Death Instinct

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Death Instinct. Psychology Fanatic

Are we pulled and pushed by oppositional forces existing within our own psychological apparatus? Perhaps, we are. In a shift from his earlier drive theories, Sigmund Freud introduced the ‘death drive’ theory in 1920 with the publication of his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He also referred to the “death drive” as the “death instinct.”

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud suggests that we long for our inorganic origins. Joanne Faulkner wrote, “in opposition to the pleasure principle, the ‘death drive’ –residual of a pre-organic, chaotic past—attempts to undo the organic hole” (2005). With the death-instinct, Freud attempts to explain the unexplainable behaviors of human destructiveness. We possess, according to Freud, opposing drives for life and death. He concluded that all instincts fall into one of two major classes: life drives and death drives. These instincts were later dubbed by other psychologists as Eros and Thanatos.

Freud and the Death Instinct​

Freud’s death instinct hypothesis marks a significant departure from his previous work that emerged from scientific methodology. The new hypothesis, suggesting two conflicting drives (life instinct and death instinct), was highly speculative. Freud acknowledges the speculative nature of this hypothesis. He wrote as an introduction, prior to presenting the death drive hypothesis that, “what follows now is speculation, speculation often farfetched, which each will according to his particular attitude acknowledge or neglect…an idea out of curiosity to see whether it will lead” (1920).

Yet, while Freud may have presented the death instinct as only a possible explanation in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he returned to the death instinct repeatedly in his later works.

The death drive is such a significant departure from Freud’s earlier publications many psychoanalysts reject the death drive as relevant to their work. Philosopher and researchers debate what inspired the introduction of changes to Freud’s earlier work on human behavioral drives. Some suggest that the death of Freud’s daughter Sophia in January 1920 motivated an existential crisis, leading to new explanations for the human experience.

The Death Instinct is a Drive Towards the Inorganic State

​While the life drives attempt to minimize tension within the system by binding and discharging energy, the death drives increase tension within the organism to serve the end of greater ‘stability,’ comprising the inorganic state ‘death’ (2005, Faulkner).

Death has always been a hot topic in philosophy. Death cannot be denied its place in life. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) explains that death “stands before us—something impending.” But for Freud, “death is much more than that which stands before us, rather it resides within us, an impulsion towards annihilation” (2006, Mills).

Freud dealt with the “inherently destructive organizing elements that imperil the organism from within” through his hypothesis of the death drive (2006).

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud writes that with “no exception that everything living dies from causes within itself, and returns to inorganic, we can only say, ‘the goal of all life is death.'” Freud continues, “the postulate of the self-preservative instincts we ascribe to every living being stands in remarkable contrast to the supposition that the whole life of instinct serves the one end of bringing about death” (1920).

Freud’s Reasoning for Adding to Earlier Theories

Freud prefaced the death drive hypothesis by citing several examples. Freud recognized that the pleasure principle couldn’t account for every human behavior. He reintegrates that the human psyche has a tendency towards stability. More modern explanations of this principle is our efforts to remain in homeostatic balance.

However, Freud points out, not every event can be explained in terms of the pleasure principle. He states “it is not strictly correct to speak of a supremacy of the pleasure principle over the course of the psychic processes.” Freud continues, “one can only say that a strong tendency towards the pleasure principle exists in the psyche, to which, however, certain other forces or conditions are opposed, so that the ultimate issue cannot be in accordance with the pleasure-tendency (1920).

We have a tendency for self-sabotaging behaviors. We like the ancient Roman poet Ovid  (43 BC – 17 AD) mourn, “I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong” (2004).

Faulkner explains that Freud’s death drive answers for situations where a person “appears to circulates about a point of pure pain that is neither ejected from, nr neutralized by, the psychic system as the pleasure principle demands, and in fact attracts rather than repels the subject” (2005). 

Freud cites to specific examples of behavior failing to adhere to the pleasure principle: traumatic neurosis and play of children.

