Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology

pp 209-212


  • Christian DunkerAffiliated withInstituto de Psicologia da USP, Cidade Universitária Email author 


Catharsis is part of Aristotle’s theory of recognition in political and esthetic spheres, of Plato’s theory of knowledge and medicine, as well as magical conceptions of healing and social adjustment. The purification of the soul in regard to the body, of the body in regard to diseases, and of social imbalance in regard to harmony became central metaphors of politics in the Christian West. Catharsis included purgation (as the medical practice of the expulsion of an object or substance that is etiologically responsible for the illness), purification (as a cultural practice of reorganizing the antagonisms in a community), and clarification (as an individual practice of knowledge and rationalization).


Catharsis is a Greek word meaning purgation, cleansing, or purification. Aristotle used this concept of catharsis in his work the Politics (1342a 8–10) in reference to a cleansing of passions such as fear and piety. In the Poetics (1449b 25–30), Aristotle alludes to the purification of affects through tragedy. Just as menstruation and excretion purge the body of excessive substances, in theatre catharsis purifies the audience of negative emotions by positioning them outside of one’s soul (ekstasis).

Catharsis can be its own end or a process of healing, transformation, and treatment when its end is beyond itself. Catharsis is an activity or process whereby accidental pleasure has the function of healing, curing, or restoring. A person undergoing a religious frenzy can be cured by catharsis induced by “sacred music,” for example (Politics, 1342a 10). Catharsis as an activity in and of itself should be understood as a case of mimesis, where the audience’s pleasure takes place through the imitation of the emotions felt by the characters in a tragedy. Pleasure from mimesis derives from a reencounter with acts and conflicts metaphorized by art and universally recognized as natural or virtuous. Pleasure from catharsis is accidental since it involves a personage, a conflict, or a particular affect that is recognized by an audience.

Aristotle’s idea of catharsis is different from Plato’s understanding. For Plato catharsis is part of a method of coming to knowledge. In The Sophist (Plato, 380 BCE/1961, 216b), catharsis is the proximity between contradictory beliefs, to the point that the subject perceives the confused character of his or her own thinking and, consequently, the need for purification (ascesis) in order to attain knowledge. Plato criticizes poetry and tragedy because they encourage passions that suspend reflection and block the truth. For Plato, catharsis has a propaedeutic function. It is a preliminary and preparatory reflection in the process of knowledge, where the senses, preconceptions, and false ideas are set aside. Catharsis connotes purification but is understood as a cleansing or dissipation of intellectual obscurities. The second use of catharsis in Plato’s work is associated with medicine, specifically, the purification of body and soul as a condition for health.

Orphic and Pythagorean traditions saw catharsis as a set of magical religious practices of purification, sacrifice, or retribution for transgressions committed. Social purification was carried out through the expulsion of something that symbolizes the origin of evil. Rituals involving the sacrifice of animals were characteristic of practices of catharsis, which effected social equilibrium and return to an earlier state of harmony. The gradual displacement from the religious magical sphere to the moral and political sphere contributed to the development of the notion of guilt among the Greeks and was later propagated by Christian theology (Dodds, 1950).


Clarification; ekstasis; mimesis; purgation; purification; harmony; equilibrium; adjustment

Traditional Debates

The ideological use of catharsis is associated with political attitudes in the construction and interpretation of social imbalance. From a conservative point of view, “evil” comes from outside of society, from foreigners, and from corrupted ways that did not originate from one’s people, race, or culture. From the ancient or magical point of view, catharsis is a practice of social adjustment or re-equilibrium. The medical sense of purging evil can be seen in many different cultural experiences, bodily techniques, and psychotherapeutic methods.

We can associate Aristotle’s interpretation with the liberal point of view, where catharsis is mainly a form of negotiation or exchange among elements of pleasure that are pure and impure, universal and individual. We can talk of functional catharsis when the medical dimension of purgation is predominant, integrative catharsis (Platonic or Aristotelian) when the dimension of purification of the passions and conflicts predominate, and disintegrative catharsis when the social critique contained in the experience of catharsis is predominant (Dunker, 2010).

