Death Instinct?

Part 3 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy examines the considerable perturbations to Freud’s views that resulted from his introduction of a “death instinct” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Ricoeur notes that Freud’s German is more literally “drive” rather than instinct, which seems to make fewer assumptions, and that Freud often refers to “death instincts” in the plural. He sees this phase of Freud’s work as involving a partial return to Freud’s youthful interest in a Romantic “philosophy of nature” like that of Goethe, from the more scientific orientation of his earlier work.

According to Ricoeur, the late Freud ends up proposing his own sort of Romantic philosophy of nature in opposition to the dominant “philosophy of consciousness”. Ricoeur notes that at this point Freud’s presentation becomes frankly speculative and increasingly tentative. Whereas The Interpretation of Dreams derived theory from clinical interpretation, the later work in part bases clinical interpretation on a new “mythology” of instincts. Three great questions arise: What is the death instinct? What is pleasure? And what is the “reality principle”?

It turns out that for the later Freud, “death instinct” is said in many ways. The idea originated from his questioning of his own previous view that the unconscious is uniformly governed by the “pleasure principle” — seeking pleasure and avoiding unpleasure — with pleasure understood as an ultimately physical decrease of tension. Investigating phenomena of obsessive repetition, Freud began to wonder if something even more primitive than the pleasure principle were involved, a sort of compulsive psychic conservatism.

Ricoeur says the initial presentation of the death instinct was largely in terms this sort of conservatism; only later did Freud begin to emphasize aggressive impulses. The death instinct can also be sublimated into negation that need not be related to any aggression. (Ricoeur reminds us that for Freud there is no negation in the unconscious, so this involves an expression through the ego.) It is also expressed in feelings of guilt, associated with the “cruelty” of the superego’s authoritarian “conscience” toward the ego. (The superego is said to be closer to the id than to the ego; it seems very far from a pure moral conscience, heavily weighed down with psychological baggage. Neither aggression nor a cruel superego seems “natural” to me; I would call them both phenomena of alienation.) Finally, there is a complex relation between the death instinct and the ego. An instinct for conservative self-preservation against change becomes interpreted as ultimately a desire to die in one’s own way.

Freud’s notion of pleasure became increasingly ambiguous, as he began to emphasize cases in which a detour through unpleasure leads to a greater pleasure. This should not be too surprising; Plato and Aristotle already pointed the highly equivocal character of pleasure.

Ricoeur says Freud initially took a notion of “reality” for granted, in contrast to hallucination. Later it became a task and a problem, associated with Ananke, the word for “necessity” in the Greek tragedies. Whereas in Freud’s earlier work the “pleasure principle” governing the unconscious was contrasted with the “reality principle” associated with the development of consciousness, in the later work Eros or love is the principle that binds all things together, from cells in a body to people in society, and helps protect us against the ravages of the death instinct and aggressive self-assertion. Ricoeur associates the Freudian Eros with a kind of wisdom that comes to recognize reality through or in spite of the distortions of the death instinct.

“Death instinct” is a paradoxical term. It becomes less paradoxical if we consider its evolution or variation from a conservative impulse to an aggressive impulse. As mentioned above, I don’t consider human aggression to be primarily a natural phenomenon, but rather mainly an emergent result of bad socialization, so I don’t want to call it an instinct, but at most a distorted expression of an instinct. On the other hand, I find it a good deal easier to accept the idea that there could be a “conservative instinct” alongside Eros, leading to the disharmony of instincts that was the late Freud’s great theme. (See also Psychoanalytic Interpretation; Culture and the Freudian Ego.)