Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

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"Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (first published in German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

 in 1920 as Jenseits des Lustprinzips) is an essay by Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud , born Sigismund Schlomo Freud , was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis...

. It marked a turning point and a major modification of his previous theoretical approach. Before this essay, Freud was understood to have placed the sexual instinct, Eros, or the libido
Libido refers to a person's sex drive or desire for sexual activity. The desire for sex is an aspect of a person's sexuality, but varies enormously from one person to another, and it also varies depending on circumstances at a particular time. A person who has extremely frequent or a suddenly...

, centre stage, in explaining the forces which drive us to act. In 1920, going "beyond" the simple pleasure principle
Pleasure principle (psychology)
In Freudian psychology, the pleasure principle is the psychoanalytic concept describing people seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering in order to satisfy their biological and psychological needs...

, Freud developed his theory of drives, by adding the death instinct
Death instinct
In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive towards death, self-destruction and the return to the inorganic: 'the hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state'...

, often referred to as "Thanatos
In Greek mythology, Thanatos was the daemon personification of death. He was a minor figure in Greek mythology, often referred to but rarely appearing in person...

," although Freud himself never used this term.

Importance of the essay

The main importance of the essay resides in the striking picture of human being, struggling between two opposing instincts or drives: Eros
Eros (love)
Eros is one of the four words in Ancient Greek which can be rendered into English as “love”. The other three are storge, philia and agape...

 working for creativity, harmony, sexual connection, reproduction, and self-preservation; Thanatos for destruction, repetition, aggression, compulsion, and self-destruction.

In sections IV and V, Freud posits that the process of creating living cells binds energy and imbues cells with an imbalance of energy. It is the pressure of matter to return to its original state which gives cells their quality of living. The process is analogous to the creation and exhaustion of a battery. It is this molecular diffusion which can be called a death-wish. The compulsion of the matter in cells to return to a diffuse, inanimate state is extended to the whole living organism. Thus, the psychological death-wish is a manifestation of an underlying physical compulsion that is present in every cell of the organism.

Freud also took the opportunity to state the basic differences, as he saw them, between his approach and that of Carl Jung
Carl Jung
Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of Analytical Psychology. Jung is considered the first modern psychiatrist to view the human psyche as "by nature religious" and make it the focus of exploration. Jung is one of the best known researchers in the field of dream analysis and...

, and covered the history so far of research into the basic drives (Section VI).

Critical reception

Beyond the Pleasure Principle is perhaps the most controversial of all Freud's texts. Lacan
Lacan is surname of:* Jacques Lacan , French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist** The Seminars of Jacques Lacan** From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power, a book on political philosophy by Saul Newman** Lacan at the Scene* Judith Miller, née Lacan...

, the self-styled Freudian, called it 'this extraordinary text of Freud's, unbelievably ambiguous, almost confused'. One of Freud's most sympathetic biographers wrote that ' Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a difficult text....the reassuring intimacy with clinical experience that marks most of Freud's papers, even at their most theoretical, seems faint here, almost absent'. He went on to cite how Freud's personal physician, 'Max Schur, whom no one can accuse of reading Freud unsympathetically, said flatly: "We can only assume that Freud's conclusions...are an example of ad hoc reasoning to prove a preformed hypothesis...throughout Beyond the Pleasure Principle"'.

Ernest Jones
Ernest Jones
Alfred Ernest Jones was a British neurologist and psychoanalyst, and Sigmund Freud’s official biographer. Jones was the first English-speaking practitioner of psychoanalysis and became its leading exponent in the English-speaking world where, as President of both the British Psycho-Analytical...

 for his part concluded that 'This book is further noteworthy in being the only one of Freud's which has received little acceptance on the part of his followers'. Many of Freud's colleagues and students rejected the theories proposed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle because the idea of an instinct towards death seemed strange.

