Freud's "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915) Summary

Original PDF (for those interested)

"One Page" Outline

Freud's goal: to tentatively define some basic scientific concepts within the field of psychology.

  1. What is an instinct (Trieb)?

    • An instinct is a stimulus applied to the mind, that originates from within the organism itself.
    • The stimulus is called a "need" and getting rid of it is "satisfaction".
    • Has a pressure or force, an aim, an object, and an underlying source.
    • We assume that the goal of the organism is to remove the pressure imposed on it by stimuli.
  2. What kinds of Instincts are there and what transformations ("vicissitudes") can they undergo?

    • "Ego aka self-preservative" or "sexual", the latter aiming at "organ-pleasure".
    • Instincts can: reverse into their opposites, turn round upon the subject's self, and become repressed or sublimated.
    • Sadism-Masochism and Voyeurism-Exhibitionism (Scopophilia) are pairs of "reversals".
    • Love-Hate can also be considered a "reversal", but it is special.
  3. Love and the three mental polarities.

    • Our mental life is governed by polarities:
      • Subject (ego)---Object (external world) ("real" polarity)
      • Pleasure---Unpleasure ("economic" polarity)
      • Active---Passive ("biological" polarity).
    • The nature of these polarities develops over time, from infant to adult.
    • Love originally comes from sexual instincts, but Hate from self-preservative instincts. The two are not the same.
    • We can only see Love as a reversal of Hate once the the subject reaches a fully "adult" form of mental organization.

Full Summary

What is an instinct (Trieb)?

Basic Definitions

  • What is a stimulus and a reflex arc? A stimulus is some change in environment, coming "from the outside", and a reflex arc is the pattern where a stimulus is "discharged by action to the outside".
  • What is an instinct? A stimulus applied to the mind, with one caveat: it does not come from "the external world but from within the organism itself".
  • "A better term for an instinctual stimulus is a 'need'. What does away with a need is 'satisfaction'." Instinctual stimuli are "the signs of an internal world".
  • "The nervous system is an apparatus which has the function of getting rid of the stimuli that reach it... [it has] the task of mastering stimuli."
  • What is "the pleasure principle"? A system of regulation within the "mental apparatus" by which "unpleasurable feelings are connected with an increase and pleasurable feelings with a decrease of stimulus."

What are the parts of an instinct?

  • "Pressure": "its motor force... the measure of demand for work which it represents".
  • "Aim": always "satisfaction, which can only be obtained by removing the state of stimulation at the source of the instinct." This can happen in parts, with "intermediate aims" that may involve "partial satisfaction."
  • "Object": "the thing in regard to which or through which the instinct is able to achieve its aim."
  • "Source": "the [underlying] somatic [bodily] process which occurs in an organ or part of the body and whose stimulus is represented in mental life by an instinct." In terms of our mental life, we generally can't identify the source very easily; "we know [instincts] only by their aims."

What kinds of Instincts are there and what transformations ("vicissitudes") can they undergo?

Types of Instincts

  • Instincts are either ego aka self-preservative or sexual.
  • There are many sexual instincts but "the aim which each of them strives for is the attainment of 'organ-pleasure'."
  • Sexual instincts began as linked with the self-preservative instincts, but gradually became separated (think: the infant's pleasure of breastfeeding, which combines the two aims: self-preservation and organ-pleasure).
  • Sexual instincts are distinguished in that they are "able to change their objects readily". "They are capable of functions which are far removed from their original purposive actions--capable, that is, of 'sublimation'."

Instinct Transformations

  • Instincts can undergo:
    • "Reversal into its opposite."
    • "Turning round upon the subject's own self."
    • "Repression."
    • "Sublimation."
  • Sublimation and repression are discussed elsewhere, only "reversal" and "turning round upon the subject's own self" will be discussed here.
  • These transformations can be seen as "defenses", when their satisfaction is blocked by other "motive forces" (cf. neurosis).
  • Three examples of reversals that will be studied: Sadism-Masochism, Voyeurism-Exhibitionism, and Love-Hate.

Example: Sadism-Masochism

  • "Masochism is actually sadism turned round upon the subject's own ego, and... the masochist shares in the enjoyment of the assault upon himself."
  • "The essence of the process is thus the change of the object without changing the aim". The object changes from the other to the self, and the activity also changes from active to passive.
  • Analysis of the emergence of masochism, as a transformation from a "primary" sadism:

    (a) Sadism consists in the exercise of violence or power upon some other person as object.
    (b) This object is given up and replaced by the subject's self. With the turning round upon the self the change from an active to a passive instinctual aim is also effected.
    (c) An extraneous person is once more sought as object; this person, in consequence of the alteration which has taken place in the instinctual aim, has to take over the role of the subject [person who plays the active, agentic role in the relationship].

  • Case (b) is interesting because "the desire to torture has turned into self-torture and self-punishment, not into masochism. The active voice is changed, not into the passive, but into the reflexive, middle voice."

  • Side note on pain: the sadist does not initially aim to inflict pain, but the masochist enjoys pain because the sensation involved produces a "pleasurable condition". But, once the masochist begins to aim at experiencing pain, "the sadistic aim of causing pains can arise also, retrogressively; for while these pains are being inflicted on other people, they are enjoyed masochistically by the subject through his identification of himself with the suffering object. In both cases, of course, it is not the pain itself which is enjoyed, but the accompanying sexual excitation."

