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Freudian Dictionary

The forces which we assume to exist behind the tensions caused by the needs of the id are called instincts. They represent the somatic demands upon mental life. Though they are the ultimate cause of all activity, they are by nature conservative; the state, whatever it may be, which a living thing has reached, gives rise to a tendency to re-establish that state so soon as it has been abandoned. It is possible to distinguish an indeterminate number of instincts and in common practice this is in fact done. For us, however, the important question arises whether we may not be able to derive all of these various instincts from a few fundamental ones. We have found that instincts can change their aim (by displacement) and also that they can replace one another-the energy of one instinct passing over to another. This latter process is still insufficiently understood. After long doubts and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts.[1]

Instinct in general is regarded as a kind of elasticity of living things, an impulsion towards the restoration of a situation which once existed but was brought to an end by some external disturbance.[2]

An instinct differs from a stimulus in that it arises from sources of stimulation within the body, operates as a constant force, and is such that the subject cannot escape from it by flight as he can from an external stimulus. An instinct may be described as having a source, an object and an aim. The source is a state of excitation within the body, and its aim is to remove that excitation; in the course of its path from its source to the attainment of its aim the instinct becomes operative mentally.[3]

Observation shows us that an instinct may undergo the following vicissitudes: reversal into its opposite, turning round upon the subject, repression, sublimation.[4]

By the impetus of an instinct we understand its motor element, the amount of force or the measure of the demand upon energy which it represents.

The aim of an instinct is in every instance satisfaction, which can only be obtained by abolishing the condition of sfimulation in the source of the instinct.
The object of an instinct is that in or through which it can achieve its aim.

By the source of an instinct is meant that somatic process in an organ or part of the body from which there results a stimulus represented in mental life by an instinct.[5]

Instinct of Aggression

Fortunately the instincts of aggression are never alone, they are always alloyed with the erotic ones.[6]

Instincts, Basic

After long doubts and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct.[7]

There can be no question of restricting one or the other of the basic instincts to a single region of the mind. They are necessarily present everywhere. We may picture an initial state of things by supposing that the whole available energy of Eros, to which we shall henceforward give the name of libido, is present in the as yet undifferentiated ego-id and serves to neutralize the destructive impulses which are simultaneously present. (There is no term analogous to "libido" for describing the energy of the destructive instinct.)[8]

Instinct, Sexual

The sexual instincts are remarkable for their plasticity, for the facility with which they can change their aims, for their interchangeability-for the ease with which they can substitute one form of gratification for another, and for the way in which they can be held in suspense, as has been so well illustrated by the aim-inhibited instincts.[9]

Instinctual Demands as Traumas

Instinctual demands from within operate as "traumas" no less than excitations from the external world, especially if they are met halfway by certain dispositions.[10]

Instinctual Situation

Frightening instinctual situations can in the last resort be traced back to external situations of danger.[11]



corresponds to a specific program of action for a species that is genetically transmitted (and theoretically independent of individual experience)

Lacan follows Freud in distinguishing the instincts from the drives, and criticizes those who obscure this distinction by using the same English word ("instinct") to translate both Freud's terms (Instinkt Trieb).[12]

Jacques Lacan -- following Sigmund Freud -- distinguishes the instincts from the drives.

Lacan follows Freud in distinguishing the instincts from the drives.


"Instinct" is a biological concept and belongs to the study, field, of animal ethology, the psychology of animal behavior.

"Instinct" is a purely biological concept and belongs to the study of animal ethology.

Whereas animals are driven by instincts, which are relatively regid and invariable, and imply a direct relation to an object, human sexuality is a matter of drives, which are very variable and never attain their object.

Although Lacan uses the term "instinct" frequently in his early work, after 1950 he uses the word less frequently, preferring instead to reconceptualize the concept of instinct in terms of need.

--- From his earliest works, Lacan criticizes those who attempt to udnerstand human behavior purely in terms of instincts, arguing that this is to suppose a harmonious relation between man and the world, which does not in fact exist.[13]

The concept of instinct supposes some kind of direct innact knowledge of the object which is of an almost moral character.[14]

Against such ideas, Lacan insists thqat there is something inadequate about human biology, a feature which he indicates in the phrases 'vital insufficiency' (insuffisance vitale).[15] and 'congenital insufficiency'.

This inadequacy, evident in the helplessness of the human baby, is compensated for by means of complexes.

the fact that human psychology is dominated by complexes (which are determined entirely by cultural and social factors) rather than by instincts, means that any explanation of human behavior that does not take social factors into account is useless.


  1. Template:OoPA Ch. 2
  2. Template:ABS Ch. 5
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  6. Template:OoPA Ch. 2
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  12. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.301
  13. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.88
  14. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.851
  15. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.90

A pre-lingual bodily impulse that drives our actions. Freud makes a distinction between instinct and the antithesis, conscious/unconscious; an instinct is pre-lingual and, so, can only be accessed by language, by an idea that represents the instinct. What is repressed is not properly the instinct itself but "the ideational presentation" of the instinct, which is just another way of saying that our deepest, primitive drives are beyond our ability to represent them. Psychoanalysis seeks to make sense of the unconscious, which is to some extent intelligible and, so, one step removed from instinct. According to Freud, there are two classes of instincts: 1) Eros or the sexual instincts, which he later saw as compatible with the self-preservative instincts; and 2) Thanatos or the death-instinct, a natural desire to "re-establish a state of things that was disturbed by the emergence of life" ("Ego and the Id" 709). The death-instinct, which he theorized, in part, as a response to World War I, allowed Freud to explain man's desire for murder and destruction.


  1. An inborn pattern of behavior that is characteristic of a species and is often a response to specific environmental stimuli: the spawning instinct in salmon; altruistic instincts in social animals.
  2. A powerful motivation or impulse.
  3. An innate capability or aptitude:


"The whole flux of our mental life and everything that finds expression in our thoughts are derivations and representatives of the multifarious instincts [drives] that are innate in our physical constitution."[1]

"[T]he "instinct [drive]" appears to us as a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic, as the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in consequence of its connection with the body."[2]

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  1. Freud, Sigmund. My contact with Josef Popper-Lynkeus. 1932. SE, 22: 219-224. p. 221.
  2. Freud, Sigmund. Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140. 1915. pp. 121-122.