"A second outcome of the work of psycho-analysis is that it then becomes possible for the unconscious intincts revealed by it to be employed for the useful purposes which they would have found earlier if development had not been interrupted (by repression)...Owing to their repressions, neurotics have sacrificed many sources of mental energy which would have been of great value in the formation of their character and their activity in life. We know of a far more expedient process of development, called sublimation, in which the energy of the infantile wishful impulses is not cut off but remains ready for use..It happens to be precisely the components of the sexual instinct that are specially marked by a capacity for this kind of sublimation, for exchanging their sexual aim for one which is comparatively remote and socially valuable. It is probable that we owe our highest cultural successes to the contributions of energy made in this way to our mental functions. Premature repression makes the sublimation of the repressed instinct impossible; when the repression is lifted, the path to sublimation becomes free once more. " Sigmund Freud, "Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis"
Psychoanalysis views sublimation as both priveleged and suspect. Its priveleged status is evident in expressions concerning its "higher" nature, and it is suspect for the same reason, as a possible defense against primary process. Defense can be understood in its widest sense as the very defintion of the ego -- a structure designed, as it were, to disguise or impede the true psychic reality of the id, or in a narrower analysis, one can distinguish between those processes that dam up or block the instinctual pressures for discharge (usually associated with pathology) and those that channel and organize it.
Sublimation is passion transformed. In both its chemical and psychoanalytic senses, sublimation denotes some sort of conversion or transmutation from a lower to a higher state. (although the analytic term of "conversion" designates transformation in the opposite direction, in which psychic conflicts are transposed into somatic symptoms.) Some of the means by which sublimation works include "aim inhibition" and "object displacement."
In psychoanalysis as a developmental theory, sublimation implies the transformation of instincts, from primitive to more advanced forms of mentation, and is associated with development of human culture. It also entails a desuxualization that is described by the transition from primary to secondary narcissism. Freud's essay on Leonardo da Vinci is a sustained description of sublimation. For Freud, Leonardo had "merely converted his passion into a thirst for knowledge."
In his book on sublimation, Hans Loewald stresses the symbolic linkage that is retained in sublimation. "In such a view, the transmutations of sublimation reveal an unfolding into differentiated elements of a oneness of instinctual-spiritual experience. But oneness stays alive as connection...By juxtaposing the two elements of an original unity and emphasizing the one hidden and defended against, psychoanalysis aims at showing their hidden linkage" (p.13) Loewald goes on to refer to D.W. Winnicott's description of "transitional objects" and their relation to play. For Loewald, Winnicott's descriptions, which focus on the "point" at which differentiation occurs, (a kind of singularity?) show how this alienating differentiation is being reversed in such a way that a "differentiated unity," or manifold, is coming into being, which "captures separateness in the act of uniting, and unity in the act of separating." (p.24) cf also eroticism. This, for Loewald, is genuine sublimation. It is not a defense against instinctual life but a reconciliation in the area of ego development and of internalization.