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.)

Culture and the Freudian Ego

Part 2 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy is concerned with psychoanalytic interpretation of culture, and with Freud’s “second topography” of id, ego, and superego. Ricoeur says the first topography gave rise to a theory of culture, which in turn gave rise to the second topography, but that Freud will only achieve a unified view of culture with his late theory of the so-called death instinct. Culture will become a “battle ground” between Eros and death. At this point, Ricoeur says, psychoanalysis will turn “from science to philosophy, perhaps even to mythology” (p. 157).

Psychoanalysis is very different from transcendental reflection. “[W]hat is first for analysis is never first in reflection; the primary is not a ground. Hence we must not ask psychoanalysis to resolve questions as to root origins, either in the order of reality or in the order of value” (p. 154).

“The first topography remained tied to an economics of instinct, with instinct as the one basic concept; the division of the topography into three systems [unconscious, preconscious, conscious] was made in relation to the libido alone. The second topography is an economics of a new type: here the libido is subject to something other than itself [that manifests as culture], to a demand for renunciation that creates a new economic situation” (p. 156).

“The interpretation of culture will be the great detour that will reveal the dream model in its universal significance. Dreams will prove to be something quite other than a mere curiosity of nocturnal life or a means of getting at neurotic conflicts…. [T]hey reveal all that is nocturnal in man, the nocturnal of his waking life as well as of his sleep…. In and through man desires advance masked…. The entire drama of dreams is thus found to be generalized to the dimensions of a universal poetics…. ‘Idols as the daydreams of mankind’ — such might be the subtitle of the hermeneutics of culture” (p. 162).

Freud ends up with a “history of desire and authority. What matters in this history is the way authority affects desire” (p. 179). Beneath this and through this, Ricoeur says, a more fundamental “debate between the pleasure-unpleasure principle and the reality principle” (p. 180) will come to be presented much more clearly.

“The question of the ego, i.e. of domination, is completely different [from that of consciousness]…. The ego finds itself threatened, and in order to defend itself must dominate the situation…. [The ego is a] ‘poor creature’ menaced by three masters, reality, the libido, and conscience” (p. 182). “The value of all the psychoanalytic investigations concerning the moral phenomenon stems from the fact that man’s relation to obligation is first described in a situation of weakness, of nondomination” (p. 183).

“[W]e cannot go very far in describing the functions of the superego without appealing to the history of their constitution” (p. 184). “Will such an analysis be rejected because it views conscience not as a primal given but as something to be deciphered through the screen of the clinical? The advantage of the Freudian ‘prejudice’ is that it begins without taking anything for granted: by treating moral reality as an a posteriori reality, constituted and sedimented, Freud’s analysis avoids the laziness that is part of any appeal to the a priori” (p. 185). “Thought that begins by rejecting the primordial givenness of the ethical ego has the advantage of placing the whole focus of attention on the process of the internalization of the external” (p. 186). “[P]sychoanalysis, having made a dogmatic beginning, renders its own explanation increasingly problematic in proportion as it puts it to use” (p. 187).

Ricoeur on Embodiment

I’m still working through the introduction to Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature. Having said a bit about how he intends to adapt Husserlian phenomenology, here I’ll add a few notes on the impact of Ricoeur’s Marcelian concerns.

“[A]s we examine actual practice, the understanding of articulations between the voluntary and the involuntary which we call motivation, motion, conditioning, etc., becomes stymied in an invincible confusion…. The triumph of description is distinction rather than a reuniting leap. Even in the first person, desire is something other than decision, movement is other than an idea, necessity is other than the will which consents to it. The Cogito is broken up within itself ” (pp. 13-14).

Considerations like this are why I think it is actually more precise to speak more loosely of “subjectivity” rather than “a” or “the” subject. Ricoeur draws the consequence that “the Ego must abandon its wish to posit itself, so that it can receive the nourishing and inspiring spontaneity which breaks the sterile circle of the self’s constant return to itself” (p. 14). He then introduces Marcel’s point about the mystery of incarnation as the answer to the question “How can I regain the sense of being alternately given over to my body and also its master… if not by… attempts to identify with the definite experience of existence which is myself in a corporal situation?” (p. 15; emphasis in original). In a more Aristotelian way, I’ve been making a similar point by suggesting that the hylomorphic, form-of-the-body notion of “soul” makes a good top-level model for the subtleties of what I’ve been calling empirical selfhood. (See also Two Kinds of Character; The Ambiguity of “Self”.)

