Freud And The Myth Of Instinct

Paul Vinit


In The Future of An Illusion, Freud asserts:

"It seems that every civilization must be built upon coercion and renunciation of instincts."1

This notion of the conflict between "instinct" and "civilization" is the very essence of Freud's theory, closely linked to the concepts of repression, sublimation, reaction-formation, and neurosis itself. In the end, neurosis is always the result, according to Freud, of the conflict between an "instinct" and the demand of "civilization" that it be repressed. Philip Rieff in his seminal study Freud; The Mind of The Moralist tries to exempt Freud from the charge of "looseness and equivocation" in the language he uses to discuss instinct. Freud's definition of instinct, taken from Three Essays on Sexuality is as follows:

"..the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation as contrasted with a " stimulus", which is set up by single excitations coming from without. The concept of instinct is thus one of those lying on the frontier between the mental and the physical "2

Take away the pseudo-scientific language and what this means is that an instinct is the mental product of a stimulation that comes from within and never stops. Now, in The Future of An Illusion, Freud also speaks of "instinctual wishes" and includes among these "incest, cannibalism and lust for killing."3 The combination of the notions of "wish" and "instinct" has moved us on, however, from Freud's original definition, for a wish is much more than the outcome of stimulation. A wish implies at least a minimum of conscious intention and it must involve choice. If I wish to have sex with my mother or to eat my next door neighbour then, even if we admit that these wishes may be unconscious having been repressed, how can it be true that these wishes are synonymous with "stimulation"? In the case of my incestuous wish the stimulation is sexual, but the stimulation itself, which is biologically given, is not the same thing as the wish. The wish emerges from the fact of my sexual feelings being stimulated towards my mother. The stimulation is that of sexual feeling, not of incest. It goes without saying, of course, that were it not for "civilization's" taboo on incest, I would never have needed to repress my sexual feelings for my mother and might even have fulfilled them, yet this does not make incest an instinct. To speak of a sexual stimulation that comes from within and which never stops is one thing, to suggest that the object of this stimulation is as biologically determined as its source, is quite another and Freud admits that the sexual "instinct" has no natural object.

Similarly, my wish to eat my neighbour may arise from a stimulation to aggression which is innate, but it is to go far beyond this to claim that the wish to be cannibalistic is an instinct. Instinct implies inescapability and absence of choice. Bees build their honeycomb by instinct. They have no choice in the matter. They cannot sit back and reflect that a different design might serve them better. Building honeycombs is a given, fixed, immutable behaviour. It is behaviour which is instinctive. Now, if I were to make love to my mother this morning and eat my neighbour this afternoon, how could I claim that these were instinctive behaviours? How could I deny that I had any choice in the matter? A Freudian might reply that my wish to perform these acts is indeed instinctive and that if I refrain from them it is because I have accepted "civilization's" restrains and repressed the wish, but if "civilization" has the power to enforce such repression, how can the desire be said to be instinctive? The bee's behaviour in building the honeycomb is instinctive precisely because there is no power which can prevent it. It is, as John MacMurray has defined instinct, "a specific adaptation to environment which does not need to be learned."4 Our innate impulses are not like this. Most of what we need to be human, to live with others, we have to learn.

Freud himself, in his belief that in its earliest form the sexual impulse is "polymorphously perverse", was moving in this direction. Polymorphous perversity means that we have not yet learned to control and direct our sexual impulses, that they are not yet subject to our will, to decision. If this remained the case, if adult sexuality were polymorphously, perverse, we would be on firm ground in speaking of a sexual instinct. The fact, however, that the human sexual instinct can be controlled by conscious decision, to the degree that for religious or other reasons people can renounce sexual activity altogether, suggests that "instinct" is an exaggeration. Freud's notion of a "psychical representative" is misleading in its suggestion that a somatic stimulation gives rise semi-automatically to a particular psychical representation. What distinguishes human beings from other species is precisely that we are capable, not simply of behaviour, but of action and the difference between the two is that action is the result of conscious intent. To speak of an unconscious, instinctual wish for cannibalism, is to suggest that there is only behaviour, no action. According to this view, we are programmed to behave in vile ways and are saved from doing so only by the intervention of "civilization". Yet whence "civilization" if our "instincts" are opposed to it? To believe that our instincts oppose civilization and that, all the same, we are able to create civilization, must mean that we are stronger than our instincts. If this is so, why do they deserve the name?

