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Freudian Dictionary

Libido is a term used in the theory of the instincts for describing the dynamic manifestation of sexuality.[1]

It is difficult to say anything of the behavior of the libido in the id and in the superego. Everything that we know about it relates to the ego, in which the whole available amount of libido is at first stored up. We call this state of things absolute, primary narcissism. It continues until the ego begins to cathect the presentations of objects with libido-to change narcissistic libido into object libido.[2]

Libido participates in every instinctual manifestation, but not everything in that manifestation is libido.[3]

Libido, Ego and Object

We must understand that the ego is always the main reservoir of libido, from which libidinal cathexes of objects proceed, and into which they return again, while the greater part of this libido remains perpetually in the ego. There is therefore a constant transformation of ego-libido into object-libido, and of object-libido into ego-libido. But if this is so the two cannot differ from each other in their nature, and there is no point in distinguishing the energy of the one from that of the other; one can either drop the term "libido" altogether, or use it as meaning the same as psychic energy in general.[4]

Libido, Mobility of

A characteristic of libido which is important in life is its mobility, the ease with which it passes from one object to another. This must be contrasted with the fixation of libido to particular objects, which often persists through life.[5]

Libido, Narcissistic

The Libido of the self-preservative instincts.[6]

Concerning the fates of the object-libido, we can also state that it may be withdrawn from the object, that it may be preserved in a floating state in special states of tension, and that It may finally be taken back into the ego and again change into ego-libido as narcissistic libido. Through psychoanalysis, we look as if over a boundary, which we are not permitted to pass, into the activity of this narcissistic libido, and thus, form an idea of relations between the two. The narcissistic or egolibido appears to us as the great reservoir from which all object cathexis is sent out, and into which it is drawn back again, while the narcissistic libido-cathexis of the ego appears to us as the realized primal state in the first childhood, which only becomes hidden by the later emissions of libido, and is retained at the bottom behind them.[7]

Libido, Somatic Sources of

There can be no question that the libido has somatic sources, that it streams into the ego from various organs and parts of the body. This is most clearly seen in the case of the portion of the libido which, from its instinctual aim is known as sexual excitation. The most prominent of the parts of the body from which this libido arises are described by the name of erotogenic zones, though strictly speaking the whole body is an erotogenic zone.[8]

Sigmund Freud

Freud conceives of the libido as a quantitative (or "economic") concept: it is an energy which can increase or descrease, and which can be displaced.[9]

Freud insisted on the sexual nature of this energy, and throughout his work he maintained a dualism in which the libido is opposed to another (non-sexual) form of energy.

Carl Jung

Jung opposed this dualism, positing a single form of life-energy which is neutral in character, and proposed that this energy be denoted by the term "libido."

Jacques Lacan

Lacan rejects Jung's monism and reaffirms Freud's dualism.[10]

He argues, with Freud, that the libido is exclusively sexual.

Lacan also follows Freud in affirming that the libido is exclusively masculine.[11]

"Libido and the ego are on the same side. Narcissism is libidinal."[12]

From 1964 on, however, there is a shift to articulating the libido more with the real.[13]

However, in general Lacan does not use the term "libido" anywhere near as frequently as Freud, preferring to reconceptualize sexual energy in terms of jouissance.

See Also


  1. Template:LT
  2. Template:OoPA Ch. 2
  3. Template:C&D Ch. 6
  4. Template:NILP Ch. 4
  5. Template:OoPA Ch. 2
  6. Template:LT
  7. Template:TCTS III
  8. Template:OoPA Ch. 2
  9. Freud, Sigmund. SE XVIII. 1921c. p.90.
  10. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book I. Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-54. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. p.119-20
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.291
  12. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p.326
  13. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.848-9

-- The term 'libido', from the Latin word for 'desire' or 'lust', is used in psychoanalysis to describe the (psychic) mental energy generated by the stimulation of erogenous zones such as the mouth, the breasts, the anus or the genitals. Libido is a specifically sexual energy. Freud posits a distinction between the sexual or libidinal drives and the self-preservation or ego drives. One of the major disagreements between Freud and Jung is the latter's tendency to desexualize the concept of the libido and to dissolve it into a more general category of mental energy.

Freud often employs metaphors from the science of hydraulics to describe libido. It is said to be quantifiable, plastic and adhesive, and can be attached to or withdrawn from objects thanks to the mechanism of cathexis. It can also be desexualized or used in sublimation. Libido is also described by Freud as being active and masculine. Although Freud refers to the libido throughout his work, he rarely defines the concept with any great precision. The clearest discussions are to be found in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, chapter 26 of the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis and the second of the Two Encyclopedia Articles.

