Henri Wallon

The Role of the Other in the Consciousness of the Ego

Written: 1946;
Source: "Le role de l'autre dans la consciousness de moi" in The World of Henri Wallon;
Translator: Donald Nicholson-Smith;
Publisher: Jason Aaronson 1984;
Transcription / Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Online Version: Wallon Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2001.

There is no more widely held assumption in psychology than the notion that the subject must become conscious of his own ego before being able to imagine that of the other person; that one's own ego is known by intuition and direct experience whereas the other person's is apprehended by a simple process of analogy; that the two are initially discrete objects and that the very most which can occur is a projection of one's own ego onto the other person's. A long-standing tradition assigns consciousness to a profoundly individual reality in which consciousness plays an introspective role. The intimate and closed world of subjective sensibility allegedly depends on such introspection. This world exists in each person but cannot be communicated from one person to the next. The isolation of individuals from each other is radical, and can be bridged only at a later stage and even then merely on the basis of an assumption of similarity. Reciprocal interpenetration of consciousness is deemed impossible.

Admittedly, a spiritualist account (such as Maine de Biran's) would claim that the psyche is only revealed to itself by virtue of an external obstacle that obliges it to exert an effort whereby it recognizes itself as a force and as a force capable of producing different effects. Yet even in such an account, there is no need for the psyche to come out of itself; the existence affirmed in this way is its own, and other existences can only be a transposition of it.

This traditional conception of an essentially and originally individualized consciousness has been given a new lease on life by the work of Piaget. For Piaget, the child starts out in a state of autism and then passes through egocentrism before being able to imagine other people as partners, capable of reciprocal relationships with him because they are endowed in the world with an existence resembling his own, and liable to have a point of view just as legitimate as his own even if it is different. This transition in the child's consciousness from an initial solipsism to a pluralism of persons, which is said to occur around seven years of age, is the essential determinant of his mental development.

First, then, comes autism: a being completely self-immersed, a stranger to the outside world—reminiscent of the schizophrenics for whom Bleuler coined the term autism as a way of stressing the fact that nothing exists for these patients outside themselves. Thus, the child is supposed to set out from the same point where such schizophrenics end up at the final step in their process of mental degeneration. Cut off from any relation with the entourage, the infant at this stage is motivated in his reactions solely by a sort of hermetic nucleus constituted, we must assume, by whatever is left once everything that links us to the surroundings is eliminated— namely, a few elementary needs and appetites.

Egocentrism, by contrast, does not mean that the subject perceives nothing or is interested in nothing aside from himself. The world outside has opened itself up and has spread out around him. He is the center of it, however, and he is the starting point or finality of everything that happens. He is the raison d'être of all events, and events have no sense without reference to him. Beings and things are viewed in the same way; both are merely complements to his person, whether their influence is favorable or unfavorable. They have no autonomy, and the only relations between them are those attributed to them in the light of the subject's individual viewpoint.

If the child is to detach himself from this subjective conglomerate of all the impressions and conceptualizations that he has derived from things, his consciousness must cease being a narrowly individualist one and become a social consciousness. He must become open, in other words, to the notion of individuals separate from him whose consciousness has the same prerogatives as his own. Equality of rights implies the necessity of a compromise between those prerogatives. To achieve such a compromise the world has to be objectified, and contrary or distinct points of view must be neutralized through the assertion that they have a basic identity, that a common measure may be applied to them, or, in other words, that there are invariable factors underlying the apparent contradictions, factors that supply a ground for harmony and a principle of constancy.

Thus, for Piaget, the intelligence that first recognizes objective relations between things has its prime source in the need for an agreement, for a sort of contract. This need is felt as soon as each individual realizes that since he is not alone, he can lay no claim to represent the universal rule—as soon, in other words, as he becomes aware of the obligations imposed by the social bond between individuals. The participation of the other person in the formation of consciousness is therefore seen as occurring only very late in childhood. It takes the rather abstract form of an equivalence recognized as indispensable by the individuals concerned, and its consequences are of a theoretical kind: the working out of impersonal concepts by means of which subjective impressions are replaced by objective means of measuring and relating.

