Henri Wallon

The Psychological and Sociological Study of the Child

Written: 1951;
Source: "L'etude psychologique et sociologique de l'enfant" in The World of Henri Wallon;
Translator: Donal Nicholson-Smith;
Publisher: Jason Aaronson 1984;
Transcription / Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Online Version: Wallon Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2001

There are two distinct, though complementary, ways of envisaging the child: the psychological and the sociological. In France,the psychological approach has for the most part taken precedence over the sociological one. This has not only created a lacuna in our knowledge, but there has also been a tendency for psychology to tackle phenomena whose real determinants are collective or socialand to try to reduce them to individual terms. (It is true that a similar criticism can be leveled, mutatis mutandis, at the sociologists.)

This confusion originates in intellectual traditions which were given very clear expression in the eighteenth century, even though they are older than that and can be traced back at least as far as Montaigne, for instance. The psychological approach is exemplified by Rousseau’s Emile—truly a unique book on developmental psychology. In Emile the child’s development is treated as autonomous, as dependent solely upon the child’s own initiatives. The context in which this development occurs is essentially the physical environment, a context with no function besides that of offering the child a chance to develop his whole potential. This view is adopted by many of the proponents of what is today known as progressive education. Personal, individual aptitudes are the only factor considered. The child should be allowed to follow the dictates of his own, essentially pure, nature and develop it to the full. Society is seen as a corrupting influence, nothing more. This is a perspective in which individualism is carried to its logical extreme.

But as Engels noted in connection with the Discours sur l’inégalite [Discourse on Inequality], Rousseau had a good sense of dialectical oppositions, and he supplies us with a good counterweight to Emile in the shape of his Contrat social [Social Contract]. Men live in society. If they are to escape their solitude, they must completely forfeit their basically unlimited rights because, if exercised, these can only make any collective existence impossible. Here, rather than absolute individualism, we have absolute collectivism. In fact, it is up to society as a whole to restore to each individual those rights which it deems appropriate, although everyone must be treated with an even hand. Such is Rousseau’s principle of equality: it is not a primitive equality of individuals, but rather an equality accorded to all in order to avoid undesirable competition. In a sense this equality serves as a definition: it defines society as opposed to the individual. Confronted by the whole individual, society is only possible if it is the supreme dispenser of rights. For society to accord more to one than to another would lead to its own destruction because it would amount to giving the stronger a means to overwhelm the weaker and deprive him of his rights, which are already fewer in number. Thus Rousseau’s concept of equality has a regulatory function but no real essence of its own.


This polarization of the individual and the social has been preserved down to our own day in the established division of tasks in the study of man. As early as the eighteenth century, a psychology such as Condillac’s was seeking to explain man in general in terms of an individual conceived in a rather abstract way. This psychology assumed it possible to analyze what was in the mind of each individual as though it were exclusively personal in origin. Analysis of ideas and formal examination of their conditions led to the conclusion that their source lay in sensations. The whole of mental life was thought to be made up of impressions, of subjective states—that is, of sensations, whose variability from one individual to the next is notorious. Thus, ideational structures were said to be erected on the very thing most likely to put individuals at odds with one another.

The doctrine of sensationalism was actually a radical solipsism. The problem which arose was, how can the individual get outside himself? And the obvious answer: via language. But what was the origin of language? Was it a convention—like society itself—which was the outcome of a “contract”? If so, how and on what basis had this contract been made? Had a natural language evolved initially out of the reactions linked in every individual to the sensations caused by his relations with things? The discussion always returned to the same question: the transition between individual and social.

This is the problematic area into which we are led by what might be called analytic psychology. Starting from a specific content, this approach finds basic states which are purely subjective in character yet claims that they produce objective effects. The theory requires that combinations of sensations should correspond to the reality of the object and that they should be capable of being common to all individuals.

There is another form of individualism in French psychology, one which, though not actually mystical, is self proclaimedly spiritualist: the psychology of Maine de Biran. It is still strongly affected by eighteenth-century philosophy and displays many traits inherited from Condillac. But here things are the other way around. The individual no longer depends for his contact with the outside world upon peripheral impressions, upon mere sensations which may even be illusory; instead, he relies upon much more immediate feelings, those feelings which result from his efforts to reach realities, to reach individuals other than himself. The sense of the ego, inasmuch as it is a means of getting outside one’s individuality while at the same time affirming it, is here already leading in the direction of a newer conception, one which remains rationalist but which already has a voluntarist tinge. This conception culminates with Bergson, where the tinge comes to color the whole picture. The inner sense of the ego, which up until now had merely ensured the individual’s action upon things, becomes autonomous in Bergson’s psychology. It becomes the pure intuition of its own duration, its own becoming, its own innermost individuality and its own complete autarky. At the same time, Bergson categorically denies the possibility of a scientific psychology.

