Seminar VII : 2nd March 1960 : p156 : Comments on Sigmund Freud’s ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’

by Julia Evans on November 9, 2013

Seminar VII : 2nd March 1960 : Ch XII – A critique of Bernfeld : p156 : Comments on Freud

The Reading Seminar VII Group read this passage on 9th November 2013.

In reality, the greatest ambiguity reigns in the ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ on the subject of the relations between spiritual reaction and Sublimierung (sublimation). The problem begins with the text on pages 78 and 79 of the Gesammelte Werke. At that time this articulation of the problem caused a great many difficulties for the commentators. People wondered, depending on the differenct passages, whether Freud turns Sublimierung into a particular form of reaction formation or whether, on the contrary, reaction formation isn’t to be located within a form in which Sublimierung would have a broader significance.

The only thing to remember is the little sentence to be found at the bottom of note 79, which concludes the whole paragraph on reaction formation and sublimation. It makes a distinction that hasn’t been further developed, as Bernfeld quite properly notes:  “There may be sublimated by means of other, simpler mechanisms.”


1)  From Siegfried Bernfeld : Bemerkungen über Sublimierung : for details see here  : p334 – bottom of the page : Es kann such Sublimierung durch andere und einfachere Mechanismen geben.  Siegfried Bernfeld references Sigmund Freud ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: 1905’ for this quote. On p333 to p334, Siegfried Bernfeld discusses sublimation with reference to the ‘Three Essays’.

2)  Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality : 1905 : Sigmund Freud : Chapter II Infantile Sexuality : Part [1] The Period of Sexual Latency in Childhood and its Interruption : Section REACTION-FORMATION AND SUBLIMATION : p93-95 of Penguin Freud Library (pfl), Volume 7, On Sexuality : Quote:

What is it that goes to the making of these constructions which are so important for the growth of a civilized and normal individual? They probably emerge at the cost of the infantile sexual impulses themselves. Thus the activity of those impulses does not cease even during this period of latency, though their energy is diverted, wholly or in great part, from their sexual use and directed to other ends. Historians of civilization appear to be at one in assuming that powerful components are acquired for every kind of cultural achievement by this diversion of sexual instinctual forces from sexual aims and their direction to new ones – a process which deserves the name of ‘sublimation’. To this we would add, accordingly, that the same process plays a part in the development of the individual and we would place its beginning in the period of sexual latency of childhood.¹ [Footnote  ¹ Once again, it is from Fliess that I have borrowed the term ‘period of sexual latency’.]

It is possible further to form some idea of the mechanism of this process of sublimation. On the one hand, it would seem, the sexual impulses cannot be utilized during these years of childhood, since the reproductive functions have been deferred – a fact which constitutes the main feature of the period of latency. On the other hand, these impulses would seem in themselves to be perverse – that is, to arise from erotogenic zones and to derive their activity from instincts which, in view of the direction of the subject’s development, can only arouse unpleasurable feelings. They consequently evoke opposing mental forces (reacting impulses) which, in order to suppress this unpleasure effectively, build up the mental dams that have already mentioned – disgust, shame and morality.² [Footnote ² [Footnote added 1915:] In the case which I am here discussing, the sublimation of sexual instinctual forces takes place along the path of reaction-formation. But in general it is possible to distinguish the concepts of sublimation and reaction-formation from each other as two different processes. Sublimation can also take place by other and simpler mechanisms. ]


We must not deceive ourselves as to the hypothetical nature and insufficient clarity of our knowledge concerning the processes of the infantile period of latency or deferment; but we shall be on firmer ground in pointing out that such an application of infantile sexuality represents an educational ideal from which individual development usually diverges at some point and often to a considerable degree. From time to time a fragmentary manifestation of sexuality which has evaded sublimation may break through; or some sexual activity may persist through the whole duration of the latency period until the sexual instinct emerges with greater intensity at puberty. In so far as educators pay any attention at all to infantile sexuality, they behave exactly as though they shared our views as to the construction of the moral defensive forces at the cost of sexuality, and as though they knew that sexual activity makes a child ineducable: for they stigmatize every sexual manifestation by children as a ‘vice’, without being able to do much against it. We, on the other hand, have every reason for turning our attention to these phenomena which are so much dreaded by education, for we may expect them to help us to discover the original configuration of the sexual instincts.