Lacan uses the term 'libido' very sparingly, and tends to discuss sexuality in terms of desire and jouissance.

The sexual drive. Freud believed that the sexual drive is as natural and insistent as hunger and that the libido manifests its influence as early as birth.

Freud defined the term libido psychoanalytically in an addition, written in 1915, to Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d): "We have defined the concept of libido as a quantitatively variable force which could serve as a measure of processes and transformations occurring in the field of sexual excitation" (p. 217).

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), he further developed this concept: "Libido is an expression taken from the theory of the emotions. We call by that name the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude (though not at present actually measurable), of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word 'love"' (p. 90).

The "libido theory" is present throughout Freud's works, beginning with the first appearance, in Manuscript E of the Fliess papers (1950a [1895]), of the notion of "psychical libido," as synonym of "psychical affect" (p. 192, 193). This draft dates from June 1894—that is to say, before the appearance of Albert Moll's book,Üntersuching über die Libido sexualis, from which Freud claimed to have borrowed it. The theory of the libido was constantly revised and remodeled from three main angles: the developmental, the metapsychological (then associated with the theory of the instincts and the dynamic and economic points of view), and the psychopathological.

In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud based the psychoanalytic notion of libido on infantile sexuality, explaining how it drew support from the major vital functions (anaclisis): "The fact of the existence of sexual needs in human beings and animals is expressed in biology by the assumption of a 'sexual instinct,' on the analogy of the instinct of nutrition, that is of hunger. Everyday language possesses no counterpart to the word 'hunger,' but science makes use of the word 'libido' for that purpose" (p. 135). Starting with the autoeroticism of the erogenous zones, and building on the work of Karl Abraham, he developed the idea of a series of developmental phases leading from the "pregenital libidinal organization," through the oral, anal-sadistic, and phallic stages (1923e), to the genital stage.

At the same time, Freud contrasted libido, in his earliest versions of the instinct theory, as the energy of the sexual drives, with the energy of the "ego-instincts." This was a subject he returned to often, so as to differentiate his ideas from the ideas of Carl G. Jung, as first outlined in Jung's Transformation and Symbolism of the Libido (1913). Jung saw libido as close to the élan vital of Henri Bergson. Freud explained his position in a letter toÉdouard Claparède of December 25, 1920: "I've repeated and would like to say as clearly as possible that I want to establish, for transference neuroses, the distinction between sexual drives (Sexualtriebe) and ego drives (Ichtriebe); and the libido signifies for me only the energy of the former, the sexual drives. It is Jung, not I, who conceives of the libido as the animating force of all psychic activities, consequently contesting the sexual nature of the libido. Your affirmation applies, therefore, neither to me nor to Jung totally; it rather is based on a mélange of the two. From me you borrow the sexual nature of the libido, from Jung its universal significance, from which is born pansexualism, something that exists only in the imagination of certain critics, so fertile when it comes to manipulating things."

"On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c) marked a major theoretical turning point in Freud's work. Ego-libido, now also called "narcissistic libido," was viewed as a primal libidinal cathexis, a part of which was detached, and directed onto objects: "Thus we form the idea of there being an original libidinal cathexis of the ego, from which some is later given off to objects, but which fundamentally persists and is related to the object-cathexis much as the body of an amoeba is related to the pseudopodia which it puts out" (p. 75). But if the ego was presented in this context as a reservoir of libido, with the introduction of the second topography (or structural theory), Freud revised this view: "Now that we have distinguished between the ego and the id, we must recognize the id as the great reservoir of libido. . . . The libido which flows into the ego owing to the identifications described above brings about its 'secondary narcissism"' (1923b, p. 30n). This contradiction would be the cause of much post-Freudian discussion and theorizing. As for its object-relationships, "The libido attaches itself to the satisfaction of the great vital needs, and chooses as its first objects the people who have a share in that process" (1921c, p. 103).

Nevertheless, from Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) on, the introduction of the death instinct announced a radical new dualism: "In this way the libido of our sexual instincts would coincide with the Eros of the poets and philosophers which holds all living things together" (p. 50), while "The opposition between the ego-instincts and the sexual instincts was transformed into one between the ego-instincts and the object-instincts, both of a libidinal nature. But in its place a fresh opposition appeared between the libidinal (ego-and-object-) instincts and others, which must be presumed to be present in the ego and which may perhaps actually be observed in the destructive instincts" (p. 61, note added 1921).