Traumatic Neurosis

Freud’s traumatic neurosis is now commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Freud cites the traumatic neurosis dreams as “the most trustworthy approach to the exploration of the deeper psychic process.” He explains that in traumatic neurosis the dream “continually takes the patient back tot he situation of his disaster, from which he awakens in renewed terror” (1920). Freud attributes this to a fixation on the trauma.

Child’s Play

The second example Freud presents is the imaginative play of children. He recalls an observation of a child that temporarily stayed in his house. This good nature child would repeatedly throw his toys in the corner of a room or under his bed, and then (joyfully) retrieve them. The child’s mother was the child’s sole caregiver. Yet, as with any parent, she occasionally had errands to run and would leave the child. The young child would let her leave without fuss. However, her departure must have been stressful on the child. “The departure,” Freud wrote, “must be played as the necessary prelude to the joyful return.”

The child repeatedly visited the trauma of his mom leaving through his play. He would revengefully throw his toys into a corner and than joyfully retrieve them. The experience of play transformed an traumatic event into an experience where the child was in complete master of the sequence of events.

An example of Child’s Play

My grandchild recently adopted a game that similarly resembles a traumatic event and transforms it into a world in which he controls. We counseled my grandchild before going to the store to stay with Papa and GiGi, warning never to leave the store with someone he doesn’t know.

The other day, after leaving the hardware store, from the back seat, my grandchild invited us into his imaginative world. He loves to imagine a scenario and have us play along. “Pretend you don’t know me,” he directs. “Act surprised that I’m in your car.” He then starts playing his role by giving his full name and providing the city where he lives. When my wife or I deviate from this gentle pretend world, he corrects and asks us to restart the scenario. 

Did this imaginative game evolve from the frightening thought that a stranger may take him away? Does his repeated return to this game represent Freud’s repetition compulsion? Perhaps, he is bringing images from the death drive to life, then projecting them into an imaginative world.

A Passion for Destruction

Erick Fromm wrote, “the destructive impulses are a passion within a person, and they always succeed in finding some object” (1994, Kindle location 2,223). 

Fromm explains Freud’s theory of death instinct as “life is not ruled by two egoistic drives, one for food, the other for sex, but by two passions—love and destruction—that do not serve physiological survival in the same sense that hunger and sexuality do. Still bound by his theoretical premises, however, he called them ‘life instinct’ and ‘death instinct,’ and thereby gave human destructiveness its importance as one of two fundamental passions in man” (1992, Kindle location 330).

Fromm adds to this description with “​man was under the sway of an impulse to destroy either himself or others, and he could do little to escape this tragic alternative. It follows that, from the position of the death instinct, aggression was not essentially a reaction to stimuli but a constantly flowing impulse rooted in the constitution of the human organism” (Kindle location  450).

The Death Instinct: Masochism and Sadism

Masochism and Sadism are often referred to in connection with the death instinct. The masochistic personality type habitually seeks pain and humiliation. The masochist exhibits a self hatred that they express through self-sabotaging behaviors. In death instinct terms this would be expressions of the desire to move towards death.

​The sadist takes these same destructive desires but projects them outwards into the environment and onto others.

A Few Closing Words

Like Freud, many of us eventually find that life challenges our believes. I find Freud’s search for answers refreshing. While I may not completely agree with his final analysis. I find his insights intriguing, worthy of contemplation and study, and, of course, humbling, as I look into my own soul, taking note of some of my destructive desires that conflict with the life I wish to live.

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Faulkner, Joann (2005) Freud’s Concept of the Death Drive and its Relation to the Superego. Minerva – An Internet Journal of Philosophy.

Freud, Sigmund (1920) Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  ‎ Dover Publications

Fromm, Erich (1994) Escape from Freedom. Holt Paperbacks; 1st Edition

Fromm, Erich (1992). The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness

Mills, J. (2006). REFLECTIONS ON THE DEATH DRIVE. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 23(2), 373-382.

Ovid (2004). Metamorphoses

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