Libidinal Development

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A major contribution of psychoanalysis to human understanding is its explanation of neurotic mental disorders in terms of fixation or regression of the libido. Libido, a Latin term meaning desire, want, amorous desire, is defined as the instinctual sexual energy underlying all mental activity. Psychoanalysis saw libidinal development as spanning the whole psychosexual evolution of the individual from birth to adulthood, as reconstructed in psychoanalytic treatment. Such treatment takes into account the early phases in the organization of the libido, the psychic structure that results from the individual's Oedipus complex and the modes of its resolution, the adolescent phase, and the resulting genital organization of the adult and choice of object.

Development, which involves stages, phases, and periods of organization, is a transformation from an original state to a state of completion. From a libidinal point of view, this final state is the state of adult sexuality, which Freud considered to be the end point of the infantile sexuality present in different forms in different phases. At the time, this idea of infantile sexuality provoked a strong reaction in the scientific world, which rejected psychoanalysis as being "pansexual." The affirmation of infantile sexuality may well have scandalized the world far more than other important ideas in psychoanalysis, such as the notion of dreams having a meaning and the existence of an unconscious psychic life.

The notion of the libido appears in Freud's writings as early as his letters to Wilhelm Fliess, but Freud used it in the general sense used by late-nineteenth-century authors who began to take an interest in human sexuality, particularly Albert Moll and Richard Krafft-Ebbing, who studied sexual psychopathies. In 1905, however, Freud defined the libido in Three essays on the theory of sexuality in reference to the theory of instincts, thus founding the psychoanalytic conception of psychic functioning. These essays invite us to follow the evolution of the sexual instinct in the individual in accordance with specific phases of psychic organization, as well as their consequences in terms of people's psychic reality and the nature and characteristics of the relations people establish with others. Psychoanalysis thus concentrates more on the dynamic character of sexuality and its role in the unconscious, rather than seeking to describe it as a succession of temporal stages.

The sexual instinct during pregenital phases is auto-erotic and is linked to particular zones (the oral cavity, anus), the location of this erotic pleasure depending on the degree of maturity (sucking in infancy, the pleasure of stool retention and expulsion when acquiring sphincter control). Freud made direct observations, which he then described, such as the pleasure of the baby feeding at its mother's breast or the adolescent masturbating. In these pregenital stages the sexual instinct consists of component instincts such as the sadistic instinct, the instinct for knowledge, the instinct for mastery, these nonerotic components being directed toward the object. (These component instincts often appear as pairs of opposites, for example, the instinct to see and be seen.) The great variety and diversity of these component instincts led Freud to declare that children were polymorphously perverse, each of these instincts being capable of continuing later in life in certain adult perversions (voyeurism and sadism, for instance). But this predisposition could also "be regarded as the source of a number of our virtues, in so far as through reaction-formation it stimulates their development" (Freud, 1905d, p. 239).

In the course of a later phase situated between the ages of three and six, the component instincts are unified and organized under the primacy of the genital zone. Then the individual discovers the anatomical difference between the sexes (for Freud, this was limited in both sexes to the presence or absence of a penis). This discovery opens the way to, and organizes, the phallic phase from the fourth year onward. The reaction to this discovery is very different in boys and girls: boys now find themselves confronted with the oedipal problem and castration anxiety. The early dual relationship of mother and son is then followed by a triangular relationship involving both parents, a situation rich in conflict. Freud called this the Oedipus complex, the resolution of which leads to a psychic structure that includes the superego, through the internalization of parental prohibitions. This "childhood neurosis" constitutes the original nucleus of all adult neuroses.

This first period of infantile sexuality is followed by a latency period that is quiet in comparison to the efflorescence of the previous period. Sexual development now comes to a halt or regresses. Previously persistent tendencies succumb to moral repression and moral reactions; shame and disgust make their appearance. During adolescence the thrust of puberty brings the oedipal conflicts to the fore all over again, and their resolution results in the adult genital organization and a definitive object choice.

In the course of development the child takes his or her own body as a love object; then the libido turns toward the parents before finally choosing some outsider as an object. This path temporarily leads to a homosexual object choice and "at the age of puberty boys and girls show clear signs, even in normal cases, of the existence of an affection for people of their own sex" (Freud, 1905d, p. 60), before choosing a heterosexual object. The vicissitudes of this development create fixation points that become way stations in the regressive psychopathological conditions of the adult. Many authors after Freud set about describing them, particularly Karl Abraham.

Although libidinal development includes these infantile and adult oral, anal, and genital phases, it is not just a succession of temporal phases that accumulate, overlap each other, and develop concomitantly. Structuring and organization of the agencies which takes place under the effect of "après-coup." This notion of stimulus enables us to account for the reorganizations introduced later in particular circumstances. A repressed memory, for example, can be transformed "après-coup" into a traumatism. The progressive differentiation of intrapsychic agenciesthe ego from the id in early childhood, and the superego as the heir to the Oedipus complexis one of the achievements of libidinal development and ensures psychic functioning regulated by the pleasure principle and the reality principle.

Melanie Klein offered a profound revision of the Freudian theory of libidinal development by proposing a duality in the life and death instincts. She stressed the precocious nature of the superego and the Oedipus complex. She claimed that the triangular structure of the Oedipus complex could be observed well before the beginning of the genital phase and before the child considered total objects, partial objects (breast, feces, penis) being the only objects having a role to play at this time. She also stressed the precocious modes of object relations, referring to them not as phases in libidinal organization, but as positions : the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.

MichÈle Pollak Cornillot

See also: Activity/passivity; Adolescence; Anality; Antilibidinal ego/internal saboteur; Autoeroticism; Bisexuality; Breast, good/bad object; Castration complex; Choice of neurosis; "Claims of Psychoanalysis To Scientific Interest"; Developmental disorders; Eroticism, oral; Fixation; Genital love; Genital stage; Introjection; Latency period; Libidinal development; Libidinal stage; Libido; Masculinity/femininity; Narcissism; Object; Ontogenesis; Orality; Oral-sadistic stage; Oral stage; Pregenital; Psychosexual development; Quasi-independence/transitional stage; Sexual drive; Sexuality; Stage (or phase); Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality .


Abraham, Karl. (1927). A short history of the development of the libido. In Selected papers of Karl Abraham (Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1924.)

Brusset, Bernard. (1992). Le développement libidinal. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

Green, André. (1990). Le complexe de castration. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Klein, Melanie. (1932). The psycho-analysis of children (Alix Strachey, Trans.). London: Hogarth.

Perron, Roger, and Perron-Borelli, Michèle. (1994). Le complexe d'Œdipe. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Further Reading

Peller, Lili E. (1965). Comments on libidinal organizations and child development. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 13, 732-7.