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"The whole flux of our mental life and everything that finds expression in our thoughts are derivations and representatives of the multifarious instincts [drives] that are innate in our physical constitution" (Freud, 1932c, p. 221).

"[T]he "instinct [drive]" appears to us as a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic, as the psychical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind, as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work in consequence of its connection with the body" (Freud, 1915c, pp. 121-122).

The German verb Treiben generally means "to set into motion"; its earliest meaning was "to drive cattle." The verb was also used to refer to getting plants to grow, to stamp metal, to drill a mineshaft, to practice languages, to do business, to spend money, to act upGerman uses Treiben for each of these. Likewise to propel someone into flight, to push someone to the limit, or to feel pressured to do this or that.

The noun Trieb shows the same range of force and diversity. Sprout, shoot, or offshoot, for plants; impulse, tendency, penchant, inclination, and instinct for animals and humansthese are all described by the word Trieb, which also becomes pejorative when someone gives in to his or her appetites. Triebleben means "instinctual life," and Triebhaft means "instinctive." In physics, Trieb means "motor force," and it appears in a number of compounds such as Triebfeder, "mainspring," Triebkraft, "driving force." Triebstoff, literally "driving stuff," means "fuel."

Although James Strachey chose to translate Trieb by "instinct," the English word "drive," like its German counterpart, is in everyday use. It involves the inherent principle of change and activity in living beings. From a dynamic point of view, it is very similar to the ancient Greek concept of physis. In 1780, Schiller wrote about Trieb in an essay that was well known to Freud and included the passage, "The animal drives awaken and expand the intellectual drives." Freud often quoted Schiller's poem "Die Weltweisen" when referring to "the influence of the two most powerful motive forceshunger and love" (1899a, p. 316).

Freud coined more than forty-five expressions based on the word Trieb, such as Triebkonflikt, Strachey's "instinctual conflict." Further, he qualified drives in myriad ways, including the sexual drives, the ego-drives, the drive for self-preservation, the aggressive drives, the drive for power, the drive for mastery, the destructive drive, the life-drive, the death-drive, the drive for knowledge, and the social drive. This list does not even include the classification of the partial drives. Nor does it refer to the theory of the drives, Freud's Trieblehre. Finally, Trieb designates either the dynamics underlying a specific mental dynamic, in which case Freud spoke of a drive or drives manifested in "instinctual impulses" (1915c, p. 124); or, alternatively, it designates an overarching dynamic, in which case he referred to the drive or to the life-drive and the death-drive.

Language provides us with a constant aspect of the meaning of "drive": the motor principle inherent in living organisms that underlies, in the last instance, all their actions. A drive is activity.

As soon as the concept of libido was introduced, in 1894, as psychical sexual excitation, a rough sketch of the sexual drive became necessary so that the "concept of the mechanism of anxiety neurosis can be made clearer" (Freud, 1895b [1894], p. 108). At first, the sexual drive belonged to the conceptual level. It signified a relatively continuous change of phase and location that transformed the energy of the organic sexual processes into psychical sexual energy, or libido. The sexual drive refers to this transition and its dynamic; it is the conceptual referent of the libido.

Three constants soon appeared. Drive and theory: "drive" is a fundamental concept, necessary for the dynamic understanding of psychical processes. It is inferred from its effects, just like magnetic or gravitational fields in physics. Drive and biology: the theory of the drive is the part of psychoanalytic theory that, since it is founded on somatic processes, borders on biology (Brown-Séquard's experiments of 1899 were not unknown to Freud). Drive, sexuality, and libido: Freud's entire work is concerned with the sexual drive. Regardless of the structural oppositions into which it is introduced, it remains the preeminent dynamic referent of human mental life, and as such, is expressed as libido.

Though Freud was later to sharpen and to elaborate it, the concept of the drive was transgressive as early as 1894, and in at least three different senses:

  1. It highlighted the importance of sexuality in human mental life.
  2. It subverted the body/mind dualism.
  3. And by so doing, it reestablished, in the manner of Aristotle and contemporary mathematicians and physicists, the primacy of the dynamic factor in the realization of stable and individuated forms.

