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Menninger, K.A. (1939). An Anthropological Note on the Theory of Pre-Natal Instinctual Conflict. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 20:439-442.

(1939). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 20:439-442

An Anthropological Note on the Theory of Pre-Natal Instinctual Conflict

Karl A. Menninger

It has become the fashion in some psycho-analytic quarters to speak with patronizing disparagement of what is vaguely termed 'the instinct theory'. Sometimes this proves, upon examination, to refer to Freud's original constructions in regard to the 'libido theory', but better informed critics have in mind the hypothesis of the death instinct and its interaction with the life instinct as outlined by Freud some twenty years ago.

The objections vary considerably in nature; some find fault on the practical basis that destructive tendencies appear to them to serve only self-preservative purposes; others object on purely logomachical grounds to the use of so indefinite a term as 'instinct'. Still others base their scepticism on an inability to accept the dialectic implications of the concept of interacting forces. And, finally, there are those who would like to think of the individual as reacting in a totally undetermined S-R manner to the social and physical environment, discarding all notions of intrinsic energy factors.

I review these objections to the instinct theory on the assumption that all of them are determined in part by a necessity to rationalize certain emotional resistances to the concepts of the theory which seems to them fundamentally pessimistic. Even in the breasts of psycho-analysts, hope springs eternal new. We should all like to find reasons for doubting the inevitability of death or its predetermination by the nature of the organism.

Actually, however, the instinct theory is not so pessimistic as some of its objectors seem inclined to think (feel). I observe in talking with my colleagues that an objection to the instinct theory usually turns into an objection to the theory of a death instinct, and much less an objection to the theory of a life instinct. This is curious in view of the fact that death is far more certain than life, and hence less a matter of 'theory'. One should find some encouragement, as Freud tried to make clear, in the fact that we live at all, even for a circumscribed time.

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