In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychoanalytic Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals

Literary and Critical Theory Psychoanalytic Theory
Matthew Sharpe, Andrew Sims
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0007


Since its inception with the groundbreaking works of Freud, psychoanalytic theory has branched out from Freud’s clinical, ontogenetic, and metapsychological concerns to inform theoretical work on art, politics, society, religion, and literature. The psychoanalytic movement soon divided on geographical and conceptual lines. Ego-psychological and object-relations approaches became dominant in the English-speaking world, and (after 1950) Lacanian psychoanalysis became the predominant approach; first in France, then in Latin America. More recently, a rough grouping of movements named “neuropsychoanalysis” has emerged, which is predicated on the endorsement of theoretical and evidential traffic between psychoanalytic theory and neuroscience. In his later years, Freud had become increasingly concerned with social-theoretical subjects as Europe lurched from the Great War toward the Great Depression accompanied by the rise of mass ideologies such as bolshevism and fascism. Social theorists soon began to draw on, and critically engage with, psychoanalytic theory in the light of their own concerns. Probably the leading stream of psychoanalytically informed social theory was generated by the Marxist-influenced Frankfurt School of Social Research. Workers in this school’s “first generation” looked to Freudian theory to understand the rise of fascism in Italy, Spain, and Germany between the wars; and then, after the war, to comprehend the new forms being taken by mass societies and the discontents they were engendering. In America and then differently in France, feminist thinkers began to look to psychoanalytic theory, which led to groundbreaking studies by female analysts that challenged existing understandings of gender and sexual politics. Psychoanalytic thought has also had a huge influence in literary theory, the study of art, and, more recently, film theory, wherein Freudian notions have been used to understand the psychodynamic processes at work in literary creation and audiences’ enjoyment of works of art, the structuring and narrative logics of literary and filmic artworks, and the psychopathologies of creative artists. This article aims to direct readers to the basic and classic studies in each of the areas in which psychoanalytic theory has been pursued.

General Overviews

A number of books serve as good general overviews for psychoanalytic theory in general, but given the internal disunity of the field these tend to be biased toward one or another theoretical perspective. Greenberg and Mitchell 1983 is a classic treatment that helpfully sketches the progression of psychoanalytic theory in Britain and the United States as being driven by a tension between drive-centered and interpersonal approaches, but which neglects developments from outside the English-speaking world. Etchegoyen 1999 is an extensive and magisterial overview of psychoanalytic theory in the light of clinical practice, and it manages to cover almost every single major development since Freud. Fonagy and Target 2003 gives a somewhat Whiggish but helpful contemporary overview of the development of psychoanalytic theory within Britain and the United States that manages to include all the major anglophone schools, including attachment theory. Sharpe and Faulkner 2008 provides a textbook-style introduction to psychoanalytic theory that also maps out its influence on other areas of critical inquiry and which introduces Lacanian approaches within a wider psychoanalytic context.

  • Etchegoyen, R. Horacio. The Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique. Rev. ed. London: Karnac, 1999.

    Covers the main theoretical and technical controversies in psychoanalytic circles up to the 1990s. Despite (self-professed) biases stemming from the author’s Kleinian orientation, the book is both wide and deep and covers many minor figures that will not be found in other synoptic works.

  • Fonagy, Peter, and Mary Target. Psychoanalytic Theories: Perspectives from Developmental Psychopathology. London: Routledge, 2003.

    A proper-name centered treatment of psychoanalytic theories of development and psychopathology that ends with the endorsement on a particular point of view on the relationship between those theories and clinical practices such that that clinical practice is always underdetermined by those theories.

  • Greenberg, Jay, and Stephen Mitchell. Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

    Tells the history of psychoanalytic theory in terms of an opposition between “drive” and “relational” models of mind. This is pitched as an ideal opposition that does not cleanly distinguish two groups of theories; there are “drive” and “relational” qualities that exist in both classical Freudianism and explicitly relational views.

  • Sharpe, Matthew, and Joanne Faulkner. Understanding Psychoanalysis. London: Acumen, 2008.

    Pitched at undergraduate and graduate students, this book introduces the clinical, metapsychological, and sociocultural theories of Freud as well as their revision in object relations and Lacan, before discussing the applications of these ideas to critical theory, feminism, religious studies, and aesthetic criticism.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.