Example: Voyeurism-Exhibitionism (Scopophilia)

  • "Exhibitionism includes looking at [one's] own body... the exhibitionist shares in the enjoyment of [the sight of] his exposure."
  • Unlike sadism: "for the beginning of its activity the scopophilic instinct is auto-erotic: it has indeed an object, but that object is part of the subject's own body. It is only later that the instinct is led, by a process of comparison, to exchange this object for an analogous part of someone else's body."
  • Diagram of scopophilic instinct:

    (a) oneself looking at a       =     A sexual organ being looked
        sexual organ                     at by oneself
              |                                    |
    (b) oneself looking at an           (c) An object which is oneself
        extraneous object                   or part of oneself being looked
          (active scopophilia)              at by an _extraneous person_
  • Narcissism is when "sexual instincts find auto-erotic satisfaction", so this "beginning" stage, where the subject's own body satisfies its instinct, is considered "narcissistic."

  • "The active scopophilic instinct develops from this, by leaving narcissism behind. The passive scopophilic instinct, on the contrary, holds fast to the narcissistic object. Similarly, the transformation of sadism into masochism implies a return to the narcissistic object."

  • But, each "earlier stage" persists beneath the one that followed it, in a layered manner: each transformation does not "erase" the older form, it adds onto it. So the transformation into "passive" does not negate the older, "active" form, they can be enjoyed simultaneously.

Love and The Three Mental Polarities

What is Love?

  • "Loving admits not merely of one, but of three opposites. In addition to the antithesis ‘loving--hating’, there is the other one of ‘loving--being loved’; and, in addition to these, loving and hating taken together are the opposite of the condition of unconcern or indifference."
  • The "loving--being loved" axis has the same "transformation from activity to passivity" as in the other examples, and can similarly result in "loving oneself, which we regard as the characteristic feature of narcissism."
  • But this doesn't answer "what is love?" To answer this, we will "reflect that our mental life as a whole is governed by three polarities or antitheses:
    • Subject (ego)---Object (external world)
    • Pleasure---Unpleasure
    • Active---Passive

The Polarities or Antitheses and Development

  • In infants, the "ego-subject coincides with what is pleasurable and the external world with what is indifferent... In so far as the objects which are presented to [the infant] are sources of pleasure, it takes them into itself, 'introjects' them; and, on the other hand, it expels whatever within itself becomes a cause of unpleasure".
  • This furnishes for the infant a "pleasure-ego" in which "the external world is divided into a part that is pleasurable, which it has incorporated into itself, and a remaineder that is extraneous to it. It has separated off a part of its own self, which it projects into the external world and feels as hostile." So, the two polarities now coincide: "ego = pleasure---object = unpleasure". This state is called "primary narcissism."
  • This "primary narcissism" progresses to an "object-stage", where these polarities divide again, and "pleasure and unpleasure signify relations of the ego to the object."

    "If the object becomes a source of pleasurable feelings, a motor urge is set up which seeks to bring the object closer to the ego and to incorporate it into the ego. We then speak of the ‘attraction’ exercised by the pleasure-giving object, and say that we ‘love’ that object. Conversely, if the object is a source of unpleasurable feelings, there is an urge which endeavours to increase the distance between the object and the ego and to repeat in relation to the object the original attempt at flight from the external world with its emission of stimuli. We feel the ‘repulsion’ of the object, and hate it; this hate can afterwards be intensified to the point of an aggressive inclination against the object—an intention to destroy it."

On Love and Hate

  • A further note on "love" and its relation to the types of instincts:

    "We do not say of objects which serve the interests of self-preservation that we love them; we emphasize the fact that we need them, and perhaps express an additional, different kind of relation to them by using words that denote a much reduced degree of love—such as, for example, ‘being fond of’, ‘liking’ or ‘finding agreeable’. Thus the word ‘to love’ moves further and further into the sphere of the pure pleasure-relation of the ego to the object and finally becomes fixed to sexual objects in the narrower sense and to those which satisfy the needs of sublimated sexual instincts."

  • And on the relation between love and hate:

    "It is noteworthy that in the use of the word ‘hate’ no such intimate connection with sexual pleasure and the sexual function appears. The relation of unpleasure seems to be the sole decisive one. The ego hates, abhors and pursues with intent to destroy all objects which are a source of unpleasurable feeling for it, without taking into account whether they mean a frustration of sexual satisfaction or of the satisfaction of self-preservative needs. Indeed, it may be asserted that the true prototypes of the relation of hate are derived not from sexual life, but from the ego's struggle to preserve and maintain itself.

    "So we see that love and hate, which present themselves to us as complete opposites in their content, do not after all stand in any simple relation to each other. They did not arise from the cleavage of any originally common entity, but sprang from different sources, and had each its own development before the influence of the pleasure—unpleasure relation made them into opposites."

  • Putting it together:

    "Love is derived from the capacity of the ego to satisfy some of its instinctual impulses auto-erotically by obtaining organ-pleasure. It is originally narcissistic, then passes over on to objects, which have been incorporated into the extended ego, and expresses the motor efforts of the ego towards these objects as sources of pleasure. It becomes intimately linked with the activity of the later sexual instincts and, when these have been completely synthesized, coincides with the sexual impulsion as a whole. Preliminary stages of love emerge as provisional sexual aims while the sexual instincts are passing through their complicated development.

    As the first of these aims we recognize the phase of incorporating or devouring—a type of love which is consistent with abolishing the object's separate existence and which may therefore be described as ambivalent. At the higher stage of the pregenital sadistic-anal organization, the striving for the object appears in the form of an urge for mastery, to which injury or annihilation of the object is a matter of indifference. Love in this form and at this preliminary stage is hardly to be distinguished from hate in its attitude towards the object. Not until the genital organization is established does love become the opposite of hate."

Final Note

"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."

You'll only receive email when they publish something new.

More from simpolism
All posts