On the Psychoanalysis of Babies[1]

Jean Laplanche


[Translator’s note: “On the Psychoanalysis of Babies” is Jean Laplanche’s response to a 2007 essay by Bernard Golse, Head of Child Psychiatry at the Hôpital Necker–Enfants Malades and Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Université René Descartes. Golse’s essay, “Y a-t-il une psychanalyse possible des bébés?(“Is There Any Possible Psychoanalysis of Babies?”),[2] contests the charge that a “psychoanalysis of children – and still less of babies – has no claim to a legitimate existence” (354). This charge, he argues, is based on the belief that infants are not from outset situated within the temporality of après-coup’, i.e. what Freud called Nachträglichkeit (see note 3, below). To challenge this view, Golse returns to Freud’s original development of Nachträglichkeit and draws extensively on Laplanche’s resumption of it in his ‘general theory of seduction’. Working through a series of accounts of very early infant experience (e.g. the losses of developmental mourning and the apprehension of intersubjectivity, as well as, still earlier, intrauterine existence) Golse argues that from the metapsychological point of view even the youngest infant cannot be said to be outside the temporality of après-coup: tracing back to an original first trauma will always, he claims, be a “fundamentally asymptotic” endeavour (355). To the extent that the theory of après-coup thus remains valid for the understanding of infants themselves, it is possible to “remain a psychoanalyst” in work with young babies and this work may be considered “authentically psychoanalytic” (360).]



Bernard Golse and I share a mutual understanding that is solid and amiable (on both sides). I shall not discuss his deliberately provocative title concerning a ‘possible psychoanalysis’ of babies. I simply wonder, and assent to the idea that a psychoanalyst cannot and must not forget for a moment that he is an analyst in the presence of a baby. There is, however, a world of difference between this and ‘psychoanalysing’; for one may just as easily be a psychoanalyst in the presence of an ulcerated patient, a paraplegic or someone dying, without, for all that, having recourse to the psychoanalytic act.


            What Bernard Golse encourages us to remember in the many cases where he has acted as analyst are such major items of metapsychology as the theory of the drives and of afterwardsness [l’après-coup],[3] for these enable one to remain a psychoanalyst in the presence of an other (which, again, is quite different from ‘psychoanalysing’). Duly noted! But is the reference to theory here sufficient?

Scouring the theory of ‘trauma in two moments’, Bernard Golse goes on to give a significant place to my general theory of seduction, which, as he rightly points out, enables us to move beyond certain formulas such as real versus imaginary trauma, endogenous and exogenous trauma, and even age-related and hyperarousal trauma.

            Quite accurately, he perceives how the concept of afterwardsness gives substance to that of the drive (something he discusses), by means of concepts such as the source-object – the consequence of a relational play between mother and child which is communicative and translatory.

            For my part, and in order to complete this in-depth understanding of the theory of seduction, I would simply emphasise the following:


1.      the concept of the message, which comes to take over from real or virtual trauma;

2.      the concept of the ‘fundamental anthropological situation’, which seeks to –

i.                    enlarge the field of communication, beyond the scope of the family, to encompass the adult/baby relation;

ii.                 stress the asymmetry of the adult (not simply ‘parent’)/child relation, and the derivation of the analytic situation (every analytic relation) as a reiteration of this fundamental anthropological situation.


In this regard I would not want to separate the psychiatrist/baby relation (of any kind) from the ‘fundamental anthropological situation’.

With respect to the concept of ‘developmental mourning’ I would proceed with greater caution. This is because far from being either rejected or, conversely, studied and discussed by Freud, the concept of development seems to have taken a major if not explicit role in his thinking after the rejection of the ‘neurotica’, doing so under the name of ‘heredity’ or, more frequently, ‘phylogenesis’. There has as yet been no detailed study of this concept in his work, a concept that runs from the letters to Fliess through to Moses and Monotheism. For Freud, as for Ferenczi (?), development is modelled first and foremost upon the evolution of the species.

