Sublimation: Psychological Perspectives, and Sublimative Climate Change


Defense mechanisms are a fascinating and beneficial broad categorical concept that clusters human behaviors with respect to the protection of psychological, physiological, and sociological health. Of great interest to the author is the topic of sublimation, which is seen to be more mature than humor in allaying instinctual drives to creative endeavors, but also potentially sheds insight into the genesis of culture, creativity, and potentially its role in leading to a climate emergency as a result of a possibly correlated potentially insatiable desire to pursue greater and greater challenges with greater and greater skills. This pursuit, in an intelligent species most likely exerts pressure on ecology, inclusive of a plurality of species inhabiting distributions of livable geologies, regardless of how living topologies are geometrically de-scribed by tensions of emergent-divergent cultural tectonics. It is quite possible that sublimation from classical psychodynamics, humanist, behavioralist, and evolutionary psychological perspectives may shed light on and provide guidance in areas of inequality and climate change, with that said, an exploration of sublimation continues.

Perspectives of Sublimation

In order to assess sublimation from varying perspectives, a variety of sources have been chosen to represent originating theorist perspectives by institutional scholars and in some cases the theorists themselves. A chronological assessment will be provided to cover the psychodynamic, behavioralist, humanistic, cognitive, biological, and evolutionary psychological perspectives. Principal psychologists responsible for conceiving the theoretical framework of each perspective will be considered, and then followed by an interpretation, and possible implications. As Sigmund Freud was the originator of a great matter of psychological theory, Freud will be addressed first.

Psychodynamic Perspective

While Freud enumerated numerous defense mechanisms, sublimation is defined as a prime defense mechanism associated with maturation (Freud & Baines, 1946, p. 56). Sublimation is described as “the redirection of sexual impulses away from their original objects and toward ‘higher’ pursuits” (Siljak, 2018). In Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (Freud, 1957), Freud used Leonardo da Vinci as the prime model for sublimative behavior due to his highly productive and socially beneficial behaviors (Siljak, 2019, p. 443-444). Anna Freud felt that children’s play with toys leaning to the industrial, would “produce in children’s minds the agreeable phantasy that they can control the world”, whereas toys like dolls, “create the friction of motherhood” (Freud & Baines, 1946, p. 91). 

It does seem as if the psychodynamic perspective in the recent public sphere may have toned down or lost the connectivity to a social orientation in defining sublimation, for Anna Freud spells it out quite clearly that sublimation displaces the libido’s sexual drives to “higher” social values, even if it is just knowledge of these values (Freud & Baines, 1946, p. 56). Though the question remains, what are these high social values, and to fast forward to today, are these values quite possibly ethnocentric? Are these male dominant values? What are values in a multicultural society? Are economics part of these values? Good questions to leave a psychological practitioner with. 

An interesting interpretation of the implication of the psychodynamic interpretation is from Horney (1936), “As the capacity for sublimating is limited, and as the intensive suppression of primitive drives without sublimation may lead to neurosis, the growth of civilization must inevitably imply a growth of neurosis. Neuroses are the price humanity has to pay for cultural development” (p. 229). It goes without saying that this is a potentially disturbing peak of the implications of sublimation from the psychodynamic perspective that must be overcome, and Horney seems to have progressed on as a feminist psychologist in a male dominant culture of psychology and institution. 

Horney’s assessment of the psychodynamic implication of a price to pay in neurosis, is troubling, and one would immediately be forced to grapple with the question, “who pays it?” This seems awfully reminiscent of inequality, and quite possibly yet again, veiled justification of the results of neurotic and psychotic behavior which seems to benefit far fewer as the reach of communication reaches far more-r. That said, the author is not comfortable quickly assigning such implications to Freud, for Freud seemed focus on the phenomena of sexual energies and remained somewhat fixed in satisfaction having lived a life where these energies are put to the benefit of a society, yet I’m not sure Freud lived in a time where he could see the crisis of the planet’s ecologies that we see today, were that he did, he might have developed a furtherance of perspective, so on to Horney.

Humanistic Perspective

Karen Horney developed a wider understanding that traverses the principle of the psychodynamic perspective of sublimation, because to her, culture and instinct are in opposition only when the environment is frustrating to the point it brings neurotic behavior (Bernard, 2002). In fact, Horney (1936), herself writes that Freud’s views behind a displacement of biological drives to create culture assumed too much (p. 229-230). As Bernard (2002) seems to reflect, Horney believed that neurosis is actually caused by “conflicting character of the demands which a culture imposes on individuals” (Horney, 1936, p. 230). It is only fitting to consider the perspective frame within which Freud and Horney operated. It does seem as if the sublimation of Freud took a page from evolutionary concepts, as if Freud attributed sublimation for the genesis of society and culture, whereas once this culture had been built, Horney questioned the very premise of sublimation, which may explain its slow evolution away from sublimation for the purpose of “high” culture and society. Speaking of society, there is one controversial psychologist that put one hundred percent weight behind conditioning culture, and perhaps may be a kind of sublimationist, perhaps brandishing a kind of new religion of de-autonomizing sublimationism, and with that, B.F. Skinner of the Behavioralist may offer a perspective.

Behavioralist Perspective

B.F. Skinner both de-personalizes and de-culturizes sublimation further, and places it in the framework of operant conditioning. It is what comes out when within a prevailing culture, one may find an occupation for even culturally inappropriate behavior (Skinner, 1965, p. 377). Skinner’s view is that sublimation is automatically satiating (Skinner, 1965p. 152). Rotter himself tried to rationalize sublimation in terms of a behavioralist (Rotter & Hochreich, 1975, p. 39). Regarding sublimation, is there some correlation between the continuing theme of satiation of instinctual desires through creativity? If so, is it possible that another well-known behavior scientist may hold more keys to sublimation? 

