Libidinal Stage

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Each libidinal stage, or developmental phase of childhood, is characterized by a specific organization of the libido linked to a dominant, organizing erotogenic zone where excitation is centered and around which fantasies are constructed. The notion of stages does not imply any strictly chronological sequence: these are "phases" or "levels of organization" that may well overlap or coincide.

Freud's earliest theorizations of the idea of stages already implied that each stage represented a specific organizational mode. From the outset, when he was influenced by Wilhelm Fliess's theory of periodicity, Freud had correlated mental organization and the "choice of neurosis" with a succession of phases or periods in the child's development. Later, he linked these different developmental phases to the dominance or the abandonment of one or other of the erotogenic zones (mouth, anus, penis, clitoris). He also saw the process of repression as closely associated with the relinquishment of one such zone in favor of another.

The first edition of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d) made mention only of the oral and anal erotogenic zones, as contrasted with the sexuality of puberty and adulthood, which was dominated by the genital. Subsequently Freud would flesh out the theory of the stages of the libido when, between 1913 and 1923, he introduced the oral, anal, and phallic pregenital stages which preceded the establishment of the genital stage.

In seeking to define the organizational modes of pregenital sexuality, Freud viewed matters from two standpoints. The first of these considered the successive phases of psychic organization in terms of the prevailing erotogenic zone: The one, in each case, upon which excitation focused and around which fantasies were constructed (Perron-Borelli, 1997). The second perspective stressed the libidinally-cathected object and the temporal sequence in accordance with which the subject passed in turn through the various phases of autoerotism, narcissism, and homosexual or heterosexual object-choice. Each libidinal stage was characterized by a particular type of object-relationship, so that incorporation typified the oral stage while retention-expulsion was specific to anal eroticism (Abraham, 1924). This approach showed how the object, just as much as the erotogenic zone, played an organizing role.

The idea of libidinal stages (the terms phase and level of organization are more widely used today) has on occasion encouraged simplistic interpretations that over-emphasize the supposed dates of onset and precise order of the stages. It is impossible to overstate the fact that for psychoanalysis no strict sequencing is required: "The temporal ordering of these stages certainly implies a hypothesized priority of one phase with respect to the next, but the hypothesis in question is inferred from the analysis of adults. . . . In other words, all the stages survive as strata embedded in instinctual impulses and unconscious fantasies" (Perron and Perron-Borelli, 1994).

Freud himself wrote that the different phases of libidinal development could "overlap one another [or] be present alongside one another" (1940a, p. 155). In fact, the chief benefit of the theory of stages is that it helps us to construct a temporal framework in which to locate those effects of anticipation and deferred action, which in turn allow us to understand the mechanism of repression.

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Stage (or phase).


Abraham, Karl. (1927). A short study of the development of the libido, viewed in the light of mental disorders. In Selected papers on psycho-analysis. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1924)

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

. (1940a). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

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

Perron-Borelli, Michèle (1997). Dynamique du fantasme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.