Both these psychologies, analytical and intuitionist, offer to our view an individual closed in upon himself. French psychology in general has, for the most part, remained faithful to this standpoint, and is essentially a psychology of the ego. This is true even in the case of those psychologists who have sought to reduce the notion of the ego to factors of a natural order—to physiological as well as psychical factors. Dumas is an excellent example. Although he holds to the idea of an ego constituted by external conditions, the ego is still, for him, the essential principle of all psychology. The constant aim of his work is to find physiological correlates of mental life. Yet his analysis, which endeavors to go beyond sensations to neuronal phenomena, and thence to the relations between these phenomena and the phenomena of the external world, does not, when all is said and done, involve a basic change in principle. The search for factors which may, when analyzed, get us away from the ego, is itself conducted as a function of the ego. The ego remains the immutable core of psychology and ultimately the sole target of all of psychology’s speculation.


In contrast with these individualist views, but just as radical, is the attitude of the French school of sociology. Durkheim, the founder of the school, bases sociology on what he calls collective representations. The role of these representations is in a sense all encompassing. Everything that the individual can conceive—even everything he observes that is capable of expression—is not individual but social in origin. It is all a sort of baggage that the individual receives from society. Thus certain beliefs are specific to certain milieus; they are what allows the group to exist—its bond, its basic raison d’être. Yet it is difficult to see how the group could subsist without the cement of those ways of feeling, those rhythms which serve to create concord between individuals; or without those harmonizing chain reactions between one individual and the
next which Durkheim himself observed and reported on when studying religious phenomena among primitive peoples. It is these beliefs that provide the basis in each individual for the development of ideas; and this is why such developing ideas are necessarily underpinned by individual psychology.

Durkheim, however, is interested only in ritual or conceptual uniformities. For him individual behavior is merely an expression of the community. And if individuals appear at a higher stage to have developed ideas of a more personal kind, this is simply an illusion. To begin with, in human societies, ideologies were simply much less complex. With their increased sophistication, it has become possible for individuals to appropriate them in some sense or another. But the fact remains, for Durkheim, that their source is entirely social. In his opinion, everything that is susceptible to linguistic expression, including ways of feeling, is collective in its genesis. Nothing could be more radically opposed to Durkheim’sview than the view of individualist psychology.

Durkheim’s thesis was adopted, though in a more flexible form, by his student Halbwachs. Halbwachs had a knowledge of psychology that was more sensitive than Durkheim’s and also more direct, for he had studied it himself and had started out as a Bergsonian. In his book Les cadres sociaux de in mémoire [The Social Framework of Memory], he tries to show that the phenomenon of memory—held by psychologists to be essentially personal in character, calling for a biological explanation—actually lends support to the sociological thesis. Even an individual’s most personal experiences—those related exclusively to the details of his intimate and emotional life, although they may be inscribed in his memory as being part of his own past—can, in fact, only be formulated and specified, and, indeed, can only exist thanks to points of reference supplied by society.

Halbwachs wished to demonstrate that even our most insignificant attempts to formulate something in our mind presuppose some capacity for localization in time or space, which, in turn, implies that we draw distinctions of which we could have no notion and which we would have no opportunity to draw were it not for the society in which we live. If these reference points were eliminated, nothing would remain of the individual sphere, or at any rate what remained would be impossible to express, impossible to particularize. For memory to operate, the individual must first be able to insert its content into the framework of wholes whose components may vary with the person but all of whose terms must inevitably come from the social environment. For Halbwachs, there can be no intellectual existence without the existence of those social products which Durkheim felt should be called collective representations.

Halbwachs’ thesis, however, is not identical to Durkheim’s inevery respect. He does not deny that there may be such a thing as individual spontaneity and that social references can only serve as means of formulating that spontaneity. We have to postulate the initial existence of a sensibility, with all its demands and all its potential for diversity. Durkheim added no such caveat to his theory. He seems to look upon the individual as a mere agent who obtains from society not only his ideas but also his feelings. Hereduces sensations to the formulas of exchange which allow them to be communicated from one individual to another. Halbwachs does not take up such an extreme stance; he leaves a place for personal responsibility, a place for the individual. Charles Blondel asserted that he could almost have endorsed Halbwachs’ position if only it did not appear to have the framework of the memory annex the major part of memory’s content.

