Death Instinct

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
Jump to: navigation, search

The death instinct or death drive is the force that makes living creatures strive for an inorganic state. It does not appear in isolation; its effect becomes apparent, in particular through the repetition compulsions, when a part of it is connected with Eros. Its tendency to return living creatures to the earlier inorganic state is a component of all the drives. In this combined form, its main impetus is toward dissolution, unbinding, and dissociation. In its pure form, silent within the psychic apparatus, it is subjugated by the libido to some extent and thus deflected to the outside world through the musculature in the drive for destruction and mastery or the will to power: this is sadism proper; the part that remains "inside" is primary erogenous masochism. Having put forward, particularly in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), a dualism in which the sexual drives conflict with the ego drives, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), Freud introduced the concept of the death drive as a negative term in opposition to the life drive: "The opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts would then cease to hold and the compulsion to repeat would no longer possess the importance we have ascribed to it" (p. 44). The death instinct was Freud's attempt to explain this repetition compulsion that overrides the pleasure principle, whether in post-traumatic dreams, certain compulsive children's games (such as the "fort-da" game), or indeed in analysands' resistances to the treatment (the transference). He observed that "the aim of all life is death," "inanimate things existed before living ones" and that "everything living dies for internal reasons" (p. 38). Drawing on August Weismann's differentiation of soma from germ-plasma, Freud went on to draw "a sharp distinction between ego-instincts, which we equated with death instincts, and sexual instincts, which we equated with life instincts" (pp. 52-53). He thus continued to adhere to the dualistic concept of the drives: "even more definitely dualistic than before—now that we describe the opposition as being not between ego instincts and sexual instincts but between life instincts and death instincts" (p. 53). Freud found support for his arguments in Fechner's stability principle: "The dominating tendency of mental life . . . is the effort the reduce, to keep constant or to remove internal tension due to stimuli . . . a tendency which finds expression in the pleasure principle; and our recognition of this fact is one of our strongest reasons for believing in the existence of death instincts" (p. 55-56). In 1924, Freud drew a clear distinction between three principles: "The Nirvana principle [Barbara Low's term], belonging as it does to the death instinct, has undergone a modification in living organisms through which it has become the pleasure principle ... the pleasure principle represents the demands of the libido; and the modification of the latter principle, the reality principle, represents the influence of the external world" (1924c, p. 160). Although Freud recognized the speculative nature of his final drive theory, he continued to adhere to it throughout the rest of his work. The source of the death drive lies in the cathexis of bodily zones that can generate afferent excitations for the psyche then; this certainly involves tension in the musculature determined by a biological urge. Its locus is in the id, then later under the influence of

