Instincts and Their Vicissitudes

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Written between March 15 and April 4, 1915, and immediately published, Instincts and Their Vicissitudes opens the "collection which I originally intended to publish in book form under the title 'Preliminaries to a Metapsychology.' . . . The intention of the series is to clarify and carry deeper the theoretical assumptions on which a psycho-analytic system could be founded" (Freud, 1917d, p. 222 n.).

The previous year, 1914, Freud's introduction of narcissism and of the ego as a libidinally cathected agency altered the dynamics of the psychic conflict between sexual drives and ego drives (self-preservation), leading to "the second step in the theory of the drives" (1920g). In 1924 Freud grouped "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" with the "Metapsychology" collection of twelve essays, five of which were published. The first translations appeared in Spanish in 1924, in English in 1925, in French in 1936, in Italian in 1972, and in Portuguese in 1974.

Freud began elaborating his metapsychology under the notion of the dynamics of the psyche. He established the drive as a concept. Prior to this he had been theorizing about one or more drives. The continuing pressure of the drive, as a "measure of the demand for work that it represents," became the "very essence" of the drive (Freud, 1915c, p. 122). Freud then theorized about the complex relationships among autoeroticism, the sexual drives, narcissism, and the dynamic genesis of the ego. The sexual drives, early defenses belonging to narcissistic organization, have two destinies that result in the work demanded by the drive: reversal in the opposite direction and turning against the self. The former destiny splits into another two movements: turning a drive away from activity toward passivity, which combines with turning against the self, and reversing content, the only instance of which is the transformation of love and hate. Freud's study (1915c) then gives a new analysis of sadism/masochism, voyeurism/exhibitionism, and love/hate as pairs of opposites.

The opposition of pairs is an evolving process that starts from autoeroticism as a narcissistic formation. This opposition is subject to the active, reflective, and passive expressions of the drives, from which objects and a "new subject" emerge. The genesis of the ego thus contributes to the biological polarity of psychic life, activity/passivity, which is expressed in the ambivalence of the drive impulses.

Love and hate introduce ambivalence of feeling. Again, the opposition proves complex. Freud explained how the opposition depends on the economic polarity of pleasure/unpleasure and the real polarity of ego/external reality in the dynamics of the psyche. Loving follows from pleasure; hating from unpleasure. The initial ego/reality opposition (or internal/external reality opposition) differentiates internal and external according to a sound objective criterionthe internal being the continuing pressure of the drive, which is inescapable, and the external being subtle stimuli that can be avoided. This opposition mutates into a purified-pleasure-ego under the influence of the pleasure principle in the narcissistic position. Then ego and pleasure correspond, and external world and unpleasure correspond. "At the very beginning, it seems, the external world, objects, and what is hated are identical" (1915c, p. 136). Freud then demonstrates the role of hate as a constituent in affirming and preserving the ego, as well as the autonomy of hate in relation to love.

As a pivotal text among Freud's works, "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" and the essays that follow do not entirely succeed. "What has happened to my Metapsychology ? In the first place it has not yet been written. ... But if I still have ten years to live ... , then I promise to make further contributions to it. A first example of this will be found in an essay of mine entitled Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920g]," Freud wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé on April 2, 1919 (1966a/1972, p. 95). In fact, this "third step in the theory of the instincts" (1920g, p. 59) enabled Freud to elaborate various themes identified or developed in that study: the relation of the drive to biology, the problem of masochism and pain (Freud, 1924c), the polarities of sexual psychic life, the addition of the phallic/castrated opposition to the active/passive and masculine/feminine oppositions (Freud, 1923e), a more sophisticated morphodynamics of the ego (Freud, 1925h), and how hatred leads to the death drives.

"Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" was a source of inspiration for Freud and his successors. It is essential to understanding the work of Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan, as well as André Green's discussion of how the drives intersect in their expression, for example. It is also central to understanding the drive and the ontogenesis of the ego in psychoanalysis.

MichÈle Porte

See also: Psychosomatic limit/boundary; Defense mechanisms; Drive/instinct; Love; Metapsychology; Primary need; Purified-pleasure-ego; Self-preservation; Subject of the unconscious.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1915c). Triebe und Triebschicksale. Internationale Zeitschrift für (ärztliche) Psychoanalyse, III, p. 84-100; G.W., X, p. 210-232; Instincts and their vicissitudes. SE, 14: 117-140.


Freud, Sigmund. (1917d [1915]). A metapsychological supplement to the theory of dreams. SE, 14: 219.

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

. (1923e). The infantile genital organization (an interpolation into the theory of sexuality). SE, 19: 141-145.

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

. (1925h). Negation. SE, 19: 233-239.

Freud, Sigmund, and Andreas-Salomé, Lou. (1966a [1912-1936]). Sigmund Freud and Lou Andreas-Salomé: Letters (William and Elaine Robson-Scott, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press, 1972.

Further Reading

Feldman, Michael. (2000). Some views on the manifestation of death instinct in clinical work. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 81, 53-66.

Hadley, June L. (1992). The instincts revisited. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 12, 396-418.

Maze, John R. (1993). The complementarity of object-relations and instinct theory. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74, 459-470.

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Instincts and Their Vicissitudes

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