What is correct in Piaget's picture of development is the gradual widening of the field of deployment of the child's activity and interests. The restriction of the field to organic needs and to bodily organs is clear in the first weeks of life and, despite some expansion of the means employed, through the first months. Freud noted the same thing when he described parts of the body concerned with the alimentary functions, such as the mouth and the anus, as the first objects of libidinal fixation. For Freud, however, individual consciousness does not appear to be given from the outset. What is expressed through the libido is the impetus of the species, whereas consciousness arises as a result of the obstacles and limitations encountered by this thrust. Freud does not postulate autism lowed by egocentrism, a closed system destined to open up later to the demands of mutual understanding in a social milieu. On the contrary, he evokes the reduction and gradual control of an appetite that is at first uncertain of its object and that has to be withdrawn in succession from all those objects onto which it is at first mistakenly drawn. Consciousness, instead of being an individual cell due to open up one day to the social realm, is the result of the pressure exerted by the exigencies of life on the impulses of an unbridled instinct, an instinct which is indisputably the attribute of the individual qua representative and creature of the species. The Freudian ego is therefore not a primitive entity; it is produced by the progressive individualization of an initially anonymous libido obliged by the circumstances and course of life to become specific and to submit to the framework of a personal existence and consciousness.

This shaping of the ego by the environment, of the individual consciousness by the collective milieu, is not necessarily associated with the Freudian antagonism between the sexual instinct and social imperatives. It is the consequence of the prolonged inaptitude to which the human child is heir because of the extreme slowness of his development, a slowness made possible, incidentally, by the institution of an organized and beneficent society. I have drawn attention in my book Origines du caractère chez lenfant (1934) to the conditions and earliest modalities of the tight communion that thrusts the child into his entourage from the start.

Far from constituting a closed system, the infant is devoid internal cohesion and quite unable to exercise the least control over even the most fortuitous influences. The newborn's behavior plays only discrete and sporadic reactions that achieve no more than the elimination, by whatever pathways may be available at the time, of tensions deriving either from organic sources or from external stimuli. Gesticulation in the infant serves no useful purpose at all - it cannot even help him change an uncomfortable or dangerous position. He cannot do without constant assistance. Here is a being whose every reaction has to be completed, supplemented, and interpreted. As he is unable to do anything for himself, he is manipulated by others, and it is through the movements of others that his first attitudes will take shape.

But while they are of no direct use to him, the infant's gestures do draw needed or desired responses from his entourage—particularly gestures related to states of well-being, discomfort, or need, which belong to the spontaneous systems of affective reactions, that is, to the realm of emotion. Under the influence of this emotional field connections are soon made between spontaneous actions and the useful reactions they elicit from the entourage. By means of a mechanism analogous to the conditioned reflex, associations are established—the association, for instance, between the convulsive behavior of anger and being nursed or walked up and down in mother's arms.

It is not long before this simple physiological association is combined with another kind that raises it to the level of expression, comprehension, and relations with others. The effect achieved makes the emotional discharge increasingly intentional in character; it becomes a means for ensuring more or less certain ends. And thus a new field is opened up to the child's attention and burgeoning practical wisdom. He begins to recognize the indications of probable success, soon located in the person of the provider. In this way his gestures, posture, countenance, and voice enter the expressive realm, which thus has a double action: an efferent action that translates the child's desires and an afferent one for affecting the disposition which these desires encounter or elicit in the other person.

This reciprocity comes about all the more easily by virtue of the fact that it seems to belong to the nature and functional role of the emotions The precocity with which the child's smile echoes the mother's has often been noted. The emotions have a kind of mimetic quality, which explains their communicability, their contagiousness, and the facility with which, on the mass level, they give rise to herd like inclinations and to the abolition of individual viewpoints and individual self-control. Emotion gives birth to collective tendency, to the melding of individual consciousness into one confused common spirit. A type of participation occurs which those frontiers which individuals are often so anxious erect and maintain are, to a greater or lesser extent, broken down. Such communion corresponds to a stage of mental life predating the awareness whereby the individual asserts his independent existence. For the first individual self-awareness emerges from passionate involvements where each person distinguishes himself with difficulty from others and from the total scene in which his appetites, desires, and fears are bound up.