Freud distinguished three successive "steps" in the theory of the drives: an "extension of the concept of sexuality," "the hypothesis of narcissism," and the "assertion of the regressive character of [drives]" (1920g, p. 59). We can trace these steps in his major works: first, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d); next, "On Narcissism: An Introduction" (1914c) and the metapsychological papers of 1915, published in 1924; and finally, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g). The first step dissected the sexual drive into component partial drives and emphasized the importance of infantile sexuality. The second step generated new psychic formations of larger dimensions, beyond the basic level, such as the ego and narcissism. At this stage, a difficulty developed regarding the drive's dualism; nevertheless, the drive, its pressure, and its psychical representatives were clearly defined. The third step established the life-drive and the death-drive, a dualism of vast proportions under which all of mental life and all matter was now subsumed. At each step, Freud expanded the drive's domain without abandoning previous knowledge or more limited perspectives.

Freud's "thorough study of the . . . essential characters of the sexual [drive] and . . . the course of its development" (1905d, p. 173), took him far beyond both language and tradition, and on the basis of this research he founded the dynamics of psychoanalysis. The theory of the drives was so crucial that Freudin contrast to his practice with his other fundamental workscontinually revised the Three Essays as the theory evolved, until the edition of 1924, which introduced such concepts as the phallic stage and primary masochism. Nevertheless, the elements constituting the theory of psychoanalysis could have been taken as established as early as 1905, if we can rely on Freud's recollection in 1924: "They are: emphasis on instinctual life (affectivity), on mental dynamics, on the fact that even the apparently most obscure and arbitrary mental phenomena invariably have a meaning and a causation, the theory of psychical conflict and of the pathogenic nature of repression, the view that symptoms are substitutive satisfactions, the recognition of the etiological importance of sexual life, and in particular of the beginnings of infantile sexuality" (1924f, p. 198).

These factors depend on the theory elaborated in the Three Essays, as the order of their enumeration indicates. The sexual drive was first dissociated from its "natural" object, an adult of the opposite sex, and then broken down into partial drives that appear in infancy, the oral drive, the anal-sadistic drive, and so on. They are defined by their source, which is a bodily erogenous zone; their aim, which is the cessation of their excitation through discharge; and their object, which is the most variable factor. The possible paths that they can take are diverse: foreplay in adult sexual activity; repression and symptomatic expression in the neuroses; fixation and exclusivity in the perversions; and finally all the defensive formationsreaction-formation, inhibition as to their aim, sublimation, and so on. Thus the diversity of adult sexuality is clarified by its "polymorphously perverse" infantile developmentand the opposition between the normal and the pathological is eliminated. The two stages in the constitution of human sexuality, first early childhood and then puberty, explain the "damming up" of the drive's energy and the psychical development of the individual by the establishment of defenses at the expense of the sexual drives. "The simplest and likeliest assumption as to the nature of the instincts would seem to be that in itself an instinct is without quality, and, so far as mental life is concerned, is only to be regarded as a measure of the demand made upon the mind for work" (1905d, p. 168). The variability and plasticity of the drive's dynamics are essential to this work, since it views the development of the person and of culture on the course of drive development.

Regarding the enlargement of the concept of sexuality, Freud wrote: "These facts could be met by drawing a contrast between the sexual instincts [drives] and ego instincts [drives] (instincts [drives] of self-preservation ) which was in line with the popular saying that hunger and love make the world go round: libido was the manifestation of the force of love in the same sense as was hunger of the self-preservative [drive]. The nature of the ego instincts remained for the time being undefined and, like all the other characteristics of the ego, inaccessible to analysis" (1923a [1922], p. 255). As one component of psychic conflict, the drives of the ego were therefore indispensable.

Proceeding with the investigation of the drives in 1911 with the Schreber case, Freud at first saw himself as "defenseless," because the concept of libidinal investment in the ego seemed to undo the dualism of the drive. "Thus the instincts [drives] of self-preservation were also of a libidinal nature: they were sexual instincts [drives] which, instead of external objects, had taken the subject's own ego as an object. . . . The libido of the self-preservative instincts was now described as narcissistic libido and it was recognized that a high degree of this self-love constituted the primary and normal state of things. The earlier formula laid down for the transference neuroses consequently required to be modified, though not corrected. It was better, instead of speaking of a conflict between sexual instincts and ego instincts, to speak of a conflict between object-libido and ego-libido, or, since the nature of these instincts [drives] was the same, between the object cathexes and the ego" (1923a [1922], p. 257).

