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social sciences

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Freud, Sigmund (1856-1939)  
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Sexuality, Drive, Libido

Freud's psychoanalytical corpus rests upon the new conception of sexuality he developed in opposition to the biological conception dominant in the nineteenth century. Sexuality is for Freud a universal psychical disposition that constitutes the very core of human activity. To grasp this encompassing dimension of the sexual beyond anatomy, Freud created an instrumentality that included (1) the redefinition of bisexuality as psychical content; (2) a new approach to perversions; and (3) the psychic duality of the life and death drives.

According to an addition Freud made in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1924, the idea of "drive" is the "most relevant" and at the same time the "most unfinished part" of psychoanalytical theory. From a systematic overall perspective, the concept of "drive" marks the separation line between the psychic and the somatic, and has to be distinguished from the mere "instinct" that determines animal behavior.

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In psychic life, the sexual drive manifests itself through the mental energy that Freud terms "libido." A central concept of psychological theory, "libido" plays a determinant role in the understanding of neurosis, perversions, and sublimation. Not surprisingly, in Jenseits des Lustprinzips (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920), Freud identified the libido with the "Eros of poets and philosophers," which holds together everything that is alive.

The Oedipus Complex

In Abriss der Psychoanalyse (An Outline of Psychoanalysis), a text begun in1938 that remained unfinished, Freud points out that even if the discovery of the repressed Oedipus complex were the only accomplishment of psychoanalysis, it would warrant the claim to rank this discipline with "the valuable new acquisitions of humanity."

In Freudian theory, the Oedipus complex is understood primarily as the unconscious representation that manifests the child's sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and his hostility to the parent of the same sex. The Oedipus complex appears when the child is between three and five years old, and corresponds to the phallic phase of sexual development, which follows the oral and anal phases and is prior to the genital phase that begins in puberty.

For Freud, there is no actual parallel between the male and female Oedipus complex. In the case of the male child, the Oedipus complex comes to an end with the appearance of the castration complex, that is, the recognition by the child that the father figure constitutes an obstacle to the realization of his incestuous desires. He then renounces the mother and evolves towards an identification with the father that allows him to choose objects different from the mother, but of her same sex.

Contrasting with this development in the male child, the Oedipus complex in the female child is rendered possible by her awareness of castration, which results in penis envy. The complex is manifested in her desire to have a child by her father. The girl, then, has to renounce her mother as an object of the same sex in order to reorient herself toward the desire of the paternal penis. Despite this developmental asymmetry, Freud contends that the libido present from the outset in both sexes is of a male nature.

The assumption of this libidinal monism is corroborated, according to Freud, by the analogy between the female "refusal of femininity" in the form of penis envy and the male "resistance against the passive attitude" toward other men. Common to both sexes, the rejection of feminine passivity is rooted in the biological basis of sexuality, which psychoanalysis is incapable of altering.

The Unconscious and the Conscious Negations

According to Freud, the unconscious is internal to the conscious and beyond the reach of an individual's awareness. Although Freud was not the first to intuit the reality of the unconscious nor was he responsible for the coinage of the term, his understanding and method of approaching the unconscious are essentially different from those of previous psychologists and psychiatrists (from Franz Anton Mesmer to Pierre Janet), and of the representatives of the German philosophical tradition (Wilhelm von Schelling, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche).

Freud's unconscious is not a mere "subconscious" beyond direct accessibility by the conscious, but a psychic system that manifests itself to the conscious through dreams, word play, parapraxis (Fehlleistungen), slips of the tongue, and pathological symptoms.

Such manifestations of the unconscious are liable to psychoanalytical interpretation in a process that transforms their contents into articulations of the conscious. The unconscious itself, however, evades interpretation because the conscious mind articulates itself on the basis of negation and its derivatives (such as the mechanisms of disavowal, defense, and taboos), while in the unconscious there is "no negation" (keine Negation), only contents that are more or less strongly charged with psychical energy.

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