Henri Wallon: Biography of the founder of genetic psychology

The genetic perspective is one of the essential characteristics that define the psychology of Henri Wallon. We can say that he is the founder of genetic psychology, an original way of understanding the mind of the individual through his history.

Let’s review the most important key ideas for understanding Wallon’s ambitious theory of how the human mind is generated and developed from childhood and the early stages of growth. We will review his biography and his main findings and theories.

Biography of Henri Wallon

Wallon, French psychologist and philosopher born in 1879 and died in 1962, is considered a “forgotten founder” of modern psychology, along with Freud and Piaget. Probably because of his Marxist ideology, which absorbed all his theory, and the importance of other works of the time translated into English.

Wallon believed that it was not possible to study the mind in a way other than joint. While structuralists tried to study each component of the mind separately, it combined affectivity and intelligence and studied the psyche as a whole.

He manages to put an end to the classic dualism of psychology: the psychology of the mind, of mental functions, against more physical psychology, that of the study of the nervous system. Wallon insists that the two aspects not only coexist but complement each other. It is impossible to understand human beings except through their faculties and their nervous system.

This reconciliation of opposites is called dialectical materialism, a Marxist heritage. This is why, when we speak of Wallon, we say that he is a dialectical-genetic psychologist. Dialectical because it offers a “dialogue” between the traditionally opposite, and genetic because the most important thing to understand the mind is to conceive from the genesis.

Genetic psychology

What exactly do we mean by genetic psychology? Henri Wallon himself defined it with the following affirmation: “genetic psychology is that which studies the psyche in its formation and in its transformations”.

Wallon’s genetic psychology is an original method of analysis. Like his contemporary Piaget, he criticized the anhistorical approach of gestalt psychologists. Wallon was very aware of the need to study the mind and its development from birth to understand it as it appears in adulthood, as the result of a history of transformations. Here he draws a parallel with Vygotsky, who also emphasizes the discovery of the genesis of behavior to explain its development.

So is Wallon a child psychologist? Although he spoke of the human mind through the characteristics of the child, he did so because he asserted that only understanding the child’s psyche and its evolution could allow one to know the adult spirit. That it would make no sense to study the psychology of the adult man once formed and consolidated, it would be like trying to learn to paint a contemplating picture when finished.

Child development according to Wallon

Wallon assumes a certain number of principles which mark the development. For him, although the evolution of the child takes place in several directions at the same time, there is always a function which stands out and which is characteristic of each stage.

Nor is he in favor of a quantitative approach to development. Many psychologists have understood the child as an adult who still lacks certain specific functions, a self-centered position that sees the child as a potential adult who adds developmental milestones. Wallon maintains that development must be seen as it is, and not for what it “will become”, observing the respective stages of evolution. and taking into account the differences between them.

Wallon realizes that development is not a continuous line; the characteristic activities of one stage do not always continue in the next, often others arise which replace them or become opposed. He suggests that development oscillates: each stage is marked by an inward or outward orientation, and this characteristic alternates at each stage.

1. Motor impulsivity stage (0-6 months)

The scene is named after the main activity that the child performs: responding to external and internal impulses and performing movements as a form of energy discharge. It is a scene turned inward, or centripetal as Wallon puts it.

2. Stage of emotional development (7 to 12 months)

In this centripetal stage, the child develops emotional responses that will allow him to interact with his social environment in the most primitive way. Children, through emotional expression, come into contact with others and gradually begin to be part of a world of shared meanings.

For Wallon, emotions find their origin in the internal sensations experienced by the baby, or even the fetus. These overall affective states are reflected in motor activities (for example, in the child who squeezes his arms when he is happy) that others interpret as a representation of an internal state, emphasizing social function. It is through this socialization that emotions pass from simple physiological reactions to communicative expressions.

3. Sensorimotor and projective phase (2-3 years)

At this point, the child begins to explore the physical world around him through new language and locomotion skills. It is therefore a centrifugal stage. According to Wallon, the child feels the need to investigate his environment. Sensitivity being already well developed, it will do so through the senses. He will grab objects and bring them to his mouth to better explore them.

It is also at this stage that he takes part in what Wallon calls “alternating games”. These are turn-based games where the child alternates between two poles of the same situation: the active position and the passive position. For example, playing catch, then playing catch, hiding then watching in secret, throwing a ball and receiving it. It reflects the child’s ability to separate his or her existence from that of others. To recognize yourself as an “I” and to begin to crystallize your ego different from others.

4. Personalism stage (3-6 years)

It is a centripetal stage marked by individualism. The use of the first person, the appropriation of all the objects he sees and oppositionism are a reflection of the crystallization of the ego of the child. The child begins to exhibit narcissistic characteristics and seeks the approval of others. Ultimately, not content with his own behavior, he begins to seek patterns of behavior in others and acquires a new repertoire through imitation.

5. Category stage (6-11 years)

The last stage of childhood is characterized by the use of the intellectual instead of the emotional. Schooling allows intellectual skills like memory and attention to take center stage. By developing intelligence, he is able to create categories and later think in an abstract way.

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