Clinical - sections I-III

' Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a difficult text'. As Ernest Jones
Ernest Jones
Alfred Ernest Jones was a British neurologist and psychoanalyst, and Sigmund Freud’s official biographer. Jones was the first English-speaking practitioner of psychoanalysis and became its leading exponent in the English-speaking world where, as President of both the British Psycho-Analytical...

, one of Freud's closest associates and a member of his Inner Ring, put it, 'the train of thought [is] by no means easy to follow...and Freud's views on the subject have often been considerably misinterpreted'. Freud begins with 'a commonplace then unchallenged in psychoanalytic theory: "The course of mental events is automatically regulated by the pleasure principle...a strong tendency toward the pleasure principle"'. After considering the inevitable presence of unpleasant experiences in the life of the mind, he concludes the book's first section to the effect that the presence of such unpleasant experiences 'does not contradict the dominance of the pleasure principle...does not seem to necessitate any far-reaching limitation of the pleasure principle'.

Freud then proceeded to look for 'evidence, for the existence of hitherto unsuspected forces "beyond" the pleasure principle'. He found potential problems for the dominance of the pleasure principle - 'situations...with which the pleasure principle cannot cope adequately' - in four main areas: children's games, as exemplified in his grandson's famous "fort-da" game; 'the recurrent dreams of war neurotics...; the pattern of self-injuring behaviour that can be traced through the lives of certain people ["fate neurosis"]; the tendency of many patients in psycho-analysis to act out over and over again unpleasant experiences of their childhood'.

Jones considered that 'it would not be hard in all these cases to discover some other motive for these repetitions, and indeed Freud himself suggested some'. Nevertheless, Freud had already felt on the basis of such evidence in 1919 that he could safely postulate 'the principle of a repetition compulsion in the unconscious mind, based upon instinctual activity and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts - a principle powerful enough to overrule the pleasure-principle', as he had then written in "The Uncanny". In the first half of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ' a first phase, the most varied manifestations of repetition, considered as their irreducible quality, are attributed to the essence of drives ' in precisely the same way.

Building on his 1914 article "Recollecting,Repeating and Working Through", Freud highlights how the 'patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of...remembering it as something belonging to the past: a "compulsion to repeat." Yet that raised the question of 'how is the compulsion to repeat - the manifestation of the power of the repressed - related to the pleasure principle?'.

Freud mused that 'the greater part of what is re-experienced under the compulsion to repeat must cause the ego unpleasure, since it brings to light activities of repressed instinctual impulses...unpleasure for one system and simultaneously satisfaction for the other'; but beyond that 'no lesson has been learnt from the old experience of these activities having led only to unpleasure. In spite of that, they are repeated, under pressure of a compulsion'. Noting too repetitions in the lives of normal people - who appeared to be 'pursued by a malignant fate or possessed by some "daemonic" power' - Freud concludes that there may be a compulsion to repeat that is independent of the pleasure principle.

Speculation - sections IV-VII

What have been called the 'two distinct frescoes or canti ' of Beyond the Pleasure Principle break between sections III and IV. If, as Otto Fenichel
Otto Fenichel
Otto Fenichel was a psychoanalyst of the so-called "second generation".Otto Fenichel started studying medicine in 1915 in Vienna. Already as a very young man, when still in school, he was attracted by the circle of psychoanalysts around Freud...

 remarked, Freud's 'new [instinctual] classification has two bases, one speculative, and one clinical', thus far the clinical. In Freud's own words, 'What follows is speculation, often far-fetched speculation, which the reader will consider or dismiss according to his individual predilection' - it has been noted that 'in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud used that unpromising word "speculations" more than once'.

