certain kind of modification of the goal and change of the object, in which our social valuation is taken into account, we distinguish as sublimation ."

Sublimation shifts the goal and uses the drive energy outside the narrower sexual area, so that the originally sexual drive finds its satisfaction in another, more highly valued performance. This instinctual fate enables a reconciliation between the instinctual nature of humans and the cultural demands of a society. Sublimation is one of the defense mechanisms in the nomenclature of psychoanalysis , but as the most successful form it occupies a special position because the modification enables a socially recognized instinct satisfaction.

The ability to sublimate can be seen as one of the goals of psychoanalytic treatment. This achievement requires a desexualization, which is made possible by the intermediate stage of a withdrawal of the libido from external objects to the ego.

In the hierarchical division of defense mechanisms according to Stavros Mentzos , from the immature to the more mature, sublimation forms the fourth, most mature level. Mentzos emphasizes the advantage of sublimation as a successful adaptation that enables discharge and satisfaction that does not have to be postponed due to the social acceptance of the instinctual goals. Like Donald Winnicott and Erik Erikson, however, he too relativizes the view that cultural life and creativity arise solely through sublimation. Other authors take the view that, in contrast to defense mechanisms, the term sublimation does not describe an independent, self-defined form, but a complex process in which various defense mechanisms are involved, which makes it possible for the needs of the ego and society to succeed together connect to.

With regard to the question of whether sublimation is also a task of the original instinctual impulse in the unconscious , Freud remained open and assumed possible differences. The task of sublimating the original instinctual goals also applies, if at all, only to frowned upon partial instincts, so that a contrast between satisfactorily lived sexuality in adult forms and cultural achievements is not postulated. Different explanations can also be found with regard to the partial drives and their successful integration into the genitality upon reaching the oedipal stage.

Melanie Klein also used the term expandingly for the ability to restore the motherly object destroyed by the destructive instincts in the fantasy.


The descriptive concept of sublimation is based on the drive theoretical model of psychoanalysis and the idea that the biological-drive-bound human disposition is subject to developmental changes in the course of various “drive fates” . Through this there is a mediation of “nature” and “culture”, which is reflected in neurotic diseases as well as in the formations of healthy developments, including the cultural achievements of societies.

As a non-pathological phenomenon, the term plays a much smaller role in the clinical discus of psychoanalytic treatments than in psychoanalysis as a cultural theory , since it is linked to anthropological discourses about the dichotomy of nature and culture and the dual nature of humans as biological and mental beings.

“The sublimation of instincts is a particularly prominent feature of cultural development; it makes it possible for higher psychic activities, scientific, artistic, ideological, to play such an important role in cultural life. If one gives in to the first impression, one is tempted to say that sublimation is in general an instinctual fate enforced by culture. But it is better to think about it a little longer. "


A distinction to repression is that with this mental energy remains permanently bound in the process of repression and is no longer available. It is also the "unfortunate" variant because instinctual impulses are permanently not satisfied, while in the case of sublimation this becomes possible through the shift to culturally valued forms and can also lead to narcissistic recognition.

“The neurotic has lost many sources of mental energy through his repressions, the inflows of which would have been very valuable for his character formation and activity in life. We know a far more expedient process of development, the so-called sublimation, through which the energy of infantile wishful impulses is not shut off, but remains utilized by setting the individual impulses a higher, possibly no longer sexual goal instead of the unusable. "

The difference to the formation of reactions , in which a modification of frowned drive impulses is also described in socially recognized form formation, consists moreover in the reversal of the frowned upon impulse through opposing modes of behavior and experience.

Criticism, discourses and further developments

Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis and other authors criticize the fact that the term remains fuzzy and poorly developed. In contrast, Siegfried Zepf draws attention to the fact that Freud himself emphasized that sublimation is not a well-defined psychological mechanism, but rather a loose characterization of various processes that lead to socially more valuable activities. Joel Whitebook tries to close the gap in theorising through a theoretical further development of the term. His explanations draw on fundamental epistemological distinctions and the historical development of concepts and try to make it clear that sublimation should not be understood as a devaluation of cultural, artistic and intellectual achievements, but rather tries to explain it.

The idea, even if Freud never explicitly advocated it, that all creativity can be explained by sublimation has been criticized many times . Donald Winnicott in particular offered a model with the developmental psychological derivation of creativity from the transition phenomena and play, which since then has often been used as an alternative or in addition to the development of creativity.

The philosopher and cultural scientist Robert Pfaller describes the term sublimation as problematic if it is used to convey a complementary relationship between instinctual nature and culture, since such a relationship would contradict psychoanalytic theory as a whole. In contrast, he sees sublimation as a work on culture that does not change anything in the drive itself, but only in its cultural appreciation. In this way it counteracts the cultural ban on instinctual impulses, which in different epochs use different instruments.

