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 ), 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 , 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 , 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 , 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 ).
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 , 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 ), 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).
Alain de Mijolla
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 .
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.
Lichtenberg, Joseph D. (1994). How libido theory shaped technique (1911-1915). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 42, 727-740.
The term libido comes from the Latin word libere, meaning "to please." Libido refers generally to desire or lust, or as a psychoanalytic term, to the drive or force that directs sexual instincts toward an object. Contemporary slang terms for libido would include such words and phrases as "horny" or "hot for."
The concept of a libido came from the ideas of nineteenth-century dynamic psychotherapy, which asserted that mental diseases were the effects of a balanced mental economy gone wrong. These doctors were interested in female hysteria, used hypnosis and rapport with the patient as modes of treatment, thought that individuals were comprised of conscious and unconscious minds as well as clusters of sub-personalities, and believed that nervous disorders were partly caused by the activities of a fluid force that existed within us all. This "fluid force" is the basis for the concept of the libido as a sexual desire and instinct that develops and differentiates through human development. Neurologist Moritz Benedikt (1835–1920) used the term libido to characterize one of the causes of female hysteria, a nervous disorder in which women displayed nervous ticks and general discontent and malaise. Others, including Richard von Krafft-Ebing, used the term to refer to desire, though biologist Albert Moll endowed the term with the broader meaning of a sexual instinct as that has developed through evolution.
Sigmund Freud, who incorporated the idea of libido into his understanding of the psychical system, adapted the concept of the libido from Moll's broader, more evolutionary version. Moll's concept itself came from a long line of thinkers beginning with Plato, who believed that humans had a sexual instinct that compelled them towards sexual activity. Like Plato, Freud believed that individuals were originally bisexual and that often the sexual instinct, or libido, was sublimated or ignored in favor of a higher purpose. Freud thought the libido was masculine in character. Freud also adopted Moll's idea that the libido went through stages of development, beginning as the asexual impulses of infancy in the form of an undifferentiated force in which anything can be an object, working through a bisexual stage, and evolving finally into a differentiated force which takes the other gender as its object. After Freud, Carl Gustav Jung extended the meaning of libido to include all life forces.
Freud developed his ideas about the relation between libido and psychosexual development in his 1905 study, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The first essay of this collection treats sexual deviations, seeing all sexual behavior as arising from the basic bisexual disposition of all human beings. For Freud there was not a large distinction between a "normal" or heterosexual aim and such "perverse" aims as homosexuality or fetishistic behaviors, since they all derive from the same sexual predisposition. In all varieties of sexuality, libido is at least partially repressed and redirected, and also persists throughout life in its undifferentiated, infantile form.
In Freud's second essay, he explores the phenomenon of infantile sexuality, in which various "zones" become the object of the libido. In the autoerotic phase, any body part can be an erogenous zone, although attention tends to focus on the mouth. This constitutes what Freud calls the oral phase. During the second phase, the anus becomes the primary zone for libidinal attention (the anal phase), and in the third phase, the genitals become the focus (the genital phase). During all of these phases the libido fixes only on what Freud calls "partial" objects.
In the third essay, Freud traces what he believes are transformations in the object of the libido that occur at puberty. Individuals move from the autoeroticism and partial objects of infantile sexuality to sexual objects of the opposite sex with reproduction as the end result. This development joins libido with the sexual instinct to reproduce seen as a biological force. Freud thought that the libido was masculine for both men and women and throughout the psychic and sexual development of both. In addition, males can accomplish the transition to mature reproductive heterosexuality more easily than females, since for both males and females, the mother is the first libidinal object outside of themselves. Males, thus, can simply transfer sexual instincts to another woman, while females must alter the gender of their objects of desire. For Freud, this partly accounts for why women are more likely to become hysterics, as their libidos can more easily become misdirected or repressed.
In Freud's later work, the concept of the libido developed into a larger instinct Freud called "the sexual instinct," or "eros": In his 1922 work Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he describes this instinct as the desire to come back together with a long lost other half. This sexual instinct works in relation to both the desire to stop and be quiescent (the pleasure principle) and the instinct to die, which Freud called the Death Instinct, seeking the pleasure of the release of sexual tensions and perpetuating the libido. In this context, libido constitutes the "first instance of force of sexual instincts directed towards an object" ("A Short Account of Psychoanalysis," 1924). The force towards an object was then joined by another libidinal urge towards one's own ego. The combination of forces produces a complex interaction that accounts for many processes of mental life.
Although libido is primarily a psychoanalytic term derived from a long tradition of explanations about life forces, it is also understood as the effect of hormones in the body. Libido understood as sexual desire is the effect of a combination of testosterone and dopamine. Both males and females produce testosterone and dopamine, although males produce far more testosterone than females. Libido may also be stimulated or depressed emotionally. Libido may be inhibited by certain medical conditions such as heart conditions and diabetes or by such drugs as antidepressants or barbiturates.
There is an entire industry of remedies for stimulating the libido, particularly the libidos of women. A range of herbal formulations promise to increase libido and enhance women's sex lives. The only accepted medical pharmaceutical treatment is estrogen replacement therapy. For males, stimulating the libido seems to be less of a problem than sustaining an erection, for which there are also a number of pharmaceutical cures, including Viagra.
see also Foreplay.
Ellenberger, Henri F. 1970. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.
Freud, Sigmund. 1905. "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." Vol. 7 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 125-246. London: Hogarth.
Freud, Sigmund. 1920. "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." In Vol. 18 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 7-64. London: Hogarth.