Arguing that dreams in which one relives trauma serve a binding function in the mind, Freud admits that such dreams are an exception to the rule that the dream is the fulfillment of a wish: 'They arise, rather, in obedience to the compulsion to repeat'. Asserting that the first task of the mind is to bind excitations to prevent trauma (so that the pleasure principle does not begin to dominate mental activities until the excitations are bound), he reiterated the clinical fact that for 'a person in analysis...the compulsion to repeat the events of his childhood in the transference evidently disregards the pleasure principle in every way', and began to look for analogies for the new centrality of the repetition compulsion in the 'essentially conservative...feature of instinctual life...the lower we go in the animal scale the more stereotyped does instinctual behavior appear'. Thereafter 'a leap in the text can be noticed when Freud places the compulsion to repeat on an equal footing with "an restore an earlier state of things"' - ultimately that of the original inorganic condition. Declaring that "the aim of life is death" and "inanimate things existed before living ones", Freud interprets an organism’s drive to avoid danger only as a way of avoiding a short-circuit to death: the organisms seeks to die in its own way. He thus found his way to his celebrated concept of the death instinct.

Thereupon, 'Freud plunged into the thickets of speculative modern biology, even into philosophy, in search of corroborative evidence' - looking to 'arguments of every kind, frequently borrowed from fields outside of psychoanalytic practice, calling to the rescue biology, philosophy, and mythology'. He turned to prewar experiments on protozoa - of perhaps questionable relevance, even if it is not the case that 'his interpretation of the experiments on the successive generations of protozoa contains a fatal flaw'. The most that can perhaps be said is that Freud did not find 'any biological argument which contradicts his dualistic conception of instinctual life', but at the same time, 'as Jones (1957) points out, "no biological observation can be found to support the idea of a death instinct, one which contradicts all biological principles"' either.

Freud then continued with a reference to 'the harbour of Schopenhauer's philosophy'; but in groping for a return to the clinical he admitted that 'it looks suspiciously as though we were trying to find a way out of a highly embarrassing situation at any price'. Freud eventually decided that he could find a clinical manifestation of the death instinct in the phenomenon of masochism, 'hitherto regarded as secondary to sadism...and suggested that there could be a primary masochism, a self-injuring tendency which would be an indication of the death instinct'. To then explain the sexual instinct as well in terms of a compulsion to repeat, Freud inserts a myth from Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 that humans are driven to reproduce in order to join together the sexes, which had once existed in single individuals who were both male and female - still 'in utter disregard of disciplinary distinctions'; and admits again the speculative nature of his own ideas, 'lacking a direct translation of observation into theory....One may have made a lucky hit or one may have gone shamefully astray'.

Nevertheless with the libido
Libido refers to a person's sex drive or desire for sexual activity. The desire for sex is an aspect of a person's sexuality, but varies enormously from one person to another, and it also varies depending on circumstances at a particular time. A person who has extremely frequent or a suddenly...

 or Eros
Eros , in Greek mythology, was the Greek god of love. His Roman counterpart was Cupid . Some myths make him a primordial god, while in other myths, he is the son of Aphrodite....

 as the life force finally set out on the other side of the repetition compulsion equation, the way was clear for the book's closing 'vision of two elemental pugnacious forces in the mind, Eros and Thanatos, locked in eternal battle'.

Composition: Freud's defensiveness

Freud's daughter Sophie died at the start of 1920, partway between Freud's first (1919) version and the version of Beyond the Pleasure Principle reworked and published in 1920. Insisting that the death had no relation to the contents of the book, 'on July 18, 1920, Freud wrote to Eitington, "The Beyond is now finally finished. You will be able to confirm that it was half ready when Sophie lived and flourished"'. He had however already written to Ferenczi that June 'that "curious continuations" had turned up in it, presumably the part about the potential immortality of protozoa', and Ernest Jones for his part was certainly prepared to consider Freud's claim on Eitingon 'a rather curious request...[perhaps] an inner denial of his novel thoughts about death having been influenced by his depression over losing his daughter'. Others have equally wondered about 'inventing a so-called death instinct - is this not one way of theorising, that is, disposing of - by means of a theory - a feeling of the "demoniac" in life itself...exacerbated by the unexpected death of Freud' daughter'? - and it is certainly striking that 'the term "death drive" - Todestrieb - entered his correspondence a week after Sophie Halberstadt's death'; so that we may well accept at the very least that the 'loss can claim a subsidiary role...[in]his analytic preoccupation with destructiveness'.