Blondel’s own position is somewhat different. His purpose is. to draw a distinction between the psychological and the social, which he sees as being of equal importance. The individual is at the point of intersection of these two realities. Actually, Blondel puts a good deal of emphasis on social determinants and at times he seems to accept Halbwachs’ claims in toto. Not that Halbwachs had any real priority here: Blondel’s work on La conscience morbide [Pathological Consciousness] came out before Halbwachs’ Cadres sociaux de in mémoire. That the two men had very different starting points is nevertheless clearly reflected in the differences in their thinking. Butthey also had strong links: Both were professors at Strasbourg University, and they enjoyed a close intellectual relationship. There is no doubt that a mutual influence occurred. If their views remained clearly distinct, it was because Blondel remained essentially a psychologist, however much importance he was ready to accord sociology.

In his Introduction a in psychologie collective [Introduction to Collective Psychology], Blondel adduces examples which seem to confirm Halbwachs’ ideas almost completely. Evoking memories from his own childhood of a quite affective and intimate kind, he shows how their recollection depends upon historical events. In one case he cites a memory of a wall covered with posters bearing the name of General Boulanger. In the child he then was, still ignorant of politics but no doubt aroused by the excitement in the street, one of those emotional impressions which so typify childhood sensibilities became a memory which would be able to reemerge in the future solely by virtue of an incident belonging to the history of his country.

In another sphere, that of will—the sphere where Maine de Biran thought he had discovered the self revelation of the ego through a sort of essential intuition—Blondel, in contrast, perceives the action of the social upon the personal. Taking issue with most psychologists and metaphysical thinkers, who see the voluntary act as the most authentic expression of individual spontaneity—the one best able actualize the subject’s autonomy or at least to create the illusion of it—Blondel considers such an act the one most liable to be justified by the motives available to the common consciousness and thus the most conformist act imaginable. Ironically, it is when we give in to Our nature, when we react without being able to reflect on our behavior or to apply accepted norms to it, that we are most inclined to speak of impulses, of reactions independent of our will, of inexplicable aberrations, etc. However, it is when the individual claims to be freest that he is the most influenced by social imperatives.

Thus Blondel here turns the generally accepted view on its head. But what role does he assign to the psychological realm, once he has shown the all-powerful hold of the social over what are usually considered the most eminently psychical functions. Blondel was very attracted to Bergsonism. His work on La conscience morbide bears eloquent testimony to that, for in it he adopts the Bergsonian manner as the one clearly appropriate to the discussion of the individuals inner sensibility And in accord with Bergson s psychology, he treats all exogenous determinants as deformers of the psychological domain. These determinants, which Bergson deals with in terms of mechanization of the psyche, are the same ones which in Blondel’s view represent the social apparatus in its various aspects: ritual, verbal, ideological, juridical, historical, etc. Blondel assigns an external origin to everything in our life having to do with habits, opinions, justifications, motives, etc What is left is the psychological realm—a purely psychological realm, which, if left to itself and deprived all access to the outside, will, according to Blondel's own account, become a realm of pathology

Indeed, the purely psychological can only be recognized in the autistic states of consciousness found in pathological conditions. In other words, the only place to observe this sphere is in the madhouse. Mental illness creates people estranged from society, people at the same time undergoing an extremely powerful emotional surge from within. They can no longer adapt to the conventions of ordinary thinking. Cut off by their autism from outside influences, they speak in an incomprehensible way; their language is corn-posed of utterances which may contain relics of intellectual learning but only in a confused, baroque, absurd, and quite unintelligible form. The psychological domain revealed by mental illness thus has no resemblance to what we generally look upon as the psychological dimension of the normal individual, the individual who can participate in social existence.