If we contrast MacMurray's definition of instinct with Freud's we find that the former defines it strictly while the latter is vague and loose. According to Freud's definition, almost any mental product could be claimed as a representative of instinct. This being so, we could claim that there is a generosity instinct, or an altruism instinct, or an artistic or scientific instinct. Freud has deliberately made his definition open enough to encompass any psychic phenomenon. Curiously, however, he restricts the instincts, to essentially negative impulses. Our instincts are bad, it is "civilization" which is good. Instincts come from within, "civilization", it would seem comes from without. The more this model is studied the more it seems to be a simple parti pris. Freud's political view, sneaked into The Future of An Illusion under cover of science would support this:

"It is just as impossible to do without control of the mass by a minority as it is to dispense with coercion in the work of civilization. For masses are lazy and unintelligent. "5

This is not science, it is snobbery and it is breathtaking that a man who thought of himself as a dispassionate scientist could include such a subjective, value-laden judgement in what purports to be a scientific tract. Freud's conviction that the "instincts" are destructive and antisocial is of a piece with his belief that "masses are lazy and unintelligent". It is a prejudice which his theory is established to encompass. To search Freud's work for evidence of the destructive nature of the instincts is to be disappointed. His theory assumes that they are destructive. It is, indeed, built out of the supposition that they are. Yet how are we to know what is "instinctive"? How do we draw the line between "instinct" and what is learnt, what we ourselves create out of the biologically given? From the point of view of this problem, MacMurray's definition is much more adequate. If we accept that what is instinctual is never learnt, that an instinct is "a specific adaptation to environment" then we can see that the honeycomb building of the bee deserves to be called instinctual, while an act of human incest doesn't. Crucial here are the concepts of intention and action. In the bee, neither exist. The bee simply behaves according to instinct. Its behaviour is so fully adapted to its environment that it has no choice. What is characteristic of human beings, however, is that our behaviour is so little adapted that we are forced to choose between one course of action and another.

Freud's theory postulates that between the wish, which is instinctual, and the act, falls "civilization". To ask what this concept means is to arrive at a negative definition: everything which is not instinct. The mystery remains: how do we, being impelled by instinct to behave so badly, succeed in creating a "civilization" which restrains us? Can the answer to this be any other than that we are forced to create "civilization" not to defend ourselves from our so-called instincts", but because we are virtually bereft of instincts? Having no instincts to dictate how we should live we have to create an equivalent and it is precisely this, a network of values, prohibitions, traditions, customs and so on which constitutes civilization. Our biological impulses are no guide to action. We have a sexual drive but how shall we use it? To seduce children? To engage in prostitution? To speak of a human sexual instinct is to exaggerate. As in all other spheres of life, because we are free to choose how to act, we submit our sexual impulses to conscious choice, we direct them to fulfil our personal, emotional and moral ends. It is not true, as Freud contends, that "civilization" stands in opposition to "instinct". It is the case, rather, that where there is instinct there can be no civilization.

If we were to accept John MacMurray's definition of instinct, then "civilization" would be powerless against it. If human beings were born with a specific adaptation to environment which impelled them to cannibalism, there would be no means for them to create the cultural prohibitions against cannibalism. The very existence of human culture militates against the notion of human instinct. Only if we define instinct extremely loosely so that it becomes synonymous with impulse can we make it compatible with the existence of culture, but this is to rob the term of any significant meaning. The superiority of MacMurray's definition over Freud's is that its rigour permits us to distinguish mere impulse, which is too weak in and of itself to determine behaviour and which leaves open, therefore, the possibility of choice and action, and instinct which dictates behaviour and makes choice and action impossible.

