For Sigmund Freud, the object is something a subject directs energy toward in an attempt to gratify instinctual desires.
Just how a person relates to the object depends on their psychological maturity.
In Freudian theory the object usually refers to another person, aspects of a person, or a full or partial symbolic representation of a person.
When an object refers to another complete person, replete with human rights and dignity, the object is called a whole object.
By calling other people “objects” it may seem that Freud’s theory objectifies people and is unduly self-absorbed. But that would be a flawed interpretation. Freud also says the psyche’s main job is to balance internal and external forces acting on it. In his own lingo, the ego mediates the often competing demands of the id (instincts) and the superego (internalized social norms and morals).
Freud does fall short, in my opinion, with his view of morality—or rather, the source of morality. Some people do seem to feel neurotic guilt and shame based on faulty upbringing or authoritarian social norms.
And this would fit with Freud’s thinking. But other, more genuine, feelings of contrition may arise from a sense of something higher, something truly spiritual which guides our understanding of morality.
Freud doesn’t put much stock in this kind of religious or spiritual thinking.
The founder of psychoanalysis was an atheist who generally mocked those experiencing – what they understood as – spiritual insights and graces.
One can’t help but wonder how many materialistic psychiatrists do the same sort of thing today, especially when it comes to personal spirituality, which has a rather sketchy status within contemporary psychiatry.¹
¹ In contrast to organized religion which psychiatry is compelled to accept, just as social and political pressures impelled it to accept gays and lesbians only after many years of stigmatization and harmful “treatments.”
Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 100.