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PSYCHO-ANALYTIC VIEWS ON SOME CHARACTER
ISTICS OF EARLY INFANTILE THINKING 1.
BY KARL ABRAHAM (BERLIN).
PSYCHO-ANALYTIC interest is focussed on the question of the origin of psychic phenomena. In terms of psycho-analysis the problem is this: By what instinctive forces, conscious and unconscious, are these phenomena determined? The analysis of psychological products regularly reveals in them the combined workings of the “ego-instincts' and the sexual instincts.' Psycho-analysis attributes to the latter a far wider significance than that ascribed to them by other schools of thought. It is not necessary for the purpose
paper to enter upon a discussion as to whether psycho-analysis is right in this respect; the task before us is a more general one.
Psycho-analysis took as its starting-point the investigation of neurotic symptom-formation. But the more thoroughly was the psychogenesis of a symptom explored the more definitely did the associations of the patients lead back into the past, and ultimately to early childhood. In this way certain necessary hypotheses suggested themselves with reference to the instinctive life, and especially the sexual life, of the child, which were in opposition to the traditional views. These hypotheses were confirmed by direct observation of children, and thus we attained new points of view about the psychology of childhood. Amongst other results we came to know that thinking in early childhood is in a special degree under the influence of the instinctive life. My intention now is to show how certain phenomena of infantile thinking are determined by peculiarities, with which we are familiar, of the instinctive life of the child. As the title of this paper indicates, I do not pretend to give an exhaustive account of the subject; I am conscious of the fragmentary character of my essay.
Thinking is the intellectual side of our relation to the outside world; it is based upon sense-perceptions, the experience of the individual. At the earliest period of our lives the contact with the outside world which is of the greatest practical significance is made by means of
1 Read before the International Congress of Psychology at Oxford, on July 31st, 1923. Translation by Cecil Baines. Med. Psych. III
the mouth. The twofold importance of the mouth as an organ of nourishment and an erotogenic zone is a matter which, as I have said, I do not propose to discuss here. Without passing any judgment, therefore, as to the correctness or otherwise of that psycho-analytical conception I will merely lay stress upon the fact that at this earliest period of life the instinct of sucking is the most powerful one that there is. At a rather later stage the instinct of biting acquires a similar importance. It is only gradually that the child apprehends the outside world by means of eye and ear. The tendency to put every object into his mouth and chew it with his teeth, with a view to completely incorporating it, becomes strikingly evident from the moment that his hands have the power of grasping. To the child at this stage the outside world consists of all those objects which delight him and which he would like to incorporate in himself but has not as yet so incorporated. The ego and its interests are more important than the object-world. At the stage of the primitive pleasure in biting there is as yet no inhibition to check the destruction of objects: the child is still wholly without adaptation to the outside world. In the realm of the ego-instincts egoism is wholly dominant, as is narcissism in that of childish sexuality. Thus we see that the child's primitive attitude towards objects is a simple matter of pleasure or pain. The outside world is regarded purely subjectively according to its effect, pleasurable or painful, upon the ego. This is true to a considerable extent with regard to the thinking of adults as well, but there is nevertheless a great quantitative difference in the two cases. In adults the function of consciousness has a moderating and regulating influence upon the instinctive life; consciousness has the power of confronting the impulses with criticism and applies to our desires the standard of reality.
Thus the psychic attitude of the young child towards objects is determined simply and solely by the pleasurable or painful effect produced upon him by those objects. Side by side with this important fact of the infantile mental life let us hasten to set another phenomenon which is closely related to it. I refer to the discovery that, when two objects arouse in the child similar feelings of pleasure or of pain, he proceeds unhesitatingly to identify them. The critical mode of thinking by which we compare and differentiate is wholly absent at this early stage. A few examples may serve to illustrate this mode of thinking by identification which belongs to early childhood.
A little girl of eighteen months was somewhat afraid of dogs. If she saw one she would cry out in alarm: “Bow-wow bite!” (“Wau-wau
bei't”). When winter came and the house was heated she once went too near the stove and burned her hand slightly. She began to cry, saying “Bow-wow bite!” The fact that a dog that bites and a hot stove both hurt was enough to make the child identify the two. Because the hot stove hurt her it was a bow-wow.
Another baby, about two years old, spent much time by the cage of a canary which she kept on calling by its name “Hans.” One day she called a feather dropped by the bird “Hans” and after that she gave the same name to all feathers and before long to one of her mother's hats which was trimmed with feathers, to her mother's hair and to her own, to a soft cushion and so on. Everything which felt soft was in her language “Hans.” To the adult, whose thinking differentiates, a canary and a woman's hair are two very different things. Thought which differentiates will ascribe to both the same quality soft,' but in so doing it will not neglect the more important differences between the two objects.
