From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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The term "primitive" (sometimes "primeval" or "primal") is close to "archaic," but should be distinguished from the latter in that "primitive" refers not to origins but rather to an anthropological or historical description of cultural phenomena (myths, religions, legends) or modes of thinking that remain unconscious in modern, civilized humans.

Freud's interest in the primitive was manifested as early as "A Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), where he cited Charles Darwin. Thereafter, this notion is always found at the interface between, on the one hand, Freud's preoccupation with biological evolution and phylogenesis and, on the other, his hypotheses on the formation of social groups, as presented in particular in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a) and Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-1938]).

In Freud's hypothesis, as outlined in "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love" (1912d), "primitive" people, although they too live in a civilization remote from archaic times, are the equivalent of the childhood of "civilized" people. Thus everything about them is relevant to the study of humanity as a whole. Among salient examples of Freud's use of the term in his work are references to primitive religions and primitive sexual rites of worship (letter to Wilhelm Fliess dated January 24, 1897) and to primitive languages in which, as in dreams, there is no such thing as negation or contradiction (1900a), or in which a word is even systematically used with opposite meanings to express ambivalence (1910e).

In fact, thought itself, at these primitive stages, possesses original characteristics—such as conceptions of death, mechanisms of projection, and sexualized thought—as are found in magical beliefs or animism (1912-1913a). Freud hypothesized that social organization is initially patriarchal (the primal horde), then matriarchal (the divinization of woman as mother and the grouping of brothers into totemic clans), and finally once again patriarchal and patrilineal, with a unique God replacing the primal father. This conception constitutes a model for viewing collective life in general in its different, ever unstable configurations. The notion of the primitive always appears at the boundaries of myth, legend, and history, which are characteristic of the primitive style of writing history (1909d).

The primal scene (when a child is first emotionally aware of his parents copulating) also condenses certain epistemological questions that can be raised about the primitive, particularly concerning the reality of what the small child has seen or heard in connection with the parents' sexual relations.

The notion of the primitive occupies a central place in Freud's thought. It is the equivalent, at the collective level, to the infantile at the individual level. This aspect of Freud's work provides the outlines for fruitful interaction between anthropology and psychoanalysis.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1950c [1895]). A project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.
  2. ——. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338]]
  • [[5: 339-625.
  1. ——. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.
  2. ——. (1910e). The antithetical meaning of primal words. SE, 11: 153-161.
  3. ——. (1912d). On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love. SE, 11: 177-190.
  4. ——. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  5. ——. (1939a [1934-1938]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.
  6. ——. (1985). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904 (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.