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Intellectualization is the use of the intellect to defend against instinctual impulses. Obsessive neurotics use intellectualization in an effort to master obsessive representations and exhaust themselves in an intellectual activity that is as intense as it is empty, forcing themselves against their will to scrutinize and speculate as if the most important and vital personal issues were at stake. We must not confuse this sexualization of thought, which resembles indefinitely prolonged and fruitless masturbation, that one can drive from intellectual beauty.

In Leonardo da Vinci (1910c) Freud gave a prototype of intellectualization in its defensive function: "His affects were controlled and subjected to the instinct for research; he did not love and hate, but asked himself about the origins and significance of what he was to love or hate" (p. 74). For Freud, this conversion of instinct into intellect had several consequences. First of all, it is by no means certain that reconversion in the reverse direction is possible, thus leaving the world of affects out of reach. In addition, "investigating has taken the place of acting and creating as well" (p. 75). These arguments are quite surprising, because Freud had earlier demonstrated in relation to "paths of reciprocal influence" (1905d) the interaction between thinking activity and sexual excitation. Freud's interpretation of da Vinci is also surprising because it contradicts what we know about Leonardo's creative power and his passion for it. However, while the example Freud chose may pose a problem, in Leonardo Freud was painting a picture of the passion for investigation with which he himself was not unfamiliar.

We find intellectualization more commonly in special instances of painful and incessant mental work, which can take the extreme form that psychiatrists call intellectual rumination. Pierre Janet describes it in the following terms: "It is a singular labor of thought that accumulates associations of ideas, interrogations, questions, innumerable research, in such a way as to form an inextricable labyrinth. The work is more or less complicated depending on the intelligence of the subject; but whether he goes round in a circle or goes off on branches, he never reaches a conclusion, he can never hold course and exhausts himself in a work that is as interminable as it is pointless" (1909). The distinctive feature of intellectualization is in fact its pointless and infinite character. Freud partly explains this through the fact that it is not the content of the thought that is pursued, but its pure mechanism. Speaking of mental rumination in relation to the Rat Man, he noted "The thought process itself becomes sexualized, for the sexual pleasure which is normally attached to the content of thought becomes shifted on to the act of thinking itself, and the satisfaction derived from reaching the conclusion of a line of thought is experienced as a sexual satisfaction" (1909d).

We may wonder whether speaking of a "conclusion of a line of thought" in such a case is not contradictory, a contradiction we already found in Leonardo, when Freud spoke simultaneously of the "feeling that comes from settling things in one's mind and explaining them" (1910c, p. 80), and "the fact that this brooding never ends and that the intellectual feeling, so much desired, of having found a solution recedes more and more into the distance" (p. 80). For Freud, obsessive intellectualization is by no means a gauge of intellectual development, which is in fact redirected for the purposes of combating the instincts and very often disappears once repression has acquired the upper hand.

Intellectualization does not derive from the sublimation of an instinct, like the pleasure of thinking, but on an idealization. Freud could thus write: "The struggle which once raged in the deepest strata of the mind, and was not brought to an end by rapid sublimation and identification, is now continued in a higher region, like the Battle of the Huns in Kaulbach's painting" (1923b).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Ideology; Interpretation; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood ; Obsessional neurosis; Rationalization; Thought.


Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

Janet, Pierre. (1909). Les névroses. Paris: Flammarion.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1992). Le plaisir de pensée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Further Reading

Kestenbaum, G.I. (1983). Toward a definition of intellectualization. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 6, 671-692.

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