We find analogous thought-processes amongst primitive peoples. The primitive form of thinking persists moreover in the symbolic mode of expression as we meet with it in myths and fairy-tales of different races and in the dreams and other phantastic creations of individuals. As the child grows older he finds great scope in play for thinking by the method of identification, though of course he has by this time become conscious of the imaginary character of his play. One example will suffice to illustrate my meaning: A boy of seven years old, when out for a walk, removed some scattered pieces of paper from the pavement with a stick, saying as he did so: “I am the old general!” A retired general did as a matter of fact live near the boy's home and made it his business to keep the street tidy. In his play the child identified himself with the general simply on the strength of the imitation of this habit of his. To adult thought a vague analogy of this sort is trivial and could never be made the basis of an identification of two persons.
Owing to this peculiarity of infantile thinking it is possible for any person who acts in the same way as another has done previously quite easily to take the latter's place in the child's mental life. A little boy had lost his father in the War. An uncle took charge of him and gave him much affection, and it seemed as if the child was on his side much attached to his uncle. In about a year's time the latter died, whereupon another relation appeared on the scene with the intention of taking charge of the little orphan. It happened that the child was asked if he were sad because his uncle had died. The boy, who was four years old at the time, answered: “Oh no; you see we have the other uncle now and he gave me a piece of bread and marmalade twice."
It is only gradually that differentiation in thinking establishes its claims. An important motive in this process is the child's tendency to emphasize points in which he is superior and thus to contrast himself with the outside world. A two-year-old boy was asked if he liked his new baby-sister. The child, who was not yet able to frame connected sentences, answered quickly: “No teeth... red...smelly!” It is easy to see that the leading motive in this typical way of comparing himself with little brothers and sisters is the child's narcissism.
Another and particularly interesting instance of identification should be mentioned here, and that is the substitution of animals for people in the animal-phobias of children. Psycho-analysis succeeded in proving that in these cases there is regularly an identification of the father or mother with an animal. Here the psychological process is clearly exactly analogous to the phenomena of the animal-totemism of primitive peoples. Originally the prevailing tendency in the child's relation to objects was the desire to incorporate them in itself. Gradually this aim is replaced by another, namely the craving to possess and master the object. “I want, I want!” (“Haben, haben!”) is the phrase with which the child reacts to the sight of any object. This attitude towards the object includes a tendency to preserve and protect it and this is the first step in the direction of adaptation to the outside world; it is on this basis only that the adaptation of thought to reality is possible. We cannot follow out this process of adaptation in detail here.
Even at this stage of intellectual development the child is still far removed from adult modes of thinking. The influence of narcissism on his thinking is still paramount and is seen particularly in his ideas of his own power. He ascribes to his desires and thoughts an unlimited omnipotence which can so operate on the outside world as to effect changes in it. Only gradually does his critical faculty teach him the bounds which are set to his influence upon that world. To follow out this process further would be a tempting task and, if we did so, we should be able to convince ourselves that in its later stages it is intimately connected with the child's attitude towards those with whom he has the closest relations. Here we enter the sphere of the 'Oedipus complex' which embraces the most important phenomena of infantile sexuality.
In this paper it is not possible to do more than indicate briefly the subsequent fate of the child's ideas of omnipotence. They become dis
placed on to some being who is endowed with peculiar authority (father, God).
To return once more to the manner in which thinking in early childhood is dominated by the pleasure-principle, I want further to call attention to the fact that free thinking, unadapted to reality--that is to say, phantasy—is in itself an important source of pleasure. Children play with thoughts as with toys and just on that account logical thinking, in accordance with reality, replaces only gradually this pleasure-giving play.
Thus we see that, in childhood, thinking is far more influenced by the instinctive life than in riper years. The regulative factors which are derived from the repression of the instincts have not as yet been brought to bear upon it.
Psychology has busied itself much with the development of the intellect in children, but it has generally treated the subject from points of view very different from that of psycho-analysis. Either the interest has been focussed on purely quantitative processes, as, for example, the number of words that a child learns within a given period, or else only formal phenomena have been taken into consideration--for instance, the child's capacity for expressing his thoughts in the form of sentences. These problems are deserving of the greatest interest, but the development of infantile thinking includes a number of questions which are not generally regarded but must take the chief place in our discussion.
Psycho-analysis urgently calls attention to the importance of infantile instincts in the evolution of thought. Our justification for laying so much stress on them must be that in the evolution of both the individual and the race the instincts are earlier than thought. Psychoanalysis therefore takes the position that it is impossible to give a correct account of any mental phenomenon without thoroughly analysing its instinctive determination.