Processes of Development

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The expression "processes of development" is used to describe all the processes and mechanisms that contribute to differentiating-organizing a living being from the start of life onwards. The result of these processes for any given organism at any given time corresponds to its "level of development."

The different phenomena involved in development must be considered in terms of the somatic level (morphological growth, development of physiological functions), behavioral level and psychic level, the level of psychogenesis. The work of genetic (or developmental ) psychology is defined in terms of this last level, but an essential aspect of psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice is also situated at this level.

Freud's interest in the processes of development appeared in his first scientific works, well before he created psychoanalysis. In an attempt to establish the pathways of nerve conduction he tried to grasp their development through comparative anatomical studies of fetuses. From the very beginning he thus posited a principle that he was to use in creating psychoanalysis itself: in order to understand a complex structure in an adult, the sovereign method is to grasp the successive stages in its construction. Moreover, as an ardent Darwinian, he straightaway and ever after considered time as an essential part of the data.

The reason he became so excited by Josef Breuer's account of the case of Anna O. in 1885 was because he saw it as proof that when subjects themselves go back in time through their own history, this has a curative effect. The cases reported in Studies on Hysteria (1895d) are all built around this principle, as is the accompanying theoretical writing.

He thought he had found the psychopathological equivalent of the source of the Nile: every case of psychoneurosis, particularly hysteria, can be considered as a progressively constituted formation based on a traumatic incident in childhood, an incident that is always of a sexual nature and whose effect is deferred, not appearing until the subject reaches puberty. He nevertheless came to doubt that "seduction" of girls by their fathers was as frequent as the hysterics he treated would have had him believe. After a brief period of discouragement ("they are only fantasies"), he effected a remarkable recovery ("they are fantasies" that the patient places in the past and which must be analyzed). The analysis of the case of Little Hans in 1905 (the text was not published until 1909) offered him a live study of the development of such fantasies in the child, as well as their pathogenic effects.

This developmental point of view was to continue to have major importance in Freudian thought. He thus wrote his Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning (1911b) in the imperfect tense, as if he were telling a story. In 1913 he wrote that the psychoanalytic approach "consists in relating a psychic formation to others preceding it in time and from which it has developed [. . .] from the very beginning psychoanalysis has been led to look for processes of development" (1913i).

Freud had to have recourse to a general theory of development in order to account for mental pathologies: they were deviations from the normal pathways, fixations at any given stage that should have been surpassed, regressions to earlier formations, the whole culminating in repetitive, rigid, and irritating structures. It was in these terms that he analyzed the case of the Wolf Man. It was indeed, as its title indicates (From the History of an Infantile Neurosis ), by reconstructing the past that he explained the pathology of the adult (text written essentially in 1914, was published in 1918).

In 1915, Freud wrote Overview of the Transference Neurosis (1985a) in a state of feverish agitation. He was trying to establish correspondences between three histories: the history of the succession of stages in normal psychogenesis; then, more hypothetically, the history of the layering of the psychoneuroses and neuroses (depending on the time of the fixation) in the course of those stages and, even more hypothetically, the history of the stages he refers to as being "phylogenic" in the course of the history of humanity (Perron, 1994). In doing so he based his reasoning, as he had already done on several occasions (particularly in Totem and Taboo, 1912-13a), on Ernst Haeckel's hypothesis, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."

He finally developed a general theory of psychogenesis wherein the stages are considered to be "developmental phases" (today we prefer to speak of "modes of organization") that are characterized by the primacy of an erogenous zone and an object-based mode of relation: the oral, anal, phallic stages and adult genital organization (Brusset, 1992).

Having formulated his second topography and his second theory of the instincts (1920-23), Freud devoted more time to structural considerations and allowed synchronic aspects to outweigh diachronic aspects. Others nevertheless devoted themselves to developing a direct approach to children and the psychoanalytic treatment of children. The pioneers, his daughter Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, took quite different stances on practical and theoretical questions, so much so that their opposing positions shook the foundations of the British Psychoanalytic Society.

Since then an important trend in research, supported by extensive experience of analyzing children, has stressed the pregenital phases of development and the processes of the first individuation, with direct observation of the baby and the interactions between the mother and baby (J. Bowlby, R. Spitz, D. W. Winnicott, D. Stern, B. Cramer, S. Lebovici), but also with regard to the serious alterations we find in cases of infantile autism and psychoses (M. Mahler, M. Klein, F. Tustin, D. Multzer, R. Diatkine). It is worth observing that infant and child psychiatry owes a large part of its remarkable development over the last thirty years to psychoanalysts.

The developmental perspective in psychoanalysis calls for a certain number of comments:

  1. As we have seen, Freud was the first to try to go back through personal history to undo a fixation point; in order, according to a metaphor that was dear to him, to deconstruct a unit and then reconstruct it with a better balance from the vestiges thus revealed. He went on to considerably modify these oversimplistic views, admitting that traces of the past do not exist as such but are constantly remodeled retroactively.
  2. In which case, what history is in question (Le Beuf, Perron, Pragier, 1997)? Analysts cannot limit themselves to working on factual history, the history that any careful anamnestic investigation would reveal. The analyst's only informant is the patient and the history he or shere-counts is made up as much of fantasies as it is of memories of events whose reality is unverifiable; it is largely constructed retroactively and most of the materials are consigned to the unconscious (Viderman, 1970). In fact the history that the analyst is trying to reconstitute is the psychic history of the subject as revealed by the functioning of the subject's mind. It may be very different from a "real" history as told step by step.
  3. But how is it grasped? Direct observation of the baby, which is supposed to provide first-hand objective material is far from being as conclusive as it might appear: the data has no meaning except when interpreted in the light of the psychoanalytic theory it is supposed to support.
  4. From a theoretical point of view, psychoanalysis was shaken by the great controversy on "structure or history?" which began to spread during the seventies from linguistics to all human sciences. We have seen and continue to see in this context the opposition between those who give pride of place to individual history (in currents as diverse as Hartmanian Ego-Psychology and the Kleinian school) and those who reserve it for structure (particularly Lacan and those who followed him).

Roger Perron

See also: Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Change; "Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest"; Developmental disorders; Fixation; Individual; Infant development; Infant observation (direct); Maturation; Ontogenesis; Phylogenesis; Process.


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

Le Beuf, Diane, Perron, Roger, and Pragier, Georges (Eds.). (1997). Construire l'histoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Monographies de la Revue française de Psychanalyse.

Perron, Roger. (1994). Une fiction préhistorique de Freud. In A. Fine, R. Perron, F. Sacco (Eds.), Psychanalyse et préhistoire. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

. (1995). Prendre pour vrai. Revue française de Psychanalyse, 59, 2, 499-512.

. (1995). Théories de la psychogenèse. In Encyclopédie médico-chirurgicale. Vol. Psychiatrie. Paris: E.M.-C., fasc. 37-810-F-30.

Viderman, Serge. (1970). La construction de l'espace analytique. Paris: Denoël.

Further Reading

Tyson, Phyllis, and Tyson, Robert. (1990). Psychoanalytic theories of development: An integration. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Tyson, Phyllis. (2002). The challenges of psychoanalytic developmental theory. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 50, 19-52.

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Processes of Development

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