Some psychoanalytic reflections on the concept of dignity

Abstract

After reviewing the pertinent philosophical and psychoanalytic writings on the concept of dignity, this paper proposes three categories of dignity. Conceptualized as phenomenological clusters, heuristic viewpoints, and levels of abstraction, these include (i) metaphysical dignity which extends the concept of dignity beyond the human species to all that exists in this world, (ii) existential dignity which applies to human beings alone and rests upon their inherent capacity for moral transcendence, and (iii) characterological dignity which applies more to some human beings than others since they possess a certain set of personality traits that are developmentally derived. The paper discusses the pros and cons of each category and acknowledges the limitations of such classification. It also discusses the multiple ways in which these concepts impact upon clinical work and concludes with some remarks on the relationship of dignity to choice, narcissism, and suicide.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Silberer originated the term “anagogic interpretation” for a mode of decoding symbolism that brings out its universal “transcendent” and ethical dimension. Unlike the customary psychoanalytic tendency to decipher symbols along personal and sexual lines, anagogic (Greek for “to bear upwards”) interpretations elevate the concrete into the spiritual.

  2. 2.

    Generally speaking, the three Middle Eastern religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have a hierarchy whereby God, angels, prophets, and man—all, and in that order—exist above animals. Eastern religions (e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) do not subscribe to such a view. Their God resides everywhere and can exist within human beings as well as within animals. As a result, they ascribe greater dignity to animals.

  3. 3.

    The PEP Archive (Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing Archive) (1871–2008) (http://www.pp-web.org) contains the complete text of 46 premier journals in psychoanalysis, 70 classic psychoanalytic books, and the full text and editorial notes of the 24 volumes of Freud’s Standard Edition as well as the 18 volume original German Gesammelte Werke. PEP Archive spans over 137 publication years and contains the full text of articles whose source ranges from 1871 through 2008. There are approximately 75,000 articles and 8728 figures that originally resided on 1449 volumes with a total of over 650,000 printed pages.

  4. 4.

    Although Shabad uses the expression “spite” throughout his paper, righteous opposition to assaults upon one’s dignity need not be termed as such. Rosa Parks (1913–2005) refusal to yield her seat to someone only because of their being white did not have a spiteful quality. It was a gesture of robust self-assertion to maintain her dignity.

  5. 5.

    For details on how contact with one’s own dignity opens one’s heart and eyes to the dignity of all creation, see the October 2008 Special Issue of Soka Gakkai International Quarterly: A Buddhist Forum for Peace, Culture, and Education (Ikeda, 2008).

  6. 6.

    A Buddhist friend of mine responded to this statement by saying that why should these things not have dignity? The mosquito and the sewage pump are doing what they are required to do. And, the broken shoe-lace is like a great poet who has had a stroke. Simply because he is no longer able to write poetry, do we withdraw our respect for him?

  7. 7.

    The word “profane” is derived from the Latin profamus, itself comprised of “pro” (before) and “famus” (temple). In other words, “profane” means something that has to be left outside of the temple.

  8. 8.

    An admittedly inelegant translation is “Don’t change clothes in front of the mirror; images of your nudity would linger in it long afterwards.”

  9. 9.

    The word “gratification” has been unduly maligned in psychoanalytic discourse. One reason for this is the lack of distinction in many analyst’s minds between the satisfying prohibited and unrealistic id wishes versus meeting developmentally appropriate ego needs (see Akhtar, 1999, for a detailed discussion of the need-wish distinction).

  10. 10.

    See Lax (2008) for what she calls the “indignities” of getting really old.

  11. 11.

    A Yiddish expression, mensch, denotes an honest, courageous, reliable, and strong man.