The logic of this bizarre language of the mentally ill can nevertheless be identified. There is a tendency for the same terms to used in a different sense simultaneously. The word “heart,” for example, can refer either to the actual bodily organ or to the subjective feeling evoked in the phrase, “His heart is not in it.” Normally, this creates no confusion for us. The mentally ill patient, however, confuses such meanings constantly, often in the most striking way. Blondel’s book on pathological consciousness, La conscience morbide, contains a wealth of remarkable instances and observations of such phenomena; indeed, they take up nearly three quarters of the work. He reports all the explanations and accounts offered by the patients themselves concerning their states. The upshot is a series of rambling and incoherent discourses. The incoherence derives from the fact that, aside from a few neologisms, the patient is obliged to employ expressions found in everyday language. But these ordinary expressions are subjected to all the dislocating effects of the impossible demands made by the “purely psychological,” which is inexpressible. According to Blondel, the purely psychological province is the essence of subjectivity, an essence so suppressed in the normal individual life, so imperceptible in the consciousness of people well-adapted to social life, that it has to be sought in that emotional substratum which only emerges into consciousness with the onset of mental illness.

We therefore have two contrary attitudes. On the one hand, we have traditional psychology, which envisages only the individual and seeks to explain this individual in terms of himself. Such an individual is in any case a pure abstraction, the efforts of some authors to invoke natural causes notwithstanding. On the other hand, we have the sociologists. Among these there are extremists, like Durkheim, for whom the individual is nothing more than are ceptical for social determinations. And there are others, like Halbwachs who leaves a place for psychology, or Blondel, who seeks to demarcate the psychological sphere while maintaining at the same time that this sphere in itself can in no fashion be identified with any states observable in the normal individual living in society and is only to be found in any tangible sense among persons in whom it has regained the freedom to challenge every form of reason.


In addition to these well-defined (and opposed) attitudes, a third approach, which tends to confuse the whole issue, has emerged. It arose in Germany and has prevailed there. Individualism is not unknown in German thought: Fichte may be said, in some sense, to have been a disciple of the French Revolution when he postulated his individual Ego. Yet something befell Fichte immediately there-after which one is tempted to describe as a sickness of German thinkers: the hypertrophy of the concept. What happens is that no sooner has a concept been proposed than it develops a kind of elephantiasis and tends to engulf everything in its vicinity. Thus Fichte starts out from an “individual ego,” but before long this ego becomes a creator and breaks all bounds. It becomes ego-substance, the living and supreme reality of Being. Admittedly, it does retain aphenomenal aspect for a time: there are said to be boundaries between ego and non-ego. Yet these boundaries merely reflect the fluctuations of the essential ego, which is, of course, capable of redrawing them itself owing to the force of its expansionism. If this ego starts out as something individual, it ends as something totalitarian: it rebuilds the world as a function of itself, and its frontiers have nothing in the least definitive about them.

Such conceptual fluidity is endemic to all the philosophical systems and thought-forms which German thinkers have enlisted in attempting to determine the relations and dividing lines between the ego and the outside world. Their projects are swamped by their tendency to blow up any concept, once established, to monstrous proportions. The demarcations which in French thought are occasionally too systematic are quite absent from the German tradition. With an alarming facility German thinkers are wont to mold every viewpoint, every conceivable reality, into hybrid wholes. Their thinking is totalitarian and syncretic. When it comes to the relations between what is individual and what is social, their inclination, rather than analyzing the two categories, searching for their determinants, and examining the corresponding facts, is to stretch the individuals domain into realms where it has no business The syncretization of race is a case in point. Syncretic thinking leads naturally into mythical thinking: hard on the heels of the idea of the Race comes the reappearance of the god Wotan as the raison d’être of the German people. Myths have long served to cloak and consecrate obscure assimilations, which cannot withstand criticism, between ideas or realities that have nothing in common. Racism is the syncretic union of biological, psychological, and social; it would explain every aspect of the individual by the blood running through his veins. Individual consciousness and thought are no more; we are left with an amalgam, none of whose elements are distinguishable from the others, while what are actually the most extraneous factors—anthropological factors—are deemed directly determinant for each individual.

Another instance of this tendency, in which the starting point is not the individual but the whole, is furnished by a very interesting school of German psychology: gestalt psychology (psychology of forms). Many psychologists now accept the gestaltist axiom that details are governed by the whole. The component parts of things are less important than their structure. Structures determine details, and details only derive meaning from the whole.

Gestalt theory’s original basis was a series of experiments on the part-whole perception of figures. Some were interpreted in the same way, despite changes made in their component details or characteristics; in other cases, by contrast, the general aspect was transformed as a result of only minor modifications of detail. Both results showed that the details had no significance of their own and that they were only endowed with meaning thanks to the whole of which they were a part.

