Primary Object

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The notion of primary object corresponds to the constitution of the object of satisfaction of needs and wishes resulting from the first mother-infant encounter, even before questions of inside/outside, subject/object have been raised. Its incorporation constitutes the kernel of the ego.

Freud postulates the existence of this first encounter beginning in 1895 in the "Project For a Scientific Psychology" (1950c). Nevertheless, a full theory of the primary object would have to wait for Melanie Klein and especially Donald Winnicott in 1952 and Wilfred Bion in 1961.

Freud conceived of the primal psychic apparatus as undifferentiated, in a state of immaturity and distress necessitating maternal care. The object-breast which satisfies need creates the erogenous-oral zone through anaclisis or "leaning." The inertia principle imposes its conditions on the pleasure/unpleasure principle through the effects of this encounter. Affect-feeling reigns supreme in this primal psychic space, and the experiences of satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction inscribe their traces in it, which makes possible the hallucination of satisfaction via the return [through the trace] and the [re]creation of the object.

For Freud, the "reality ego of the beginning" seeks to constitute itself as a "purified-pleasure-ego"; even though it is "born of hatred" (1915c), which is only apparently contradictory. Unlike Freud, Melanie Klein conceives of the primary psychic space as being from the very first the theater of a completed and active ego animated by drives already attached to their objects, engaged in relationships of love and hatred, desire and gratitude.

Wilfred Bion introduced the "capacity of maternal reverie" as an essential factor in the "alpha function," whose task is to lend constancy and symbolization to the "beta elements" that the infant expels into it [the maternal reverie] through projective identification.

For Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion, the drives and the ego are therefore active from birth. Winnicott's use of the notion of "leaning" remains a bit closer to Freud. He describes a "transitional space" that allows him to suspend the decision between need and desire, internal and external, objective and subjective, primary narcissism and drive. This leads to the notion of the "subjective object," product of the infant's "primal creativity," which, when exposed to "primal maternal preoccupations," secures for the experiences of illusion/disillusion necessary to the constitution of this object from the endlessly created and recreated breast.

Marie Eugenie Jullian Muzzo Benavides

See also: Object.


Bion, Wilfred. (1961). Experiences in groups. London: Tavistock Publications.

Guignard, Florence. (1997).Épître à l'objet. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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

Lebovici, Serge. (1983). Le Nourrisson, la mère et le psychanalyste. Paris: Le Centurion.

Winnicott, Donald. (1958). Collected papers: Through paediatrics to psycho-analysis. London: Tavistock Publications.