Fruitfulness of the essay

On his final page, Freud acknowledges that his theorising 'in turn raises a host of other questions to which we can at present find no answer'. Whatever legitimate reservations there may be about 'the improbability of our speculations. A queer instinct, indeed, directed to the destruction of its own organic home', Freud's speculative essay has proven remarkably fruitful in stimulating further psychoanalytic research and theorising, both in himself and in his followers; and we may consider it as a prime example of Freud in his role 'as a problem finder - one who raises new questions...called attention to a whole range of human phenomena and processes'. Thus for example Andre Green
André Green
André Green is a French psychoanalyst of global renown.'Among contemporary practitioners, Andre Green...epitomizes an international spirit of independence'.-Life and career:...

 has suggested that Freud 'turned to the biology of micro-organisms...because he was unable to find the answers to the questions raised by psychoanalytic practice': the fruitfulness of the questions - in the spirit of 'Maurice Blanchot
Maurice Blanchot
Maurice Blanchot was a French writer, philosopher, and literary theorist. His work had a strong influence on post-structuralist philosophers such as Jacques Derrida.-Works:...

's sentence, "La response est le malheur de la question" [The answer is the misfortune of the question]' - remains nonetheless unimpaired.
  • The repetition compulsion
    Repetition compulsion
    Repetition compulsion is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again...

     continued to play a central role in Freud's later thinking; and for Lacan it was one of the 'four...terms introduced by Freud as fundamental concepts, namely, the unconscious, repetition, the transference and the drive.

  • Eric Berne
    Eric Berne
    Eric Berne was a Canadian-born psychiatrist best known as the creator of transactional analysis and the author of Games People Play.-Background and education:...

     adapts the way 'Freud speaks of the repetition compulsion and the destiny apply them to the entire life courses' of normals and neurotics alike.

  • 'In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, too, we can see signs of the new picture of the anatomical structure of the mind which was to dominate all Freud's later writings'.

  • Similarly, 'the problem of destructiveness, which played an ever more important part in his theoretical works, makes its first explicit appearance'.

  • His indication 'that in cases of traumatism there is a "lack of any preparedness for anxiety" a forerunner of the distinction he would later make...between "automatic anxiety" and "anxiety as a signal"'.

  • Both Melanie Klein
    Melanie Klein
    Melanie Reizes Klein was an Austrian-born British psychoanalyst who devised novel therapeutic techniques for children that had an impact on child psychology and contemporary psychoanalysis...

     and Lacan were to adopt versions of the death drive in their own theoretical constructs. 'Klein's concept of the death drive differs from Freud's...but there is an ever-increasing reference to the death drive as a given cause of mental development' in her works. Lacan for his part considered that 'the death drive is only the mask of the symbolic order, in so...far as it has not been realised', adding modestly of Beyond the Pleasure Principle '...either it makes not the least bit of sense or it has exactly the sense I say it has'.

Further reading

  • "The Language of Psycho-Analysis" , Jean Laplanche
    Jean Laplanche
    Jean Laplanche is a French author, theorist and psychoanalyst. Laplanche is best known for his work on psychosexual development and Sigmund Freud's seduction theory, and has written more than a dozen books on psychoanalytic theory...

     et J.B. Pontalis, Editeur: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974, ISBN 0-393-01105-4
  • Jacques Derrida
    Jacques Derrida
    Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy...

    , The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond.
  • Bernard Stiegler
    Bernard Stiegler
    Bernard Stiegler is a French philosopher at Goldsmiths, University of London and at the Université de Technologie de Compiègne. In addition, he is Director of the , founder in 2005 of the political and cultural group, , and founder in 2010 of the philosophy school,...

    , Desire and Knowledge: The Dead Seize the Living.

External links