Mastery, Instinct for

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The expression instinct for mastery refers to an instinct whose aim is the appropriation of the object. For Sigmund Freud, this is a nonsexual form of instinct that can be blended with the sexual instincts. The introduction of this concept within the evolution of Freudian theory is representative of an early stage of the concept of the dualism of the instincts.

The instinct for mastery first appears in Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), where it is initially included in the evocation of a Bemächtigungsapparat, or apparatus for mastery, and later under its direct name of Bemächtigungstreib. There are seventeen occurrences in Freud's work from 1905 to 1933.

This instinct has a central place in the "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" in that Freud places it in the service of the satisfaction of hunger and sexual needs and posits that sadism derives from it. The elements of the apparatus for mastery must be deduced from Freud's text; these include the sense of touch, the muscular apparatus, and the sensory organs in general. "The activity is put into operation by the instinct for mastery through the agency of the somatic musculature" (p. 198), he writes. The muscles of the body thus appear as the agent of mastery; the hand, whose movements involve the sense of touch and the musculature working in tandem, is thus an essential organ of the apparatus for mastery.

Freud clearly indicates the role of the instinct for mastery as it serves the sexual needs: "A certain amount of touching is indispensable (at all events among human beings) before the normal sexual aim can be attained" (p. 156). Moreover, in connection with masturbation: "The preference for the hand which is shown by boys is already evidence of the important contribution which the instinct for mastery is destined to make to masculine sexual activity" (p. 188).

He links the instinct for mastery and its derivativescruelty, the pleasure of looking, and the pleasure of showingto bodily functions "that appear in a sense independently of erotogenic zones" (p. 192) or even in the case of cruelty "independently of the sexual activities that are attached to erotogenetic zones" (p. 193). He further links the instinct for mastery to the "instinct for knowledge," which "cannot be counted among the elementary instinctual components, nor can it be classed as belonging exclusively 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" (p. 194).

The link between the instinct for mastery and cruelty is explained in a way that prefigures the notion of instinctual blends: "The sexuality of most male human beings contains an element of aggressivenessa drive to subjugate; the biological significance of it seems to lie in the need for overcoming the resistance of the sexual object by means other than the process of wooing. Thus sadism would correspond to an aggressive component which has become independent and exaggerated and, by displacement, has usurped the leading position" (pp. 157-158).

The instinct for mastery thus begins to change in its status in Freud's work; it starts to appear more as an intermediary concept between the sexual and the non-sexual than as a conceptual pole that can be opposed to the sexual. In his subsequent search for a dualism that is more clearly grounded in biology, Freud relegates the instinct for mastery to the background, preferring to focus instead on the notion of self-preservation instincts as the polar opposite of the sexual instincts ("Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis" [1909d]). The instinct for mastery nevertheless retains a place in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" (1915c), but finally, from about 1920, in the dualism that pits the life instincts against the death instincts, the instinct for mastery is viewed as merely a derivative of the latter.

Long neglected by theorists, the instinct for mastery returned to prominence in psychoanalytic thought only with the publication of Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis's article on it in their Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (1967). Roger Dorey (1981) discusses it in the context of the "mastery relationship"; Jean Bergeret uses the Freudian concept of the instinct for mastery as his point of departure in his development of the notion of "fundamental violence"; Jean Gillibert (1982) describes it as the "drive's drive" behind destruction, the result of "madness for mastery"; and Paul Denis (1992) proposes to reconsider the theory of the drives beginning with the hypothesis that the drives themselves, in their constituent organization, bring together a "formative component of mastery" and a "formative component of satisfaction," whose economic weight can vary and whose dissociation can be observed.

Paul Denis

See also: Cruelty; Hatred; Knowledge or research, instinct for; Libidinal development; Lost object; Mastery; Pleasure in thinking; Sadomasochism; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality .


Denis, Paul. (1992). Emprise et théorie des pulsions. Revue française de psychanalyse, 56 (5),1295-1421.

Dorey, Roger. (1981). La relation d'emprise. Nouvelle Revue de psychanalyse, 24, 117-140.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 135-243.

. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 155-318.

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

Gillibert, Jean. (1982). De l'objet pulsionnel de la pulsion d'emprise. Revue françaisedepsychanalyse, 46 (6), 1211-1244.

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