Ricoeur goes on to say “the concepts we use, such as motivation, completion of a project, situation, etc., are indications of a living experience in which we are submerged more than signs of mastery which our intelligence exercises over our human condition. But in turn it is the task of philosophy to clarify existence itself by use of concepts. And this is the function of a descriptive phenomenology: it is the watershed separating romantic effusion and shallow intellectualism” (p. 17). He goes on to identify this “region of rational symptoms of existence” (ibid) with the space of reason as distinct from analytic understanding.

As Aristotle might remind us, “existence” is said in many ways. I have issues with the use of many of them in philosophy, but I take Marcel’s use of this term in a different and much more positive way than those, as mainly emphasizing all the aspects of things that don’t fit into neat schematizations, and that Aristotle would say are not univocally ordered. Aristotle and Ricoeur both take an emphasis like Marcel’s and reinsert it into a broader context that includes a more positive role than Marcel himself found for developments of reason. (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?.)

Meaning, Consciousness

I generally translate talk about consciousness into talk about meaning and related commitments. It doesn’t seem to me that anything is lost in the conversion; all the content is still there.

The notion of consciousness as a sort of generalized transparent medium of immediate presence that is somehow also tied to our sense of self and agency may seem intuitive, but it is actually the product of a long cultural development. It seems to belong to what Lacan called the Imaginary. Plato and Aristotle addressed the full range of human experience without any dependency on something like this. (See also Intentionality.)

Arbitrariness, Inflation

Arbitrariness in practice or in theory effectively devalues distinctions, reasons, and values all to zero. Insistence on arbitrary power, arbitrary rights, or arbitrary freedom utterly abnegates normativity and reason. (See also Desire of the Master; Tyranny.) Denial of the principle of noncontradiction opens the door for unprincipled sophistry that has the same nihilistic effect. The idea that something genuinely new can only come about through arbitrariness reflects a profoundly impoverished vision.

Theoretical assertions of arbitrary power or authority originated in bad theology (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism), then found their way into modern political theory via one-sided notions like sovereignty. Modern individualism and subjectivism tend to make similarly one-sided, effectively nihilistic claims on behalf of individuals. Sartrean existentialism and Badiouian decisionism are particularly extreme examples. (See also “Hard” Kantianism?)

Rather than valorizing or justifying arbitrariness in actions, we ought to always aim at contextually appropriate applications of reasonableness and respect for others. (See also Practical Judgment; Freedom from False Freedom.)


Standard notions of intentionality as a mental state involving representations of objects go back to the medieval Iranian philosopher Avicenna (980 – 1037). Augustine had already spoken of of “intentions” as acts of the soul, but it was Avicenna who explicitly gave what were translated to Latin as “intentions” the later standard sense of mental representations. Discussion of Avicennan “intentions” was common in the Latin scholastic tradition, but disappeared in the early modern period, only to be revived by Franz Brentano. In his 1874 work Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Brentano characterized intentionality as having to do with mental states that are directed toward objects that are themselves mental representations, and argued that intentionality is the defining characteristic of mind in general. Edmund Husserl later attempted to separate a logical concept of intentionality from empirical psychology, and made it a central theme of his phenomenology. Intentionality is widely discussed among analytic philosophers as well.

A main focus of Brandom’s Making It Explicit was to develop in great detail a novel concept of intentionality that is linguistic, social, and normative, rather than mental in the usual sense. Intentionality for Brandom is rooted in normative social practices and dialogue rather than psychology. Representation is treated as something to be explained, rather than as an unexplained explainer. The objects Brandomian intentionality is concerned with are not objects of mental representations, but objects of normative social practices and dialogue. Accepting Brentano’s thesis that intentionality is the defining characteristic of mind, this gives us a concept of mind that is mainly ethical, linguistic, and social (see Mind Without Mentalism).

