Life Instinct

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The life instinct or Eros was one of the two basic instincts described by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) when he began to construct his structural theory, in which the life instinct stands opposed to the death instinct. The life instinct subsumed uninhibited sexual instincts, instinctual impulses inhibited in respect of their aim and sublimated, and the instincts of self-preservation.

In contrast to the monism of Jung and Adler, Freud upheld a dualistic theory with respect to the instincts. Up until his discovery of narcissism (1914c), he contrasted the sexual instincts, directed toward outside objects, to the ego-instincts, which included the instincts of individual self-preservation. But then his theory needed modifying in order to respond to the discovery that the ego itself could become the sexual object (1914c). Narcissistic libido thus became a manifestation of the pressure of the sexual instincts, and the former dichotomy between ego-instincts and sexual instincts lost its force. Part of the ego-instincts, namely the self-preservative instincts, were now seen as libidinal in nature, and the main conflict became that between narcissistic and autoerotic instincts, that is, between two forms of the sexual instinct.

With the turning-point of the early 1920s, Freud introduced the hypothesis of a death instinct to account for phenomena of repetition that were independent of the pleasure principle, indeed susceptible of opposing that principle (1920g). His dualistic imperative led him to group both the sexual and the self-preservative instincts under the head of the life instincts, as opposed to the death instincts.

In The Ego and the Id, Freud maintained his position on the need to distinguish between the two classes of instincts: "the task of [the death instinct] is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state; on the other hand . . . Eros, by bringing about a more and more far-reaching combination of the particles into which living substance is dispersed, aims at complicating life and at the same time, of course, at preserving it" (i.e., in the interest of evolution). "Life itself," Freud added, "would be a conflict and compromise between these two trends" (1923b, pp. 40, 41). Deeming his "fundamental dualistic point of view" inescapable, Freud was "driven to conclude that the death instincts are by their nature mute and that the clamor of life proceeds for the most part from Eros" (p. 46).

Freud held firm to the dualistic view until the end of his life, as witness these lines from his Outline of Psycho-Analysis: "After long hesitancies and vacillations we have decided to assume the existence of only two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct." The aim of Eros was to "establish ever greater unities," so preserving life; but if "binding together" was thus the task of the life instincts, the aim of the death instincts was "to undo connections and so to destroy things" (1940a [1938], p. 148).

In distinguishing between life and death instincts, Freud sought to introduce a duality within the notion of instinct itself. The outcome was a dual instinct that could be described as two instincts that are so entangled, so melded, that the one can barely have meaning outside of its relationship with the other. This instinctual entanglement arises through the indispensable mediation of the object. Effective instinctual functioning requires that the life instinct serve to bind the death instinct. When the instincts become disentangled, notes Benno Rosenberg, "the subject's cathexis of the object is so massive that he will have difficulty differentiating himself from it. So intense and unbearable is the excitation that the subject will resort to a splitting of the ego" (1991).

The beneficial contribution of the death instinct, as imbricated with the life instinct, is that it allows a tolerable distance to be maintained between subject and object, thus facilitating the working out of the subject's wishes.


See also: Civilization and its Discontents; Drive/instinct; Eros; German romanticism and psychoanalysis; Love; Marcuse, Herbert; Object, change of/choice of; Primary masochism; Sexuality; Spinoza and psychoanalysis. Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund (1914c). "On narcissism: An introduction." SE, 14: 73-102.
   * ——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.
   * ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.
   * ——. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.