Freud made the startling statement about this quality that, though generally assumed to be absent in childhood, to become manifest at puberty, and to develop fully in maturity under the influence of irresistible sexual attraction between the opposite sexes, it was in fact present from birth and far less simple in its progression towards the end decreed by social convention. The infant's libido, he argued, was first directed to itself and the pleasures it could obtain from its own body. Thus the libido was initially directed towards the mouth and the oral pleasures of sucking, then to the anal region, and only subsequently to the genital organs. However, eventually the libido would become invested in (cathected towards) external objects. The first external object to which the libido became attached was the mother; it would attach to the father much later.
The popular assumption was that, following puberty, the libido would ‘naturally’ be turned as it awoke towards an eligible member of the opposite sex. However, if the libido had been in existence since birth, and had already become attached to various organs or objects, it might, Freud claimed, for various reasons, have become fixated at one particular level, which would create problems in turning in the direction of a more appropriate object. This could have disastrous effects for later sexual life. The individual would have no conscious awareness of the nature of the fixation, but the libido would constantly turn away from the possibility of satisfaction in reality, towards a fantasy gratification.
Freud has been criticized for his identification of the infantile (pre-pubertal) libido as male, so that the female child's sexuality, focussed on the clitoris, was defined by him as an immature masculine stage. As she developed, the female was supposed to make the transfer from clitoral to mature womanly vaginal satisfaction. However, given the importance which Freud attached to the pre-genital elements in the development of the libido, and his suggestion that only at puberty did a male–female polarity occur, it is possible to read the libido as a much less gendered force which, even in the male child, may not have an assertive and phallic quality.
Freud (Libidinal Types, 1931) suggested that the direction of the adult libidinal urge fell into three broad categories, according to whether the instinctual id, the super-ego, or the ego predominated in the individual's make-up. The ‘erotic’ type, swayed by the ‘elementary instinctual demands of the id’, was mainly interested in love, and being loved was more important than loving. The ‘obsessional’ type, ruled by the super-ego, was ruled by fear of the naggings of conscience. And the ‘narcissisitic’ type did not have the tension between the requirements of the ego and the demands of the super-ego manifested by the obsessional type, was mainly interested in self-preservation, and in erotic life was more concerned with loving than being loved. However, these types were seldom found unmixed, and usually two were found in combination. Freud suggested that, while theoretically possible, it was almost a jest to posit the threefold mixture, erotic–obsessional–narcissistic, but a serious one since this was an absolute norm, an ideal harmony. However, although there were these three ways of deploying the libido, one or two were almost certain to predominate in any particular individual at the expense of the alternative possibilities.
In his later writings, and in particular following his identification of a ‘death instinct’, Freud positioned the libido as the characteristic energy of the life instincts. However, he never went as far as Carl Jung, for whom the libido was the manifestation of general psychic energy, which might be expressed through sexual channels but was not in itself sexual. Jung saw the libido as flowing between the opposite poles of the conscious and the unconscious, the outer and inner life, in a continuous cycle of progression and regression.
Other psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic schools also advanced differing views on the nature of the libido. The ‘Neo-Freudians’ ( Adler, Rank, Horney, Sullivan, and Fromm, to name the best-known theoreticians of this school) rejected the theory of instinctual drive embodied in classical Freudian libido theory, and emphasized the significance of interpersonal relationships in structuring the psyche, replacing the primitive drives of the libido with the idea of a healthy striving towards ‘self-realization’. Ronald Fairbairn (1889–1965), who had a significant influence on the British ‘object relations’ school, saw the object as the aim of the libido: it was a movement from the ego towards an object rather than an inherent quality, but did, however, most easily pass via the erotogenic zones. For Fairbairn, the libido, being concerned with the formation of a satisfactory emotional contact with an external object, was generated by the ego, whereas for Freud it was an impersonal force gushing out of the well of primitive passions, the id. At the other extreme, Wilhelm Reich reified the libido as an actual physical force grounded in the body, ‘orgone energy’, rather than a powerful metaphor for shifting and mutable sexual interest.
Freud's conception of the libido as a mutable, slippery, constantly transforming force is, it is apparent, reflected in the changing meanings which have been assigned to this concept.
Lesley A. Hall
See also eroticism; sexuality.
In Freudian psychology, a term designating psychic or sexual energy.
The term libido, which Sigmund Freud used as early as 1894 and as late as the 1930s, underwent changes as he expanded, developed, and revised his theories of sexuality , personality development, and motivation . In Freud's early works, it is associated specifically with sexuality. Libido is central to the theory of psychosexual development outlined in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). It is the energy that is repeatedly redirected to different erogenous zones throughout the stages of pregenital sexuality (oral, anal, phallic) that take place between birth and the age of about five years. After the latency period, the libido reemerges in its mature manifestation at the genital stage that begins in adolescence . During all these permutations, the libido also shifts from being primarily autoerotic and narcissistic to being directed at a love object.
When Freud reformulated his theory of motivation around 1920, he defined libido more broadly in terms of opposed life and death instincts (Eros and Thanatos). Libido in this context is the source of the life instincts that motivate not only sexuality and other basic drives but also more complex human activities such as the creation of art.
Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton, 1933.
Hall, Calvin S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
li·bi·do / ləˈbēdō/ • n. (pl. -dos) sexual desire: loss of libido a deficient libido. ∎ Psychoanalysis the energy of the sexual drive as a component of the life instinct. DERIVATIVES: li·bid·i·nal / -ˈbidn-əl/ adj. li·bid·i·nal·ly / -ˈbidn-əlē/ adv.