In MacMurray's view, an instinct which does not determine behaviour is a contradiction in terms. "Civilization", then, is what we must create in order to have any life at all. We are forced to choose and to act, forced to create values and institutions which express and protect them. This view solves the problem which Freud's position creates, for it makes clear that "civilization" is, as it were, the completion of human nature rather than its necessary suppression by forces which we create against the dictates of instinct. For MacMurray, the essence of our condition is its mutuality. We are not born with instincts which dictate behaviour, rather we are born with impulses which are moulded in and through our relations with others. Even the child's "sucking instinct" has to be educated. Mothers often have to guide their baby's mouth to the nipple and persevere to get the child used to sucking. It could be said that in other species too mothers facilitate the suckling of their young, but in no other species would offspring who failed to suckle properly be offered a feeding bottle as a substitute. Other species can learn to assist what is instinctual, but to a very limited degree. Only human beings have the capacity to originate ways of living, quite beyond what is provided for by impulse. Everything that is characteristically bee-like is instinctual, but whatever is characteristically human must be learnt, yet before it can be learnt, it must be created.

For human beings, there is no such thing as a state of nature. Freud writes:

"But how ungrateful, how short-sighted after all to strive for the abolition of civilization! What would then remain would be a state of nature, and that would be far harder to bear. "6

This presupposes that individuals are engaged in an attempt to abolish "civilization", that it is a desire harboured by everyone, because "civilization" trammels our instincts. We want to live according to instinct. We want, that is, to commit incest, cannibalism and murder; we feel that if only we could we would be free. Yet this only deepens the mystery: if our desire to do these things is so strong, why, universally, have we created cultures which militate against them? Surely this is possible only because we have a will which is stronger than our "instincts". But this returns us to the problem that an "instinct" which is not powerful enough to dictate behaviour is something less than an instinct.

Further, Freud suggests here that the abolition of civilization is indeed possible, that humankind can return to "a state of nature", difficult those this would be to bear. What, it is fair to ask, would a "state of nature" look like? And if a "state of nature" is somehow the original condition of humankind, why and how did we leave it? Freud's myth of the murder of the primeval father is a poor answer, especially for a would-be scientist. The problem with the idea of a "state of nature" is that it presupposes a place in nature for humanity that is not contradictory. It supposes that humanity can be embedded in nature as completely as the bee. Yet this could only be so if we were incapable of creating "civilization" for the latter is built out of our contradictory place in the natural order. "Civilization" is not an optional adjunct to human nature, it is its fundamental expression.

A "state of nature" would not be hard to bear, it would be impossible to achieve. Human beings live socially and the origin of society lies not in the murder of a primeval father, but in the taboo on incest and this is introduced, not out of any intrinsic disgust with incest, but in order to establish clear relations of kinship. In other words, incest is sacrificed in order to create social cohesion and this is. indispensable because, as Reinhold Niebuhr says, human beings are individuals but not self-sufficing. Society, community, "civilization" do not come into existence in order to hold our rapacious instincts in check, they express, rather, a need for mutuality which is more powerful than mere sexual desire. Compared to the need for mutuality, the human sexual drive is feeble. Indeed, the need for mutuality makes up a great portion of the sexual impulse. We do not seek sexual partners for mere physical release, but for togetherness, and for the escape from egotism that love of others provides. It is not the case that, as Rieff puts it, the individual self is the locus of a struggle between "unregenerate instincts and overbearing culture"7, it is rather that it is the locus of a struggle to create the culture without which human life is simply impossible because it is, irreducibly, a life in common. "Civilization" does not, as Freud insisted, have to be "defended against the individual"8 it is the only means by which individuality can be expressed. Freud's model of the isolated individual nursing his or her destructive instincts while collective "civilization" erects one barrier after another against them is an utterly false picture of what it means to be human. There is no contradiction between "civilization" and the individual for without the former the latter would simply perish. Freud's belief that "civilization" could be dismantled and that we could live in "a state of nature" flows from his separation of "instinct" and "civilization". If we were to remove the interdictions which make up "civilization" we would then live by "instinct" alone, which would mean a state of savagery in which murder and cannibalism were rife.   But if we were able to live by "instinct" alone, why would we have created "civilization"?  Freud's opposition of powerful instincts and powerful culture is mistaken.   In its place we should put impulse which is too weak to tell us how to live and culture which is precisely an attempt to answer the eternal question "how should we live?”

