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Blum, H.P. (1978). Symbolic Processes and Symbol Formation. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 59:455-471.

(1978). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59:455-471

Symbolic Processes and Symbol Formation

Harold P. Blum


This paper explored the definition of symbolism in psychoanalysis and the form, formation and functions of different symbolic processes. Signs, symbols and metaphor have different meanings and conceptualizations. Psychoanalytic ('Freudian') symbolism was differentiated from other symbolic processes and from the concept of symbolism as commonly used and defined outside of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic symbolism is drive derivative and rooted in the primary process, is closer to an identity of perception, and is relatively restricted in content to disguised representations of the body self, infantile objects, birth and death, and associated infantile conflict and experience. Primary process symbolism differentiates from a phylogenetic protosymbolic complex, perhaps an undifferentiated semiotic function, prior to and in parallel with, the symbolic processes of the 'secondary process' and of the rational ego. Cognitive and semantic symbolism have separate developmental lines, and differences between psychoanalytic symbolism and linguistic symbolism were delineated. Psychoanalytic symbolism is independent of language and culture and has relatively universal forms, characteristics, and relationships to repression and archaic ego function. In contrast to cognitive and linguistic symbols which are essential to reality adaptation and ego growth, psychoanalytic symbolism does not have communicative or problem-solving functions. However, psychoanalytic symbolism may be employed in the service of sublimation and adaptation. Psychoanalytic symbolism requires rudimentary ego development and probably does not appear until after the phase of self-object differentiation. While Freud allowed for transition between primary and secondary process and, therefore, for transitional symbolic processes and forms, the fundamental difference between the primary and secondary process is maintained and emphasized. Psychoanalytic symbols are also overdetermined and may acquire personal or specific cultural meanings.

Language is the major vehicle of psychoanalytic work and abstract communication. The development of advanced linguistic symbol systems and syntax, beginning with the novel two-word phrase in the second half of the second year is an evolutionary landmark, perhaps as significant as the child's first word. Language is a major dimension of object relations and a major ego resource for reflexion, organization and mastery. The symbolic representation of the inner and outer world frees humans from the tyranny of being stimulus-bound. The unconscious 'has no grammar' and is not organized as a language. Freud's study of infantile games elucidates symbolic play, semantic communication and structure formation. Fantasies about a symbolic process or symbol formation should not be confused with rational scientific understanding of symbolic processes. Reification of metaphor and symbolic interpretation do not interpret process or substitute for the process of intepretation.

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