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


IF this attempt to reinstate an earlier condition really is so universal a characteristic of the instincts, we should not find it surprising that so many processes in the psychic life are performed independently of the pleasure-principle. This characteristic would communicate itself to every part-instinct and would in that case concern a harking back to a definite point on the path of development. But all that the pleasure-principle has not yet acquired power over is not therefore necessarily in opposition to it, and we have not yet solved the problem of determining the relation of the instinctive repetition processes to the domination of the pleasure-principle.

We have recognised that one of the earliest and most important functions of the psychic apparatus is to ‘bind’ the instreaming instinctive excitations, to substitute the ‘secondary process’ for the ‘primary process’ dominating them, and to transform their freely mobile energy-charge into a predominantly quiescent (tonic) charge. During this transformation no attention can be paid to the development of ‘pain’, but the pleasure-principle is not thereby annulled. On the contrary, the transformation takes place in the service of the pleasure-principle; the binding is an act of preparation, which introduces and secures its sovereignty.

Let us distinguish function and tendency more sharply than we have hitherto done. The pleasure-principle is then a tendency which subserves a certain function—namely, that of rendering the psychic apparatus as a whole free from any excitation, or to keep the amount of excitation constant or as low as possible. We cannot yet decide with certainty for either of these conceptions, but we note that the function so defined would partake of the most universal tendency of all living matter—to return to the peace of the inorganic world. We all know by experience that the greatest pleasure it is possible for us to attain, that of the sexual act, is bound up with the temporary quenching of a greatly heightened state of excitation. The ‘binding’ of instinct-excitation, however, would be a preparatory function, which would direct the excitation towards its ultimate adjustment in the pleasure of discharge.

In the same connection, the question arises whether the sensations of pleasure and ‘pain’ can emanate as well from the bound as from the ‘unbound’ excitation-processes. It appears quite beyond doubt that the ‘unbound’, the primary, processes give rise to much more intense sensations in both directions than the bound ones, those of the ‘secondary processes’. The primary processes are also the earlier in point of time; at the beginning of mental life there are no others, and we may conclude that if the pleasure-principle were not already in action in respect to them, it would not establish itself in regard to the later processes. We thus arrive at the result which at bottom is not a simple one, that the search for pleasure manifests itself with far greater intensity at the beginning of psychic life than later on, but less unrestrictedly: it has to put up with repeated breaches. At a maturer age the dominance of the pleasure-principle is very much more assured, though this principle as little escapes limitations as all the other instincts. In any case, whatever it is in the process of excitation that engenders the sensations of pleasure and ‘pain’ must be equally in existence when the secondary process is at work as with the primary process.

This would seem to be the place to institute further studies. Our consciousness conveys to us from within not only the sensations of pleasure and ’pain’, but also those of a peculiar tension, which again may be either pleasurable or painful in itself. Now is it the ‘bound’ and ‘unbound’ energy processes that we have to distinguish from each other by the help of these sensations, or is the sensation of tension to be related to the absolute quantity, perhaps to the level of the charge, while the pleasure-pain series refers to the changes in the quantity of charge in the unit of time? We must also be struck with the fact that the life-instincts have much more to do with our inner perception, since they make their appearance as disturbers of the peace, and continually bring along with them states of tension the resolution of which is experienced as pleasure; while the death-instincts, on the other hand, seem to fulfil their function unostentatiously. The pleasure-principle seems directly to subserve the death-instincts; it keeps guard, of course, also over the external stimuli, which are regarded as dangers by both kinds of instincts, but in particular over the inner increases in stimulation which have for their aim the complication of the task of living. At this point innumerable other questions arise to which no answer can yet be given. We must be patient and wait for other means and opportunities for investigation. We must hold ourselves too in readiness to abandon the path we have followed for a time, if it should seem to lead to no good result. Only such ‘true believers’ as expect from science a substitute for the creed they have relinquished will take it amiss if the investigator develops his views further or even transforms them.

For the rest we may find consolation in the words of a poet for the slow rate of progress in scientific knowledge:

  • Whither we cannot fly, we must go limping.
  • …….
  • The Scripture saith that limping is no sin.