The Life and Death Drives 2.0

This is the second part of a three page paper. If you have not read the first post, i strongly recommend that you do so. It is entitled The Life and Death Drives 1.0

Sigmund Freud, beginning with his magnum opus The Interpretation of Dreams, pursued his own project, that of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis can be defined most basically as an effort to understand the workings of the human mind, but also includes an emphasis on the explanation of behavior and the treatment of psychological disorders. In 1920, Freud published a work entitled Beyond the Pleasure Principle in which he discussed the possibility of a motivation for human action and thought that was beyond the pleasure principle, which until then, had been the lone driving force according to psychoanalytic theory. According to Freud, the pleasure principle equated with an economic factor, specifically related to the raising and lowering of tension in the psyche. For Freud, pleasure and unpleasure can be determined through an analysis of “the quantity of excitation that is present in the mind but is not in any way ‘bound’”(4). Freud goes on to state that unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of this excitation and pleasure to a diminution. Thus, Freud’s pleasure principle is reminiscent of Epicurus definition of pleasure as a reduction of pain, but not completely the same, as Freud’s represents the economy of psychical energy. One can easily make the connection between this view and Darwin’s Natural Selection; whether you view Darwin’s struggle for existence as a life drive or a pleasure drive, connections with Freud’s pleasure principle are apparent. Given consistent conceptions of pleasure, Darwin viewed as a pleasure drive completely equate the two viewpoints. In addition, Freud’s negative definition of pleasure also lends itself toward the survival of the individual, thus creating a connection with Darwin’s “life drive.” However, although the pleasure principle is consistent with Freud’s viewpoint, we must now turn to the beyond of the title, the death drive, and hopefully repair a seemingly unsolvable dispute.


Written after the World War I, Beyond the Pleasure Principle seems to be Freud’s attempt to deal with the problem of what he calls “traumatic neurosis.” In particular, he is interested in the reason for the existence of a “compulsion to repeat” unpleasurable experiences. Freud remarks that “we come now to a new and remarkable fact, namely that the compulsion to repeat also recalls from the past experiences which include no possibility of pleasure”(21). This brings about a rejection of the pleasure principle for Freud. After outlining several insufficient explanation for these compulsions, Freud begins working toward the death drive with his discussion of instincts. Freud comments that “ an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things,” namely one that it was forced to abandon as a result of outside forces (43). Freud, based on this conservative notion of instinct, posits then that “the aim of all life is death,” and in doing so, solves his problem with the compulsion to repeat. Continuing, Freud elaborates on the death drive, suggesting that the“tension which then arose in what had hitherto been an inanimate substance endeavored to cancel itself out. In this way the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state” (46). However, this raises serious concerns for Freud, whose major concern comes from those who are of the attitude that desires, motivations, or choices, cannot be confabulated, but must instead have basis in experience. This criticism that it would be ontologically impossible for a brain,composed of particles without a unique origin, to desire to return to an inanimate state. Herein lies the contradiction between Freud and Darwin. The death drive, as a drive toward the earlier inanimate state, is in direct contradiction of the struggle for existence. However, with reexamination, Freud’s work can be slightly altered so as to avoid drastic conceptual change, as well as possibly reconcile the contradiction with Darwin’s “life drive,” “pleasure drive,” or struggle for existence. Will this alteration of Freud be enough to maintain the theoretical structure? In addition, will it really solve the contradictory nature of the two thinkers ideas?

First, let us examine Freud’s conception of instinct, “an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things.” It is from this definition that Freud says that other than the death drive, “we cannot arrive at any other notions as to the origin and aim of life” (46). However, by more closely examining Freud’s argument, we can indeed posit an alternate theory, contained within Freud’s conservative notion of instincts. As is noted above, one major problem with Freud’s argument is the idea of desiring a return to an inanimate state, which Freud said must be true due to psychical tension which arose from experience of stimuli. However, if we are to consider the mind tabula rasa for the briefest moment at its inception into the world, we can consider the death instinct a drive toward that state, devoid of tension. In this way, the drive necessarily results in death, but in Freud’s view of conservative instincts, cannot be a drive toward death. Let us briefly reflect on tension. Freud writes that it was due to the tension which arose from the inception of life that causes the death drive. Our model of a drive towards tabula rasa maintains such a disdain for tension and brings us to an exciting discovery, namely that the pleasure principle is the origin of this alternate drive regardless of whether we embrace Freud’s death drive or one toward tabula rasa. With the basis of the drive in the pleasure principle, along with abandonment of Freud’s illogical drive toward the inanimate state in favor of tabula rasa, Darwinian Natural Selection can be somewhat reconciled with the theories of Freud. However, with this desiring for a lowering of tension, being conservative in Freud, we still have a point of contention with Darwin. The question remains, how does the pleasure principle both support Freud’s drive, which necessarily results in death, and Darwin’s, which struggles for life?


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