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melanie klein trust

Melanie Klein Trust

Furthering the psychoanalytic theory
and technique of Melanie Klein

Symbol formation


The term 'symbol formation' is used in psychoanalysis to denote a mode of indirect or figurative representation of a significant idea, conflict or wish. The ability to move on from relating concretely to archaic objects to relating symbolically to substitute objects (symbols) is both a developmental achievement and a move made because of the anxieties involved in relating to primal objects. Klein extended the ideas of both Freud and Jones on symbols, showing in particular the symbolic significance of play and how sublimation depends on the capacity to symbolise. Segal further developed Klein's theory of symbols, distinguishing between the symbol proper formed in the depressive position and a more primitive version, the symbolic equation, belonging to paranoid-schizoid functioning. In the symbolic equation, the symbol is equated with the thing symbolised.

Key papers

For full references for Melanie Klein's works visit the 'Melanie Klein's publications' section.

1895 Freud, S. and Breuer, J. Studies in Hysteria. Translated from the German and edited by J. Strachey and A. Strachey. New York: Basic Books (1957). Symptom formation through symbolisation.

1900 Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 4. Hogarth Press (1953). The importance of symbolism in dreams.

1916 Jones, E. 'The theory of symbolism', British Journal of Psychology. Vol. 9. 2: 181–229; republished in Papers on Psychoanalysis. Balliere, Tindall and Cox (1950). Early influential but limited theory of symbolism, for example distinguishing symbolism from sublimation.

1923a Klein, M. 'The role of the school in the libidinal development of the child'. Learning is inhibited when words and numbers are imbued with frightening, concrete symbolic significance.

1923b Klein, M. 'Early analysis'. Contrary to Jones, Klein concludes that symbolism is the foundation of all sublimation.

1929a Klein, M. 'Personification in the play of children'. Symbolisation in play.

1929b Klein, M. 'Infantile anxiety-situations in a work of art and in the creative impulse'. Symbolisation in play.

1930 Klein, M. The importance of symbol formation in the development of the ego'. Klein's definitive statement on symbol formation.

1952 Segal, H. 'A psychoanalytic approach to aesthetics', International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 33: 196-207; republished in M. Klein, P. Heimann and R. Money-Kyrle (eds.) New Directions in Psychoanalysis. Tavistock (1955); and in The Work of Hanna Segal. New York: Jason Aronson (1981). The link between the aesthetics and the depressive position.

1957 Segal, H. 'Notes on symbol formation', International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 38: 391-397; republished in The Work of Hanna Segal. New York: Jason Aronson (1981) and in E. Spillius (ed.) Melanie Klein Today, Vol. 1. Routledge (1988). Landmark paper on symbolisation.

1974 Segal, H. 'Delusion and artistic creativity', International Review of Psychoanalysis. 1: 135-141; republished in The Work of Hanna Segal. New York: Jason Aronson (1981) and in E. Spillius (ed.) Melanie Klein Today, Vol. 2. Routledge (1988). Golding's novel The Spire is used to explore some aspects of creativity.

1979 Segal, H. Postscript to 'Notes on symbol formation'. The Work of Hanna Segal. New York: Jason Aronson. Segal refines her 1957 symbol theory in terms of Bion's container and contained.