Symbolic Equation

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The concept of symbolic equation appears for the first time in Hanna Segal's first paper, "Some Aspects of the Analysis of a Schizophrenic" (1950), in connection with her schizophrenic patient's difficulty with symbolizing. The patient made no distinction between symbols and the objects they symbolized. For him, being like something and being something were the same. Symbols were equivalent to the things symbolized. There was an unconscious equation between the two. In her second paper, "A Psycho-Analytic Contribution to Aesthetics" (1952), Segal describes symbol formation as a precipitate of mourning.

In "Notes on Symbol Formation" (1957), Segal formulates a theory of the dynamics of symbol formation and the role played by projective identification. Symbolism as a tripartite relation among self, object, and symbol. When projective identification is excessive, part of the ego becomes identified with the object, and the symbol, a creation and function of the ego, becomes identified with the object symbolized. In the depressive position, the object is given up, and a symbolic representation of the object is formed in the ego in the process of mourning. Segal offers the differentiations in Figure 1.

In normal repression, there is communication between the unconscious and the conscious through symbols. In the kind of repression that Freud called excessive, the unconscious is split off from the conscious, and in the return of the repressed, consciousness is invaded by concrete symbols, as in hallucinations.

Under stress, there may be a regression from symbolic functioning to symbolic equation. For instance, in the schizophrenic patient described in Segal's first paper, thoughts and words formed in the depressive position became concretized, so that the patient could not, for instance, use names, because he experienced a name as biting into the person named. In "Depression in the Schizophrenic" (1956), Segal cites the example of a girl who wrote a story about Lancashire witches and in a breakdown felt herself persecuted by Lancashire witches.

In her later papers, Segal, following Wilfred Bion, views pathological projective identification, not excessive projective identification, as responsible for disturbances in symbol formation. She made connections between her work on symbol formation and Bion's alpha- and beta-elements.

Hanna Segal

See also: Neurosis; Infantile psychosis; Schizophrenia; Symbolism; Symbolization, process of.


Segal, Hanna. (1950). Some aspects of the analysis of a schizophrenic. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 31, 268-278.

. (1952). A psycho-analytic contribution to aesthetics. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 33,196-207.

. (1956). Depression in the schizophrenic. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 37, 339-343.

. (1957). Notes on symbol formation. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 38, 391-397.

. (1978). On symbolism. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 59, 303-314.

. (1991). Dream, phantasy, and art. London: Routledge.