The philosopher and anthropologist Max Scheler raises the question of whether asceticism, repression and sublimation are the origin of spiritual activities or only provide them with the necessary energy and comes to the conviction of an independent spirituality as an attribute of beings that manifest themselves in humans. As such, however, it is in its pure form without any power and requires the connection with the energetic force through the drive repression and its simultaneous sublimation in order to realize it.

The question being discussed is to what extent the concept of Platonic love , as introduced by Plato in The Banquet , resembles the psychoanalytic conception of sublimation or is fundamentally different from it.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ German dictionary by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm: sublimieren . (Vol. 20, Col. 816 to 818) online
  2. Sigmund Freud: New Consequences of the Lectures on the Introduction to Psychoanalysis 1932, GW XV, 103
  3. Sigmund Freud: "Psychoanalysis" and "Libidotheorie". 1923a, GW XIII; P. 230f
  4. Sigmund Freud: The I and the It. 1923, GW XIII, p. 258
  5. ^ A b c Jean Laplanche, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis: The vocabulary of psychoanalysis. Vol. 2, pp. 478-481 Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1973
  6. Stavros Mentzos: Neurotic Conflict Processing. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1997, pp. 65f
  7. a b c Siegfried Zepf: The pleasure of function, the pleasure-displeasure principle and some comments on the oedipal problem and sublimation. A concept-critical investigation Forum of Psychoanalysis. In: Forum der Psychoanalyse, 1998, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp. 18–33
  8. ^ Sigmund Freud: The unease in culture (1930) GW IX, p. 227.
  9. ^ Sigmund Freud: About psychoanalysis. 1910, GW VIII, p. 58
  10. Joel Whitebook: Sublimation: A '' Frontier Concept ''. In: Forum of Psychoanalysis. 1996, year 50/9/10.
  11. Donald W. Winnicott: From Play to Creativity. 11th edition. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2006.
  12. ^ Clemenz, Manfred: Psychoanalysis and artistic creativity. In: Psyche: 2005, 59/5, pp. 444–464
  13. Robert Pfaller: The sublimation and the mess. Theoretical location and culturally critical function of a psychoanalytic term. In: Psyche 2009/07 pp. 621–650.
  14. Max Scheler: The position of man in the cosmos. Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1947 (first published in 1927). Chapter 8: Problem of sublimation, criticism of "classical" and "negative" theory. Sublimation as a world process. on-line
  15. Carl Nedelmann: Sublimation as an escape from distress. To Goethe's lifelong love. In: Forum of Psychoanalysis. 2014, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp. 69–83


  • Siegfried Bernfeld (1931): On the sublimation theory. In: H. Dahmer (Ed.) Analytical Social Psychology . Vol. 1. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt a M, 1990, pp. 139-149
  • Sigmund Freud: Collected works in eighteen volumes with a supplementary volume. (= GW) Edited by Anna Freud, Marie Bonaparte, E. Bibring, W. Hoffer, E. Kris and O. Osakower, S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1999
    • Three Essays on Sexual Theory. (1905 a, 1914, 1920), GW V, pp. 27-145
    • Part of a hysteria analysis. (1905 b), GW V, pp. 161-286
    • The "cultural" sexual morality and modern nervousness. (1908), GW VII, pp. 141-167
    • Analysis of the phobia of a five-year-old boy. (1909), GW VII, pp. 241-377
    • About psychoanalysis. 1910, GW VIII, pp. 1-60
    • A childhood memory of Leonardo da Vinci. (1910), GW VII, pp. 127-211
    • Psychoanalytic remarks on an autobiographical case of paranoia (Dementia paranoides). (1911), GW VIII, pp. 239-320
    • About neurotic disease types. (1912a), GW VIII, pp. 321-330
    • Totem and taboo . (1912b), GW IX
    • The unconscious. (1913), GW X, pp. 264-303
    • Instincts and instinctual destinies. (1915a), GW X, pp. 209-232
    • The repression. (1915b) GW X, pp. 247-262
    • "Psychoanalysis" and "Libido Theory". 1923a, GW XIII; Pp. 211-233
    • The discomfort in culture . (1930) GW XIV, pp. 421-516.
    • New consequences of the lectures on the introduction to psychoanalysis 1932, GW XV
  • Eckart Goebel: Beyond discomfort. "Sublimation" from Goethe to Lacan. Bielefeld: Transcript 2009
  • Ernst Kris: Neutralization and Sublimation. Observations on young children. Psyche, 1976, 30 (8), pp. 744-762
  • Carl Nedelmann: Sublimation as an escape from distress. To Goethe's lifelong love. In: Forum of Psychoanalysis. 2014, Volume 30, Issue 1, pp. 69–83
  • Robert Pfaller: The sublimation and the mess. Theoretical location and culturally critical function of a psychoanalytic term. In: Psyche 2009/07 pp. 621–650.
  • Jan Sieber: »The shadow of the wildest interest.« Sublimation and desire in Adorno's »Theorestical Aesthetics«. In: Journal for Critical Theory: Volume 23, Issue 44/45, 2017. pp. 96–119

See also