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The term "primitive" (sometimes "primeval" or "primal") is close to "archaic," but should be distinguished from the latter in that "primitive" refers not to origins but rather to an anthropological or historical description of cultural phenomena (myths, religions, legends) or modes of thinking that remain unconscious in modern, civilized humans.

Freud's interest in the primitive was manifested as early as "A Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1950c [1895]), where he cited Charles Darwin. Thereafter, this notion is always found at the interface between, on the one hand, Freud's preoccupation with biological evolution and phylogenesis and, on the other, his hypotheses on the formation of social groups, as presented in particular in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a) and Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-1938]).

In Freud's hypothesis, as outlined in "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love" (1912d), "primitive" people, although they too live in a civilization remote from archaic times, are the equivalent of the childhood of "civilized" people. Thus everything about them is relevant to the study of humanity as a whole. Among salient examples of Freud's use of the term in his work are references to primitive religions and primitive sexual rites of worship (letter to Wilhelm Fliess dated January 24, 1897) and to primitive languages in which, as in dreams, there is no such thing as negation or contradiction (1900a), or in which a word is even systematically used with opposite meanings to express ambivalence (1910e).

In fact, thought itself, at these primitive stages, possesses original characteristicssuch as conceptions of death, mechanisms of projection, and sexualized thoughtas are found in magical beliefs or animism (1912-1913a). Freud hypothesized that social organization is initially patriarchal (the primal horde), then matriarchal (the divinization of woman as mother and the grouping of brothers into totemic clans), and finally once again patriarchal and patrilineal, with a unique God replacing the primal father. This conception constitutes a model for viewing collective life in general in its different, ever unstable configurations. The notion of the primitive always appears at the boundaries of myth, legend, and history, which are characteristic of the primitive style of writing history (1909d).

The primal scene (when a child is first emotionally aware of his parents copulating) also condenses certain epistemological questions that can be raised about the primitive, particularly concerning the reality of what the small child has seen or heard in connection with the parents' sexual relations.

The notion of the primitive occupies a central place in Freud's thought. It is the equivalent, at the collective level, to the infantile at the individual level. This aspect of Freud's work provides the outlines for fruitful interaction between anthropology and psychoanalysis.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Abel, Carl; Act, passage to the; Animistic thought; Cultural transmission; Darwin, Darwinism, and Psychoanalysis; Ethics; Infantile omnipotence; Knowledge or research, instinct for; Magical thinking; Myth of origins; Oceanic feeling; Organic repression; Phylogenesis; Prehistory; Primal, the; Projection; Psychoanalysis of Fire, The ; Symbol.


Freud, Sigmund. (1950c [1895]). A project for a scientific psychology. SE, 1: 281-387.

. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 151-318.

. (1910e). The antithetical meaning of primal words. SE, 11: 153-161.

. (1912d). On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love. SE, 11: 177-190.

. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1939a [1934-1938]). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.

. (1985). The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904 (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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prim·i·tive / ˈprimətiv/ • adj. 1. relating to, denoting, or preserving the character of an early stage in the evolutionary or historical development of something: primitive mammals a name corrupted from primitive German. ∎  relating to or denoting a preliterate, nonindustrial society or culture characterized by simple social and economic organization: primitive people. ∎  having a quality or style that offers an extremely basic level of comfort, convenience, or efficiency: the accommodations at the camp were a bit primitive. ∎  (of behavior, thought, or emotion) apparently originating in unconscious needs or desires and unaffected by objective reasoning: the primitive responses we share with many animals. ∎  of or denoting a simple, direct style of art that deliberately rejects sophisticated artistic techniques. 2. not developed or derived from anything else: the primitive material of the universe. ∎  Linguistics denoting a word, base, or root from which another is historically derived. ∎ Linguistics denoting an irreducible form. ∎  Math. (of an algebraic or geometric expression) from which another is derived, or which is not itself derived from another. 3. Biol. (of a part or structure) in the first or early stage of formation or growth; rudimentary. See also primitive streak. • n. 1. a person belonging to a preliterate, nonindustrial society or culture. 2. a pre-Renaissance painter. ∎  a modern painter who imitates the pre-Renaissance style. ∎  an artist employing a simple, naive style that deliberately rejects subtlety or conventional techniques. ∎  a painting by a primitive artist, or an object in a primitive style. 3. Linguistics a word, base, or root from which another is historically derived. ∎ Linguistics an irreducible form. ∎  Math. an algebraic or geometric expression from which another is derived; a curve of which another is the polar or reciprocal. ∎  Comput. a simple operation or procedure of a limited set from which complex operations or procedures may be constructed, esp. a simple geometric shape that may be generated in computer graphics by such an operation or procedure. DERIVATIVES: prim·i·tive·ly adv. prim·i·tive·ness n. prim·i·tiv·i·ty / ˌpriməˈtivətē/ n.

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primitive. Type of architecture mnemonic of the very beginning, the earliest, original, crude, or fundamental. Suggested by roughness and squatness (as in the primitive Doric from Paestum with its exaggerated entasis), it was a feature of advanced late-C18 Neo-Classicism.


J. Curl (1992);
Vidler (1990)

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1. Not capable of being broken down into simpler form; nondivisible. The term is used for example with reference to actions requested by a process via supervisor calls, especially the use of P and V operations (see semaphore).

2. A primitive operation, action, element, etc. See also graphics primitive.

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primitive Applied to a character (as a synonym of ‘plesiomorphic’) or, occasionally, to a whole organism that preserves the character state of an ancestral stage.

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primitive Applied to a character (as a synonym of ‘plesiomorphic’) or, occasionally, of a whole organism, that preserves the character states of an ancestral stage.

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primitive XIV. — (O)F. primitif, -ive, or L. prīmitīvus first or earliest of its kind, f. prīmitus in the first place, f. prīmus first, PRIME2; see -IVE.

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primitive (evol.) Preserving the character states of an ancestral stage. The term may be used of a character (as a synonym of plesiomorphic) or, occasionally, of a whole organism.

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primitive (evol.) Preserving the character states of an ancestral stage. The term may be used of a character (as a synonym of plesiomorph) or, occasionally, of a whole organism.

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