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.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
An admittedly inelegant translation is “Don’t change clothes in front of the mirror; images of your nudity would linger in it long afterwards.”
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).
See Lax (2008) for what she calls the “indignities” of getting really old.
A Yiddish expression, mensch, denotes an honest, courageous, reliable, and strong man.
Abassi, A. (2014). The rupture of serenity: External intrusions into the psychoanalytic space. London: Karnac Books.
Abelson, R. (1978). Psychotherapy and personal dignity. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 1, 203–216.
Abelson, R. & Margolis, J. (1978). A further exchange on psychotherapy, personal dignity, and persons. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 1, 227–235.
Abram, J. (2007). The language of Winnicott: A dictionary of Winnicott’s use of words, 2nd edn. London: Karnac.
Akhtar, J. N. (1972). Ghar aangan. New Delhi, India: Maktaba Jamia.
Akhtar, S. (1999). The distinction between needs and wishes: Implications for psychoanalytic theory and technique. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 47, 113–151.
Akhtar, S. (2009a). Comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books.
Akhtar, S. (2009b). The analyst’s office. In The damaged core: Origins, dynamics, manifestations, and treatment (pp. 113–132). Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.
Akhtar, S. (2011). Goodness. In Matters of life and death: Psychoanalytic reflections (pp. 1–28). London: Karnac Books.
Akhtar, S. (2013a). Good stuff: Courage, resilience, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.
Akhtar, S. (2013b). Psychoanalytic listening: Methods, limits, and innovations. London: Karnac Books.
Amati-Mehler, J. & Argentieri, S. (1989). Hope and hopelessness: A technical problem? International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 70, 295–304.
Auchincloss, E. L. & Samberg, E. (Eds.) (2012). Psychoanalytic terms and concepts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Aulagnier, P. (2001). The violence of interpretation; from pictogram to statement. London: Brunner-Routledge.
Benedek, T. (1938). Adaptation to reality in early infancy. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 7, 200–214.
Bion, W. (1965). Transformations. London: Karnac Books 1984.
Bollas, C. (1992). Being a character: Psychoanalysis and self-experience. New York: Hill and Wang.
Bolognini, S. (2011). Secret passages: The theory and technique of interpsychic relations. G. Atkinson (Trans.). London: Karnac Books.
Borges, J. L. (1964). Limits. In Dreamtigers. M. Boyer and H. Morland (Trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004.
Coltart, N. (2000). Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York: Other Press.
De Rosis, L. E. (1973). Self-esteem, dignity, or the sense of being. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 33, 16–27.
Eidelberg, L. (1968). (Ed.) The encyclopedia of psychoanalysis. New York: The Free Press.
Epstein, L. (1979). Countertransference with borderline patients. In L. Epstein & A. H. Feiner (Eds.) Countertransference (pp. 375–406). New York: Jason Aronson.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Erikson, E. H. (1975). Life history and the historical moment. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Erikson, E. H. (1982). The life cycle completed: A review. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Ferenczi, S. (1919). On the technique of psychoanalysis. In Further contributions to the theory and technique of psychoanalysis (pp. 177–189). London: Hogarth Press.
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.
Freud, S. (1912). Recommendations to physicians practising psycho-analysis. Standard Edition (Vol. 12, pp. 109–120). London, UK: Hogarth Press.
Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. Standard Edition (Vol. 19, pp. 1–66). London, UK: Hogarth Press.
Freud, S. (1924). The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. Standard Edition (Vol. 19, pp. 171–188). London, UK: Hogarth Press.
Freud, A. (1954). Psychoanalysis and education. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 9, 9–15.
Gabbard, G. O. & Lester, E. (1995). Boundaries and boundary violations in psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.
Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
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.
Greenson, R. (1967). The technique and practice of psycho-analysis. New York: International Universities Press.
Hartmann, H. (1956). Notes on the reality principle. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 11, 31–53.
Hartmann, H. (1964). Essays on ego psychology. New York: International Universities Press.
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.
Jacobson, E. (1964). The self and the object world. New York: International Universities Press.
Kateb, G. (2011). Human dignity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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.
Killingmo, B. (1989). Conflict and deficit: Implications for technique. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 70, 65–79.
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.
Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
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.
Laplanche, J. & Pontalis, J.-B. (1967). The language of psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Lax, R. F. (2008). Becoming really old: The indignities. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 77, 835–857.
Levinas, E. (1961). Totality and infinity, A. Lingis (Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Dusquesne University Press.
Levinas, E. (1981). Otherwise than being, A. Lingis (Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA: Dusquesne University Press.
Levine, S. (2006). Catching the wrong leopard: Courage and masochism in the psychoanalytic situation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 75, 533–565.
Lopez-Corvo, R. (2003). The work of W.R. Bion. London: Karnac Books.
Macklin, R. (2003). Dignity is a useless concept. British Medical Journal, 327, 1419–1420.
Mahler, M. S., Pine, F. & Bergman, A. (1975). The psychological birth of the human infant: Symbiosis and individuation. New York: Basic Books.
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.
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.
Marcus, P. (2013). In search of the spiritual: Gabriel Marcel, psychoanalysis, and the sacred. London: Karnac Books.
Margolis, J. (1978). Psychotherapy and persons: Reply to R. Abelson. Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 1, 217–226.
Mish, F. C. (Ed.) (1998). Merriam Webster’s collegiate dictionary 10th Edn. Springfield, MA: Merriam Webster Press.
Moore, B. & Fine, B. (Eds.) (1968). A glossary of psychoanalytic terms and concepts. New York: American Psychoanalytic Association.
Moore, B. & Fine, B. (Eds.) (1990). Psychoanalytic terms and concepts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Neruda, P. (1974). III. In The Book of Questions, W. O’Daly (Trans.) (p. 44). Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2004.
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.
Puzo, M. (1969). The godfather. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
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.
Rosen, M. (2012). Dignity: Its history and meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Searles, H. (1960). Non-human environment in normal development and Schizophrenia. New York: International Universities Press.
Shabad, P. (2000). Giving the devil his due: Spite and the struggle for individual dignity. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17, 690–705.
Shabad, P. (2011). The dignity of creating: The patient’s contribution to the “reachable enough” analyst. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21, 619–629.
Sharpe, E. F. (1940). Psychophysical problems revealed in language: An examination of metaphor. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 201–220.
Shengold, L. (1989). Soul murder: The effects of childhood abuse and deprivation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Silberer, H. (1914). Problem der Mystik und ihrer Symbolik. Leipzig, Germany: Hugo Heller.
Stone, L. (1954). The widening scope of indications for psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2, 567–594.
Stone, L. (1961). The psychoanalytic situation: An examination of its development and essential nature. Freud anniversary lecture. New York: International Universities Press 1977.
The Holy Quran. (1968). A. Y. Ali (Ed. and Trans.). Lahore, Pakistan: Ashraf Publications.
Trungpa, C. (1998). Timely rain: Selected poetry of Chogyam Trungpa. D.I. Rome (Ed.), A. Ginsberg (Trans.). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
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.
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.
Zachary, A. (2002). The menopause: Dignity and development at the end of the reproductive cycle. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, 16, 20–36.
1Salman Akhtar, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College, and Training and Supervising Analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia.
About this article
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