Allegories that liken the role of a physician to a king or tyrant and the art of governing similar to the art of healing, for centuries, justified the oppression, persecution, and segregation of social groups that identified minorities and social differences as the cause of “evil.” Such allegory was adopted by the great twentieth-century totalitarian systems such as Nazism and Fascism. The idea that society should be thought of as a unit and have an identity without contradictions, where heterogeneousness comes from outside as a foreign and impure element, was superimposed over the ideal of family genealogy and, consequently, informed hierarchization, legitimacy, and transmission of power. The practices of individualization, invisibilization, and destitution of the subject can be understood according to such models of catharsis.

In the nineteenth century, catharsis became a key concept for understanding the place of esthetic experiences in social transformation (e.g., Nietzsche). Where there is regression in thinking and the discharge of tensions in groups and crowds, catharsis also was used to explain this mentality on the basis of mimetic thinking. A number of different twentieth-century vanguard artistic movements made reference to catharsis and exalted in its power to restore the authenticity of esthetic experience (e.g., Ionesco) or criticized the alienation it fosters in the audience in regard to social contradictions (e.g., Brecht).

Psychology has given us models that take catharsis as a synonym for discharging tension and aggressiveness. Psychology has retained the notion of purgation and pleasure but lost the political and esthetic meanings of the concept. In psychoanalysis, the development of the cathartic method gradually replaced hypnotism, which had itself replaced the use of direct suggestion for removing symptoms. Later the cathartic method was used in association with suggestion, in order to facilitate the emergence of repressed representations to consciousness (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1955). The cathartic method involves redirecting the patient’s attention from the symptom to the scene it originated from (Freud, 1895/1955). In approximately 1897 Freud abandoned the cathartic method and introduced free association and working through the transference. Freud compared the cathartic method to a common procedure in literature whereby imaginary characters are superimposed over real experiences in an independent narrative that is gradually recognized as a single whole (Freud, 1905/1959).

Ferenczi (1930) worked on aspects of the cathartic method that were very important for psychoanalysis. According to him, the intellectual cooling of relationships between analyst and analysand, and the reediting of pathological aspects of the relationships between children and adults in the transference, would lead to a number of undesirable side effects. The technique of neo-catharsis was able to fill in for these limitations promoting an emotional intensification of the analyst’s relationship with patients by allowing “childishly irresponsible freedoms” induced by physical and mental relaxation; “cathartic manifestations” appeared that were considered essential for healing.

Moreno (1940), the founder of psychodrama, assimilated the cathartic method and praised its ability to recover spontaneity and creativity. He extolled its collective dimension, which was able to reconstruct “pure and true feelings.” Moreno seems to have been trying to reunite the dramatic and political traditions of catharsis with its therapeutic dimension. For him, there are different types of catharsis: somatic, mental, primary (of actors on the stage), secondary (the audience), individual, and collective.

Critical Debates

More recently, in the context of discussions brought up by feminism, authors like Martha Nussbaum (1994) have reinforced the use of catharsis in the context of new conceptions of education, involving the experience of the body and of esthetics. For Nussbaum it is important to introduce the dimension of education present in catharsis as a way of cleansing or as an intuitive method for organizing and appropriating the cognitive pleasure inherent to the learning process of an emotional education.

Jonathan Lear (1992) criticizes this understanding of catharsis and argues that, for two reasons, catharsis cannot be education of the emotions. First, because education is addressed to adults who have already been educated and, secondly, because the cathartic pleasure an audience may feel at a tragic play is not the same as that which one experiences in everyday life. In addition, according to Aristotle, the mere expression or discharge of emotions is not in itself pleasurable. Lear, thus, insists on the irreducibility of the clinical concept of catharsis to the field of education without this representing a loss of its political and esthetic dimension.

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