From 1914 to 1920, there is no longer a dualism of the drive. The continuous and constant pressure of the drivealong with the pleasure principlewas sufficient to generate the psychic dynamics as well as the diversity of psychical formations (by means of anti-cathexis and primal repression). "By the pressure [Drang ] of an instinct [drive] we understand its motor factor, the amount of force or the measure of the demand for work which it represents. The character of exercising pressure is common to all instincts [drives]; it is in fact their very essence" (1915c, p. 122). In universalizing the drive as a potential state underlying the psyche, Freud also accounted for the way in which drives manifest themselves: They are the workings of the drive in the unconscious, and the twofold determination of its representatives revealed by repression: ideas and quota of affect.

Dissatisfied with this situation, which is monist at the dynamic level and dualist in the effects it brings about (though such a dualism is common in any qualitative dynamics), Freud hypothesized: "On the ground of far-reaching consideration of the processes which go to make up life and which lead to death, it becomes probable that we should recognize the existence of two classes of [drives], corresponding to the contrary processes of construction and dissolution in the organism" (1923a, p. 258). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), he constructed a space in which the substrate is inert matter plus living substance, on which the two types of dynamics act. One refers to pure stability: the death-drives. The other refers to a continuity and to a flexible stability in living beings that continue to exist: the life-drives, or Eros. This space accommodated a psychical apparatus that was enlarged to include the id, ego, and superego, in which the fundamental drives appeared as libido, as destructiveness and masochism; or even, as Freud put it: "For the opposition between the two classes of instincts we may put the polarity of love and hate" (1923b, p. 42).

From that point on, this model of the dynamics and space of the drive was sufficient. But the theory of the life-drives and death-drives still included propositions too diverse to fit within this model. Several factors remained to be accommodated: the necessity of constructing a space of sufficient dimensions to accommodate all the psychical processes; the fundamental idea of the plurality of the dynamics of psychical work; and finally the necessity of introducing, at the dynamic level, the stability, and even the stabilization, that constitutes, via the "fixation" of a drive, the essence of symptoms and the constraint of repetition. Thus the death-drive includes, among other things, the "instinctual" aspect of the drive. Even though this distinction between drive and instinct is obscured in English by Strachey's translation, the death-drive integrates the "conservative" and "regressive" nature of instinct. Moreover, this model emphasizes the essential role of the repression of destructive drives in cultural development; it explains the process of the internalization of aggression in the superego; and it explains the origin and the dangers of guilt feelings.

The prevailing qualitative dynamics recognizes what could be called, borrowing a term from the mathematician Seifert, the "fiber spaces" in drives. These include the dynamics out of which the actual forms of the drive develop. From this point of view, it is obvious that any psychoanalytic concept depends, in the final instance, on the theory of the drives. Thus it is consistent that the first ontogenesis of the purified ego appeared in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes." Moreover, it was necessary that this paper opened the metapsychology and preceded the essays on repression, the unconscious, dreams, and mourning and melancholia. Likewise, it was necessary to propose the theory of life-drives and death-drives in order to construct the second topography. The pleasure principle itself depends on the death-drive. The constant updating of the Three Essays makes it obvious that the theory of the drive is at the basis of the entire theoretical edifice.

What is missing in the theory of the drives is a dimension that would accommodate all of psychical dynamics and economicsfor example, reality, to which Freud conceded an economic and dynamic status that he continually returned to during the years 1923-1925. He reevaluated its role in the constitution of the neuroses and psychoses, and then he reworked the theory of anxiety, and described a realistic anxiety (Realangst ).

The transgressive features of the drive, listed above, indicate the ways in which it has been critiqued. The accusation of pansexualism is easy to refute: ". . . it is a mistake to accuse psycho-analysis of 'pan-sexualism' and to allege that it drives all mental occurrences from sexuality and traces them all back to it. On the contrary, psycho-analysis has from the very first distinguished the sexual instincts [drives] from others which it has provisionally termed 'ego-instincts [drives]' . . . and even the neuroses it has traced back not to sexuality alone but to the conflict between the sexual impulses and the ego" (1923a, pp. 251-252).

In the field of psychoanalysis, it is far more common to reproach Freud for his "biologism," his supposed emphasis on biology as opposed to the unconscious or language. And thus idealism and the mind/body dualism are reintroduced.