Having reviewed the theme of ‘neo-natal mourning’, and without failing to question and express doubts in respect of it, Golse addresses the mourning necessary to accede to intersubjectivity. The way in which he tackles the question seems to me a bit too classical (the ‘interpersonal’ contra the ‘intersubjective’), and what is forgotten as a consequence is the invasive barrage that, for the baby, represents the emergence of adult messages compromised by the sexual [le sexual].[4]

In the debate presented to us, between a (‘primary’) Anglo-Saxon view of the birth of intersubjectivity and a (more ‘gradual’) European view, it seems that something not always taken account of is the renewed analysis of what Freud called the experience of satisfaction, in which the instigating role of the adult is put back in its primary position.[5] Is this what Meltzer describes with the opposition between the ‘mantling’ that comes from the adult and the primal ‘dismantling’ of the sensory registers?[6] There is certainly a similarity, but in these rather ‘cognitivist’ reconstructions Meltzer still lacks the generic, primal factor of the adult ‘sexual’, which is inserted into the earliest messages.

In conclusion:

1. It is necessary to move beyond the intergenerational, parent/child relation in order to make way for the fundamental anthropological situation, which encompasses the relation between any child and adult without there having to be a specific generational – that is, genetic (parent/child) – connection between them.

2.  There are many types of people whom one cannot ‘psychoanalyse’, with whom it is impossible to establish the relation of communication that is proper to the fundamental anthropological situation. In particular, it is essential for there to be a minimal level of communication between analyst and analysand, which is to say that there must exist the anterior possibility of a first enigmatic message as original reference.

3. The possibility of the psychoanalytic act (‘act’ in the sense of interpretation) implies a clear, basic reference to those fundamentals of metapsychology known as the theory of the message, of the fundamental anthropological situation, and of translation within the psychoanalytic dialogue. The effect of afterwardsness is always a function of these presuppositions.

[1]Sur une psychanalyse des bébés”, La psychiatrie de l’enfant, vol. 50, no. 2, Autumn 2007, pp. 413–416. Translator, Nicholas Ray. With thanks to John Fletcher for a number of invaluable comments.

[2] Y a-t-il une psychanalyse possible des bébés? Reflexions sur les traumatismes hyperprécoces à la lumière de la théorie de l’après-coup”,La psychiatrie de l’enfant, vol. 50, no. 2, Autumn 2007, pp. 327–364.

[3] [Trans.: ‘Afterwardsness’ is the term by which Laplanche prefers to translate Freud’s Nachträglichkeit into English. James Strachey’s Standard Edition translates Freud’s term as ‘deferred action’. For a critique of Strachey’s choice and a discussion of afterwardsness, see Laplanche’s “Notes on Afterwardsness” (1992), in Essays on Otherness (New York and London: Routledge, 1999)].

[4] [Trans.: Here Laplanche’s French text deploys the neologism ‘le sexual’, rather than using the standard ‘le sexuel’. The neologism is an appropriation of the German prefix Sexual- into a free-standing word. (In German Sexual only appears as a component or proclitc in combination with a noun, e.g. Sexualtrieb - sexual drive, Sexualtheorie­ sexual theory). The term is an attempt to register terminologically the difference between the enlarged Freudian notion of sexuality (le sexual) and the common sense or traditional notion of a genital sexuality (le sexuel). This terminological innovation can’t really be captured in English as the German term Sexual coincides exactly with the spelling of the standard English term ‘sexual’, rather than contrasting with it as in French. In this translation the distinctness of the term has been marked, here and in a later paragraph, by italicisation. Laplanche’s conceptualisation of ‘le sexual’ is discussed at greater length in his collection Freud and the Sexual: Essays 2000–2006 (New York: IP Books, 2011)].

[5] [Trans. For Laplanche’s analysis of the experience of satisfaction, see his essay “The Unfinished Copernican Revolution” in Essays on Otherness (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 76 ff.]

[6] [Trans. Donald Meltzer’s account of the primitive defence of ‘dismantling’ was first set out in “The Origin of the Fetishistic Plaything of Sexual Perversions” (1969), ch. 15, Sexual States of Mind (London: Karnac, 2008; reprint) and developed in Explorations in Autism (London: Karnac, 2008; reprint)].