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“My latest brain child”

In his 1954 essay ‘Metapsychological and Clinical Aspects of Regression within the Psycho-Analytical Set’, Donald Winnicott states:

“The idea of psycho-analysis as an art must gradually give way to a study of environmental adaptation relative to patients’ regressions. […] I know from experience that some will say: all this leads to a theory of development which ignores the early stages of the development of the individual, which ascribes early development to environmental factors. This is quite untrue. In the early development of the human being the environment that behaves well enough (that makes good-enough active adaptation) enables personal growth to take place.”

In a 1965 essay written for the British Psychoanalytical Society, ‘The Psychology of Madness: A Contribution from Psycho-Analysis’, he wrote:

“The practice of psycho-analysis for thirty-five years cannot but leave its mark. For me there have come about changes in my theoretical formulation, and these I have tried to state as they consolidated themselves in my mind. Often what I have discovered had been already discovered and even better stated […] This does not deter me from continuing to write down what is my latest brain-child.”

These words convey Winnicott’s most significant legacy to psychoanalysis: the theory of the mind of the Subject in constant evolution in its contact with the Other, along the pathway of life. This intuition has found important confirmations in the elements that have emerged from the research studies on the baby’s early stages of life, as well as from the explorations on the psychoanalytical treatment of borderline states and psychoses, and also regarding the approach to traumatic situations.

“Often what I have discovered had been already discovered and even better stated..”

Winnicott’s view of psychoanalysis aims to individuate the contexts – in terms of environment and treatment – in which the subject’s psychic life recovers and organizes itself according to new ways of functioning. He shows its plasticity, its potential for constant reorganization, and the presence of a way of functioning which is developmentally non-linear but experientially transformative in any stage of life.

Winnicott was aware that the development of psychoanalytic theory would greatly benefit from his clinical insights on the early stages of life of the mother-infant couple, and from the analysis of borderline patients. He was not indifferent to theory; on the contrary, he was curious and constantly researching. This biological and relational foundation of the development of the human being constitutes the fertilizing and founding core of his thought, which was received in Italy particularly by Eugenio and Renata Gaddini, to whom we must acknowledge the extraordinary merit of having grasped it and made it known.

Just because of this intrinsically biological and relational foundation, in relation to the well-known events linked to the Controversial Discussions in the British Psychoanalytical Society, Winnicott tried not to get stuck in a static and abstract ideological position, and he abstained from providing his theoretical-clinical findings with a coherent and complete theoretical structure. This is what others called “Winnicott’s illness,” as he himself remembered, with a certain ironical awareness, in a letter to Melanie Klein in 1952, in which he declines the offer to write a paper which should have been included in a book edited by her.

Winnicott presenting ‘A Psychotherapeutic Interview in Child Psychiatry’ at a Pre-Congress Clinical Seminar of the twenty-third Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association, held in Stockholm on 24 July 1963.
Courtesy of Barbara Young, held in Donald Woods Winnicott Archive, in the care of the Wellcome Library.

However, in 1971, the very year of his demise, Winnicott decided to publish a book, Playing and Reality, which comprises in an organic – albeit not organized – manner, his papers on the theory relative to his most significant psychoanalytical discovery; the individuation of the transitional area in the psychic functioning of the human subject.

The conceptual developments of Winnicott’s thought were not organized by him in a coherent and complete scheme; they were scattered as discrete elements which fertilized several fields and different theories. As is the case with every particularly creative thinker, a later, inevitable reductionist phenomenon took shape. The founding formula: “there is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone”, was impoverished and reduced to a scheme that gave mechanical, excessive importance to the environment, obscuring the primary creativity of the infant.

However, the absence of a coherent and complete framework in Winnicott’s thought may also be read in another way, as the expression of his determined will not to renounce the polarity between biology and narration. A polarity which is intrinsic to Freud’s way of thinking, who had characterized its origin without reaching a unitary resolution; Winnicott confirmed and amplified such polarity, driving this tension forward.

In his Project for a Scientific Psychology, Freud’s intention was to develop psychology as a natural science which might express itself in terms of forces and structures, according to the language of the sciences of his time. But in Studies on Hysteria, written in the same period, the exposition of his clinical cases takes the form of a necessary narration, intrinsic to the theory from which they originated. Such polarity travels through the entire history of psychoanalysis.

Similarly, Winnicott did not intend to disarticulate his theory on psychic functioning from what he indicated as the psyche-soma, the sensory experience from which the mind takes its shape. At the same time, giving theoretical consistency to the area of transitional phenomena, and to the production of that intermediate world to which the analytic process also belongs, Winnicott confers to this third reality the status of a psychic structure that is fundamental for mental functioning.

Psychoanalytical productions, as well as artistic ones, utilize concrete, sensory elements which have a life of their own outside the subject, but which the subject recreates by conferring a personal meaning upon them. They do not belong to the field of hermeneutics, of descriptions and explanations as external captions for the subject’s psychic life.

Therefore, Winnicott maintains the implicit tension of Freudian thought between biological dynamics and narrative construction; he does not resign himself to formulate an organic theory that for the sake of completeness should renounce either experience or dreams as they emerge from the psyche-soma. Winnicott stays with this tension, convinced as he is that research studies, both in the biological field and in the relational field of the analytic situation, will yield further interesting results.

Featured image credit: Child by geralt. CC0 Public domain via Pixabay.

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