References

  1. Abassi, A. (2014). The rupture of serenity: External intrusions into the psychoanalytic space. London: Karnac Books.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Abelson, R. (1978). Psychotherapy and personal dignity. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 1, 203–216.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Abelson, R. & Margolis, J. (1978). A further exchange on psychotherapy, personal dignity, and persons. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 1, 227–235.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Abram, J. (2007). The language of Winnicott: A dictionary of Winnicott’s use of words, 2nd edn. London: Karnac.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Akhtar, J. N. (1972). Ghar aangan. New Delhi, India: Maktaba Jamia.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Akhtar, S. (1999). The distinction between needs and wishes: Implications for psychoanalytic theory and technique. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47, 113–151.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. Akhtar, S. (2009a). Comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Akhtar, S. (2009b). The analyst’s office. In The damaged core: Origins, dynamics, manifestations, and treatment (pp. 113–132). Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Akhtar, S. (2011). Goodness. In Matters of life and death: Psychoanalytic reflections (pp. 1–28). London: Karnac Books.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Akhtar, S. (2013a). Good stuff: Courage, resilience, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Akhtar, S. (2013b). Psychoanalytic listening: Methods, limits, and innovations. London: Karnac Books.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Amati-Mehler, J. & Argentieri, S. (1989). Hope and hopelessness: A technical problem? International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 70, 295–304.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Auchincloss, E. L. & Samberg, E. (Eds.) (2012). Psychoanalytic terms and concepts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Aulagnier, P. (2001). The violence of interpretation; from pictogram to statement. London: Brunner-Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Benedek, T. (1938). Adaptation to reality in early infancy. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 7, 200–214.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Bion, W. (1965). Transformations. London: Karnac Books 1984.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Bollas, C. (1992). Being a character: Psychoanalysis and self-experience. New York: Hill and Wang.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Bolognini, S. (2011). Secret passages: The theory and technique of interpsychic relations. G. Atkinson (Trans.). London: Karnac Books.

  19. Borges, J. L. (1964). Limits. In Dreamtigers. M. Boyer and H. Morland (Trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004.

  20. Coltart, N. (2000). Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York: Other Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. De Rosis, L. E. (1973). Self-esteem, dignity, or the sense of being. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 33, 16–27.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. Eidelberg, L. (1968). (Ed.) The encyclopedia of psychoanalysis. New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Epstein, L. (1979). Countertransference with borderline patients. In L. Epstein & A. H. Feiner (Eds.) Countertransference (pp. 375–406). New York: Jason Aronson.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Erikson, E. H. (1975). Life history and the historical moment. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Erikson, E. H. (1982). The life cycle completed: A review. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Ferenczi, S. (1919). On the technique of psychoanalysis. In Further contributions to the theory and technique of psychoanalysis (pp. 177–189). London: Hogarth Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Ferenczi, S. (1921). The further development of the active therapy in psychoanalysis. In Further contributions to the theory and technique of psychoanalysis (pp. 198–217). London: Hogarth Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Freud, S. (1912). Recommendations to physicians practising psycho-analysis. Standard Edition (Vol. 12, pp. 109–120). London, UK: Hogarth Press.

  30. Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. Standard Edition (Vol. 19, pp. 1–66). London, UK: Hogarth Press.

  31. Freud, S. (1924). The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. Standard Edition (Vol. 19, pp. 171–188). London, UK: Hogarth Press.

  32. Freud, A. (1954). Psychoanalysis and education. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 9, 9–15.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Gabbard, G. O. & Lester, E. (1995). Boundaries and boundary violations in psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Griffin, J. (2002). A note on measuring well-being. In C. J. L. Murray, J. Salomon & C. Mathers (Eds.) Summary measures of population health: Concepts, ethics, measurement and applications (p. 31). Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Greenson, R. (1967). The technique and practice of psycho-analysis. New York: International Universities Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Hartmann, H. (1956). Notes on the reality principle. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 11, 31–53.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Hartmann, H. (1964). Essays on ego psychology. New York: International Universities Press.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Ikeda, D. (2008). Peace proposal 2008. Humanizing religion, creating peace. Soka Gakkai international quarterly: A Buddhist forum for peace, culture, and education, 11, 21–24.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Jacobson, E. (1964). The self and the object world. New York: International Universities Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Kateb, G. (2011). Human dignity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Kieffer, C. C. (2011). The waiting room as a boundary and bridge between self-states and unformulated experience. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 59, 335–349.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  43. Killingmo, B. (1989). Conflict and deficit: Implications for technique. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 70, 65–79.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  44. Klein, M. (1935). A contribution to the psychogenesis of manic depressive states. In Love, guilt and reparation and other Works—1921–1945 (pp. 262–289). New York: Free Press 1975.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Kolansky, H. & Eisner, H. (1974). The psychoanalytic concept of preoedipal developmental arrest. Paper presented at the Fall Meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Associated. Cited in S. Akhtar, Inner torment: Living between conflict and fragmentation (p. 231). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

  47. Laplanche, J. & Pontalis, J.-B. (1967). The language of psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Lax, R. F. (2008). Becoming really old: The indignities. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 77, 835–857.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Levinas, E. (1961). Totality and infinity, A. Lingis (Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Dusquesne University Press.

