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Muller, J.P. (1999). Modes and Functions of Sublimation. Ann. Psychoanal., 26:103-125.

(1999). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 26:103-125

Modes and Functions of Sublimation

John P. Muller, Ph.D.

In their discussion of the psychoanalytic notion of sublimation, Laplanche and Pontalis note that “the lack of a coherent theory of sublimation remains one of the lacunae in psychoanalytic thought” (1967, p. 433). Earlier, Hartmann had stated: “Despite the broad and general use made by analysts of the concept of sublimation and despite many attempts to free it from ambiguities, there is no doubt that a certain amount of discontent with some of its facets is rather common among us” (1955, p. 10). In an earlier generation, Glover expressed his discontent with the ambiguity of sublimation: “It is generally agreed that prior to 1923 a good deal of confusion existed regarding the exact nature of sublimation. Since then it has increased rather than diminished” (1931, p. 263).

Ambiguity about sublimation was noted even earlier. James Jackson Putnam, founder and the first president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, wrote to Freud in 1911:

As I study patients and try to relieve them of their symptoms, I find that I must also try to improve their moral characters and temperaments. They must be willing, must wish to ‘sublimate’ themselves; must be ready to make sacrifices and to follow their best ideals. But why? This question psychoanalysis as such does not (as I understand it) claim to answer [1971, p. 117].

Putnam was an established Boston physician in his sixties when he discovered Freud, who hoped to find in him an unimpeachable ally to promote psychoanalysis in America. Freud responded to Putnam:

You say that psychoanalytic experience shows you that whenever you want your patients to achieve complete recovery, you must direct them toward sublimation, but that psychoanalytic theory does not show you why you must do so. Here I must disagree. Psychoanalytic theory really does cover this.

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