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Hamilton, J.W. (1976). Some Comments about Freud's Conceptualization of the Death Instinct. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 3:151-164.

(1976). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 3:151-164

Some Comments about Freud's Conceptualization of the Death Instinct

James W. Hamilton

If so little objective support is to be found for Freud's culminating theory of a death instinct, one is bound to consider the possibility of subjective contributions to its inception, doubtless in connection with the theme of death itself (Jones, 1957p. 278).

In March 1919 Freud began writing 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle' (Freud, 1920) in which he was to introduce the concept of a 'death instinct', a necessary prelude to his later recognition of aggression as a separate drive (Freud, 1923). Prior to that time he had placed almost exclusive emphasis upon libidinal impulses, although in 'Instinct and their Vicissitudes' (Freud, 1915a) he did mention hate as being in opposition to 'the sexual instinct'.

In support of his argument for the death instinct Freud relied upon Fechner's principle of constancy and the repetition-compulsion phenomenon and, in so doing, substituted his usual tight, inductive line of reasoning for a more speculative approach (Schur, 1972). Puzzled by the war neuroses produced by the First World War, particularly the post-traumatic dream, Freud hoped that these formulations would allow for an understanding of these symptoms which he felt clearly exceeded the pleasure principle, a consequence of their compliance with the repetition-compulsion. However, Freud, in his circular thinking on these matters, overlooked the importance of the ego's need for mastery through a reliving of certain traumatic experiences, thus detracting from his argument that the post-traumatic dream and elements of repetition-compulsion were beyond the pleasure principle.

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