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In "On Narcissism: An Introduction," Freud introduced a major modification in psychoanalytic theory, particularly in libido theory, by making a distinction between two forms of libidinal cathexis: ego-directed and object-directed.

It was Carl Gustav Jung's studies on psychosis that led Freud to deepen and develop his own theory of the libido, which had hitherto been regarded solely as the energic expression of the outwardly-directed sexual drives, leading to a break with his former student. At a period when there was a clear theoretical distinction between the sexual drives and the self-preservative drives, the case of the psychotic, cut off from reality and withdrawn into the self, seemed to substantiate the view (held by Jung) that the libido could be separated from sexuality and therefore had to be considered as a form of energy that was close to Henri Bergson's concept of élan vital.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), Freud commented that agreeing with "innovators like Jung who, making a hasty judgement, have used the word 'libido' to mean instinctual force in general" gives too much credence to "critics who have suspected from the first that psycho-analysis explains everything by sexuality" (p. 52). He then gave a response in theoretical terms in "On Narcissism: An Introduction" by suggesting that the libido initially cathected the ego, which he called "primary narcissism" and that it was only at a second stage that it was directed at the external world and towards the objects targeted by the drives: "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 cathexes, much as the body of an amoeba is related to the pseudopodia which it puts out . . . We see also . . . an antithesis between ego-libido and object-libido" (1914c, pp. 75-76). In the same work, he went on to explain: "I should like at this point expressly to admit that the hypothesis of separate ego-instincts and sexual instincts (that is to say, the libido theory) rests scarcely at all upon a psychological basis, but derives its principal support from biology" (p. 79).

In the years that followed, Freud refined his description of this ego-libido that was soon to be called "narcissistic libido" by theorizing that it was possible for it to be turned back from an objectal current on to an ego that had itself become a love object: "secondary narcissism." He also drew a distinction between the repression in the transference neuroses, consisting in withdrawal of libido from consciousness and involving "the dissociation of the thing and word representations" from repression in the narcissistic neuroses, "which consists in the withdrawal of libido from the unconscious thing representations, which is of course a far deeper disturbance" (1965, p. 206; letter to Karl Abraham dated December 21, 1914).

From Beyond the Pleasure Principle onwards, the emphasis shifted from the conflict between ego-directed and object-directed libidinal drives to the conflict within the ego between Thanatos and Eros, as the concept that then subsumes the life drives in a constant attempt at cohesion (1920g).

Having assigned to the ego the role of "the great reservoir from which the object-cathexes are sent out and into which they are withdrawn once more" (p. 218) in a 1915 addendum to the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud later modified this proposition in his elaboration of the structural theory and wrote: "we must recognize the id as the great reservoir of libido" (1923b, p. 30, n. 1) and: "At the very beginning, all the libido is accumulated in the id, while the ego is still in process of formation or is still feeble. The id sends part of this libido out into erotic object-cathexes, whereupon the ego, now grown stronger, tries to get hold of this object-libido and to force itself on the id as a love-object. The narcissism of the ego is thus a secondary one, which has been withdrawn from objects" (p. 46). It is this secondary "ego narcissism" that is observed in psychotic states and narcissistic neuroses (dementia praecox, paranoia, melancholia, as Freud specified in his article "The Libido Theory" [1923a], written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica ), in which the subject withdraws his libidinal cathexes from objects.

Should the metaphor of the "accumulators" found in the controversial book Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-Eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study (1966 [1938]) be attributed to Freud? This text certainly states: "We have noted that the libido of the child charges five accumulators. Narcissism, passivity to the mother, passivity to the father, activity toward the mother and activity toward the father, and begins to discharge itself by way of these desires. A conflict between these different currents of the libido produces the Oedipus complex of the little boy" (p. 39).

The theoretical uncertainties relating to the sources of the libido and consequently to the validity of the opposition between the self-preservative "ego drives" and the narcissistic ego-libido, a point on which Freud and Jung diverged, have led to a certain amount of debate and criticism, especially among English-language authors such as Heinz Hartmann, Rudolph Loewenstein, Michael Balint, and Heinz Kohut. This debate has given rise to most of the post-Freudian theories concerning narcissism and the distinction to be drawn between the "ego" and the "self."

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Libido.


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

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

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

. (1923a). Encyclopedia article: The libido theory. SE, 18: 255-259.

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

Freud, Sigmund, and Abraham, Karl. (1965). A Psycho-Analytic 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.

Freud, Sigmund, and Bullitt, William C. (1966b [1938]). Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-eighth President of the United States. A Psychological Study. London-New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1967.

Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1974). The Language of Psycho-Analysis (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1967)