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Henri Wallon: biography of the founder of Genetic Psychology

Henri Wallon: biography of the founder of Genetic Psychology

January 25, 2022

The genetic perspective is one of the essential features 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 its history.

Let's review the most important key ideas to understand Wallon's ambitious theory about how the human mind is generated and developed from childhood and the first stages of growth. We will review his biography and his main discoveries and theories.

Biography of Henri Wallon

Wallon, a 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 due to his Marxist ideology, which permeates all his theory, and the importance that other works of the time translated into English.


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

It manages to end the classic dualism of psychology: the psychology of the mind, of the mental functions, versus the more physical psychology, that of the study of the nervous system. Wallon insists that both aspects not only coexist but complement each other. It is impossible to understand the human being if it is not through his faculties and his nervous system.

This conciliation of opposites is called dialectical materialism, a Marxist heritage. That is why, when we speak of Wallon, we say that he is a dialectic-genetic psychologist. Dialectical because it proposes a "dialogue" between the traditionally opposed, and genetic because the most important thing to understand the mind is to conceive it from the genesis.


Genetic Psychology

What exactly do we understand by Genetic Psychology? Henri Wallon himself defined it with the following statement: "Genetic psychology is the one that 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 ahistorical approach of Gestalt psychologists. Wallon was very aware of the need to study the mind and its development since birth to understand it as it occurs 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 affirmed that only through the understanding of the infantile psyche and its evolution could the adult mind be known. That it did not make sense to study the psychology of the adult man once formed and consolidated, would be like trying to learn how a picture is painted contemplating it once finished.


The development of the child according to Wallon

Wallon assumes a series of principles that mark development. For him, although the evolution of the child occurs in many directions at once, there is always a function that stands out and is characteristic of each stage.

Nor is he in favor of a quantitative approach to development. Many psychologists understood the child as an adult who still lacks some specific functions, an egocentric posture that sees the infant as a potential adult who adds developmental milestones. Wallon defends that it is necessary to see the development as it is, and not for what "will become", observing the respective evolutionary stages 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 that substitute them or become contrary. It proposes that the development is oscillating: each stage is marked by an orientation towards the inside or the outside, and this characteristic alternates in each stage.

1. Stage of motor impulsivity (0-6 months)

The stage is named after the main activity the child performs: responding to external and internal impulses and executing movements as a form of energy discharge. It is an inward-oriented, or centripetal, phase as Wallon says.

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

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

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

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

In this stage the child begins to explore the physical world that surrounds him thanks to the new linguistic and locomotion skills. It is, therefore, a centrifugal stage. According to Wallon, the infant feels the need to investigate his surroundings. Since the sensitivity is already well developed, it will do so through the senses. He will pick up objects and take them to his mouth to explore them better.

It is at this stage, moreover, that he participates in what Wallon calls "alternating games". They are turn-based games where the child alternates between two poles of the same situation: active and passive positions. For example, play catch and then play to be caught, hide and then look for the hiding, throw a ball and receive it. This reflects the child's ability to separate their existence from that of others. To recognize yourself as an "I" and begin to crystallize your ego differently from the 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 the opposition are a reflection of the crystallization of the child's ego. The infant begins to exhibit narcissistic characteristics and seeks the approval of others. Ultimately, not content with his own behavior, he begins to look for 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 rather than the affective. Schooling allows intellectual skills such as memory and attention to take center stage. As intelligence develops, it is able to create categories and, later on, to think abstractly.


Theory of multiple intelligences | Wikipedia audio article (January 2022).


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