In the contemporary society, libido represents a concept with deep biological, psychological, social, and cultural meaning. Although nowadays this term is mainly used as a synonym for sexual desire, it has had diverse meanings and implications throughout history.
Whereas libido was seldom a topic of discussion between doctors and patients in Freud's era, modern physicians recognize the importance of healthy and proper sexual functioning as an indicator of general health and quality of life. For psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, libido is one of the most comprehensive and provocative notions.
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The first usage of the term libido, which is derived from Latin for desire and lust, can be traced to Freud's early work in 1894. From 1905 onwards, sexuality was understood according to a drive model. Moreover, a large number of experts of that time wanted to reconstruct the stages and history of the libido's development. This was also the period when Freud started to put libido at the center of his research endeavors.
In his pivotal theoretical work titled 'Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality', which was originally published in 1905, libido was a central piece of the puzzle for his theories of development and psychopathology, in particular its relation to childhood. A decade later, Freud published his review and current synthesis of libido theory in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.
Freud’s 5 Stages of Psychosexual Development
In his theory of infantile sexuality, Sigmund Freud described the maturation of the libido through three distinct stages. These stages include:
- Oral stage - birth to around 18 months of age
- Anal stage - between 18 months and 3 years of age
- Phallic stage - between 3 and 5 years of age
- Latency stage - mid-childhood
- Genital stage - adolescence and throughout adulthood
According to Freud, character traits and pathology are associated with successes, failures, and/or compromises at each of the aforementioned steps in this sequence.
Even later in Freud's career, libido remained a staple construct in his psychoanalytic theory and represented one side in his basic, instinctual dualism. In the sense of eros (or life instinct), an opposition to libido was thanatos, or the death instinct. Over the years, Freud developed a strong faith and high expectations for biological causality and explanation of libido, but still nurtured the sensual and basic sexual aspects of this construct.
Other historical views on libido
Carl G. Jung, who was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology, broke with Freud around 1913 and attacked his theory of libido in his book Theory of the Unconscious. He considered libido a general and undifferentiated form of psychic energy, rather than purely sexual energy. Furthermore, in Jung's view, sexuality emerged and dominated only in puberty, as opposed to Freud's focus on infant and early childhood expressions of libido.
David A. Rapaport completely replaced the concept of libido with a nonspecific and more general drive energy. George S. Klein, one of the most influential systematizers of psychoanalysis, was very judgmental about the uncritical acceptance of libido theory and considered it one of the focal dilemmas confronting psychoanalysis.
In 1976, Roy Schafer listed seven qualities of libido including direction, urgency, mobility, dischargeability, bindability, transformability, and fusibility. Schafer's theory was that dreams, diseases, rituals, jokes, therapeutic effects, and even relationships can be explained through various degrees of libido.
Empirical research is still needed to establish the scientific status of the specific constructs of libido in discussed theories. Today, libido is a commonly used term when talking about reproduction and sexuality. Comparatively, the meaning of libido for both psychoanalysts and psychologists remains controversial.
- Wertlieb, D. Libido. In: Weiner IB, Craighead WE, editors. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. Fourth Edition. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey; 2010. pp. 927-928.
- Miller DL. Misprision: Pitfalls in Teaching Jung in a University Religious Studies Department. In: Bulkeley K, Weldon C. Teaching Jung. Oxford University Press, Inc., New York, New York; 2011. pp. 29-50