The primacy of dynamics, which places psychoanalysis within the larger tradition of scientific modernism (along with thermodynamics, theories of dynamic systems, and qualitative dynamics), has run into several difficulties. First of all, Treib does not have an etymological correspondent except "drive" where the pressure disappears after fixed discharge. Instinct has the same problem, as was demonstrated by Agnès Oppenheimer in her studies of the British "object-relations school." Without an adequate term, the concept of das Dynamische is not communicated. Another obstacle was noted by Freud in 1910: "The most striking distinction between the erotic life of antiquity and our own no doubt lies in the fact that the ancients laid the stress upon the [drive] itself, whereas we emphasize its object. The ancients glorified the [drive] and were prepared on its account to honour even an inferior object; while we despise the activity [of the drive] in itself and find excuses for it only in the merits of the object" (1905d, p. 149). Language, culture, and the various dominant epistemologies (for example pragmatism, empiricism, positivism, and structuralism), by privileging object relations, mask the dynamic point of view.

Conversely, Ferenczi delved into the dynamics of the drive audaciously in his Thalassa (1924). Having the term pulsion at their disposal as a translation for Trieb from 1910 on, French-speaking analystssuch as Jean Laplanche, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, and André Greenwere able to preserve the meaning of the concept and to develop it.

Freud admitted his difficulties with the theory of the drives. In fact, dynamic science remains to this day extremely difficult, and the theory of the drives is a work in progress. According to Freud, even the sexual drives, which are the most well known, are still obscure, thanks to their interchangeability. Sublimation remained a difficult concept after Freud (S. de Mijolla-Mellor, 1992), and research on this topic today is still centered on the themes that he discovered.

However much we may accept the Freudian point of view, there is still the death-drive. "A queer [drive] indeed, directed to the destruction of its own organic home!" (1933a [1932], pp. 105-106) If all the demands included in the life-drives and death-drives are admissible (Porte, 1994), a theory of the drives exploiting the facts of qualitative dynamics would distribute them differently. Nothing obliges us to restrict the number of dynamics, and we could suppose the existence of "fast" and "slow" dynamics (Kubie, 1960). Fear would count among the basic affects, along with love and hate, for "It is like a prolongation in the mental sphere of the dilemma of 'eat or be eaten' which dominates the organic animate world" (1933a [1932], p. 111).

Elaborating for Einstein "a portion of the theory of the [drives]," Freud noted, "It may perhaps seem to you as though our theories are a kind of mythology and, in the present case, not even an agreeable one. But does not every science come in the end to a kind of mythology like this? Cannot the same be said to-day of your own Physics?" (1933b [1932], p. 211). Thus it is in the sense that every science worthy of the name constructs a mythology, and then controls its expansion, that Freud can speak of "Our mythological theory of [drives]" (p. 212).

MichÈle Porte

See also: Activity/passivity; Aggressive instinct/aggressive drive; Anaclisis/anaclictic; Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; Binding/unbinding of the instincts; Compulsion; Cruelty; Drive, subject of the; Dualism; Economic point of view; Ego functions; Ethnology and psychoanalysis; Eros; Erotogenic zone; Fixation; Fusion/defusion of instincts; Id; Instinct; "Instincts and Their Vicisssitudes"; Instinctual impulse; Instinctual representative (representative of the drive); Look/gaze; Knowledge, instinct for; Mastery, instinct for; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis ; Object; "On Narcissism: An Introduction"; Outline of Psycho-Analysis An ; Pair of opposites; Principle of constancy; Prohibition; Reversal (into the opposite); Sublimation; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality ; Turning around upon the subject's own self; Turning around; Voyeurism.


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

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

. (1915c) Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 109-140.

. (1932c) My contact with Josef Popper-Lynkeus. SE, 22: 219-224.

. (1933a [1932]) New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

. (1895b [1894]) On the grounds for detaching a particular syndrome from neurasthenia under the description "Anxiety Neurosis." SE, 3: 85-115.

. (1899a) Screen memories. SE, 3: 299-322.

. (1924f) A short account of psycho-analysis. SE, 19: 189-209.

. (1923a [1922]) Two encyclopaedia articles: Psychoanalysis and the libido theory, SE, 18: 235-259.

Freud, Sigmund and Einstein, Albert. (1933b [1932]) Why war?. SE, 22: 195-215.

Kubie, Lawrence S. Practical and theoretical aspects of psychoanalysis. New York: Praeger, 1960.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1992). Le plaisir de pensée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Oppenheimer, Agnès. (1996). Kohut et la psychologie du self. Presses Universitaires de France.

Porte, Michèle (Ed.). (1994). Passion des formes. Dynamique qualitative, sémiophysique et intelligibilité.À René Thom. Paris: E.N.S. Fontenay-Saint Cloud.

Further Reading

Kernberg, Otto. (2001). Object relations, affects, and drives: toward a new synthesis. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 21, 604-619.