Primary Need

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As early as The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Sigmund Freud described the movement that leads from need to desire. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), he specified, "According to some authorities this aggressive element of the sexual instinct is in reality a relic of cannibalistic desiresthat is, it is a contribution derived from the apparatus for obtaining mastery, which is concerned with the satisfaction of the other and, ontogenetically, the older of the great instinctual needs" (p. 159). In "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," he justified his choice of the term "needs": "a drive stimulus does not arise from the external world, but from within the organism itself" and acts as a constant force (1915c, p. 118). He then added, "A better term for a drive stimulus is a 'need.' What does away with need is 'satisfaction"' (p. 118-119). In other words, the concept of primary need refers to the endogeneity of the drive and its biological roots.

From then on in Freud's work, the concept of need lay at the crossroads of two lines of reflection: on the one hand, the theory of anaclisis, and on the other, the question of primitive hallucination. In the theory of anaclisis, sexual life is grafted secondarily from the satisfaction of the great needs of the organism (concerned with self-preservation). Thus, "Sucking at the mother's breast is the starting-point of the whole sexual life, the unmatched prototype of every later sexual satisfaction, to which phantasy often enough recurs in times of need" (1916-17a [1915-1916], p. 314).

It is known, however, that primitive hallucination stems from lack and thus from the frustration of need. No doubt the first response to an unsatisfied need is indeed hallucination, it being understood that the acceptance of this response leads to the replacement of the pleasure principle with the reality principle.

Later developments in the attachment theory (Bowlby) gave rise to profound modifications to the concept of need, modifications that again put into question both the theory of anaclisis and the metapsychological theorization of the emergence of thought. Indeed, according to the theories of Bowlby and his followers, the social and relational link is not secondarily derived from the satisfaction of primary needs, but is in itself a need as primordial as the need for self-preservation. Furthermore, the emergence of thought is played out less in the absence than in the presence of the object, which causes schemas of attachment (internally functioning models) to form in the psyche of the infant.

Bernard Golse

See also: Abandonment; Addiction; Alcoholism; Anaclisis/anaclictic; Anxiety; Attachment; Borderline conditions; Demand; Dependence; Deprivation; Graph of Desire; Guex, Germaine; Hallucinatory, the; Holding; Oral stage; Primary object; Satisfaction, experience of; Self-object; Subject of the drive; Symbolization, process of; Transference depression; Wish-fulfillment; Wish/yearning.


Bowlby, John. (1969). Attachment and loss. London: Hogarth.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

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

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

. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.