Instinctual Impulse

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The term instinctual impulse (Triebregung ), designating the initial, productive, and local form of an instinct active within the psyche, emphasizes its intrinsic emotional dynamic. Trieb is the "instinct" or "drive." Regung means "movement of the heart or soul, a nascent feeling, a stirring of the heart, an emotion." Literally, Triebregung is the "emotional momentum of the instinct." Etymology provides us with two versions of the verb regen, the origin of Regung (and also of Erregung, "excitation" or "arousal"). The first means "to place upright, to raise up, to set in motion, to stir, to arouse, to irritate, to awaken, to touch, or to affect emotionally." Triebregung stems from the second meaning: "to rise, to rise up, to be in erection, to prick up." The family of words with the root reg- connotes activity and movement in action, often in their initial stages: a desire that "pricks up" becomes rege in German. Sigmund Freud coined other words in an analogous way.

The term "instinctual impulse" first appeared in Freud's work "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices" (1907b): "A deeper insight into the mechanism of obsessional neurosis is gained if we take into account the primary fact which lies at the bottom of it. This is always the repression of an instinctual impulse (a component of the sexual instinct), which was present in the subject's constitution and which was allowed to find expression for a while during his childhood but later succumbed to repression" (p. 124). In "Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality" (1908a), he wrote: "Hysterical symptoms arise as a compromise between two opposite affective and instinctual impulses, of which one is attempting to bring to expression a component instinct or a constituent of the sexual constitution, and the other is attempting to suppress it" (p. 164). He went on to specify the meanings attached to these two transference neuroses, without giving an exhaustive definition. Until around 1914, the theory of the instincts as expounded in the "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905d) remained quite phenomenological. Freud thus used as near equivalents for instinct in its partial sense the words impulse or component instinct, as well as the terms instinctual constituent, part, or element. The term impulse appeared in 1905, described in various ways: homosexual, vengeful, or repressive impulses; sexual, hostile, libidinal, tender, or perverse impulses. In "Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis" (1909d), Freud wrote of the Rat Man: "His unconscious encompasses prematurely repressed impulses, to be described as passionate or bad." Each time the word impulse is used, the emphasis is on the present-time effectiveness of the instinct in question and on the emotional dimension of the psychic impulse. The impulse is located in the unconscious, with the exception of the impulse of self-preservation.

At the time of the next major development in the theory of the instincts ("Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," 1915c), the concept of the "instinct" with its "pressure" was defined, and the instinctual impulse described in more detail. The former constitutes the dynamic space underlying the psyche, and the latter actualizes it. At the end of "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," we read: "We may sum up by saying that the essential feature in the vicissitudes undergone by instincts lies in the subjection of the instinctual impulses to the influences of the three great polarities that dominate mental life. Of these three polarities we might describe that of activity-passivity as the biological, that of ego-external world as the real, and finally that of pleasure-unpleasure as the economic polarity" (p. 140). The vicissitudes of the instincts are in fact vicissitudes of instinctual impulses. Moreover, in "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915b), Freud placed "what we call our unconscious" in apposition to "the deepest strata of our minds, made up of instinctual impulses" (p. 296), whereas in "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" he maintained that "the opposition between consciousness and the unconscious has no application for the instincts." Among the four vicissitudes of the instinctual impulses, repression makes it possible to distinguish two components: an idea or group of ideas on the one hand, and the quantitative factor, the amount of affect in the instinctual impulses, on the other. Together, they constitute the instinctual ideation that is dissociated by repression, and they meet with different fates. Instinctual impulses are also subjected to all the defensive processes and reworked, or even worked-through, by them.

The third step in the theory of the instincts does not greatly modify the notion of instinctual impulse, except for the ideas, expressed in "New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis" (1933 [1932]), that "every instinctual impulse that we can examine consists of similar fusions or alloys of the two classes of instincts [Eros and aggressiveness]" (pp. 104-105), and that their place is the id, which "originally includes all the instinctual impulses" (p. 105).

The overall understanding relating to instinctual impulses is the same as that relating to the instincts. More narrowly, the notion of affect is very close to them, as is the question of unconscious feelings. Moreover, instinctual impulses often arise in pairs of opposites. The power of instinctual impulses is necessary for the creation of dreams; unconscious fantasies are derivatives of them; and in the final analysis, any particular psychic formation is derived from them.

The notion of the instinctual impulse has been actively criticized ever since the publication of Freud's Complete Works : the index, at least in the case of the German and French editions, does not generally distinguish between "instinctual impulse" and "instinct." Consequently, some passages in Freud's work are ambiguous.

MichÈle Porte

See also: Anxiety; Boredom; Instinct; Judgment of condemnation; Lie; Reaction-formation; Repressed; Repression; Slip of the tongue; Unconscious, the.


Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.

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

. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.

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

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

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Instinctual Impulse

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