Review: Winnicott on Primitive Emotional Development

The article reviewed here is ‘Primitive Emotional Development’ by Donald Winnicott which was originally read before the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1945. Winnicott notes in the opening that the aim of this paper is to make a ‘preliminary personal statement’. He gives us some insight into how he arrives at his ideas which in view of everything else that Winnicott has written about and the significance of his writing, I find quite fascinating

What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories and then, last of all, interest myself in looking to see where I stole what. Perhaps this is as good a method as any

I’m not sure that ‘stole’ is the best word here, if he is referring (as he does earlier) to the ‘theories of others’ as many theories are built upon preceding knowledge which therefore act as a necessary foundation. Indeed it may be argued that those whose theories have preceded his would want their work to be built upon and that such a process is integral to the development of civilisation. There is maybe a sense of Winnicott’s creative drive in this statement, the need to produce new and valuable insights that are uncontestably original. 

He then discusses patients with psychosis that he has analysed during the period of the Blitz of WWII which form some of the basis for the ideas he presents in this paper. Winnicott writes that the analysis of ‘primitive emotional development’ needs to occur as an extension of the analysis of depression. He describes briefly what the therapist must be prepared for in analysing the ‘pre-depressive phase relationships’ and this includes coping ‘with the depressive position’ and the ‘persecutory ideas which appear’. He then refers to the age of 5 or 6 months as a special point in the emotional development of infants and refers to the work of his contemporaries, Anna Freud and Bowlby. The essential argument through the paper is that the infant progresses through certain stages during emotional development but these same stages may be interrupted or involved in psychosis. He writes of the ‘importance of such processes as integration, personalization and realization’ during development. 

There are some important phenomenon that he then describes in the paper – disintegration of personality, unintegration and dissociation. Regarding the disintegration of personality, he tells us that

failure in respect of primary integration predisposes to disintegration as a regression, or as a result of failure in other types of defence

He then turns to integration which he emphasises as occurring very early development while contrasting it with unintegration thus

An example of unintegration phenomena is provided by the very common experience of the patient who proceeds to give every detail of the week-end and feels contented at the end if everything has been said, though the analyst feels that no analytic work has been done

This to me sounded in part like a description of circumstantiality or perhaps overinclusiveness. While he doesn’t define dissociation I found this comment, linking dissociation and unintegration extremely interesting particularly in view of the above comment about the unintegration phenomenon

According to my view there grows out of unintegration a series of what are then called dissociations, which arise owing to integration being incomplete or partial

The remainder of the article then deals with the events following successful integration. Winnicott describes how the infant relates to the external world through reality adaptation, develops play and then focuses on thumb-sucking and related phenomenon. Interestingly he makes some remarks that precede his noted paper on transitional objects (reviewed here) and which are of relevance to that paper – these phenomenon can be thought of as the object being intermediate between the inner and outer worlds.

It had occurred to me at one point, that on reading through Winnicott’s other papers, I had not noticed the establishment of a primary hypothesis explicitly. This was supported in the present paper by Winnicott’s introduction in which he describes how he has arrived at a personal statement. This perhaps made the paper a little more difficult for me to read and I wonder if it would have been easier had he broken the paper down into a series of tightly defined hypotheses with definitions where appropriate, supported by arguments and evidence. In some senses, the paper is structured into sections and the concepts he discusses are complex and perhaps it can be argued that they are not easily described in terms of simple hypotheses. Nevertheless that would have facilitated the validation of his assertions. As it reads, the paper evoked for me a series of insights as in previous papers but these appear as approximations and relationships rather than clearly defined concepts that can be more easily analysed. Maybe if I read the paper again my view might change. I also hadn’t noticed in the previous papers of Winnicott that I had reviewed a mention of Jung, but he was here in the footnotes!

From this paper, I particularly liked the relationship between unintegration and dissociation although the former term needs sharper clarification and the latter term, while commonly used would benefit from a definition in order to ensure that it is being understood properly. Winnicott as in previous papers comes up with some interesting and complex ideas with similarly complicated relationships. 



In D.W.Winnicott. Primitive Emotional Development. In D.W.Winnicott. Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis.  With an introduction by M.Masud R.Khan. Chapter XII. pp145-156. The International Psycho-Analytical Library. Edited by M.Masud.R.Khan. The Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-analysis. 1978.


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