What's a psychological symbol? What is psychological symbolisation?
Freud provides an answer which makes ready use of entitative and correlative epistemic metaphors: we have an emotionally disturbing wish, but it's too unbearable, so an inner censor doesn't allow it's representational content to rise to inner consciousness, so we don't know we have the wish in question. It resides in the unconscious, but by a primary process mechanism called 'displacement' the emotionally alive wish is transferred onto a substitute object. This substitute is what we call the 'symbol'. The desires are enacted freely with regards the symbolic substitute. The substitutive gratification quells the wish for a time. The substitute action or object may be a symptom e.g. an obsession and compulsion, it may amount to a sublimation, it may be a dream image, a pet dog who is a stand-in for a non-existant lover, etc. Petocz tells this story well.
The cogency of Freud's answer depends upon whether the story still seems to us to have legs once we've cashed out the spatial and epistemic metaphors, once we remind ourselves that our relationship with our conscious feelings isn't perceptual, introspective, or awareness-invoking, once we remind ourselves that the 'censor' is just a theorist's metaphorical concoction, once we question the coherence of form-content dualism when it comes to emotion and desire (the energy and the representational content of an emotion), once we remind ourselves that emotions aren't, in any normal senses of the words, sensibly to be counted as entities or processes. My own opinion is that it's rather a mythology, and that it fails to provide enough by way of criteria of identity for the unconscious wish for us to credit it with cogency. In short, the criteria would seem to reduce either to the fact of the symbol itself (which thereby collapses the explanatory power of the theory), or reduce to what the symboliser later acknowledges (Wittgenstein suggests something like this. However when is it that we take someone to be in a position to own their previously unconscious wishes? We can hardly say 'when the repression is lifted' or 'when they become conscious' and expect to be taken seriously - for that goes round in a circle), or to be whatever is wished when the symbol fades away (but many things may be wished at this time...)).
So what's the alternative? Well, the existential phenomenologists have already given us a different conception of the unconscious, and effectively, too, of the motor of (a process worth calling) symbolisation. The unconscious for the phenomenologist is not what we don't inwardly apprehend, since apprehension isn't relevant here, but is instead what we're too close to to bring into focus. The unconscious is so close to us that it's our very flesh. When we do come to have feelings about our predicaments, we've managed to extricate ourself enough from our predicaments to bring them into our purview. We are now not simply sunk into them, not simply of a piece with them, fused with them. We may here make use of Bollas' 'unthought known': we 'know' our predicament in the sense of 'are of a piece with it', but we can't 'think' it - can't bring it into view because instead we share flesh with it. The unconscious is part of the seeing eye, not something we're blind to. Something we are primally seduced into (Laplanche). The presence of imaginative a prioris (Lear). Tacit enframing assumptions we take in unquestioned, unnoticed, with mother's milk which yet go against the bent of our flourishing.
Take a child's unconsciousness of the miserable emotions which saturate the atmosphere in his family. He inhabits this atmosphere, it is part of the 'from where' of his experience, it is the uninterrogated invisible background against which various thoughts are formed. A pervasive mood which runs right through him. It runs through him like the customs and habits of his culture which he has absorbed - customs and habits which he knows not that he has. It's part of his manner of interacting, and not something itself interacted with.
On such a conception, making the unconscious conscious can involve something like turning a mood into one or more feelings. This process involves a disidentification from the embedding mood, an Hegelian 'externalising' of what was previously part of the flesh of the self, so that now there arises a comprehending relation (rather than identification) between (the now separate) self and object, which intentional relation is what we call an emotional experience. The growth of the self, the achievement of self-possession rather than remaining possessed by the habitual dynamics, is a matter of the ongoing disidentification from such atmospheres as one is sunk into, a condensing out of that inhabited atmosphere into liquid or solid particulates which can now be apprehended rather than unwittingly inhaled. The very act is freeing, and it makes the as-yet unthought known thinkable.
Now a striking thing about this disidentificatory, self-possession-creating, process is that it runs along by itself, naturally, autochthonously, and is found in dreams and spontaneous imaginative creations of other sorts. The young child plays with her dolls and dinosaurs and spontaneously acts out a scene as to what is going on in the family. She doesn't know she's doing this. But what she's doing is starting to make thought and feeling about her family situation possible. She's unwittingly preparing the grounds. In this process of birthing meaning through disidentification/externalisation, an aspect of the ground of the self's 'form' morphs into the figure of one of the self's 'content' (it's now-possible intentional relations with its objects), and this now enables predicaments to be grappled with rather than leaving them as invisible contexts against which anything must show up.
Why is it that dreaming and playing and free associating tend to make disidentificatory predicamental thought possible through coming up with contents other than those which could be developed for the primary predicaments? (I'm looking, recall, for an answer that doesn't involve knowing and repressing knowing, doesn't take an epistemic attitude to the unconscious, doesn't see it as contingently hidden extant figure but instead sees it as necessarily blind enframing, doesn't invoke putative mechanisms like displacement but instead sees that as a useful theorists' fiction.) In other words, if the successful disidentification involves the externalising of some aspect of (in our example) the family's latent enframing predicament so that it can now be thought about, why is this not always the dreaming mind's first choice of figure? Why do we have 'substitute' figures (substitutes for the as-yet mere res potentia (rather than hidden res actualis, as the traditional epistemic conception of the unconscious would have it)) rather than the real deal?
