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Miller, M.L. (1943). Some Problems Presented by Freud's Life-Death Instinct Theory: George B. Wilbur. Amer. Imago, II, 1941, pp. 134–196, 209–265.. Psychoanal Q., 12:444-446.
Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing: Some Problems Presented by Freud's Life-Death Instinct Theory: George B. Wilbur. Amer. Imago, II, 1941, pp. 134–196, 209–265.

(1943). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 12:444-446

Some Problems Presented by Freud's Life-Death Instinct Theory: George B. Wilbur. Amer. Imago, II, 1941, pp. 134–196, 209–265.

Milton L. Miller

After introductory remarks concerning the analogy between psychoanalytic and mathematical procedure in scientific speculation and preliminary methodological warnings, the author tries to determine how far modern biology substantiates Freud's Life-Death Instinct Theory.

The 'steady state' theory is currently applied in modern biology. This does not refer to states of equilibrium such as are found in machines. Steady states in living beings are characterized by constant expenditure of energy in one direction even in the resting state. The author arrives at a dynamic formulation S® (O) ®Z which describes the constant flux from source (S) to organism (O) to sink (Z). The organism (O) is enclosed in a membrane and tends to maintain a steady state. Disorganization of the system means death to the organism. The formula S® (O) ®Z is repeated myriads of times within the organism, and the organism in its growth incorporates part of S and Z into itself. Originally S and Z were the sea; now the blood bears a resemblance to the sea in chemical composition. Failure to maintain a steady state in the internal environment results in death. But it is in the nature of living organisms to maintain their steady state, and this may be termed a manifestation of the life instinct.

Organisms tend to increase in complexity but if the more complex organisms break down, the smaller, component ones, tend to go on. After a certain

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amount of independence of the environment is achieved by an organism, there is spontaneity of action and apparent external motivation in various actions.

In the human being, the steady state both breaks down and synthesizes. These are two aspects of the same process; one is not the cause of the other.

Living things, as for instance the embryo, exhibit the synthesizing, integrating tendency. Formlessness, or nothingness, is the other extreme. Living organisms have a tendency to duplicate themselves but anything that tends to disrupt the form can be called a manifestation of the death instinct. Death is a return to the formless. Since we know only form, death has no psychological representative except in terms of its opposite, life.

Too much narcissism may cause death by cutting the organism off from its environment. The steady state principle, if it results in complete self-dependence for the organism by cutting it away completely from source and sink, results in death and may be called the 'death instinct'.

The tendency to autonomy in a steady state system is shown in the psychological as well as physical plane. The death instinct would lead to an attempt to find satisfaction in a world of 'spirituality' rather than reality.

Wilbur then discusses the ambiguity of the words 'pain' and 'pleasure'. He deals with the tendency toward repetition of former situations as described by Freud. Freud's statement that the unconscious does not know death is discussed.

There follows a discussion of neuroanatomical patterns and their connection with sexual hormones and then an analysis of the preconscious. The preconscious is secondary to the unconscious system. The preconscious is the result of an overflow of energy from the unconscious, and both are consequences of 'Eros'. An arrest in development in the primary state would lead to death and it would be possible to hypostatize a 'death instinct' to explain it.

Repression leads to the creation of an abstraction. Pain is cathected from the abstraction. Abstractions kill individuality and are therefore less painful. The creation of Freud's Life-Death Instinct Theory is the 'creation of a tool which has the aim of reaching a higher abstract conception of something we can only know and experience as a concrete, and in the main wholly personal something'. We use this tool as a guide, a check, and it acts as a sort of externalized preconscious. It is generalized, not personal. Freud really was investigating the psychological aspects of a biological tendency to incorporate significant portions of the milieu. The tendency to dream, form a superego, etc., shows a drive toward autonomy which if carried to an extreme might destroy the organism. Life and death instincts need not contradict but only oppose each other.

Dreaming does not really satisfy, and therefore it is necessary to act in reality. But in our culture, in life, we go after the object manifestly dreamed about. Satisfaction is still not complete and its lack gives rise to a tendency to set aside or destroy such objects. Therefore aggression is connected with the strivings to achieve real satisfaction. Aggression is directed toward destroying an 'impoverishing culture'. This may be experienced as a desire to destroy oneself.

In other words, starting with the idea that there was only a life instinct,

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the author demonstrates that in the incorporation of the external world man incorporates the self-destroying tendency which has the appearance of an internalized death instinct due to man's relation to the outer world.

This paper, Wilbur believes, is a development and restatement of the implications contained in a hypothesis with which Freud started originally. The death instinct is the result of the organism's attempt to substitute a matrix constructed in its own image for the original matrix. Because this would eliminate the necessary relationship to the original matrix it would result in death.

Freud eventually gave up the stress on the pleasure-pain principle and instead emphasized the 'tendency to reinstate a former condition' as the stability principle. Modernizing the stability principle in accord with modern logic would mean, instead, the tendency to maintain a steady state.

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Article Citation

Miller, M.L. (1943). Some Problems Presented by Freud's Life-Death Instinct Theory. Psychoanal. Q., 12:444-446

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