Libidinal cathexes enter the framework of Freud's metapsychological descriptions by way of their dynamism: The libido is susceptible in the course of development to "fixations" at particular stages; even if such a fixation is bypassed later and subjected to repression, it can re-emerge when some mental obstacle, such as the fear of castration, happens to obstruct progress and precipitates a "regression." Likewise, transformations of libidinal cathexes are possible, "in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world. In this, sublimation of the instincts lends its assistance"(1930a [1929], p. 79).

As for the "economic point of view," it was present from Freud's earliest descriptions of the libido as an "energy," or a "force" (1897), right up until his very last writings, when he evokes "the total available energy of Eros, which henceforward we shall speak of as 'libido"' (1940a [1938], p. 149). Freud studied both the process of the libido's production and the manner of its displacements, even invoking a certain "adhesiveness of the libido" to explain certain difficulties encountered in psychoanalytic treatments, he added that "One meets with the opposite type of person, too, in whom the libido seems particularly mobile; it enters readily upon the new cathexes suggested by analysis, abandoning its former ones in exchange for them" (1937c, p. 241).

Let us now turn to the applications of the notion of the libido in the domain of psychopathology. In a letter to Karl Abraham (1965a), Freud pointed the way: "The characteristic traits of neuropsychoses and psychoses are connected with the destiny of the libido—where it is localized relative to the ego and the object, the varieties of repression concerning this libido, as well as how this repression evolves chronologically." It will be recalled that Freud deemed regression to pregenital stages the key to obsessional neurosis and depression. Later, "the effect of seduction, which is responsible for a premature fixation of the libido" (1922b, p. 231) was described by him as one of the causative factors of homosexuality. In an article on psychoanalysis for the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, he wrote: "The infantile fixations of the libido are what determine the form of any later neurosis. Thus the neuroses are to be regarded as inhibitions in the development of the libido" (1926f, p. 268); and in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis he pointed out "that sadism is an instinctual fusion of purely libidinal and purely destructive urges, a fusion which thenceforward persists uninterruptedly" (1940a [1938], p. 154). In this connection we should mention the theory of anxiety. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud described anxiety as "a libidinal impulse which has its origin in the unconscious and is inhibited by the preconscious" (pp. 337-338); later he attributed it to a transformation of the libido under the pressure of repression, and finally offered his definitive revision of the theory of anxiety in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d [1925]).

In his paper on "Libidinal Types" (1931a), Freud developed a new psychoanalytical typology: "According . . . as the libido is predominantly allocated to the provinces of the mental apparatus, we can distinguish three main libidinal types. To give names to these types in not particularly easy; following the lines of our depth-psychology, I should like to call them the erotic, the narcissistic and the obsessional types. . . . These pure types will hardly escape the suspicion of having been deduced from the theory of the libido. But we feel ourselves on the firm ground of experience when we turn to the mixed types, which are to be observed so much more frequently than the unmixed ones. These new types—the erotic-obsessional, the erotic-narcissistic and the narcissistic-obsessional—seem in fact to afford a good classification of the individual psychical structures which we have come to know through analysis. . . . We thus realize that the phenomenon of types arises precisely from the fact that, of the three main ways of employing the libido in the economy of the mind, one or two have been favoured at the expense of the others" (pp. 217-219).

Karl Abraham, Sàndor Ferenczi, and the first psychoanalysts followed or developed the views of Freud, but the same cannot be said always for later generations. Critics focused on the "narcissistic libido," rather than on those formulations of Freud's that appeal to biology and pharmacology to account for sexual excitation—as when he wrote, for example, of the "sexual toxin which we should have to recognize as the vehicle of all the stimulant effects of the libido" (1916-17a [1915-17], pp. 388-389). While Paul Federn or Edoardo Weiss suggested calling the energy of aggressive drives "destrudo" or "mortido," to distinguish it from the libido, some, such as Rudolph M. Lowenstein, emphasized the contradiction arising from the very notion of "narcissistic libido," for "there cannot be two kinds of psychic energy, characterized by the simple fact that one is directed toward the object and the other towards the self" (1965). James Strachey and Heinz Hartmann have also discussed confusions arising from Freud's successive formulations on the subject of the narcissistic libido and the role of the ego: Did these concern an "ego" or a "Self," primary narcissism seeming to suggest "the whole person" rather than that of the Freudian "ego"? Starting in 1941, Ronald Fairbairn developed the idea that the libido is essentially searching for an object rather than pleasure, and that in psychopathology the emphasis should be on dysfunctions in object-relations. Michael Balint, basing himself on these debates, refuted the notion of "primal narcissism," and instead worked out a theory of "fundamental lack" (1968). Heinz Kohut, for his part, wrote that "every libido that has a self-idealizing or aggrandizing quality is 'narcissistic"'(1971).