The emotions belong to an ill-differentiated aspect of mental life, while the nerve centers governing them in both their bodily and their motor manifestations lie in the subcortical region of the brain—which is to say that these centers are part of a functional system evolved much earlier on in the history of our species than the operations of representation and decision, which are more exclusively attributable to the cortex. The earliest state of the psyche thus appears, contrary to the traditional view, to have been one in which the external realm and the realm of the subject himself were indistinct. Everything reaching consciousness at a given moment is treated as indistinguishable from the whole, or at any rate such sorting out as does go on does not involve the distinction between self and other or between the personal act and its external object. The unity of the situation or surroundings on the one hand and the subject on the other is initially all encompassing, and no distinction is discernible.

This situation is also the child's starting point. And before he can successfully distinguish his own person from impressions that he must set aside as not being part of himself, he has to go whole series of exercises and games, which become increasingly  well-defined while at the same time occasioning in him expressions of anxious expectation and outbursts of surprise or joy. Elsewhere I have called attention to the games of alternation in which the child repeats the same act while changing his role therein: first he plays at being the agent of the act vis-à-vis the other person, then at being the object of the act as performed by the other. For instance, first be deals a blow, then he receives one. By means of this swapping of roles he comes to grasp the necessary distinction between the one who acts and the one who is acted upon.

But this alternation, with the child shuttling between himself and the other, this to-and-fro displacement of a single impression, does not yet amount to the affirmation of a personal point of view. It merely reduces the dialectical opposition between doing and undergoing first to one and then to the other of its two complementary poles. The child distinguishes the partner from himself, yet the two preserve a sort of basic equivalence. Aside from a simple temporal separation, their gestures and their impressions are identical. Perhaps there are two individuals here, but they are perfectly assimiliable to one another, perfectly interchangeable. The ego has not yet taken on the kind of stability and constancy vis-à-vis the other that we look upon as indispensable to consciousness, and indeed as constitutive of the individual.\

Eventually, however, it is thanks to this period of alternation that the ego is able to find its true position in relation to the other. Out of it comes another stage that often has the appearance of a real crisis. This is the personality crisis that erupts around the age of three. The alternation games disappear rather suddenly—especially the dialogues many children carry on with themselves, aping two supposed interlocutors in turn and often concentrating so much on the tone of each speaker that this alone is preserved while the words themselves become babble. With the advent of the new phase, the child, far from pretending to be two people, begins using the words "I" and "me" with an abnormal frequency.

Above all, however, the child's new self-assertiveness finds expression in opposition. First he adopts a contrary stance on every detail, then finally this contrariness becomes so formal an attitude as to need no pretext. But what might seem like an absolute stance is actually no more than a mechanical negation of the attitude encountered or suspected in the other person and is thus actually quite relative Ego and other are still comparable and complementary, though the alternation of roles has now been supplanted by an obstinate fixation to one pole. This distinction has to be content, however, and at first this is found in things, in the dichotomy between yours and mine.

Until now the child has been more or less covetous of things spied in the possession of others. Such covetousness has founded on a need to imitate the other and to put oneself in his place, and was testimony to a certain lack of differentiation between ego and other. Now that ego and other are opposed, the necessity for sharing becomes a consideration, and this fact is often expressed in the form of a refusal to share. The child is no longer concerned merely with using things: he now wants to own them and often he wants ownership for its own sake, claiming property rights to things for which he could not possibly feel any spontaneous desire. This earliest need to own things is based on a feeling of competitiveness. The point is to appropriate something that is explicitly acknowledged to be someone else's. The child will employ violence, trickery, and lies to transform yours into mine. And he is only fully satisfied if this robbery is blatant, if it implies an absolutely clear-cut distinction between mine and yours.

