Oedipality and oedipal complexes reconsidered: On the incest taboo as key to the universality of the human condition

Publication Type:

Journal Article


The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Volume 100, Number 1, p.7–31 (2019)




Incest Taboo, Maternal and Paternal functions, Oedipal Complexes, Oedipality, Psychoanalytic Theory, Repression-barrier


Oedipality is generally understood as the individual’s journey through eroticized attachments with those performing maternal and paternal functions. This has evoked understandable resistance, and also unnecessary, yet sometimes scholarly, opposition. This paper briefly reviews the voluminous literature on oedipality, focusing on the resistances and objections it has evoked (mostly, but not entirely, from outside the psychoanalytic movement). Three suggestions are presented. First, debates over individual and cultural variations in family arrangements and styles of early caretaking occlude our understanding of the foundational basis of oedipality. Therefore, one should distinguish the metapsychology of “oedipality,” as universal and necessary to the formation of the human psyche, from the multifarious “oedipal complexes” that are contingent on variations in early experience. Second, this mandates greater expository emphasis on the individual’s processive “encounter” with the incest taboo, and less on the content of childhood relationships. Much evidence from ethnography and structural linguistics supports this. Third, Freud’s articulation of oedipality was not just a clinical-empirical finding, but followed from his discovery of free-associative praxis that necessitated the cardinal tenet of resistance-repression. In a foundational sense, the “repression-barrier” should be understood as the intrapsychic inscription of the incest taboo and a key universal feature of our humanity.


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