Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Importance of Not Being Ernest: An Archaeology of Child's Play in Freud's Writings (and Some Implications for Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice)

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Importance of Not Being Ernest: An Archaeology of Child's Play in Freud's Writings (and Some Implications for Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice)

Article excerpt

Ever since Parmenides (Plato, 1892), play, paidia, associated with childishness, and opposed to seriousness, spoude, had been given little value by philosophers. During the 19th and 20th centuries, however, the theoretical reference to play, in particular child's play, met with an unprecedented boom in many different areas of knowledge: philosophy, sociology, ethnology, ethology and psychology. Jacques Derrida attributed this new interest to his hypothesis (1967a, 1967b) that the emergence of play as a theoretical model was a response to the loss of the metaphysical founding principles, to the "death of God" and to the fact that now "immer fehlt was."1

In psychoanalysis, independently - at first glance - from these philosophical considerations, the question of child's play owes its fame to child psychoanalysts. Initially, it was their observations and the controversies regarding child analysis that spurred interest in play, starting with the first works by the pioneer of child analysis, von Hug-Hellmuth (1913). Subsequently, Klein's "play technique" (1926, 1955) allowed for the foundation of a psychoanalytic praxis with children that was in line with adult analysis, and equated spontaneous play with free associations. Anna Freud (1927 [1926]) also gave the observation of play an important role in her work with children. As for Winnicott, he suggested that analysts should instead focus on the experience of playing, which he saw as "therapeutic" in itself (Winnicott, 1971).

Although initially of a purely clinical and even technical nature, psychoanalytic theories concerning child's play did not limit themselves to the narrow area of child analysis, but opened out to re-examining psychoanalysis more generally, especially the concepts of transference (a resurgence of the ability to playfully personify, according to Klein) and interpretation (the importance of which Winnicott questioned). They also had an impact on what can be called the conception of culture, whether it be through Klein's considerations on symbolization or through Winnicott's origin propositions regarding the "transitional area."

Before this interest in child's play had been triggered by the emergence of child psychoanalysis, however, it so happens that Sigmund Freud himself mentioned Kinderspiel repeatedly in his works, ranging from 1901 (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life) to 1920 (Beyond the Pleasure Principle).

Yet surprisingly, in spite of these almost ubiquitous references to play in his work, Freud's views on play remain almost unknown.

Of course, given the notoriety of his analysis of the "fort-da" game (Freud, 1920), both within analytical circles and beyond, this statement may seem puzzling. The fort-da is in fact so well known that simply listing all the commentaries and references made to it would be a real challenge. To mention but a few, we may think of Benjamin (1928), Klein (1932), Winnicott (1941), Lacan (1953, 1964, etc.), Laplanche and Leclaire (1961), Green (1970), Derrida (1980), Parsons (2000) and many others. Our hypothesis, however, is that the all-too-exclusive focus on it has overshadowed the larger Freudian conception of play and its implications.

Instead of presenting a general survey of all the original interpretations derived from the fascinating fort-da - e.g. in terms of object-relations according to Klein or the emergence of the Symbolic according to Lacan - which would deserve a paper of its own, we will instead try to consider the Freudian question of play without remaining "hypnotized" by the cotton reel. The aim of this article, which focuses on Freud's theory of play, is therefore three-fold:

(1) To show, through an archaeological examination, that although it was never studied by Freud systematically and despite being overlooked by previous commentators, the notion of play in fact repeatedly appears throughout the Freudian corpus, and in particular at several key theoretical turning points;

(2) To uncover the underlying logic behind the different theoretical approaches to this notion, namely that play is either an object of study and as such "interpreted" - when Freud interprets a particular instance of play according to the hypothesis of the unconscious - or a heuristic means and as such "interpreting" - when Freud, faced with metapsychological obstacles, uses the notion of play as a matrix to understand other psychic phenomena following his psychogenetic hypotheses;

(3)To show the theoretical presuppositions underpinning these different uses of the notion of play and their implications on Freud's theory of the psyche and of culture. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.