Beyond the Pleasure Principle

views updated


Beyond the Pleasure Principle was presented by Freud as the "third step in the theory of drives." The essay, which introduced the dynamic of the life and death impulses was "in gestation" on March 17, 1919. On May 12, Freud spoke with Sándor Ferenczi, stating "Not only have I completed Beyond the PleasurePrinciple, which I'll have recopied for you, but I have also returned to that little trifle on the uncanny and attempted . . . to provide a YA basis for group psychology." On April 2, he spoke of the essay to Lou Andreas-Salomé: "Where am I with my Metapsychology? First of all, it's not yet written. . . . But if I live another ten years . . . I promise to add other contributions. One of the first of this kind will be contained in Beyond the Pleasure Principle." The suffering of his friend Anton von Freund, whom Freud visited every day in the autumn of 1919, followed by the death of Freud's daughter Sophie in January 1920, interrupted the work. Completed between May and July, it was published in December. Chapter 6 was added in 1920 (Grubrich-Simitis, 1993) and, between 1921 and 1925, three subsequent editions came out, with a modified text. These were soon translated into English, Spanish (1922), and French (1927).

Returning to his metapsychological writings of 1915, Freud introduced the "pleasure principle," which he related to Fechner's principle of stability. The evocation of traumatic neurosis, children's games, repetition during the transference, and fate neurosis suggested a "more primitive," "more elementary," "more instinctual" tendency than the pleasure principle, independent of it and manifested by the repetition compulsion.

Unconvinced by his clinical studies, Freud introduced the "speculation that often looks far afield" (chapter 4). The topography and functions of the Pcs.-Cs, system were examined from the classical point of view, using the Studies on Hysteria (1895d) and The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a) as references. The protective shield function enabled him to define trauma from the vantage point of psychic economy and introduce the function of binding psychic energy that relates to the repetition compulsion.

Chapter 5 continued along these lines, then the referent changed: "But how is the predicate of being 'instinctual' related to the compulsion to repeat? At this point we cannot escape a suspicion that we may have come upon the track of a universal attribute of instincts and perhaps of organic life in general. . . . It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces; that is, it is a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life." The essay continued to pursue this theme. Extrapolation from this led to the death instinct: the initial state of living being is inanimate matter deprived of energy, and the death instincts tend toward its reestablishment; the pleasure principle is at their service; the instincts of self-preservation too, because they tend to reestablish an earlier state.

The regressive and conservative functions of the sexual drives and their primal existence were less easy to analyze. An extensive investigation of biological research on death and reproduction followed (chapter 6), in which Freud equated the ego instincts with the death instincts, and the sex instincts with the life instincts. The myth related by Aristophanes in the Symposium led Freud to develop the hypothesis that, initially, living substance was "continuous." Eros attempts to reestablish this continuity by combining gametes. The death instinct, however, disunites organisms to achieve its goal, and instinctual conflict is established.

Beyond the Pleasure Principle created, through the use of an instinctual dualism that had been missing since the introduction of narcissism, a space for stylization of considerable dimension; its substrate is inanimate matter and living substance; its dynamics involve the primary tension in living things, external forces likely to be integrated, and internal tendencies leading to the reestablishment of an earlier state. In actual terms this space is "sufficient" for stylizing all the modes of stability of dynamic processes: from strict identity to instability, and including the flexible stability of living things. Freud incorporated earlier metapsychological investigations into his essay, and he provided Ferenczi with a pathway to future research. In addition to Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), Beyond the Pleasure Principle served as a conduit to The Ego and the Id (1923b), Freud's "second topographic point of view." The relationship between the death instinct, hatred, and the destructive instinct led to their eventual reassessment and an analysis of sadomasochism. Beyond the Pleasure Principle served as an essential element and organizing principle for Freudian psychoanalysis.

Because it was difficult, the essay was often poorly received and misunderstood. This attitude was typified by Ernest Jones (1953-57, III), unlike that of Sándor Ferenczi, who had anticipated the theme in 1913. The death drive has either been rejected or reduced to destructive drives (Melanie Klein), or made to serve as a justification for a structuralist viewpoint (Jacques Lacan). Jean Laplanche (1970) highlighted the problems and paradoxes in the essay, including the chiasmus that transforms the sex drives, disturbing and pathogenic, into Eros, life's only safeguard.

The "inherent thrust toward organic life, to the reestablishment of an earlier state," can be separated into various dynamics and types of stability through the use of qualitative dynamics (Porte, 1994), and through them we can better understand the aptness of Freud's questions and the magnitude of his efforts.

MichÈle Porte

See also: Automatism; Death instinct (Thanatos); Drive/instinct; Eros; Fort-Da; Fusion/defusion; Fusion/defusion of instincts; Life instinct (Eros); Masochism; Moral masochism; Nightmare; Pleasure/unpleasure principle; Primary masochism; Repetition compulsion; Symbolic, the; Trauma.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. Jenseits des Lustprinzeps. Leipzig-Vienna-Zurich (1920). GW, 13, 1-69; Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 7-64.


Ferenczi, Sándor. (1913). Le développement du sens de la réalité et ses stades. Oeuvres completes. Psychanalyse (Vol. 2, pp. 51-64; J. Dupont, M. Viliker, Trans.). Paris: Payot, 1970.

Jones, Ernest. (1953-57). Sigmund Freud: Life and work. London: Hogarth Press.

Laplanche, Jean. (1970). Vie m en psychanalyse. Paris: Flammarion.

Porte, Michèle. (1994). La dynamique qualitative en psychanalyse. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.