Death drive

Frank J. Sulloway
A caricature (Ѻ) of Freudian death instinct theorist Frank Sulloway, by artist David Levine, for the 1996 The New York Review of Books article “The Roots of Radicalism” by Jarad Diamond, in review of Sulloway’s new book Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, on why Theodore Kaczynski becomes a “driven serial murderer”, whereas his brother, who shares half his genes, becomes normal. (Ѻ)
In psychodynamics, death drive or "death instinct" a theory which posits that just as in chemistry how there exist drives or driving forces in both synthesis (integration or formation) and analysis (dis-integration or dissolution, debonding, decomposition, etc.) processes, so to must there exist equivalent drives or driving forces for the reverse of the process of the synthesis, combination, or formation processes that are often termed "life" for short. American entropy in the social sciences scholar Eric Zencey summarizes things as follows: [5]

Psychology, too, felt the impulse of thermodynamic ideas, which lurk behind such concepts as libidinal energy, affect charge, and arguably, the death instinct. The lines of debate between those who do and those who do not find the second law behind Freud’s death instinct are admirably drawn by Frank Sulloway (Freud: Biologist of the Mind, 1979).”

Zencey also comments that the thermodynamics of Freud’s work are more generally summarized in Judith Winter’s 1971 “The Concept of Energy in Psychoanalytic Theory”. [6]

The death drive theory, in particular, was posited by Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud in circa 1919 and based on the logic that that combination and dissolution of elements into aggregate substances are balancing processes. In his balancing of drives model, Freud postulated, in short, two basic human drives: eros, the sex drive, and thanotos, the death drive. [1] Freud seems to have culled his death drive theory from physical chemist, specifically the model of decomposition or "dissolving of units", in his own words: [2]

“Starting from speculations on the beginning of life and from biological parallels, I drew the conclusion that, besides the instinct to preserve living substance and to join into ever larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct to seek to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primeval, inorganic state. That is to say, as well as Eros there was an instinct of death. The phenomena of life could be explained from the concurrent or mutually opposing action of these two instincts.”

The theory or the death drive, or todestribe in the original German, sometimes translated in English as ‘death instinct’, although Freud seems to have employed both terms. The finalized version of Freud’s death drive theory was published in his 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle. [4]


The development of Freud's death drive theory, in part, was said to have been influenced by the earlier ideas of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In a 1919 letter, for instance, Freud wrote that regarding:

“The theme of death, [that I] have stumbled onto [is] an odd idea via the drives and [I] must now read all sorts of things that belong to it, for instance Schopenhauer.”

This would implicate Freud’s concept of death or the will to death as the opposite of the will to life, in the Schopenhauer sense, who taught that "death is the goal of life", or something to this effect. [3]

See also
Heat death
● Hunger drive
Sex drive

1. Schneider, Eric D. and Sagan, Dorion. (2005). Into the Cool - Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life (pg. 305). The University of Chicago Press.
2. Rifkin, Jeremy. (2010). The Empathic Civilization: the Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis (death instinct, pg. #). Polity Press.
3. Gay, Peter. (1989). Freud: A Life for Our Time (pg. 391). Publisher.
4. Freud, Sigmund. (1920). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Publisher.
5. (a) Sulloway, Frank. (1979). Freud: Biologist of the Mind (pgs. 404-09). Harvard University Press, 1992.
(b) Zencey, Eric. (1983). “Entropy as Root Metaphor”, Conference on Science, Technology, and Literature, Feb, Long Island University, New York; in: Beyond the Two Cultures: Essays on Science, Technology, and Literature (editors: Joseph Slade and Judith Lee) (§9:185-200), Iowa State University Press, 1900.
6. Winter, Judith B. (1971). “The Concept of Energy in Psychoanalytic Theory” (abs), Inquiry, 14:138-47.

External links
Death drive – Wikipedia.

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