Jacques Lacan offered a very different approach to the notion of libido at the Bonneval Colloquium (1960), returning to the theme again in Four Fundamental Concepts in Psychoanalysis (1964), with his "myth of the lamella." He stressed the subject's search, not for a complement—as the Platonic myth (and Freud in Plato's wake) would have it—but that part of himself that was lost with the cutting of the umbilical cord, which made of him a mortal and sexed being. The libido here is "the lamella that slides between the organism and its true limit, beyond that of the body"; it is also "something . . . that is related to what the sexed being loses in sexuality, it is like the amoeba in relation to sexed beings, immortal" (1964, p. 197). Lacan defined the libido as "an organ," or instrument of a drive.

On his part, Freud always tied the libido to an organic substrate; he even compared libido to a toxin: "all our intoxicating liquors and stimulating alkaloids are merely a substitute for the unique, still unattained toxin of the libido that rouses the ecstasy of love" (letter to Karl Abraham of June 7, 1908, in A Psychoanalytic Dialogue, p. 40), or "we . . . cannot even decide whether we are to assume two sexual substances, which would then be named 'male' and 'female,' or whether we could be satisfied with one sexual toxin which we should have to recognize as the vehicle of all the stimulant effects of the libido" (1916-17a, pp. 388-389). In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), he had even proposed a "provisional hypothesis," rarely mentioned by psychoanalysts, on the "essential factors of sexuality": "It may be supposed that, as a result of an appropriate stimulation of erotogenic zones . . . some substance that is disseminated generally throughout the organism becomes decomposed and the products of is decomposition give rise to a specific stimulus which acts on the reproductive organs or upon a spinal centre related to them." He concluded: "I attach no importance to this particular hypothesis and should be ready to abandon it at once in favour of another, provided that its fundamental nature remained unchanged—that is, the emphasis which it lays upon sexual chemistry" (1905d, III, p. 216). Until the end of his life, Freud linked the theory of the libido to the body, as is still evident in the Outline of Psychoanalysis: "There can be no question but that the libido has somatic sources, that it streams to the ego from various organs and parts of the body. This is most clearly seen in the case of that portion of the libido, which, from its instinctual aim, is described as sexual excitation. The most prominent of the parts of the body from which this libido arises are known by the name of 'erotogenic zones,' though in fact the whole body is an erotogenic zone of this kind" (1940a [1938], p. 151). It is clear how very much further, since Freud, research on neuro-hormonal links has carried these suggestions, as well as how much, in the future, psychoanalysis will benefit from these new hypotheses.

In Freudian theory, the energy-based conception of the libido was nevertheless based on an electric, or rather hydraulic metaphor, with its flows and dams, countercurrents and anchorage points, lateral pathways through replacement objects or sublimations, its viscosity or stasis: One has only to think of the oft-repeated image of a "great reservoir" of energy. Freud has been reproached for the supposedly "unscientific" nature of such propositions. His own answer to such criticism, in his Autobiographical Study (1925d [1924]), was at once prudent and to the point: "I have repeatedly heard it said contemptuously that it is impossible to take a science seriously whose most general concepts are as lacking in precision as those of libido and of instinct in psycho-analysis. . . . In the natural sciences, of which psychology is one, such clear-cut general concepts are superfluous and indeed impossible" (pp. 57-58).


See also: Aggressiveness; Anality; Cathectic energy; Cathexis; Decathexis; Desexualization; Destrudo; Economic point of view; Ego-libido/object-libido; Eroticism, anal; Eroticism, oral; Eros; Erotogenicity; Fixation; Genital love; Libidinal development; Orality; Psychic energy; Regression; Sexuality; Signal anxiety; Stage (or phase); Sublimation; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund, and Abraham, Karl. (1965). A psychoanalytic dialogue, the letters of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham, 1907-1926 (Hilda C. Abraham and Ernst L. Freud, Eds.) (Bernard Marsh and Hilda C. Abraham, Trans.). New York: Basic Books.
   * Hartmann, Heinz. (1956). The ego concept in Freud's work. International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
   * Lacan, Jacques. (1964). From love to the libido. In The four fundamental concepts in psychoanalysis (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Norton, 1978.
   * Lowenstein, Rudolph M. (1965). Observational data and theory in psychoanalysis. In M. Schur (Ed.), Drives, affects, behaviour. Essays in memory of Marie Bonaparte. Vol. 2. New York: International Universities Press.


From the Latin word for "desire" or "lust," libido is a specifically sexual energy.