The “automatic satiation” seems strikingly familiar to autotelic behaviors as described by Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi (2014), where autotelics experience less stress and strain in flow, and found apathy aversive, as opposed to non-autotelics (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, p. 254). Is sublimation a trait that is more developed in autotelics? Flow state research quite possibly is an entire field extending research into the very process of sublimation. The concept that flow state is essentially sublimation, and perhaps a bit disconnecting in that flow state has already been rapidly integrated into management discussions of productivity and work as evidenced by its appearance in popular presses catering to economics (Rob, 2019). Is it possible that the raw ideal of sublimation is being forgotten and used for competitive gains?

Evolutionary Perspective

Erdem Pulcu (2014) of the University of Manchester Medical School offers comments regarding sublimation and the evolution of the super-ego (p. 1). While Freud’s compulsive interpretations of the meaning of fire had been driven by a potential obsession with it, there is no doubt that the field’s compulsive interpretations may have adversely impacted psychodynamics (p. 6-7), Pulcu continues to formulate an evolutionary hypothesis that “the acquisition of fire could be a form of sublimation driven by frustration of sexual impulses” (p.5). Pulcu also asserts that repeated sublimation may be responsible for the phenomena classified as the super-ego (p. 7). Humanity’s early generation of the initial sparks from stones and then the later taming of fire are wrapped up with mental thought experiments of pre-historic sublimative behavior and quite possibly sublimation’s emergence with the evolution of the cerebral cortex, and genesis of the super-ego (p. 7-8).

The evolutionary theory Pulcu puts forth is quite compelling, and challenges Freud’s own assertions (Pulcu, 2014, p. 8-9), yet while the suppositions are replete with conjecture, these conjectures seem largely untestable. Untestable unless, perhaps, one un-interfering intelligent species observes another; perhaps a species progressed far beyond a discovery of the phenomena that is fire, may never really know what happened and could sublimate such endeavor to explain it, elsewhere more beneficial (i.e., Carl Rogers). That said, these backformations of deductive and inductive processes have generated quite interesting theories, that make for fine fireside chats, and consideration in drawing together lines for biological research, for if this is the case, that sublimative behavior is responsible for fire, then sublimation could quite possibly be the genesis of intelligence and society in its management of the fire triangle of heat, oxygen, and fuel, in a continuous evolution of unceasing, ever-growing, seemingly insatiable metabolic creativity, yet at what cost? Horney’s assertions echo quite deeply, far beyond other contributions of sensory-intelligent behavior, what is this sublimative fire raging the planet?


Sublimation can be seen in many aspects of the living condition, and through the various perspectives of psychology, as a field, inclusive of psychosocial dynamics, this concept comes alive right down to quite possibly, the genesis of intelligent civilization. Bringing light to the socially mature defense mechanism of sublimation, and possibly providing instruction on sublimation, excluding the preference of controlling interests to manipulate members in channeling an intelligent species’ members to sublimate in the direction of their preferred interests, could quite possibly benefit humanity and the world tremendously. Like it or not, uncontrolled sublimation may quite likely be another factor of climate change, for if sublimation produced fire, then to take apart the interchangeable indicator of what the fire represents, an intelligent species’ continued exponential pursuit of creative expression; it’s not hard to see a function of fire in increasing the rates of entropy correlated to creative expression. 

Sublimation is an interesting and powerful human behavior, and while powerful, and perhaps used by controlling interests, perhaps it’s time for psychology to take a stand, against its abuses, which is part of American Psychological Association’s Chapter 48 division, that dedicated to peace psychology. Perhaps it’s not up to a few controlling interests to manipulate a species’ sublimative capacities. It is interesting that sublimation is a large part of the story, and maybe visions of a few controlling interests, are just versions of Horney’s ideal-self, valenced as ideal-we? Are these ideal-we visions just neurotic and potentially psychotic efforts to adopt an ideal-we, ideal-self? Are not these visons subject to conflicts, violence, and injustices of movements, crusades, and wars? What then of the field of psychology? What is it to do? Does psychology triage, console, and offer therapy to the natives as crushed, as Horney puts it, under the advancement of continual normalization and systemization of cultural settlements of creativity in the native lands of instinctivity? Or does psychology pick up chapter 48’s mission and enter politic to perhaps bring light to the function of sublimation and appeal to a greater reason for its immediate management? An appeal for the management of sublimation induced climate change. This is up to the reader and the general public to decide.

Maybe a more functional and less ecologically damaging approach might just be what Carl Rogers’ seems to continually allude to in Client-Centered Theory (1951). Perhaps one can encourage a kind of sublimation of instinctual desires into unconditional positive regard and deploy these as control rods to avert a climate crisis, scramming into the reactor, devoid of graphite tips (i.e., politically creative parties and leaders) as humanity learned with Chernobyl, which by virtue of rapidly increasing fissile chain reactions of these tips leading columns of boron, brought the reactor to catastrophic meltdown (Filburn & Bullard, 2016). It just might be more beneficial to help society embrace and understand what sublimation is, show them its effects, its abuses, its ability to be manipulated and channeled, and finally leave it up to them, transparently, to make their own decisions on how best to channel these energies without adverting the eyes, influencing behind the scenes mentality, with now known clever tricks of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and behavioral modeling. Maybe it’s time to stop advertising each other to oblivion, like this very paragraph; further research is not only suggested. Research and a voice in the public is now a necessity for survival of not a neurotically and psychotically idealized we, but of life; a genuine and realized rarity amongst the cosmos, beyond self, beyond we, and finally beyond brand.


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Written for PSYCH-105, Washington State University, Professor Alexis Bridley