The strictly perceptual application of this theory was soon greatly broadened, even by such originators of gestalt psychology as Kohler and Koffka—fine thinkers well acquainted with the ways of science. It was thought that the gestaltist principle could be applied in all fields of science: that physics could be brought down to a study of Structures, for instance; or that in biology it was structures that sometimes created the illusion of goal-directedness and that animal behavior was to be explained neither in a global fashion by appealing to supposed intentions, nor in purely mechanical terms as the outcome of combinations of simple actions, but rather by uncovering structures. As an illustration, Kohler took the behavior of chimpanzees separated by an obstacle from a desired object (such as a banana or an orange) which could only be reached by making a detour or using a tool. Kohler was contesting the thesis of American psychology according to which rats learned to negotiate a labyrinth by a process of trial and error, each wrong turn being eliminated automatically after several vain tries. What he sought to show was that the animal’s solution was not reached bit by bit as the Americans claimed, but rather that each failure modified the behavior as a whole, that each such modification constituted a complete restructuring of the relations between the animal’s motions and its perceptual field, and that this perceptual field was itself com-posed not of the objects filling it but of relationships between particular objects and particular movements of the animal—movements which changed after each try, thus continually constituting entirely new structures until the animal finally reached its goal.

The widening application of gestalt theory did not stop there, however. After the leaders of the school were obliged to leave Germany because they were liberals or Jews, the Nazis pressed the theory into service to justify the individual’s subjection to the group. From this point of view, it was the individual who became a mere component part, a detail with no significance of his own. Whatever he was worth he owed to the social whole to which he belonged and within which he was more or less replaceable. The feelings exalted as helping to unite him to the rest of the group amounted to an emotional fusion culminating in the forgetting of oneself and of all other individuals. The structure of the whole entirely dominated the parts. In point of fact, such a group of people constitutes a clan more than a society. Here, once again, we encounter the same impersonal amalgamation, the same brutal syncretism, the same absence of analytic discernment. Whether the point of departure is the individual or the collective, the outcome is always something total, something herd like which is neither individual nor social. And this is precisely because the problem of the relation between the individual and the social—a problem which has led French psychologists and sociologists to such diverse positions—is shunned altogether.


Successful study of the child requires study of the milieu or milieus in which he grows up. Otherwise, there is no way of knowing with any precision what he owes to this milieu and what isa product of his spontaneous development. It is rather probable, in any case, that nature and environment do not simply make separate contributions which are then combined; more likely, each one serves to bring out the other’s potentialities. In France, at least, environmental considerations have been given much less attention. (This is not true of the United States, where psychology is shot through with sociologistic attitudes.) All the same, every author is bound, in his descriptions and analyses, to give more implicit weight either to the autonomous individual or to his environment. There are a few, however, who have tackled the problem head on, and in the front rank of these we must place Jean Piaget.

Piaget’s starting point is unquestionably individualist. For him, the infant knows nothing outside himself. He is enclosed in “autism”a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Bleuler as a way of characterizing a specific type of mental illness. Now this likening of the state of the infant to the state of autistic patients is, to my mind, untenable. According to Bleuler, autism is the consequence of a break in the associations which link every normal individual to his environment. This break may also eventually affect the links between mental functions themselves, thus becoming intrapsychic in character. Increasingly cut off from the world, from which he is literally alienated, the patient can respond to nothing save his most primitive and intimate interests or sensitivities, his affective or organic impressions. These take over his entire psychic activity and monopolize it completely. In the end his behavior is governed by them alone. The often bizarre stereotyped patterns thus produced are often incomprehensible because it is so hard to get down to the affective nucleus from which they stem. The language of the autistic patient is divorced from language’s normal function, the pursuit of mutual understanding, and is dominated by the need to express the inexpressible organic sensations which have become the sole object of consciousness. Consequently, the autistic patient’s language is transformed, invaded by neologisms, turns away from customary meanings, and plunges into unintelligibility. In his total self-absorption, the patient can only react to the milieu with inertia or defensive responses, with gestures of refusal and negativism.