  50. Levinas, E. (1981). Otherwise than being, A. Lingis (Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Dusquesne University Press.

  51. Levine, S. (2006). Catching the wrong leopard: Courage and masochism in the psychoanalytic situation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 75, 533–565.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  52. Lopez-Corvo, R. (2003). The work of W.R. Bion. London: Karnac Books.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Macklin, R. (2003). Dignity is a useless concept. British Medical Journal, 327, 1419–1420.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  54. Mahler, M. S., Pine, F. & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant: Symbiosis and individuation. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Marcovitz, E. (1970a). Dignity. In M. S. Temeles (Ed.) Bemoaning the lost dream: Collected papers of Eli Marcovitz, MD (pp. 120–130). Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Marcovitz, E. (1970b). Aggression, dignity, and violence. In M. S. Temeles (Ed.) Bemoaning the lost dream: Collected papers of Eli Marcovitz, MD (pp. 131–149). Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Association for Psychoanalysis.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Marcus, P. (2013). In search of the spiritual: Gabriel Marcel, psychoanalysis, and the sacred. London: Karnac Books.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Margolis, J. (1978). Psychotherapy and persons: Reply to R. Abelson. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 1, 217–226.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Mish, F. C. (Ed.) (1998). Merriam Webster’s collegiate dictionary 10th Edn. Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster Press.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Moore, B. & Fine, B. (Eds.) (1968). A glossary of psychoanalytic terms and concepts. New York: American Psychoanalytic Association.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Moore, B. & Fine, B. (Eds.) (1990). Psychoanalytic terms and concepts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Neruda, P. (1974). III. In The Book of Questions, W. O’Daly (Trans.) (p. 44). Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2004.

  63. O’Neil, M. K. (2009). Commentary on “courage”. In S. Akhtar (Ed.) Good feelings: Psychoanalytic reflections on positive emotions and attitudes (pp. 55–63). London: Karnac Books.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Puzo, M. (1969). The godfather. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Rangell, L. (1954). The psychology of poise—with a special elaboration on the psychic significance of the snout or perioral region. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 35, 313–332.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  66. Rosen, M. (2012). Dignity: Its history and meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Searles, H. (1960). Non-human environment in normal development and Schizophrenia. New York: International Universities Press.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Shabad, P. (2000). Giving the devil his due: Spite and the struggle for individual dignity. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17, 690–705.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Shabad, P. (2011). The dignity of creating: The patient’s contribution to the “reachable enough” analyst. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21, 619–629.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Sharpe, E. F. (1940). Psychophysical problems revealed in language: An examination of metaphor. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 201–220.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Shengold, L. (1989). Soul murder: The effects of childhood abuse and deprivation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Silberer, H. (1914). Problem der Mystik und ihrer Symbolik. Leipzig, Germany: Hugo Heller.

    Google Scholar 

  73. Stone, L. (1954). The widening scope of indications for psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2, 567–594.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  74. Stone, L. (1961). The psychoanalytic situation: An examination of its development and essential nature. Freud anniversary lecture. New York: International Universities Press 1977.

    Google Scholar 

  75. The Holy Quran. (1968). A. Y. Ali (Ed. and Trans.). Lahore, Pakistan: Ashraf Publications.

  76. Trungpa, C. (1998). Timely rain: Selected poetry of Chogyam Trungpa. D.I. Rome (Ed.), A. Ginsberg (Trans.). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

  77. Winnicott, D. W. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In Maturational processes and the facilitating environment (pp. 140–152). New York: International Universities Press 1965.

    Google Scholar 

  78. Wolman, T. (2007). Human space, psychic space, analytic space, geopolitical space. In M. T. S. Hooke & S. Akhtar (Eds.) The geography of meanings: Psychoanalytic perspectives on place, space, land, and dislocation (pp. 23–45). London: International Psychoanalytic Association.

    Google Scholar 

  79. Zachary, A. (2002). The menopause: Dignity and development at the end of the reproductive cycle. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 16, 20–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Salman Akhtar.

Additional information

1Salman Akhtar, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College, and Training and Supervising Analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Akhtar, S. Some psychoanalytic reflections on the concept of dignity. Am J Psychoanal 75, 244–266 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/ajp.2015.37

Download citation

Keywords

  • dignity
  • metaphysical
  • existential
  • characterological
  • self-respect
  • integrity