"The mental," Freud insisted psychoanalysts should never forget, "is based on the organic." In a straightforward sense this is a truism: without the brain there could be no thought. Yet Freud meant more than this. He was suggesting that reduction of mental phenomena to the level of the physiological which was carried out, perhaps not in the way Freud would have wished, by his pupil, Wilhelm Reich. For Reich, there is no difference between a value and a physical sensation and hence he can attribute a moral value to orgasm. Regular sexual climax is Reich's panacea. Once again, it is difficult to understand why, if paradise can be so easily and pleasantly attained, humankind ever left it. That thought would be impossible without a brain does not mean, however, that thought and the brain are synonymous. That feeling would be impossible without organs does not mean that fear is the same thing as the stomach. Thoughts, feelings and values though they cannot exist without the organic cannot be reduced to it. They have an autonomous life however much they depend upon the organic for it. Without the brain there would be no human values, but these values do not arrive unbidden, they are not, that is, instinctive. They are the creation of human thought, which is a conscious, intentional activity, but also of human activity. The human subject is not first of all a thinking but an acting subject. Thought does not come first and action follow in its train, thought and action occur simultaneously.   

That the human self should be defined principally through action dispels the model of "instinct" in contention with "civilization", for action is conscious and intentional and as such cannot be said to be instinctive. However much it may be true that our actions are limited by our innate endowment (no-one can be in two places at once or live to be three hundred years old) to act is to create. Behaviour is the mere repetition of what instinct dictates. Bees make honeycombs in the same way through the millennia. Change in the nature of action is characteristic of human beings precisely because we are constantly addressing the problems which our actions throw up. Further, the fact that we are defined essentially through action is the very basis of culture, of "civilization". In this view, action grows out of but is greater than innate endowment and is, at the same time, the creative source of the culture in and through which we live. There is no possibility of a "state of nature" for humankind. Nor is there in human life anything which deserves the name of instinct. Human life is life in culture, in "civilization", it is a life of conscious choice and intentional action, it is a life of creation. We are evil not through "instinct" and good through "civilization": good and evil are questions of choice. A human culture, a "civilization" can be evil. The evil totalitarian civilizations of the twentieth century have not come into being because "instinct" has been set free. They have been created out of conscious choice and hard work.

Yet in recognising that the origin of human society is found in the taboo on incest perhaps we can say that Freud is right: there is a conflict between the way nature impels us to behave and the culture that we create for ourselves. Sexual feelings towards close relatives are natural but we are made to feel disgust for then by the repressions of culture, Woe to us then if we let these repressions diminish for our natural feelings may take over and culture be threatened. What is wrong with this, however, is that it suggests that the desire for unrestricted sexual activity is more powerful than the desire for social cohesion, that culture is weak and nature strong. If this were so it would be alarming to find that the taboo on incest is a universal phenomenon of human culture, That it is suggests that the need for social cohesion, for community, is far more powerful than the desire for sexual intercourse free of all restrictions. The very fact that incestuous sexual desires can be repressed so successfully that many people never suffer any mental anguish or physical symptoms of their repression, indicates that the sexual impulse is easily channeled into forms which are compatible with social cohesion. The need for mutuality, for society, is, however, incapable of repression. We can live without incest but we cannot live without mutuality.

However, our innate need for mutuality does not make it an instinct for the need itself does not tell us how it should be met. On the contrary, the fulfillment of the need for mutuality is a problem which can be solved only by choice and action, but never solved definitively. We have to create, out of our freedom to choose and to act, a means of fulfilling this need, of overcoming the anxiety it engenders if left unfulfilled. It is in this freedom to choose that arises the possibility of mistakes. Life provides no guarantee that our choices will be the right ones and this is the-source of both our grandeur and our tragedy. "Civilization" is no asylum for humanity for it is created out of our choices and actions and for this reason can express evil just as readily as good. For Freud, "civilization" is what saves humanity from instinct. It is a haven. A refuge. "Civilization" means safety while "instinct" spells danger. The truth is that "civilization" can be perilous, cruel, terrifying. As we are not ruled by instinct we are free to choose and to act and it is this which makes good and evil possible. For the bee there is neither. There is only necessity. Good and evil begin where necessity ends. This fact makes the model of evil "instinct" and good "civilization" misleading for it is not the case that we are impelled by nature to perform evil but resist it only through some mysteriously engendered "civilization". We are impelled by nature to do neither good nor evil for these judgements of value refer only to actions. The behaviour of the bee is neither good nor evil. It is what it is and like all else which is a result of necessity is beyond value judgements. Human actions, however, being the result of choice and intention are always subject to such judgements.