The first thing to note is that whilst externalisation is, at least in a reasonably healthy individual, somewhat inexorable, it is yet blind. It doesn't know where it is going. It is not teleological. (How could it be, on pain of Sartrean contradiction?) This freeing up of the ground so that it may transmute and dehisce in various ways, this free play by the animal soul with its own structure, obtains at a diffuse affective association-drifting level, so perhaps any old thematically congruent content will do. The mind, here, is, remember, dreaming. Second, it is sometimes, perhaps most often, the case that the unconscious becomes conscious in a more straightforward way. One dehisces rather precisely from the actual predicament and thoughts and feelings thereby becomes possible about that very predicament. It is only when we start talking about symbolism that we ask the question as to why the original content is not directly thematised. Third, I suggest it is simply easier for the animal soul to develop the requisite dehiscence when not dealing directly with our actual predicaments. And this simply because we are more entrenched in our actual predicaments than with their thematic cousins.
Might we say that the little girl blithely intently passionately unknowingly acting out her family drama with her dolls is substituting the dolls for what she unconsciously knows is the real object? Might we say that she does have an unconscious feeling toward her mother and father which is being expressed here? Well, what I'm suggesting is that a) we don't have to say that, and b) that if we do we mustn't confuse res potentia for realia. For, remember, it is only on the basis that such an unconscious feeling would in this situation be a valid feeling to have consciously, and on the basis of the thematic content of the play, and perhaps retrospectively on the basis of her later conscious feeling, that we ascribe the unconscious affect in question. Unless I'm missing some other criterion (please tell me if you think of it!). But yes, by all means, call being in just that configuration 'having an unconscious emotion' if you like. (Just remember, if you want to say you are doing so as an inference to the best explanation, to please not forget to give criteria for the identity of the unconscious emotion in question.)
So: the externalisation develops, the self now becoming progressively separated from its predicaments, which predicaments are now affectively thinkable. We observers, theorists, or post-fact symbolisers may say: ah, this relationship with this dream figure symbolises this actual relationship with this actual person. We can if we wish avoid turning these res potentia into realia - the unconscious thought or feeling was just a potential thought or feeling, one that, one could say, needed to develop if freedom and coping are to be maintained or achieved. And the dream symbol for it was but a way-station. We may take it as a representative of that affective thought which would, we believe, be the apt thematisation of the predicamental situation.
Now what about the idea that symbols may be the kinds of substitutes which prevent the 'true' feeling from becoming conscious? So that one is instead satisfied with compulsively acting on the obsession; petting the pooch; remaining in the psychotic delusion. Isn't this the import of the Freudian thought that the affective energy is detached from the representation and redirected onto the symbolic substitute? Well, how can we tell that the symbolic act is here preventing reality from being emotionally contacted? Imagine: perhaps if the symbol were not found the person would become catatonic or depressed. Nothing in the story suggests that the person who has a dream which organises those feelings as are not yet more finely directed at what, post-disidentification, will become acknowledged as their real predicament, need yet have the requisite ego capacity for the latter emotional achievement. But consider too that often enough the true emotional realisation is not troubling. The new reality might take some getting used to. But, in my experience at least, the main accessory feeling - aside from the emotional understanding in question, that is - which arises on the condensing out of the atmosphere is relief. And yet the fact of the reality of the feeling of relief doesn't put into question the status as symbolic of the dream or play images.
Let's try an example. So, in March of this year I dreamed that I found myself, after selling a house, staying for two years in an expensive hotel until the next house came on the market. In the dream I was shocked at how I hadn't thought about the expense of the hotel stay and the effect of this on my future house-buying plans. When I awoke I asked myself what this was about. Now, in reality, at the beginning of the year I started a two year sabbatical from my clinical work to focus on writing rather than earning. I started out the year mindful of my spending habits, living as simply as I could on my savings. Yet by March I'd started to drift unreflectively into spending in the way I did when earning. I wasn't really aware of this, although my mood was not straightforward - I felt somehow blocked. What I needed to do was to become anxious about my predicament, to take it in hand, and develop a clear spending plan. Yet at that moment I was unaware of this discrepancy - I was simply sunk into my habits without any liberating self-consciousness. Here we can say that the two years between houses symbolises the two years off work, and the hotel bills symbolised my shopping bills. The dream was a gift 'from my unconscious' as we might say: through thinking on it I could see what what my predicament was and what I needed to do to get a handle on it. The mood, the diffuse anxiety, lifted - a specific object emerges takes shape and can now be handled clearly.
A simple traditional Freudian account would be: I had actual worries about my spending, I didn't want to have these so I repressed them in the service of the palliative pleasures of spending, the feelings were then displaced onto an imagined predicament about hotel bills, I developed a low mood as a result of the repression. The revised reading I'm offering is: I'd become (yes, conveniently) mindless about my situation and so was left needing to develop some decent thoughts and feelings about it. The dream works towards dehiscence of self and predicament through developing the requisite feelings. The ball-park feelings are directed toward whatever imagined objects comes to mind (think of how often the dreaming mind reuses the same imagery - the school exam one suddenly finds oneself sitting aged 44, etc.). When asleep we don't have the distractions of the day, the teloi which keep us busy, to divert our attention. Dreaming occurs as a natural process - it's the unconscious mind finding (or at least seeking) its own level again, i.e. 'aiming' for maximal coherence amongst its projects (amongst its ego ideals, its extant interests, its knowledge and desires).
That royal road to the unconscious which is dream interpretation is one which is already begun by the dream itself. But the destination - it itself is work in progress.