Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1922.


IN the psycho-analytical theory of the mind we take it for granted that the course of mental processes is automatically regulated by ‘the pleasure-principle’: that is to say, we believe that any given process originates in an unpleasant state of tension and thereupon determines for itself such a path that its ultimate issue coincides with a relaxation of this tension, i. e. with avoidance of ‘pain’ or with production of pleasure. When we consider the psychic processes under observation in reference to such a sequence we are introducing into our work the economic point of view. In our opinion a presentation which seeks to estimate, not only the topographical and dynamic, but also the economic element is the most complete that we can at present imagine, and deserves to be distinguished by the term meta-psychological.

We are not interested in examining how far in our assertion of the pleasure-principle we have approached to or adopted any given philosophical system historically established. Our approach to such speculative hypotheses is by way of our endeavour to describe and account for the facts falling within our daily sphere of observation. Priority and originality are not among the aims which psycho-analysis sets itself, and the impressions on which the statement of this principle is founded are of so unmistakable a kind that it is scarcely possible to overlook them. On the other hand, we should willingly acknowledge our indebtedness to any philosophical or psychological theory that could tell us the meaning of these feelings of pleasure and ‘pain’ which affect us so powerfully. Unfortunately no theory of any value is forthcoming. It is the obscurest and least penetrable region of psychic life and, while it is impossible for us to avoid touching on it, the most elastic hypothesis will be, to my mind, the best. We have decided to consider pleasure and ‘pain’ in relation to the quantity of excitation present in the psychic life—and not confined in any way—along such lines that ‘pain’ corresponds with an increase and pleasure with a decrease in this quantity. We do not thereby commit ourselves to a simple relationship between the strength of the feelings and the changes corresponding with them, least of all, judging from psycho-physiological experiences, to any view of a direct proportion existing between them; probably the amount of diminution or increase in a given time is the decisive factor for feeling. Possibly there is room here for experimental work, but it is inadvisable for us analysts to go further into these problems until we can be guided by quite definite observations.

We cannot however profess the like indifference when we find that an investigator of such penetration as G. Th. Fechner has advocated a conception of pleasure and ‘pain’ which in essentials coincides with that forced upon us by psycho-analytic work. Fechner’s pronouncement is to be found in his short work ‘Einige Ideen zur Schöpfungs- und Entwicklungsgeschichte der Organismen’, 1873 (Section XI, Note p. 94) and reads as follows: ‘In so far as conscious impulses always bear a relation to pleasure or “pain”, pleasure or “pain” may be thought of in psycho-physical relationship to conditions of stability and instability, and upon this may be based the hypothesis I intend to develop elsewhere, viz.: that every psycho-physical movement rising above the threshold of consciousness is charged with pleasure in proportion as it approximates—beyond a certain limit—to complete equilibrium, and with “pain” in proportion as it departs from it beyond a certain limit; while between the two limits which may be described as the qualitative thresholds of “pain” or pleasure, there is a certain area of aesthetic indifference.’

The facts that have led us to believe in the supremacy of the pleasure-principle in psychic life also find expression in the hypothesis that there is an attempt on the part of the psychic apparatus to keep the quantity of excitation present as low as possible, or at least constant. This is the same supposition only put into another form, for, if the psychic apparatus operates in the direction of keeping down the quantity of excitation, all that tends to increase it must be felt to be contrary to function, that is to say painful. The pleasure-principle is deduced from the principle of constancy; in reality the principle of constancy was inferred from the facts that necessitated our assumption of the pleasure-principle. On more detailed discussion we shall find further that this tendency on the part of the psychic apparatus postulated by us may be classified as a special case of Fechner’s principle of the tendency towards stability to which he has related the pleasure-pain feelings.

In that event, however, it must be affirmed that it is not strictly correct to speak of a supremacy of the pleasure-principle over the course of psychic processes. If such existed, then the vast majority of our psychic processes would necessarily be accompanied by pleasure or would conduce to it, while the most ordinary experience emphatically contradicts any such conclusion. One can only say that a strong tendency towards the pleasure-principle exists in the psyche, to which, however, certain other forces or conditions are opposed, so that the ultimate issue cannot always be in accordance with the pleasure-tendency. Compare the comment of Fechner in a similar connection. ‘Therewithal it is to be noted that the tendency towards the goal does not imply the attainment of it and that in general the goal is only approximately attainable….” If we now address ourselves to the question of what circumstances have the power to frustrate the successful carrying out of the pleasure-principle we shall be treading on safer and better-known ground, and we can draw in abundant measure on our analytical experiences for the answer.

The first case of such a check on the pleasure-principle is perfectly familiar to us in the regularity of its occurrence. We know that the pleasure-principle is adjusted to a primary mode of operation on the part of the psychic apparatus, and that for the preservation of the organism amid the difficulties of the external world it is ab initio useless and indeed extremely dangerous. Under the influence of the instinct of the ego for self-preservation it is replaced by the ‘reality-principle’, which without giving up the intention of ultimately attaining pleasure yet demands and enforces the postponement of satisfaction, the renunciation of manifold possibilities of it, and the temporary endurance of ‘pain’ on the long and circuitous road to pleasure. The pleasure-principle however remains for a long time the method of operation of the sex impulses, which are not so easily educable, and it happens over and over again that whether acting through these impulses or operating in the ego itself it prevails over the reality-principle to the detriment of the whole organism.

It is at the same time indubitable that the replacement of the pleasure-principle by the reality-principle can account only for a small part, and that not the most intense, of painful experiences. Another and no less regular source of ‘pain’ proceeds from the conflicts and dissociations in the psychic apparatus during the development of the ego towards a more highly co-ordinated organisation. Nearly all the energy with which the apparatus is charged comes from the inborn instincts, but not all of these are allowed to develop to the same stage. On the way it over and again happens that particular instincts, or portions of them, prove irreconcilable in their aims or demands with others which can be welded into the comprehensive unity of the ego. They are thereupon split off from this unity by the process of repression, retained on lower stages of psychic development, and for the time being cut off from all possibility of gratification. If they then succeed, as so easily happens with the repressed sex-impulses, in fighting their way through—along circuitous routes—to a direct or a substitutive gratification, this success, which might otherwise have brought pleasure, is experienced by the ego as ‘pain’. In consequence of the old conflict which ended in repression the pleasure-principle has been violated anew, just at the moment when certain impulses were at work on the achievement of fresh pleasure in pursuance of the principle. The details of the process by which repression changes a possibility of pleasure into a source of ‘pain’ are not yet fully understood, or are not yet capable of clear presentation, but it is certain that all neurotic ‘pain’ is of this kind, is pleasure which cannot be experienced as such.

The two sources of ‘pain’ here indicated still do not nearly cover the majority of our painful experiences, but as to the rest one may say with a fair show of reason that their presence does not impugn the supremacy of the pleasure-principle. Most of the ‘pain’ we experience is of a perceptual order, perception either of the urge of unsatisfied instincts or of something in the external world which may be painful in itself or may arouse painful anticipations in the psychic apparatus and is recognised by it as ‘danger’. The reaction to these claims of impulse and these threats of danger, a reaction in which the real activity of the psychic apparatus is manifested, may be guided correctly by the pleasure-principle or by the reality-principle which modifies this. It seems thus unnecessary to recognise a still more far-reaching limitation of the pleasure-principle, and nevertheless it is precisely the investigation of the psychic reaction to external danger that may supply new material and new questions in regard to the problem here treated.