Psychoanalysis > Theory

[About Instincts]

If we put together what we have learned from our investigation of positive and negative perversions, it seems plausible to trace  them back to a number of "component instincts", which, however, are not of a primary nature, but are susceptible to further analysis. By an "instinct" is provisionally to be understood the psychical representative of an  endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation, as contrasted with a "stimulus", which is set up by single excitations coming from without. The concept of instinct is thus one of those lying on the frontier  between the mental and the physical. The simplest and likeliest assumption as to the nature of instincts would seem to be that in itself an instinct is without quality, and, so far as mental life is concerned, is only  to be regarded as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work. What distinguishes the instincts from one another and endows them with specific qualities is their relation to their somatic sources and to their  aims. The source of an instinct is a process of excitation occurring in an organ and the immediate aim of the instinct lies in the removal of this organic stimulus. (1)

There is a further provisional  assumption that we cannot escape in the theory of the instincts. It is to the effect that excitations of two kinds arise from the somatic organs, based upon differences of a chemical nature. One of these kinds of  excitation we describe as being specifically sexual, and we speak of the organ concerned as the "erotogenic zone" of the sexual component instinct arising from it. (2)

1. [Footnote  added 1924:] The theory of the instincts is the most important but at the same time the least complete portion of psychoanalytic theory. I have made further contributions to it in my later works Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and The Ego and the Id (1923).
2. [Footnote added 1915:] It is not easy in the present place to justify these assumptions, derived as they are from the study of a particular class of neurotic  illness. But on the other hand, if I omitted all mention of them, it would be impossible to say anything of substance about the instincts.

Sigmund Freud - Three Essays On the Theory of Sexuality, 1905.

[On the Sexual Instinct]

The sexual instinct - or, more correctly, the sexual instincts, for analytic investigation  teaches us that the sexual instinct is made up of many separate constituents or component instincts - is probably more strongly developed in man than in most of the higher animals; it is certainly more constant, since  it has almost entirely overcome the periodicity to which it is tied in animals. It places extraordinarily large amounts of force at the disposal of civilized activity, and it does this in virtue of its especially marked  characteristic of being able to displace its aim without materially diminishing in intensity. This capacity to exchange its originally sexual aim for another one, which is no longer sexual but which is psychically  related to the first aim, is called the capacity for sublimation. In contrast to this displaceability, in which its value for civilization lies, the sexual instinct may also exhibit a particularly obstinate fixation  which renders it unserviceable and which sometimes causes it to degenerate into what are described as abnormalities. The original strength of the sexual instinct probably varies in each individual; certainly the  proportion of it which is suitable for sublimation varies. It seems to us that it is the innate constitution of each individual which decides in the first instance how large a part of his sexual instinct it will be  possible to sublimate and make use of. In addition to this, the effects of experience and the intellectual influences upon his mental apparatus succeed in bringing about the sublimation of a further portion of it. To  extend this process of displacement indefinitely is, however, certainly not possible, any more than is the case with the transformation of heat into mechanical energy in our machines. A certain amount of direct sexual  satisfaction seems to be indispensable for most organizations, and a deficiency in this amount, which varies from individual to individual, is visited by phenomena which, on account of their detrimental effects on  functioning and their subjective quality of unpleasure, must be regarded as an illness.

Further prospects are opened up when we take into consideration the fact that in man the sexual instinct does not originally  serve the purposes of reproduction at all, but has as its aim the gaining of particular kinds of pleasure. It manifests itself in this way in human infancy, during which it attains its aim of gaining pleasure not only  from the genitals but from other parts of the body (the erotogenic zones), and can therefore disregard any objects other than these convenient ones. We call this stage the stage of auto-erotism, and the child's  upbringing has, in our view, the task of restricting it, because to linger in it would make the sexual instinct uncontrollable and unserviceable later on. The development of the sexual instinct then proceeds from  auto-erotism to object-love and from the autonomy of the erotogenic zones to their subordination under the primacy of the genitals, which are put at the service of reproduction. During this development a part of the  sexual excitation which is provided by the subject's own body is inhibited as being unserviceable for the reproductive function and in favourable cases is brought to sublimation. The forces that can be employed for  cultural activities are thus to a great extent obtained through the suppression of what are known as the perverse elements of sexual excitation.

If this evolution of the sexual instinct is borne in mind, three stages  of civilization can be distinguished: a first one, in which the sexual instinct may be freely exercised without regard to the aims of reproduction; a second, in which all of the sexual instinct is suppressed except what  serves the aims of reproduction; and a third, in which only legitimate reproduction is allowed as a sexual aim. This third stage is reflected in our present-day 'civilized' sexual morality. (Sigmund Freud - "Civilized" Sexual Morality And Modern Nervous Illness, 1908.)

[The Aggressive Instinct]

Alfred Adler, in a  suggestive paper,(1) has recently developed the view that anxiety arises from the suppression of what he calls the "aggressive instinct", and by a very sweeping synthetic process he ascribes to that instinct the chief  part in human events, "in real life and in the neuroses". As we have come to the conclusion that in our present case of phobia the anxiety is to be explained as being due to the repression of Hans's aggressive  propensities (the hostile ones against his father and the sadistic ones against his mother), we seem to have produced a most striking piece of confirmation of Adler's view. I am nevertheless unable to assent to it, and  indeed I regard it as a misleading generalization. I cannot bring myself to assume the existence of a special aggressive instinct alongside of the familiar instincts of self-preservation and of sex, and on an equal  footing with them.(2) It appears to me that Adler has mistakenly promoted into a special and self-subsisting instinct what is in reality a universal and indispensable attribute of all instincts - their instinctual  [triebhaft] and "pressing" character, what might be described as their capacity for initiating movement. Nothing would then remain of the other instincts but their relation to an aim, for their relation to the means of  reaching that aim would have been taken over from them by the "aggressive instinct". In spite of all the uncertainty and obscurity of our theory of instincts I should prefer for the present to adhere to the usual view,  which leaves each instinct its own power of becoming aggressive; and I should be inclined to recognize the two instincts which became repressed in Hans as familiar components of the sexual libido.

1. Der Aggressionsbetrieb im Leben und in der Neurose (1908). This is the same paper from which I have borrowed the term "confluence of instincts".
2. [Footnote added 1923:] The above passage  was written at a time when Adler seemed still to be taking his stand upon the ground of psychoanalysis, and before he had put forward the masculine protest and disavowed repression. Since then I have myself been  obliged to assert the existence of an "aggressive instinct", but it is different from Adler's. I prefer to call it the "destructive" or "death instinct". See Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and The Ego and the Id (1923). Its opposition to the libidinal instincts finds an expression in the familiar polarity of love and hate. My disagreement with Adler's view, which results in a universal characteristic of instincts in  general being reduced to be the property of a single one of them, remains unaltered.

Sigmund Freud - Analysis of a Phobya in a Five-Years-Old Boy, 1909.


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