This combative phase, during which the ego is establishing its identity through its oppositionalism, leads in the direction of a kind of pacification to the extent that the ego's boundaries acquire definition and stability both in terms of the material things in the outside world and, later, in terms of the motivation of action and thought. But it will be a long time, even now, before the child feels sure whether his actions are governed by free choice or by outside factors, whether his thinking is spontaneous or somehow influenced. Nevertheless, it is at this point, with a variable degree of confidence or doubt, that the child attributes to himself full autonomy. In other words, he now comes to believe in the complete externality of others and the complete integrity of his own ego.

Apparently, all traces of the initial confusion have now been eliminated. The person has become a unified and closed whole, at any rate this is what he aspires to in his search for self affirmation. Actually the boundary involved is an ideal one and if we examine psychological reality we find a considerably different picture.

The first state of consciousness might be compared to a nebula in which exogenous and endogenous sensorimotor actions are diffused without any clear boundary lines between them. Condensation within this mass eventually gives rise to the formation of a nucleus, the ego, and a satellite, the subego or other. The distribution of psychical matter between them is not necessarily constant. It may vary with individuals, with their age, or even with specific conjunctures of mental life. It may happen, in cases of shock or mental confusion, that the frontier between the ego and the other will once more tend to disappear. Or what was at first attributed to the other may be reabsorbed into the ego. Lastly, the natural preponderance of the ego may be reversed, and the other may become the dominant pole.

Even an adult in his normal state may have some moments when he feels more deliberately himself, and others when he has a feeling of suffering a less personal fate, one more subject to the influence, will, or whims of other people, or to the necessities imposed on him by the situations in which he finds himself involved vis-à-vis others. In the child such feelings are much more in evidence. They motivate rebellious crises that at times have no purpose other than that of starting a conflict with an authority felt by the child to be dispossessing him of his autonomy, of his sense of being able to decide his own fate.

It might be argued that all this simply expresses the relations that can and indeed must be established between people who are after all separate from one another; the individual's relations with his real entourage and relations between individualities are marked in varying degrees by mutual interaction of domination-submission or reciprocity. But these relations themselves seem to be mediated by the fantasy of the other person that everyone carries within himself. The variations in intensity affecting this fantasy are what govern the level of our relations with others. This intensity is, in turn, governed by a variety of factors, including intimate or organic ones: neuro-vegetative tonus, degree of psychomotor capriciousness, etc. On these factors depends the basic equilibrium of our relationships with others - provided of course, that we also take into account the adaptation to outside circumstances demanded by normal activity.

In short, the people of the subject's entourage are no more than pretexts or motives for him to express and fulfill himself. If he is able nevertheless to invest them with a life and integrity outside himself, it is because he has made the distinction within himself between his ego and its indispensable complement—namely, that essential stranger, the other. This distinction is not a mechanical carbon  copy of the subject's habitual relation with real persons. Rather, it is the product of a more intimate division between two terms that despite or because of their antagonism cannot do without each other: One of them is an affirmation of identity with oneself, whereas the other embraces everything that has to be expelled from this identity if it is to survive.

The ego, as it seeks to particularize itself, cannot avoid treating society as opposed to it in the shape of a primitive and larval socius—to use Pierre Janet's term. The individual, when he apprehends himself as such, is social in his essence. He is social not as a result of external contingencies, but by virtue of an internal necessity, by virtue of his genesis.

The socius, or other, is the ego's constant partner in mental life. Normally it is diminished, made invisible, repressed and, as it were, denied by the ego's will to dominance and complete coherence. All deliberation and indecision, however, is a dialogue—sometimes a rather explicit one—between the ego and an objector. In moments of uncertainty or in serious situations calling for urgent commitment, this internal dialogue may be verbalized: there are people who, in such circumstances, ask and answer questions aloud with increasing animation and even aggressiveness. At this level, however, they are still answering themselves; in other words, they still restrict the other personality to the role of an attribute or subordinate of the subject, despite the fact that the subject is able to switch camps. This back-and-forth movement seems, in fact, to ensure that the ego's unity is not threatened.

Sometimes, though, the feeling of duality is keener. An example of this is the demon of Socrates, whose intervention, occurring in what were crucial circumstances for him and serving to dissuade him from an act over which he was pondering, was experienced by Socrates as being of external origin. Joan of Arc's voices are certainly better explained by a mental duality of this kind than by the traditional mystical interpretations.

