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In the strict sense of the term, aggressiveness corresponds to certain fantasies and behaviors that Freud discovered in the clinical context, but he hesitated at first to give the term a definition that met the requirements of his own subsequent metapsychological sign-posts. Only after having shown the importance of ambivalence in the transference (Freud, 1912b) was he in a position to think of aggressiveness as a common relational occurrence, but one without a unique or even homogeneous origin. Afterward, his position never changed: he always regarded aggressiveness as the manifestation in fantasy or symptoms of a combination of hostile and erotic affective currents.

In 1900 Freud without hesitation connected aggressiveness to sadism. In 1905 he added a connection to masochism, adopting the position of Joseph Breuer. For Freud, the masculine position in sex led to a degree of sadistic activity, while the feminine position favored masochistic passivity. By 1924 this latter view lead to the hypothesis of a specifically feminine masochism. However, Freud moderated this preliminary opinion in a note added to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d) in 1915 after he made the distinction between a triangular genital position and the phallicnarcissistic position, limited to existential conflicts between strong and weak.

In 1908 Freud further clarified aggressiveness with his conception of bisexuality. Moreover, Freud (1914c) was careful to make clear that he reproached Alfred Adler for not having taken into account the libidinal satisfaction linked to aggressiveness, even though it now seems obvious that Adler's idea was really more about primitive violence than aggressiveness, which, by its nature, appears after sexualization. Thoughts or behaviors put into motion by aggressiveness require the person to have an imagination capable of integrating a certain level of ambivalence, while the archaic functioning of violence described by Karl Abraham is of a preambivalent nature and involves a more primitive brutality and violence.

The first shift, in 1914, in Freud's theories involving drives, objects, aims, and the particular nature of eroticization had an irreversible effect on his view of the relationship between aggressiveness and narcissism. Narcissistic objects result from primary identifications and defensive violence, while with ego objects, ambivalence causes the person to oscillate between love and its equally eroticized opposites: aggressiveness, hate, and sadism.

In the case of the "Wolf Man" (1918b), as in the case of "little Hans" (1909b), Freud connected a child's early aggressive manifestations with early attempts at seduction. In The Ego and the Id (1923b), Freud described how in authentic aggression, eroticization is responsible for modifying the nature of primitive hostility, just as the need for tenderness replaces the need for mastery. In 1925 Freud became interested in the narcissistic exhibitionism that precedes aggressiveness in infantile fantasy. The overly precocious genital quality that Freud attributed to the narcissistic, imaginary phallus by sometimes confusing it with the penis, the real sexual organ specific to the boy, makes it difficult to give a more complete description of the genital specificity of aggressiveness. In contrast, it is easier to describe the early narcissistic forms of hostility that occur prior to a more commingled (and thus ambivalent) manifestation of the two great strains of the drives: sexuality and self-preservation.

Freud did not hesitate, in his theoretical shift of 1932, twelve years after the shift of 1920, to return to the principles of the first theory of the drives by opposing to the libidinal drives the primitive instincts of self-preservation, from which he then derived aggressiveness (1933a). In 1930 he made clear that he discerned in the psyche of the child a brutal original energy that would soon be rapidly sexualized and bring forth aggressiveness, hate, and sadism. Oral and anal metaphors thus came to illustrate this two-stage view of the origin of aggression.

Melanie Klein and her followers insisted on the presence of a precocious affective interaction, one teeming from the first with hostility and mistrust between the child and its environment and easily recognized in clinical practice. An illustration of this hypothesis is the notion of "projective identification." Proponents of these views have certainly recognized clinically what derives from a violent instinct of self-preservation and what belongs to an already object-related libidinized aggression, even though they imperfectly distinguish between the two.

The distinction between the dynamics of primitive instinctual violence and the dynamics of drive pressures giving way to aggressive thoughts or behaviors can be understood at three levels: the level of the specific origins of drives, the level of the particular history of the psychogenetic processes in question, and the level of Freudian metapsychology.

Freud never changed his view on the origin of fantasies or behaviors emanating from aggression. What is involved is a particular form of the sexual drives deflected from their primary aim and entangled with the brutal, hostile primitive impulses. These primitive impulses thus lose their initial, purely self-protective aim. The conjunction of these two fundamental instinctual currents in the service of aggressiveness thus constitutes a kind of layering of the drives. Such a layering does not exist in the infant's original genetic equipment in its pure state, though violent instincts, just like the sexual drives, exist in a pure and specifiable state in the basic affective equipment of the newborn.

From the psychogenetic point of view, psychoanalytic research has gradually enriched the study of affective development beginning at the pre-oedipal and pregenital periods. These studies have further clarified and developed Freud's views of the origins and organization of narcissism. The (primary and secondary) narcissistic stages necessarily involve some sort of objects, but Freud clearly demonstrated that narcissistic objects, focused primarily on a relationship of power, differ radically from oedipal objects, which involve dissimilarity, equality, and complimentarity. For aggressiveness to come into play, an object relationship must develop out of an organized fantasy arising from the Oedipus complex and genitality. Aggressiveness is a secondary development, as Freud conceived of it.

From the point of view of conflicts, the classical Freudian notion topographically places aggressiveness within the framework of the activities of the ego. From an economic point of view, aggressiveness is conceived as arising in connection with an already genitalized object. Finally, from a dynamic point of view, aggressiveness occurs when the sexual drives become bound to brutal, primitive impulses. In this way, the sexual drive tinges the brutal impulses with pleasure, with the result that they become sexually perverse and destructive. In a less pathologic course that arises with the start of the Oedipus complex and is finalized during adolescence, violent primitive impulses reinforce the sexual drives in their appropriate purpose in the service of love and creativity. Such is how Freud described aggressiveness in his elaboration of the concept of anaclisis.

Aggressive fantasies can involve a simultaneous libidinal satisfaction in attacking an object who represents (consciously or unconsciously) an oedipal rival, whereas in narcissistic conditions, the resulting violent primitive anger (rage) seeks to protect the self without taking into account the injuries inflicted on one who is experienced simply as an external threat and not as a genuine object (other). Confusion in this regard can be avoided through the use of transference and counter-transference.

The notion of aggression directed at the self, so often invoked in clinical practice, implies that an already eroticized sadism is turned back upon the subject, and not simply that partial or full desexualization leads to an act of self-punishment.

Jean Bergeret

See also: Adler, Alfred; Anal-sadistic stage; Essential depression; Conflict; Cruelty; Death instinct (Thanatos); Depressive position; Envy; Narcissistic rage; Oral-sadistic stage; Paranoid position; Phobia of committing impulsive acts; Sadism; Sadomasochism; Splitting of the object; Sublimation; Turning around upon the subject's own self; Violence, instinct of.


Bergeret, Jean. (1984). La violence fondamentale. Paris: Dunod.

Diatkine, René, (1966). Intervention au 7e séminaire de perfectionnement. Revue française de psychanalyse, 30 (3), pp. 324-344.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1908). Hysterical phantasies and their relation to bisexuality. SE, 9: 156-166.

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

. (1912b). The dynamics of transference. SE, 12: 97-108.

. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

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. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.

. (1933a). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Further Reading

Gray, Paul. (2000). Analysis of conflicted drive derivatives of aggression. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 219-236.

Fonagy, Peter, et. Al. (1993). Aggression and the psychological self. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74, 471-486.

Fosshage, James L. (1998). On aggression: its forms and functions. Psychoanalytical Inquiry, 18, 45-54.

Kernberg, Otto. (1992). Aggression in personality disorders and perversions, New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

Mitchell, Stephen. (1998). Aggression and the endangered self. Psychoanalytical Inquiry, 18, 21-30.