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Sigmund Freud

Freud's theory of the drive was revised extensively throughout his career.


The drive, or instinct as it is usually translated in English, is a concept that exists on the border between the somatic (bodily) and the mental. It consists of a quantity of energy and its psychical representative. The Freudian drive is "a constant force of a biological nature, emanating from organic sources, that always has as its aim its own satisfaction through the elimination of the state of tension which operates at the source of the drive itself."[1]

Pressure, Aim, Object, Source

According to Freud, there are four characteristics of the drive: its pressure, its aim, it's object and its source.[2] By pressure Freud means the drive's motor factor, that is to say, "the amount of force or measure of the demand for work which it represents."Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag Exerting pressure is a characteristic common to all drives and represents the drive's essence. The aim of the drive is to seek its own satisfaction and it achieves this by removing the source of stimulation. The object of the drive is that which the drive attaches itself to in order to achieve its aim. Freud designates a particularly close attachment between the drive and its object as "fixation". Finally, the source of the drive is "the somatic process which occurs in an organ or part of the body and whose stimulus is represented in mental life by an instinct."[3] The drive, in short, is something that originates within the body and seeks expression in the psyche as representation. Freud is primariluy concerned with the aims of the drive]s and how they seek satisfaction.

Drive and Instinct

It is crucial to acknowledge the distinction between an instinct and a drive. An instinct designates a need that can be satisfied. The examples Freud usually gives are those of hunger and thirst. These needs give rise to an excitation within the body that can be satisfied and neutralized. The drive, on the other hand, cannot be satisfied and is characterized by the constancy of the pressure it exerts on consciousness.


The model of the Freudian drive is libido - sexual energy - or what is also translated as 'wish' or 'desire'. According to Laplanche and Leclaire, it is the introduction of the drive into the sphere of need that marks the distinction between a need and desire: 'the drive introduces into the sphere of need an erotic quality: libido will be substituted for need' (1972 [1965]: 140). Libido is the fundamental motive force of human beings; it is unconscious desire which is the organizing principle of all human thought, action and social relations.

Freud's Dualism

Throughout his career Freud maintained a dualistic theory of drives. In the Project for a Scientific Psychology (1954 [1895]) he distinguished between bound and unbound energy. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1991d [1905]) Freud distinguished between libido and the ego-instincts, or the drive to self-preservation. Finally, when he came to accept the criticisms of his fellow analysts that the drive to self-preservation was also sexual in nature, he formulated his final great mythopoetic theory of Eros, the pleasure principle, and Thanatos, the death drive, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1984b [1920]).

Jacques Lacan

For Lacan, the Freudian notion of the drive is probably the single most important contribution of psychoanalysis to the field of human psychology and our understanding of subjectivity.

Drive and Instinct

Lacan insisted on the need to retain the Freudian distinction between the drive and instinct, and in his early work the drive is closely associated with desire.

Drive and Desire

Above all, the drive shares with desire the property of never achieving its aim. The drive always circles around its object but never achieves the satisfaction of reaching it. The purpose of the drive, therefore, is simply to maintain its own repetitive compulsive movement, just as the purpose of desire is to desire.

Differences with Freud

Lacan's theory of the drive, however, differed from Freud's in two important respects.

Freud argued that sexuality was composed of a series of partial drives which he defined as the oral, anal and phallic phases. These phases become integrated into a single, whole, genital drive after the resolution of the Oedipus complex. Contrary to Freud, Lacan argues that all drives are partial in the sense that there is never a single integrated harmonious resolution of the drives in the subject. Furthermore, a partial drive does not represent a part of a singular unified drive, but rather the partiality of the drive in the reproduction of sexuality.

Lacan also developed Freud's theory of the drive in another important respect. He thought that it was important to retain Freud's dualism, rather than reducing everything to a single motivating force, but rejected Freud's notion of two distinct drives, Eros and Thanatos. For Lacan every drive is sexual in nature and at the same time every drive is a death drive. There is fundamentally only one drive for Lacan - the death drive - and as we will see this drive will increasingly be associated with the real and jouissance.

From seminar XI onwards Lacan will oppose the drive and jouissance to desire, and that little piece of the real - of jouissance - that the subject has access to will be designated the objet petit a.

French: pulsion
German: Trieb

Sigmund Freud

Drive and Sexuality

Freud's concept of the drive is central to his theory of human sexuality.

For Freud, the distinctive feature of human sexuality -- as opposed to the sexual life of other animals -- that that it is not regulated by any instinct -- a concept which implies a relatively fixed and innate relationship to an object) but by the drives -- which differ from instincts in that they are extremely vaiable, and develop in ways which are contingent on the life history of the subject. --

Human sexuality consists of a number of partial drives (German: Partieltrieb) arising from the different erogenous zones.

At first these component drives function anarchically and independently (the 'polymorphous perversity' of children), but in puberty they become organised and fused together under the primacy of the genital organs.[4]

Drive and Instinct

According to Freud, human sexuality is not regulated by instincts but by drives.

Lacan follows Freud's distinction between drive (Trieb and instinct (Instinkt).[5]

Instincts are relatively fixed and innate.

Instinct denotes a mythical pre-linguistic need.

Drives are variable, and develop in ways that are contingent on the life history of the subject.

Drive is separate from the realm of biology.

The drive does not refer to "some ultimate given, something archaic, primordial."[6]

The drive is a thoroughly cultural and symbolic construct.


Lacan argues that the drives are partial.

The drives are partial (in that they represent sexuality partially) (not in the sense that they are parts of a whole).

Drives do not represent the reproductive function of sexuality (but only the dimension of enjoyment).[7]

Lacan rejects the idea that the partial drives can ever attain any complete organisation or fusion.

Lacan identifies four partial drives:

Each of these drives is specified by a different partial object and a different erogenous zone.

Lacan emphasizes the partial nature of all drives, but differs from Freud on two points.

Movement of the Drive

The drive originates in an erogenous zone, circles round the object, and then returns to the erogenous zone.

The drives do not aim at an object but rather circle perpetually round it.

Lacan argues that the purpose of the drive is not to reach a goal (a final destination) but to follow its aim (the way itself), which is to circle round the object.[8]

The function of the drive is not to attain full satisfaction but to return to its circular path.

The real source of enjoyment is the repetitive movement of this closed circuit.

Drive and Desire

The drive is not merely another name for desire: they are the partial aspects in which desire is realised.

Desire is one and undivided, whereas the drives are partial manifestations of desire.

The circuit of the drive is the only way for the subject to transgress the pleasure principle.


Freud conceived the dualism of the drives in terms of an opposition between the life drives (Lebenstriebe) ((both the pleasure principle and the reality principle) and the death drives (Todestriebe).

Lacan retains the the basic dualism of Freud's theory of the drives (against the monism of Jung, who argued that all psychic forces could be reduced to one single concept of psychic energy).[9]

Lacan prefers to reconceptualise this dualism in terms of an opposition between the symbolic and the imaginary, and not in terms of an opposition between different kinds of drives.

For Lacan, all drives are sexual drives, and every drive is a death drive.

Since every drive is excessive, repetitive, and ultimately destructive.[10]


In 1957, in the context of the graph of desire, Lacan proposes the formula (SO D) as the matheme for the drive.

This formula is to be read: the barred subject in relation to demand, the fading of the subject before the insistence of a demand that persists without any conscious intention to sustain it.

See Also


  1. 1972 [1965]: 140
  2. 1984c [1915]: 118
  3. 1984c [1915]: 119
  4. Freud, Sigmund. 1905d
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.301
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 162
  7. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.204
  8. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.168
  9. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. l18-20).
  10. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.848)
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