Such interchanges between subject and socius are reminiscent of the dialogues which the child carries on with himself and which disappear with the approach of the third birthday as the ego begins to differentiate itself. Their disappearance implies a diminution of intensity, however, rather than a total elimination. What appears to have been suppressed survives, in fact, in latent fashion, or rather in a secondary role. This fact was no doubt the basis of the experiments, now discredited and abandoned, that the proponents of hypnotism and suggestion carried out in an attempt to discover or precipitate dual or multiple personalities in the individual. Even the most crackpot enterprises must have a minimal link with reality.

There are phenomena, however, of a clearly pathological nature that are relevant in this connection and cannot be called spurious. An example is the material and automatic emancipation of the other inside each of us, an emancipation that results in those delusions of influence which Clérambault described with great clinical accuracy under the name of mental automatism. The fact that these delusions seem to correspond to an organic process, that they are perhaps linked to changes in the nervous system, and that they are doubtless not of psychic origin, does not in any way diminish their functional significance.

Clérambault emphasizes that these ideas do not seem in most cases to be the outcome of rumination resulting in a dissociation of the subject under the influence of acute worry, whether justified or delusional. He shows that the patient often starts by hearing a voice addressing him unexpectedly: vulgar and insulting accusations are hurled at him of the sort most calculated to humiliate him with regard to his social relations. Once liberated, the alter is aggressive, as though getting revenge for the domesticated position in which the subject had hoped to keep it. This aggressiveness also expresses all the mistrust accumulated by the patient in his social relations—a mistrust thus communicated to him explicitly through the mediation of the Socius and, to begin with anyway, in the most general, brutal, and anonymous way.

These first manifestations are followed by others in which another person seems to be repeating what the patient thinks himself; the socius divulges his most intimate thoughts and may proceed to forecast future thoughts that the subject has not yet become consciously aware of, much less been able to take responsibility for. In addition, the other may impose thoughts on the subject that are not really his or which oblige him to perform specific acts. Indeed, a law of opposites is often at work here. I have drawn attention in Les origines de la pensée chez l'enfant (1945) to the role played by such a law in the early stages of intellectual consciousness, when every act is in some sense ambivalent and introduces two often contrasted terms that become the basis of the first indispensable structuring of the contents of the psyche.

The alter's influencing of thoughts, actions, and feelings may eventually extend to bodily organs. Hitherto repressed from the diffuse consciousness of the organism, the alter now returns in offensive fashion, as though seeking to take this consciousness over. It seizes control of the speaking abilities of throat and lungs or of the motor capacities of the members. As Hughlings Jackson remarked, sickness creates nothing; it simply takes over functions normally subordinated to the organism's centers of control. Rather than producing effects extraneous to normal equilibrium, the alter destroys this equilibrium by endowing its component elements with an unaccustomed autonomy. This view of the alter should be the basis of our interpretation of delusions of possession or influence. The ego which the subject has constructed out of the most familiar and seemingly most intimate elements is now invaded and violated by forces that express what has been rejected as alien. The struggle against these alien forces may serve to reinforce the subject's feeling of his own wholeness; but, on the other hand, delusions of influence or possession give him the sensation that his personality is escaping him, fragmenting, or breaking down into manifestations that are both antagonistic to one another and yet are somehow still bound together.

These manifestations betoken the forced entry of the socius into the ego and are thus the visible signs of the existence of this invader. In the normal state of consciousness, the socius is latent and permanently diminished, but consciousness is affected by it nonetheless. The socius has a part in, and may even determine, consciousness's most varied vicissitudes, and it regulates the tension of consciousness in its relations with strangers in that it decides the level of their relation with the ego. The socius is an intermediary— the ego's fundamental and hidden access route to other people. As I have tried to show elsewhere, the relations between the ego and its indispensable complement—the internal other (autre intime)— can be used to explain or identify basic states or complexes of consciousness ranging from the normal to the pathological. In this way the normal development of a personal consciousness in the child can be seen in its connections with the entire range of attitudes making the human being in his innermost essence a social being.