I think the kind of hermeneutics implicitly practiced by Aristotle throughout his work was concerned with real things, but primarily as objects of normative social practices and dialogue, and only secondarily in a more direct way. Aristotle also said that intelligence comes to us “from outside”. I read him too as working with a primarily ethical, linguistic, and social notion of mind (see also Aristotelian Subjectivity). Plato’s Forms were also explicitly nonpsychological. Even Augustine’s “inner man” has nothing private about it, but rather participates in an ethical community of the spirit that tends toward universality.

An ethical-linguistic-social view of intentionality also gives us a good way of talking about all the practical, real-life concerns of human subjectivity, without the bad theoretical baggage of referring all those concerns to a supposedly sovereign individual Subject or Ego.


Our ethical development, or what Aristotle would call our ethos — our piece of Hegelian Spirit, as it were — builds on our emotional development. A relatively harmonious emotional constitution will be naturally open to the influence of ethical development grounded in mutual recognition.

It seems to me that this is already enough for a fully rich account of a human being. If we have ethos, then things like will, ego, intellectual soul, and mind-as-container seem superfluous.

Self-Consciousness vs Identity

In the development being pursued here, reason, self-consciousness, agency, and responsibility all end up being trans-individual and social things. My emotions are basically mine, but my thoughts, commitments, and actions and their consequences involve more than just me. At the same time, though, as I put it once before, these things that involve more than just me actually say more about who “I” am than my inner state says about “me”. Who we are as ethical beings involves much more than personal identity and what is strictly ours. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Apperception, Identity; Expansive Agency; The Ambiguity of “Self”; Essentially Self-Conscious?; Ego.)

The Ambiguity of “Self”

To put it mildly, “self” is said in many ways. To begin with, is it used as a noun, as an adjective, or as an adverb? As a noun, it may refer to an empirical “me”. As an adjective, it may name an abstract, pure reflexivity. It may also be used to adverbially describe something that has recursive structure that depends on details. I’ve always thought adverbs were the part of speech closest to reality.

The contrast between “self” in something like Hegelian self-consciousness and the “self” figuring in my recent Ego post could not be more extreme. Hegel’s use is definitely adverbial; as I have said several times, self-consciousness is anything but direct consciousness of a (noun) “self”. It has more to do with ethical awareness of limitations, and awareness of others. (See also Self, Infinity; Individuation.)


Literally since childhood, I’ve been concerned about ethical issues involving ego or egoism in a plain ordinary dictionary sense. This involves a number of related aspects. At the grossest level, there is selfishness and arrogance. Beyond that, there are many kinds and degrees of self-centeredness. At the subtle end of the spectrum, there are various kinds of self-involvement that impair our attention to the concerns of others. What these all have in common is that with varying degrees of seriousness, they result in failures of reciprocity in social relationships, failures to apply the golden rule. As a young person, this led me to investigate various spiritual teachings about ego and self and what to do with them. This still stands as a backdrop to my philosophical interest in questions related to subjectivity, and in related questions of historical interpretation.

Philosophically, ego in the ordinary sense is not at all the same thing as a Subject, but the two are commonly confounded. Both are problematic, and require careful handling. Modern common-sense views of such things most often implicitly reflect a very specific historical “mentalist” philosophical view shared by Descartes and Locke, which tends to simply identify the two. In my view, this identification of ego-self-subject-mind as one simple thing is utterly wrong, and makes it impossible to adequately address the serious issues with each separate concept.

Historically, the rise of Cartesian-Lockean mentalism was closely tied to the rise of possessive individualism, of which Locke, along with Hobbes, was one of the main theorists (see Rights). This gave egoism in the ordinary sense a new kind of respectability that it did not have in premodern society. On this theory, people could claim ethical justification for egoistic behavior, and claim additional support from theories like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. This created a further slippery slope, leading to all manner of extensions and abuses of these principles that Locke or Smith would not have condoned. (See also Desire of the Master; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

In sound ethics, reciprocity comes before self. This does not imply any extreme self-denial, just appropriate consideration of others, who should give the same consideration to us. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Individuation; What Is “I”?)