It is from an autistic state such as this, then, that the child sets out, according to Piaget. But he gradually emerges from this state and enters the stage of “egocentrism.” Here the subjective orientation is still predominant, but outside influences are more and more numerous The child is no longer ignorant of his surroundings, but locates himself at their center He grasps and interprets the existence of his milieu only through the screen of his desires and intentions. The sole reality accessible to him is inhabited by his own subjectivity. Even when this reality seems to be detaching itself from him, he continues to attribute intentions to it which are similar or complementary to his own. This is what is known as his “animistic” phase. Around six or seven years of age, the child’s egocentrism begins to decline, while in inverse proportion to this decline a trend emerges toward a more objective sense of things. Objectivity arises, in Piaget’s view, from the child’s realization that the people around him are not just beings subordinated to his own existence but people comparable to himself, people among whom he belongs as a peer.

Piaget gives us many fine illustrations of this development. The little child walking in the moonlight thinks that the moon follows him as he goes along. If he turns around and goes the other way, the moon will turn around too. But if he meets someone going in the opposite direction, it will not occur to him that the moon might accompany anyone but himself, for the movement of things is ordered by reference to his own ego. We might say that he accords himself a kind of absolute privilege, except that the concept of privilege implies a prior comparison between others and oneself. The day comes, however, when the child has had the moon follow him around in every direction for so long that he does begin to wonder whether what is true for him might not be true for others and whether, in fact, the moon might not be able to follow both him and the person walking the other way In this way he comes to recognize certain relations of equivalence or reciprocity between himself and others. This discovery is said to precipitate a decisive intellectual development. An objective picture of things—that is, a picture based on impersonal relations—is supposed to have as its basis the fact that the child has become capable of acknowledging that what is possible for him is possible for each other person also. Thus, if Piaget’s starting point is absolute individualism, he nevertheless subordinates the development of intelligence to the development of a social sense.

Another striking example of the transition from egocentrism to objectivity is provided by the set of replies obtained with Binet’s well-known test: “I have three brothers: Paul, Ernest, and me. Is this a silly statement?” The reply shows that the child in the egocentric period is unable to conceive of himself as both subject and object, a sat once the speaker and a brother among other brothers. Consequently, he fails to distinguish between “We are three brothers, etc.” and “I have three brothers, etc.” He cannot apply the same relations to himself as he does to others, or, rather, he cannot grasp any relations except for those which radiate out from him toward others. Egocentric thinking is antithetical to relational thinking.

For Piaget, intelligence becomes objective when it becomes socialized. Society’s intervention is one moment in the child’s psychic development—a moment brought about by an intellectual decision on his part, for he has become persuaded, after repeated experiments, that the totally personal viewpoint is beset with insurmountable problems. Thus, at first, we have unlimited individualism in the shape of autism and egocentrism; then this exclusive attitude is rejected, rights are equalized in the child’s mind, and a perfect reciprocity is decreed among all perceiving and thinking beings. What could be more reminiscent of the antagonism epitomized by Emile on the one hand and the Contract social on the other? One wonders what the vicissitudes were of this apparent influence of the “Citizen of Geneva” upon Professor Piaget of the Institute Jean-JacquesRousseau? Perhaps the resemblance in their positions is purely coincidental, in which case it is even more noteworthy as an in- stance of the staying power of some ideological attitudes.

However well designed Piaget’s thesis may seem, it does not, in my opinion, correspond to the observable facts. It misrepresents the true relations between child and milieu. These do not evolve in a simple progression, nor do they depend upon pure reasoning or intellectual intuition. On the contrary, they meld the child’s life and ambience together from the outset, through the intermediary of actions and reactions occurring at all levels of mental activity.

The child’s earliest state is certainly not autistic—not, at any rate, if we understand autism (as etymology and the term’s application to schizophrenics both encourage us to do) as the individual’s withdrawal into his inner world or into the ruins of his innermost sensibility, to the exclusion of any reaction directed outward. Nothing could be further apart than the behavior of the infant and that of the mental patient. Whereas the autistic subject displays stereotyped attitudes and gestures, and phases of immobility interrupted by impulsive actions unrelated to the circumstances, the infant demonstrates a constant sensitivity to external stimuli, which evoke from him either simple perceptual reflexes, or emotional re-actions of varying intensity, or gestures of approach or avoidance. And when these gestures, at first dissociated, begin to become organized, this occurs in connection with external objects such as the bottle.

