Knowledge or Research, Instinct for

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In a 1915 addendum to Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud described the instinct for knowledge (or research) in these terms: "This instinct (Wisstrieb or Forschertrieb ) cannot be counted among the elementary instinctual components, nor can it be classed as exclusively belonging to sexuality. Its activity corresponds on the one hand to a sublimated manner of obtaining mastery, while on the other hand it makes use of the energy of scopophilia (Schaulust )" (p. 194). This definition took into account his earlier essay "On the Sexual Theories of Children" (1908c). He thus envisioned the instinct for knowledge (or research) in terms of its instinctual composition (seeing and mastery) and in its continuation beyond childhood, when it originates.

Freud posited the instinct for knowledge as having two aspects, privileging form in one case and content or the object in the other. That an instinct for knowledge should exist seems paradoxical, since all instinct implies a movement toward its goal (discharge) but what is special about this instinct is the fact that its object is the search for knowledgenot the possession of a particular piece of knowledge, but the effort to obtain it. To the extent that this effort connotes work more than pleasure, and moreover, that this instinct is not innate, it is necessary to find its origin in another source, namely, the combination of two "component" instincts, scopophilia and the instinct for mastery. But the extension of the pleasure of seeing (Schaulust ) to the instinct for research (Forschertrieb, Wisstrieb ) requires that in this case "seeing" be understood not as contemplation but as critical scrutiny, the perception of a difference, a lack, or an absence. Similarly, the fact that the instinct for mastery (Bemächtigungstrieb ) can enter into the composition of the instinct for knowledge, while the former stems from cruelty (Grausamkeit ) and is expressed in destruction and in sadomasochistic reversal, means that the instinct for mastery has been diverted through sublimation. "All activities that rearrange or effect changes are to a certain extent destructive and thus redirect a portion of the instinct ffrom its original destructive goal," Freud wrote to Marie Bonaparte on May 27, 1937 (E Jones, 1953-57, vol. 3, p. 464).

What the musculature achieves by immobilizing its object without destroying it, thought achieves by means of mastering its object through selective attention and method. In both cases, the subject itself is also immobilized in the process. Just as sublimation is a reversible process that is never definitively achieved, obsessive rumination may flood the critical faculties (as in the attitude of the Wolf Man with regard to religious instruction), or, alternatively, inhibition in the form of doubt may condemn discursiveness to the void.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud asserted that what sets the instinct for knowledge into motion are practical concerns rather than theoretical interests. "The threat to the base of a child's existence offered by the discovery or the suspicion of the arrival of a new baby and the fear that he may, as a result of it, cease to be cared for and loved, make him thoughtful and clear-sighted" (pp. 194-95). The instinct for mastery can be seen to originate in trauma, because the child believes itself to be in danger.

It was this viewpoint of the traumatic origin of thought activity that Sándor Ferenczi insisted upon; he even saw "pure intelligence" as a product of the process of the imminence of death (Fragment, August 7, 1931). Melanie Klein, on the other hand, because the instinct for knowledge involves investigating the contents of the maternal body, saw in it an attitude that was more predatory than defensive. Piera Aulagnier, for her part, emphasized in Les Destins du plaisir. Aliénation, amour, passion (The vicissitudes of pleasure: alienation, love, passion; 1979) that the I's need to know its origins has to do with its need to effect in its own name the work of self-identification. In her view, the question "Where do children come from?" in fact refers to the subject itself, the parental desire that brought the subject into being, and the place where the subject was when not yet in the world. This question of origins is therefore inseparable from that of the possibility of no longer being in the world, and thus the death of the I (Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor, 1992).

With regard to the origins of reflection in primitive man, in "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915b) Freud indicated the value of this questioning about death especially when it affects a person who is partially loved, and thus with whom the subject can identify: "What released the spirit of enquiry in man was not the intellectual enigma, and not every death, but the conflict of feeling at the death of loved yet alien and hated persons" (p. 293). One can extend to children this origin of the thetic position of the enigma rooted both in the ambivalent feelings (characterized by Mijolla-Mellor as "the giving way of the ground of what seems to be") about the child's presentiments about parental sexuality ("enigmatic signifiers," in the words of Jean Laplanche) and, more radically, about the child's dawning awareness, when siblings are born or in some other way, of the fact that he or she has not always existed and will not always exist.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Infantile sexual curiosity; Infant observation; (therapeutic) Instinct; Intellectualization; Learning from Experience ; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood ; Need for causality; "On the Sexual Theories of Children"; Passion; Sexual theories of children; Thought.


Aulagnier, Piera. (1979). Les Destins du plaisir. Aliénation, amour, passion. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Ferenczi, Sándor. (1949). Notes and fragments (1930-32). International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 30, 231-242.

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

. (1908c). On the sexual theories of children, SE, 9: 205-226

. (1915b). Thoughts for the Times on War and Death. SE, 14: 273-300.

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

Klein, Melanie. (1948). Contributions to psychoanalysis. (1967). London: Hogarth Press.

Laplanche, Jean. (1989). New foundations for psychoanalysis. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

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

Further Reading

Friedman, Lawrence. (1968). Drives and knowledge: a speculation. Journal of the American Pscyhoanalytic Association, 16, 81-94.

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Knowledge or Research, Instinct for

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