In Freud's view there is "instinct" on the one hand, a natural force we are powerless to change, and "civilization" on the other, an abstract force which oppresses the individual whose greatest wish is to set free his or her "instincts". There is no space here for freedom, for the individual self choosing and acting and by doing so creating that "civilization" which is not a straight jacket on our instincts but rather the only means through which our innate impulses can be realized. Freud is unequivocal in seeing the individual as a threat to "civilization" and in asserting that "coercion" and "renunciation" are essential. Yet without free individuals freely choosing to behave in ways which encourage all that is implied in the positive connotations of "civilization", such a thing could never exist. In totalitarian communism and fascism we have seen what happens when "civilization" becomes coercive, when it makes fear of individual conscience and action its watchword, It is not instinct that we must fear, it is absence of freedom and nothing stands in the way of freedom so resolutely as fear itself. Freud teaches us to be afraid of ourselves because our "instincts" will betray us into evil. But fear of yourself is also bound to be fear for yourself and this makes us inward, narcissistic, suspicious, ungenerous. The archetypal fear is, of course, fear of death. It is only by overcoming this that we can live, for paralysed by fear, life itself is a living death. By overcoming our fear of ourselves and of others we overcome our fear for ourselves and can then succeed, as John MacMurray puts it, in "living in terms of what is not ourselves".9

It is this notion of self-transcendence which is missing from Freud's model. It is bound to be absent because it is incompatible with the notion of instinct. A bee is incapable of self-transcendence precisely because its existence is limited by instinct. We, on the other hand, are incapable of living without self-transcendence, because our lives are not dictated by instinct. It is because of our innate capacity and need for self-transcendence that we live in and through a culture of our own creation and it is because this culture or "civilization" is built out of our choices and actions that it can be either good or evil. All we have to defend us against evil is conscience. Freud's model, which pits an essentially beneficent "civilization" against disruptive instinct, pushes conscience and the idea of action on the basis of conscious conscientious choice out of the picture. Yet if when "civilization" tends towards evil we believe that what is taking place is that our instincts are breaking through, doesn't this suggest that social suppression is the answer and wouldn't this be in keeping with Freud's prejudice that the few must always govern the many? Worse, doesn't it militate against our recognising that we have made the wrong choices and taken the wrong action and against responses of guilt, shame and remorse for having done so?

According to Freud, "the principal task of civilization, its actual raison d'etre, is to defend us against nature".10 But if we are creatures of instinct, we have no need to be so defended. The bee is perfectly at home in nature and requires no defence against it. It is because Freud is wrong in believing in the existence of instinct in human beings that he is also wrong about the status of "civilization". Human impulses are always less than instincts because they are never "specific adaptation(s) to environment which do not need to be learned". Everything that is characteristically human must be learned. What we do not need to learn—to breathe, to blink, to swallow, to sleep, to eat, to scratch when we itch—could not possibly create a "civilization". What we must learn is what we have ourselves created out of what biology has granted. But what we create, because it is the product of choice, can be good or evil. This is true even of language which we create out of our need for communication. It is not merely that language can be used for evil purposes, evil, can be embedded in words. Take, for example, the term "nigger". This word is intended to be derogatory, it is intended to cause hurt, it is intended to imply inferiority, it cannot be used beneficently. It did not come into existence in some automatic fashion, it was created to express an evil choice, that of racism.

Freud sets up a simplistic opposition between negative instinct and positive civilization. In so doing he fails to address the real problem of human life: that our capacity for self-transcendence gives us freedom to choose but in that freedom lies the possibility of mistakes. "Civilization" can be positive or negative, good or evil. It is not when instinct is set free that evil rules, for such, a thing is impossible. It is when me make the wrong moral choices. It is only because there is nothing In human life that deserves to be called an instinct that good and evil are possible.

[Translated from the French by the Editor]


1 Future of An Illusion, Hogarth Press 1962 p3.

2 Quoted In Rieff The Triumph of The Therapeutic p29.

3 Future of An Illusion p6.

4 See Boundaries of Science Faber 1939.

5 Future of An Illusion p3

6 ibid pll

7 ibid p2

8 ibid p2

9 See Reason And Emotion Humanities Press International 1992.

10 Future of An Illusion pll