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.

Reproduced from The New Dictionary of Kleinian Thought by Bott Spillius, E., Milton, J., Garvey, P., Couve, C. and Steiner, D. (Routledge, 2011)

See a list of key papers on symbol formation