On Sigmund Freud's Death Drive

    When I first learned about Thales of Miletus and his claim that "all is water", I chuckled, and thought something along the lines of "what a silly dude, making such a silly claim". Only much later did I understand the magnitude of his claim - that although the specifics (water) were arbitrary, he had just pioneered the notion of a principle common to all that exists.

    Similarly, when they hear the term "death drive", most people assume Sigmund Freud was talking about some innate, nihilistic desire to destroy oneself or others - and rightfully think him silly at best, and evil at worse. His idea, however, is much more complex - and interesting - than that.

    In his early work, Freud had proposed that, since even the most complex of mental phenomena had developed out of simple instinct, it could not contradict their nature. Therefore, even our most complex thoughts and actions had to follow the pleasure principle that guides instincts. Based on this misguided notion, he still properly identified the importance of teaching children to delay gratification.

    In 1920, however, he realized that certain behavior, like the compulsive reenacting of traumatic experiences, was entirely incompatible with the pleasure principle. The solution was to ground both our conceptual consciousness and our instincts in something even more fundamental - the nature of organic life itself. He identified that life itself is a balance between two tendencies: "spending energy to maintain and develop itself" and "returning to an earlier stage, and ultimately to inorganic, dead matter". He called them the life and death drives, respectively.

    Like Thales, Freud formulated a theory with questionable specifics, but which identified very important general ideas. Decades before Ayn Rand, he identified that consciousness begins at the sensory level of single-celled life. More importantly, he identified that the nature of a more advanced form of consciousness cannot contradict the nature of the more primitive form out of which it developed. This is essential to explain our mind's ability to effect change in our physical bodies.

    At the sensory level a single cell, consciousness is interaction. To become aware of stimuli is to change in response to it. Perceptual consciousness is able to elicit action from physical cells precisely because IT IS an integration of their sensory consciousness - which is, itself, a form of action. I'll talk more about this notion tomorrow, when I contrast my views on the topic with that of Harry Binswanger's Direct Realism.

  -  June 10th, 2020