the ego, as well as in the superego, where it functions to restrict libidinization. In melancholia, "a pure culture of the death instinct" (1923b, p. 53) governs the superego, such that the ego can impel the subject towards death. The energy of this urge is fairly resistant to shaping, diversion, or displacement and it manifests in subtle but powerful ways. The operation of this almost invisible energy has been described as a "work of the negative" (André Green). Its object is the implementing organ—the musculature—that enables the aim to be fulfilled. Paradoxically, the libido, subject to restraint by the destrudo (Edoardo Weiss's term), and leading to primary masochism and sadism, is the object of the death drive here. According to Freud's descriptions, its goal is dissociation, regression, or even dissolution. While leading organic life back to an inorganic state is the final stage, "the purpose of the death drive is to fulfil as far as is possible a disobjectalising function by means of unbinding" (Green, p. 85). It is therefore an entropic process in the strict sense. After explaining the notion of the death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud returned to it a number of times in his later works. He mentioned it in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c) as the source of aggression and hostility between people and in "The Libido Theory" (1923a), and then developed the theory in The Ego and the Id (1923b), especially in the chapters on "the two classes of instincts" and "the dependent relationships of the ego." In this work, he connected his new drive theory with the structural theory that he had just expounded. Then, following a dispute with Fritz Wittels, who jumped to a hasty conclusion concerning a connection between the death of Freud's daughter Sophie (January 1920) and the emergence of the concept of the death drive (a claim that is still being debated today—cf. Grubrich-Simitis), Freud returned to this concept in "The Economic Problem of Masochism" (1924c), in which he posited primary masochism both as evidence and as a vestige of the conjunction between the death drive and Eros. He thus elucidated the negative therapeutic reaction and the concept of unconscious guilt and indicated that "moral masochism becomes a classical piece of evidence for the existence of fusion of instinct. Its danger lies in the fact that it originates from the death instinct and corresponds to the part of that instinct which has escaped being turned outwards as an instinct of destruction" (p. 170). In his short article on "Negation" (1925h), Freud explained: "Affirmation—as a substitute for uniting—belongs to Eros; negation—the successor to expulsion—belongs to the instinct of destruction" (p. 239). He returned to this subject in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), in his letter to Albert Einstein (1933b [1932]) and finally in the thirty-second of the New Introductory Lectures (1933a [1932]), in which he discussed anxiety in connection with the life of the drives. For Melanie Klein, a firm advocate of the existence of the death drive, psychic conflict is never a conflict between the ego and the drives but always between the life drive and the death drive. Anxiety is the immediate response to the endopsychic perception of the death drive. For Jacques Lacan, the death drive as something beyond the pleasure principle forms the best starting-point for introducing his concept of the "Real," in connection with the Imaginary and the Symbolic. He links to this the lethal dimension inherent in desire and jouissance and makes the death drive "the necessary condition for the natural phenomenon of the instinct in entropy to be taken up at the level of the person, so that it may take on the value of an oriented instinct and is significant for the system insofar as the latter as a whole is situated in an ethical dimension" (1959-1960/1992, p. 204). Toward the end of his life, Freud recognized that "the dualistic theory according to which an instinct of death or of destruction or aggression claims equal rights as a partner with Eros as manifested in the libido, has found little sympathy and has not really been accepted even among psychoanalysts" (1937, p. 244). Its detractors include authors such as Michel Fain (1971), who regard the concept of the death drive as the result of Freud's speculations on matters that could for the most part be explained without it—for example by the mechanism of "reversal into its opposite" (1915c, p. 126). Others have objected to the theory of the death drive either because this would mean that psychic conflict, the cornerstone of psychoanalysis, could no longer be the expression of lived experience alone, since the death drive is "evidently innate, intrapsychic from the outset, and not secondarily internalized" (Nacht), or because "this drive restricts the field in which conflicts can be elaborated both internally and externally; it introduces a fatalism into the gradual progression of the treatment and brings out the negative therapeutic reaction instead of a relational problem between analyst and analysand" (Nicolaidis). Yet others have taken more interest in Freud's methodology and are surprised at the "quality of a foreign body—within psychoanalytic theory—that characterizes the conflict between Eros and the death drive [which] emerges here from the use of dialectical procedures in which Freud is not well versed" (Denis). By contrast, other authors, such as Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, and André Green, consider this concept of the death drive as further evidence of Freud's scientific rigor, as he demonstrates his willingness to rework his previous drive theory to take account of clinical facts and hypotheses that do not accord with it. Furthermore, studies based on the treatment of psychotic subjects, particularly by post-Kleinians, seem to have reinforced the theory of the prevalence of the death drive in the psychic apparatus of these patients, as something that constantly tears at the fabric of their representations and undermines their attempts to establish an apparatus for thinking thoughts (Wilfred Bion).

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14, 109-140.
  2. ——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18,1-64.
  3. ——. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18, 65-143.
  4. ——. (1923a). The libido theory. SE, 18, 255-259.
  5. ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19, 1-66.
  6. ——. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19, 155-170.
  7. ——. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19, 233-239.
  8. ——. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21, 57-145.
  9. ——. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22, 1-182.
  10. ——. (1933b [1932]). Why war? (Einstein and Freud). SE, 22, 195-215.
  11. ——. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23, 209-253.