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Lowental, U. (1983). The Death Instinct. Psychoanal. Rev., 70(4):559-570.

(1983). Psychoanalytic Review, 70(4):559-570

The Death Instinct

Uri Lowental

The “death instinct” has always been a much disputed concept, due to the following chain of tenets: (1) Life and death instincts seem irreconcilable. (2) Its contiguity to aggression obscures the instinct's isolated operation. (3) The considerable gap between the instinct's hypothetical instigations and clinical phenomena. (4) Drive theory alone does not lead to a sound conceptualization of the death instinct, neither does the object-relations theory nor that of psychopathology. It is proposed to disengage one link in the chain of dispute and sever the attachment to aggression, so that death-oriented behavior will become like any other behavior: a combination of drives with their derivatives and with moderating or reactive defenses; it may then be compared to a symptom or character trait, its causal factors forming an “aetiological continuum.”

The proposed conjecture is that the death instinct (sensu strictu) accounts only for one fraction of the death motivation (like selfpunishment, for example, which accounts for another fragment). Based upon clinical material this assumption will also be tested in light of Freud's (1895) “aetiologic equation,” his model of syndrome- and character-formation, i.e. the complementary series of (a) precondition, (b) specific cause, (c) concurrent cause, and (d) precipitating cause. A preliminary resume of the present study, wherein the equation is applied to the death motivation, is this: (a) precondition—death instinct, primary, congenital; (b) specific cause—the realization of death through object loss, mother's disappearance; (c) concurrent


* An abridged version of this paper was read before the Israel Psychoanalytic Society, Jerusalem, February 21, 1979.

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