But the crucial difference is the one between the schizophrenic’s negativism or indifference toward people and the infant’s vital union with his entourage. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say (as Piaget has objected to my doing) that the infant is a social being from the beginning. All the same, the infant depends on his human environment for his means of subsistence and for the satisfaction of his every need. And this objective state of affairs has immediate repercussions which determine the direction of his mental development. In the human species the period during which the offspring cannot be self-sufficient lasts more than a few hours, days, or even weeks; in fact this dependency goes on for years. The first months of life are a time of absolute helplessness for the infant: not only does he have to be fed, but also his position has to be changed, someone has to help him get out of a distressing immobility, he has to be moved around, carried, rocked, dried if he wets himself—in short, his most elementary and urgent needs can only be met with assistance from another person Consequently, all his activities and all his aptitudes are oriented toward his sources of help—toward the people around him. Between him and these people alarm systems and systems of mutual understanding must be established. The earliest utilitarian relationships of the child are not his relationships with the physical world, which when they do appear are purely playful in character; they are his human relationships, relationships of comprehension whose necessary implement is the means of expression. This is why even if the infant cannot be described as a conscious member of society, he is nonetheless a being totally geared toward society from the very start.

The child’s ties to his milieu are not ties of reasoning or logical intuition but ties established through immersion in the situations in which he is or could be involved and in whatever motivates these situations. In a sense, this participation amounts to a loss of self in the situation. I have often stressed the importance taken on from the earliest months by emotional reactions, both those of the child and those of the members of his entourage. By means of these reactions a sort of affective communion is established, which in the child (as no doubt also in the history of humanity) precedes ideological relationships. The part played by the emotions is that of an expressive system antedating articulated language. This language of the emotions is the only language capable, through a sort of contagion, of bringing, about powerful mass reactions. In the rites of primitive peoples, emotions are cultivated with this very end in mind, and in modern society they are still the means used to trigger herd like reactions. In such reactions, with their emotional determinants, those affected are so dominated by convergent or complementary impulses that they are transformed into a single feeling and acting mass. Thanks to the emotions, the individual belongs to his milieu before belonging to himself. What occurs is a kind of primitive communism on the psychological plane, and this in the first phase of development of the child’s consciousness.

When he enters the next phase, between two and three years of age, the child indulges in a multitude of games and pastimes which seem designed to help him distinguish between the active and passive aspects of his own activity, as though it were indeed necessary for him to reassign reactions, hitherto unclearly identified and distributed, among the different actors in a single situation. Next, around three, there occurs what I have called a personality crisis: the child applies his new faculty of discrimination to some-thing more stable and constant than actions or situations; he begins to distinguish between himself and others, and he does so with an extravagance that betokens the emergence of a new aptitude and the need to exercise it. He says “no” systematically to every overture of the other person; he employs the words “I” and “me” at the least provocation; and he learns the distinction between “mine”and “yours.” His possessions are no longer merely objects that he uses or wishes to use, but rather things that belong to him permanently and, so to speak, legally; they have become appendages of himself. Since by the same token he recognizes others’ property, and this threatens his desire to prefer himself to others, this desire becomes very active. This period also sees the disappearance of the last traces of his former confusion: for example, he will no longer produce the pseudo dialogues of an earlier stage, dialogues in which he took turns at being each interlocutor.

The set of developments symptomatic of the ego’s emergence shows clearly that the ego is not a primary datum of consciousness but an acquisition, a conquest; that the child does not pass from individualism to a socialized state, but that, on the contrary, he is obliged to individualize himself out, as it were, from an initial situation in which his impressions and reactions bind him inseparably to his entourage. Actually, there is at this point no more a separate entourage than there is a separate ego. Their differentiation is a process in which both are involved equally, a process which is not carried through in a day but over several years. Every advance in the consciousness of the ego implies a corresponding step forward in the capacity for conceptualizing society.

To begin with, the child’s ego manifests itself in a purely formal and still highly dependent manner, for it asserts itself solely by its opposition to the words and deeds of the members of the entourage. In the following stages it will become more substantial. For one thing, the child begins to indulge and enjoy his own persona and loves to show off, which serves to develop and refine his activity. Even more important, he tries by means of imitation to appropriate the superior capacities he observes in others. As he grows older, the milieus affecting him will increase in number and undergo transformation. And as he grows from one age to the next, it will be increasingly possible for him to choose milieus more or less according to his preferences. Some will be natural milieus like the family, other social milieus like the profession. Yet other milieus will be chosen on more trivial grounds - entertainment, for instance. Each milieu will offer him an opportunity to enrich or change his personality. The study of such different milieus is thus necessary if we are to gain a better knowledge of the individual. The efforts of psychology and sociology should be combined to this end.