Empowerment: Freud, Canguilhem and Lacan on the ideal of health promotion

Bas de Boer*, Ciano Aydin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Empowerment is a prominent ideal in health promotion. However, the exact meaning of this ideal is often not made explicit. In this paper, we outline an account of empowerment grounded in the human capacity to adapt and adjust to environmental and societal norms without being completely determined by those norms. Our account reveals a tension at the heart of empowerment between (a) the ability of self-governance and (b) the need to adapt and adjust to environmental and societal norms. We address this tension by drawing from the work of Freud, Canguilhem, and Lacan. First, we clarify through a discussion of Freud’s notion of sublimation that it is difficult to assess empowerment independent of any social valuations, but also that it is no less problematic to make it dependent on social valuations alone. Second, we draw from the work of Canguilhem to show how empowerment can be understood in terms of the individual’s capacity to tolerate the aggressions of a multiplicity of environments. Third, using Lacan, we show how empowerment requires incorporation of social and symbolic norms, without necessarily rendering ourselves a mere product of these norms. Finally, we demonstrate how the views of these authors can complement one another, resulting in a more sophisticated understanding of empowerment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)301-311
Number of pages11
JournalMedicine, health care and philosophy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023


  • Canguilhem
  • Empowerment
  • Health promotion
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Sublimation
  • UT-Hybrid-D


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